Media outlets and government circles cringe when trying to understand why Westerners leave the West to go fight in Syria and Iraq with the Islamic State. While calculating accurate numbers wildly diverges from source to source, there is no doubt that the fact that ANYONE at all wants to leave and join ISIL/DAESH makes the U.S. and EU both uncomfortable and perplexed.
In short, how does one leave the land of the free, tolerant, open and just in order to go fight for a group that represents horror and atrocity? Unfortunately for all those shocked by the images of beheadings and immolation, understanding this process (and more importantly the failure of intelligence and diplomatic communities in the West to prevent it) requires one to accept something most EU and American passport holders cannot: that the dream of Western civilization for too many in the modern day seems more myth than reality.
The true reality in the West is if you are not able to hook into upward mobility and access privileged success, then a dull and depressing life awaits you: studies, for example, show a disturbing percentage of Americans are born, live, and die within an incredibly small 50-mile radius. They also show that the classic parental definition of the American Dream – that your children will be better off and have more than you – has become murky and ill-defined with the Millenial generation. When you travel into most cosmopolitan urban centers in America, you will find not a smoothly fitted mosaic of multiple cultures and cross-cutting identity cleavages that make people realize that there are always important similarities linking people together. Instead you find Balkanized enclaves where ‘people stick to their own’ and the ‘well-to-do’ are quickly made aware of the places not to go and where not to congregate. Almost exclusively those areas are ‘ethnic’ bastions and de facto segregated sections of the city. To be completely honest, this ethnic balkanization, semi-voluntary/semi-forced, is arguably even more pronounced in major European hubs like London, Paris, and Berlin. The idea of Western Civilization is an amazing testimony to what any country should be and strive for: namely, that anyone can succeed based on talent, ambition, merit, and effort; that despite obstacles and adversity there will always be opportunity; that all people can live, love, and dream without interference or harassment. This idea, however, too often remains distant and unreachable to many, making the dream seem deeply taunting and an inducement to self-loathing.
Against this backdrop, it is inexcusable that American and European actors find themselves at a loss to understand the appeal of that small percentage willing to abandon the West and go fight for a cause that they believe to be barbarous, for a group and a cause that seems most ignoble. To see the problem in this light is not so much a failure to understand the enemy as it is a failure to see how Western civilization has created for some a modern living reality that is dominated by less-appealing shades of grey: flawed, unfulfilled, denied, isolated, violent, and poor. Perhaps worst of all, it is a reality of irrelevance. The people going off to fight with the Islamic State are able to ‘leave the West’ because they clearly don’t feel as if they are leaving anything at all, except a myth not available to them or a taunt to make them feel demeaned. Turning hatred of self into hatred of other with this group is what the Islamic State is so good at.
The U.S. State Department clearly does not do a great job recognizing this reality of the denied underground. The EU does no better. What you come across instead when discussing this issue are confused looks and exasperated gasps at the inexplicable stupidity of people leaving to go fight with the Islamic State. That incredulity, however, is based on a vision of the West that the underground does not see and, more importantly, does not believe it will ever be given access to. In short, one can live ‘in the West’ and never feel a true part ‘of the West.’ This is not semantics. Nor is it a matter of dismissively sneering at people who are supposedly too lazy or too unwilling to assimilate the values of Western civilization. Rather, it is a complex interwoven sociological failure that fuses together politics, economics, geography, religion, and psychology. While that failure makes too many feel isolated from the dream of the West, it does not stop people from still wanting to believe in some form of greatness and destiny: people will always love to dream. And if the brand-name dream of the West seems shut off to them, it doesn’t mean another dream cannot replace it. Indeed, any greatness, any higher calling that gives purpose and a sense of larger destiny to life, can gradually become incredibly seductive. If the American Dream classically defined is deemed inaccessible, then we in the West must be ready to believe more radical and seemingly inexplicable visions will be able to take its place. The vision of the Islamic State, which Western media portrays in finely-tuned snippets heavily laden with atrocities and bloodshed, is in fact a slickly produced inundation of media-friendly images focused on religious epiphany, glorious sacrifice, and noble causes to battle. It is a clarion call heard through the ages, across all continents and within all countries, which has always been able to find willing ears and malleable minds. Only now this call is being powerfully pushed with the advantages of 21st century virtual technology, making its reach and scope far beyond anything the West could ever think plausible or find believable. In today’s world, style trumps substance for most. And as anathema as it may seem to the West, that axiom applies even to groups like the Islamic State.
One of the fundamental principles in intelligence is to gain insight into adversaries by truly understanding their worldviews, self-assessments, cultures, and perceptions. How ironic then that this issue so close to home is not just about people rejecting the West and leaving but the intrinsic fear that these ‘foreign fighters’ might one day succeed in returning back to the West more radicalized, intent on committing mayhem on domestic shores instead of foreign. We do not understand this underground because we will not remove the blinders of the myth of Western Civilization. We are not just ignorant to the world that creates a group like the Islamic State: we are fairly ignorant of the very world right outside our door that might be taken by it. Consequently, the key to understanding this ‘perverse attraction’ to ISIL/DAESH might be first accepting the self-loathing resentment some have had symbolically burned into them, day after day after day, about the West. Keep in mind none of this is an entreaty to sympathize with those who leave Western shores to take up arms with the Islamic State. ISIL/DAESH is indeed a manipulative, corrupt, criminal, and mind-blowingly sadistic organization. Effective recruiting videos and social media campaigns notwithstanding, it is promising a life and society that is even more mythical than the American Dream. No, this is not an explanation justifying the decision to fight with them. It is rather the first step to expose why those of in the West charged with stopping this disturbing trend have proven, so far, to be utterly inept in unraveling its motivational calculus. We have made it more complex than it needs to be: it is not about espousing the sly seduction of the beast from without. It is about exposing the soul-sucking devastation of the beast from within.