ISIS, Homeland, and Psychology

Yesterday The New York Times ran an intriguing article titled, “In Battle to Defang ISIS, U.S. Targets Its Psychology.” The piece featured the attempt by Maj. Gen. Michael K. Nagata, commander of American Special Operations forces in the Middle East, to better understand what motivates the members of ISIS and other, similar terrorist organizations.

Nagata was quoted saying:

We do not understand the movement, and until we do, we are not going to defeat it. We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea…. What makes I.S. so magnetic, inspirational? … deeply resonant with a specific but large portion of the Islamic population, particularly young men looking for a banner to flock to.

What struck me most, however, were some of the comments that had been posted:

I cannot help feeling dismayed…we have been at war for over 12 years in the area. We have world class military think tanks and leadership training facilities yet our military is still confounded about the why’s and wherefores of radical terrorism? I suspect that poverty, high unemployment among the target group of potential recruits, failure to thrive in adopted countries, disequilibrium of wealth that stagnates societies, corruption, lack of education (especially for females), all have something to do with the problem.


So why do they have such success in attracting recruits? I would say that because there is so much suffering, oppression, and brutality in the Arab/Muslim world, ISIS says join us and fight and win a better life. It works.


The same factors that caused the rise of Fascism in Europe at the end of the first world war causes the rise of ISIS et al. today. A bloom of a large number of youth without any prospects of a decent life and civilian jobs. Combine that with the use of religious symbols that these youth grew up. Next venerate the religion in the supposed good old days, some thousand years ago or so, add a fast talking snake oil sales man; and you have Fascism in Europe just under 100 years ago, or ISIS etc. today.

Indeed, it’s not rocket science and Nagata does not need a panel of academic experts to figure it out. But at least he acknowledges his ignorance. Maybe he will actually learn some simple truths. If he reads all of the comments on that article, it might help.

He could also watch Homeland. For some time, I felt ambivalent about the “guilty pleasure” I experienced watching it. I was afraid I was endorsing jingoistic propaganda. And I haven’t finished watching Season Four, so my appreciation of the series may sour when I do.

I haven’t read any reviews of the show and have discussed it with only one other person who has. So my thoughts about the program may be minority opinions. At the moment, however, it seems that Homeland does a fairly good job of understanding the terrorists, as The Wire did with drug gangs. And it presents the moral ambiguities that are involved, presenting various sides of the issues without telling the viewer what to believe. Rather, it merely attempts to clarify the reality, and leave it to the viewers to form their own judgments.

I say that’s better than sweeping matters under the rug.

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