Taking ISIS seriously as a movement

Scott Atran understands movements.

In a penetrating essay Atran argues that,

[we have not grasped the] revolutionary character of radical Arab Sunni revivalism. Its revival is a dynamic, countercultural movement of world-historic proportions spearheaded by ISIS.… In less than two years, it has created a dominion over hundreds of thousands of square kilometres and millions of people. And it possesses the largest and most diverse volunteer fighting force since the Second World War.

ISIS has a plan.

[It is] a purposeful plan of violence that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s self-anointed Caliph, outlined in his call for ‘volcanoes of jihad’: to create a globe-spanning jihadi archipelago that will eventually unite to destroy the present world and create a new-old world of universal justice and peace under the Prophet’s banner. A key tactic in this strategy is to inspire sympathisers abroad to violence: do what you can, with whatever you have, wherever you are, whenever possible.

Atran and his team conducted dozens of interviews and behavioural experiments with youth in Paris, London and Barcelona, as well as with captured ISIS fighters in Iraq and members of Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda’s affliate in Syria).

His conclusion? ISIS has “a profoundly alluring mission to change and save the world."

Atran understands ISIS as a movement.

Ultimately the West’s greatest challenge in facing the threat of ISIS is not military hardware but a lack of meaning and purpose.