The recent attack on a bike path in lower Manhattan once again compels us to ask: Why do people pledge allegiance to the Islamic State?
Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect in the attack, isn’t a devout Muslim. He cursed and came late to prayers, according to acquaintances who talked to The New York Times. So why would he want to be a martyr?
As a professor of modern Middle Eastern history, I have spent the majority of my professional life studying the region, its culture, society and politics. In recent years, I have researched and written about IS and its terrorist activities. While other experts and I have long looked at how radicalization occurs, some new ideas are emerging.
Of lone wolves, flaming bananas and machismo
Like this recent attack in New York, many IS attacks around the globe are carried out by individuals the media have dubbed “lone wolves” – that is, freelancers who act without the direct knowledge of the IS leadership. To avoid glamorizing them, the RAND Corporation prefers the term “flaming bananas.”
There are two theories as to why these individuals pledge allegiance to the group. The first is that they get “radicalized.”
Radicalization refers to a step-by-step process whereby individuals become increasingly susceptible to jihadi ideas. First, they cut themselves off from social networks such as family, which provide them with support and a conventional value system. They then immerse themselves in a radical religious counterculture. They might do this on their own, or a jihadi recruiter might bring them into the fold. Either way, the result is the same.
Some observers claim IS propaganda plays a key role in recruitment. Rather than presenting a religious rationale for the group’s actions, IS propaganda tends to focus on the violence the group perpetrates. IS has even released a video game based on Grand Theft Auto 5 in which, rather than stealing cars and battling the police, the player destroys advancing personnel carriers and shoots enemy soldiers.
Perhaps, then, the radicalization model is wrong or not universally applicable. Perhaps there’s something other than religious zealotry at play.
Consider the widely reported story of two would-be jihadists who, before they left Birmingham, U.K., for Syria, ordered “Islam for Dummies” and “The Koran for Dummies” to fill the gaps in their knowledge.
Newspaper stories time and again puzzle over the problem of how it happens that individuals who go on to join IS were found in bars, even gay bars, or had Western girlfriends and smoked and drank almost up to the time they committed some act of violence for the group. The most common explanation is that their dissolute lifestyle was a cover.
After the driver of a truck ran down and killed 84 people in Nice, France, for example, the French interior minister was at a loss to explain how someone who drank during Ramadan – which had ended a week and a half before – could have radicalized so quickly.
A number of experts have argued that the radicalization model should be replaced by, or supplemented with, a different model.
Rather than joining a radically different religious counterculture, individuals are attracted to IS, these experts argue, because its actions reaffirm the cultural values of those who are marginalized, or those who exhibit what psychiatrists call “anti-social personality disorders.”
Could it be that IS volunteers are drawn to a value system that asserts an aggressive machismo, disparages steady work and sustains the impulse for immediate gratification? Could it be that they are attracted to a culture that promotes redemption through violence, loyalty, patriarchal values, thrill-seeking to the point of martyrdom and the diminution of women to objects of pleasure?
In this reading, IS more closely resembles the sort of street gang with which many of its Western and Westernized enlistees are familiar than its more austere competitor, al-Qaida.
After a man barreled down a New York City bike path on Oct. 31, killing eight, President Donald Trump reacted by calling for an end to the “green card lottery” program that allowed the attacker to enter the country.
The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, as it is officially known, has been in the sights of the president for a while. In August, Trump publicly backed a GOP bill that would end the program and replace it with a merit-based system.
As someone who researches the impact of immigration on workers, I believe their plans to change who can enter the country legally is a big mistake. We would be giving up a program that benefits American workers with very little chance of a gain in safety.
While Trump’s tweets about the lottery program are based on security concerns, the usual argument supporting curbs on immigration is that new arrivals hurt native-born American workers and the economy at large.
I’ll leave analyzing the security concerns to other experts; suffice it to say that the risk, according to experts, is very small. Green card holders have killed just 16 people – including yesterday – in terror attacks on U.S. soil since 1975.
As for the economic impact on U.S.-born workers, the key thing to bear in mind is that the more homogeneous and similar immigrants are to natives, the greater the odds they’ll in fact have a negative effect.
In contrast, immigrants who come from diverse backgrounds with a range of skills – such as the lottery winners and the so-called “Dreamers” – tend to produce greater economic benefits. That may be one reason at least some Republicans and most Americans are in favor of keeping the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program that protects the Dreamers from deportation, which Trump recently ended.
A new approach
Currently, the U.S. receives a lot of immigrants without a college degree or with imperfect English. About half of immigrants fit either description.
Legislation proposed earlier this summer – the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act – would exclude most such workers and reduce the total number of green cards awarding permanent legal U.S. residence to just over 500,000 from more than one million today.
Importantly, it would also change who gets a leg up when applying for a green card. Currently, family of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, including siblings and adult children, are able to apply. The new system would limit that to minor children and spouses.
Instead, the bill would create a point-based system like those used in countries such as the U.K. and Australia that use factors such as English ability, education and job offers to rank applicants. However, it would be stricter than point systems used in those countries, which admit immigrants through other programs as well.
In essence, the plan would make the pool of immigrants more homogeneous and dramatically smaller in number, mirroring the misguided origin-based restrictions from the 1920s.
What economists say
Those who wish to restrict immigration often cite what they naïvely call “supply-and-demand economics” to essentially argue that the economy is a fixed pie that gets divided among a country’s residents. Fewer immigrants means “more pie” for the U.S.-born, as the story goes.
I am an economist, and this is not what my colleagues and I say. The commonplace argument that more immigrants, by themselves, lower wages and take jobs from Americans – an argument which Attorney General Jeff Sessions used to defend ending the “Dreamers” program – has neither empirical nor theoretical support in economics. It is just a myth.
Instead, both theory and empirical research show that immigration, including people with few skills and little English, grows the pie and strengthens the American workforce.
Value in diversity
While all the recently proposed changes to our immigration system will make U.S. workers worse off, the English requirement is likely to be particularly harmful to U.S. workers, especially low-skilled ones.
Indeed, I have found the relative fluency of U.S.-born workers is what keeps them from being harmed from labor market competition from immigrants.
The reason for this is the following. Essentially, immigrants with imperfect English skills tend to specialize in jobs that are less “communication-intensive,” such as manual labor. Americans fluent in the language, on the other hand, tend to take on higher-paying, communication-intensive jobs that are out of reach of those without a strong grasp of English. In other words, these groups aren’t likely to compete for the same jobs, making them more complementary than adversarial.
In contrast, when new immigrants are more fluent in English, something the Trump-backed proposal would encourage, the types of occupations they are qualified for are almost identical to those of American workers. Thus, insisting on strong English skills as a condition of coming to America is likely to increase labor market competition and suppress wages.
Immigration that helps
Immigration that emphasizes diversity, rather than merely merit, tends to attract more people who specialize in occupations uncommon among U.S.-born workers. And, in fact, this is the key source of the well-known economic benefits of immigration.
Studies by economists Giovanni Peri and Chad Sparber, for example, show this tendency toward job specialization is a key reason the large volume of low-skill immigration does not drive down incomes of Americans. Other research by Peri and Gianmarco Ottaviano shows that simply encouraging immigration from diverse origins lifts wages.
Put differently, there is direct evidence that the sort of diversity that the green card lottery encourages makes all Americans better off. It would be a shame to give all of that up because of a tiny risk of terrorism.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on Sept. 15, 2017.
The links below are to articles reporting on persecution and ISIS news from Iraq and Syria (the most recent are at the top).
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Despite its (relatively) low body count and primitive execution, Thursday’s terrorist attack in Barcelona shocked many local and international onlookers. The Islamic State (IS) group was quick to claim responsibility for the attack, in which a van was deliberately driven into pedestrians on Barcelona’s famed Las Ramblas strip. At least 13 people are dead, and around 100 have been left injured.
The location and targeting of the attack deviates from IS’s previous efforts. These have typically focused on punishing countries directly involved in military operations against it in Syria and Iraq.
But how reliable are its claims of responsibility? And why was Spain chosen, given its relatively inconsequential role in the fight against IS?
The validity of IS’s claims
Verifying the culpability of terror attacks can traditionally be a tricky affair. Given that organisations that engage in terrorism are doing so from a position of weakness, there is always an incentive to lie in order to bolster mystique and inflate the image of threat.
But in this regard, IS seems to differ from previous groups. It has typically been reliably truthful in what it claims to have been its actions.
One Australian example of this can be found in the 2014 Lindt Cafe siege. The perpetrator, Man Haron Monis, proclaimed he was acting under IS auspices. But despite this declaration, and the potential propaganda victory it could bring, IS resisted such advances and distanced itself from the incident.
This incident, along with many others, seems to indicate that while IS claims a butcher’s bill of heinous activities, it doesn’t tend to overtly lie about them.
Such a policy, while initially appearing counter-intuitive, maintains IS’s perception as a trustworthy source of information. This is particularly important in recruitment efforts, and makes it difficult for governments to challenge the IS’s claims in counter-propaganda.
For IS, maintaining a twisted sense of chivalrous virtue remains paramount.
Spain and the clash of civilisations
The Barcelona attack also reflects IS’s view of the world as a civilisational clash.
Described as a “reluctant partner” in the anti-IS coalition, Spain has resisted entreaties to join military efforts. Instead, it has opted for what it sees as a less risky role – providing logistical aid and training to local Iraqi forces, as well as preventing homegrown attempts to support IS abroad.
Spain’s limited role in the fight, particularly in contrast to other terror victims such as France and the US, might lead one to expect it to be relatively low on IS’s hit list.
But in terms of IS’s conflict narrative, Spain represents just another manifestation of a hostile Western civilisation in a state of war against the Islamic community. This leaves it more than open for reprisals.
At a spiritual level, Spain also holds a special place in IS’s mythology. Once a part of the Islamic empire, al-Ándalus, as it is known in Arabic, is seen by many IS ideologues as a natural territorial part of the end-state caliphate and currently under direct occupation by infidels.
Shock and bore
Terrorist reprisals like this attack are likely to intensify temporarily against Western targets throughout Europe and further abroad over the coming months and years, as the IS is systematically deconstructed on its home turf in Iraq and Syria.
IS remains heavily dependant on an image of defiant dynamism and a commitment to challenge the international status quo, which it claims subjugates the chosen community. As its ability to function as a “state” continues to decline, it will increasingly seek to maintain such a mystique through acts of spite against those that have prevented it from achieving its goal of a “caliphate”.
Despite a likely future increase in terrorist attacks, IS also risks a growing public disinterest and apathy toward its activities.
As one commentator has written, the banality and nontheatrical nature of IS’s approach to terrorism – particularly in contrast to al-Qaeda’s keen eye for spectacular symbology – has left many onlookers less than impressed and far from terrified.
In all of these cases the weapon of choice was a vehicle, driven at speed, into crowds innocently going about their daily business. Barcelona is just the latest in a series of targets of Islamic terrorism over the past year in which a vehicle has been used to mow down those in its path indiscriminately.
In all of these cases Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility.
These sorts of terrorist attacks – like the 2001 al-Qaeda plane attacks on targets in New York and Washington – have elevated threats to the civilian population in urban areas to a new level.
In the latest – on Barcelona’s famous tourist precinct near Plaça de Catalunya and Las Ramblas in the heart of the city – at least 16 people have died and scores more have been injured. The death toll is likely to rise.
IS, in a statement on one of its outlets, claimed responsibility for the attack, telling its supporters in Arabic:
Terror is filling the hearts of the Crusader in the land of Andalusia.
Another outlet warned that Spain was now grouped with the UK and France as terrorist targets.
The use of vehicles in relatively vulnerable locations where crowds gather, to inflict maximum harm on innocent people, will add significantly to unease across Europe. This anxiety will now reach new levels of intensity, with German elections due on September 24, and and a Catalan independence vote on October 1.
This latest attack will cast a shadow over events that will require people to gather in crowds either to participate in political campaigning, or to vote in the election itself.
More broadly, the use of vehicles as weapons against urban populations will add to security concerns in Western capitals – including in Australia.
What’s likely to come as a result are further security measures to combat the risk of vehicular attacks in crowded locations. But we know how difficult it is to prevent such attacks.
In Melbourne, Australia, for example, authorities have installed bollards around the city to guard against these sorts of acts. But ensuring people’s safety in free and open societies represents a huge challenge.
World leaders have condemned the Barcelona attack, but beyond pro-forma statements of support the reality is that the scourge of Islamic-inspired terrorism is here to stay for the time being.
These acts of violence, each one encouraging another, are part of a terrorist landscape. They will remain so especially at a moment when IS is under enormous pressure in its stronghold in Syria.
The expulsion of IS from Raqqa in eastern Syria will not lessen threats of terrorist violence in the West. Instead, it will probably heighten the risk.
What the Barcelona attack reminds us is that the West is embroiled in a long war against Islamic terrorism. Enhanced counter-terrorism strategies, making use of sophisticated technology, will lessen risks, but cannot entirely eliminate the threat in open societies.
This is the reality.
The predictable recapture of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State (IS) marks a new milestone in the tumultuous events of the Middle East. It has important ramifications for Iraq, IS and the West.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi wasted no time claiming victory, entering the ruined city in staged jubilation. Wearing military uniform, al-Abadi was swift to capitalise on the victory, signalling his authority over the entire country. He hopes to keep Iraq united through strengthened political clout on his return to the politically polarised capital of Baghdad.
But the capture of Mosul may in fact accelerate the eventual break-up of Iraq into smaller states. The leader of the autonomous Kurdish regional government, Masud Barzani, has made clear his intentions to hold a referendum on independence by the end of 2017.
Until now, Barzani had to collaborate with the central Iraqi government to clear the IS menace from Mosul and northern Iraq. Now he will have to tread carefully to meet the growing Kurdish expectation of independence and manage al-Abadi’s anticipation of gratitude for the liberation of Mosul.
Barzani and Kurds can see a historic opportunity to create a Kurdish polity in northern Iraq. The gravity of this polity is eventually expected to pull neighbouring Kurdish regions in Syria, Iran and Turkey. The Kurdish dream is to combine these regions to create a larger Kurdish state.
At the same time, al-Abadi will increase pressure on Barzani to remain loyal to a unitary Iraq. While the prime minister will spend most of his time in the safety of the Baghdad green zone, Barzani will collaborate with US forces and heavily armed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to oust IS from its capital, Raqqa. He will also play a key role in further clearing operations in eastern Syria in the second half of 2017 and possibly into 2018.
With the fall of Mosul, the impending capture of Raqqa, and the confirmed death of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, IS’s days as a caliphate are numbered. Although some argue that IS will transform into a virtual caliphate, without a sovereign state a caliphate is meaningless and Islamically invalid.
This reality has a dramatic impact on the recruiting power of IS. It was able to attract followers with its claim to have resurrected the caliphate abolished by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1924.
IS gained an almost miraculous aura after capturing Mosul with 800 fighters. In their eyes, this was proof that God was on their side. A few weeks after the capture of Mosul, al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate in the city’s historic mosque in June 2014.
For as much as Mosul had symbolic value for an IS caliphate, its loss signals an irreversible trajectory of collapse. Although IS is taking huge blows, there is no reason to believe it will disappear, much like the frustrating persistence of Taliban in Afghanistan since the collapse of its government in 2001.
Nobody should expect mass desertions from IS ranks. Its membership is likely to remain loyal and fight to the end. What remains of IS leadership holds to the theological line that the pledge of allegiance or bay’ah is binding before God, and if they abandon ranks they will die in a state of disbelief.
While this may help retain surviving militants, IS recruiting power around the world will dramatically reduce, as the greatest attraction for recruits was the promise of a utopian Islamic state.
Nevertheless IS, or whatever the group will be called in the future, will adapt and look for new missions to motivate its members and attract recruits.
One possible trajectory is a merger with al-Qaeda. This is a real possibility, as IS emerged from al-Qaeda branches in Iraq and Syria. Without a real caliphate, the line of distinction between IS and al-Qaeda blurs to insignificance, even though their leaderships were in open hostility and competed for the soul of the violent radical movement.
The ideology and the narrative of IS and al-Qaeda are the same: Western powers and their local collaborators are responsible for the occupation of Muslim territories and the ensuing suffering of Muslim populations; violent military response is the response these enemies understand and the only solution that works.
This ideology is conveniently covered by the same veneer of religious arguments to utilise the persuasive power of Islam in gaining and rallying gullible supporters to their ranks.
The more likely trajectory for IS is to ignore the spectacular failure of its state and cling to the alluring promise of a caliphate. Persisting with its brand of radicalism, IS could exist as a violent insurgent movement positioned in Deir ez-Zor, a Syrian town near the border with Iraq.
For the time being, the US administration seems determined not to leave IS any haven, Deir ez-Zor or elsewhere.
As IS regroups, it is likely to unleash violence on two fronts. The first is in the West. IS will attempt to use its sleeper cells and deploy social media to motivate a new generation of gullible minds to carry out terror attacks in North America, Europe and perhaps Australia.
The second front is where IS is based – Iraq and Syria. The conditions that gave rise to IS in the first place, such as military conflict, political instability, sectarian polarisation, ethnic divisions and corruption, continue to exist in both countries. The situation will not change overnight.
Through a drawn-out insurgency and waves of violence, IS will attempt to destabilise the Iraqi and Syrian governments in the hope of resurrecting its Islamic state. Ironically, the greatest victims will be Islam, Muslims and peace in Muslim lands.
US-backed forces in Iraq and in Syria are in the process of rooting Islamic State (IS) fighters out of their strongholds in northern Iraq and eastern Syria.
In the case of Mosul in Iraq, the removal of diehard IS remnants might be completed any day now. In Raqqa, the IS headquarters in eastern Syria, US-backed rebel forces are in the town’s suburbs.
How long it will take for Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up of Arab and Kurdish militias supported by US artillery and airstrikes, to rid Raqqa of IS and at what cost is anyone’s guess. But it seems clear we are entering the final battle for what has served as the so-called caliphate’s headquarters.
However, what should be understood is the Syrian conflict is far from any sort of long-term resolution. It may be on the verge of becoming more complex and thus more dangerous.
The world is now observing a potentially highly volatile stage in the post-IS fight for Syria, with interested parties manoeuvring for what might be described as the “next game” – certainly not the “endgame”. Latest developments are bringing the US and its allies in Syria into closer proximity to – and possible direct conflict with – the Iranian-backed Bashar al-Assad regime, and Iran itself.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commanders and Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias are on the ground in Syria fighting alongside Assad forces to regain territory and re-establish Damascus’s sovereignty over the entire country.
This is a fight to the death.
From Iran’s perspective, Syria – ruled by a heterodox Shiite sect – represents a vital piece in its Middle East designs. This is not least because it provides a corridor to its Hezbollah Shiite co-religionists in Lebanon. This is why it continues to invest heavily in propping up the Assad regime. A Syrian setback would be crippling for its regional ambitions.
Risks of the US and Iran rubbing up against each other in Syria and precipitating a wider conflagration are incalculable in circumstances in which America’s Middle East policy is in flux, if not in chaos. Not helping is the impression that elements of the Trump administration are spoiling for a fight with Iran without comprehending wider consequences.
And then there’s Russia. It may not have forces on the ground, but its warplanes in Assad’s service are part of a toxic brew that threatens a wider Middle East conflict. Risks grow by the day.
What is clear – as Iraqi forces retake a shattered Mosul and Syrian anti-Assad regime rebels push further into Raqqa – is that contesting forces in Syria are battling over the country’s shattered post-IS corpse. Where this will end is impossible to predict, but as a rule of thumb in the Middle East these sorts of situations do not end well.
Tensions – and risks – were underscored earlier this month when the US shot down a Syrian Russian-supplied jet in airspace to the south of Raqqa. The US has also brought down several Iranian drones in hotly costed territory around the Euphrates.
What is transpiring as an IS “caliphate” shrinks east towards the Iraq border from Raqqa is the emergence of a vacuum that various players are striving to fill, including principally the Assad regime, having regained control of the west of Syria.
Where this will go next is not clear, not least because the US has not indicated the extent to which it plans to continue to involve itself on the ground beyond rooting out IS from its Raqqa redoubt. Will it step aside when and if Raqqa falls, enabling Syrian government forces, backed by Iran and Russia and with the participation of Lebanese and Iraqi militias, to regain control of lost territory? Or will it remain a factor?
Journalist Jonathan Spyer, who has spent years reporting on the Syrian conflict and its implications for the wider Middle East, is at a loss to interpret US policy in Syria beyond its confrontation with IS. As he writes in Foreign Policy:
The crucial missing factor here is a clearly stated US policy. Trump can either acquiesce to the new realities that Russia seeks to impose in the air, and that Iran seeks to impose on the ground, or he can move to defy and reverse these, opening up the risk of a potential confrontation. There isn’t really a third choice.
Spyer quotes the Iranian Fars News Agency as saying ominously:
The imbroglio in eastern Syria has only begun. Stormy days are ahead of us.
That might be regarded as an understatement. What is clear is that the US cannot expand its presence in eastern Syria without engaging the Iranian-backed Syrian regime. As Faysal Itani of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East observes:
The United States cannot tiptoe around Iran and the Syrian regime while capturing strategic territory and resources.
While Russia does not seek a confrontation, it appears unable (or unwilling) to restrain its allies. The United States does not seem to have decided whether fighting IS only to empower Iran and Assad would be worthwhile, or whether there is a feasible way, at an acceptable cost, to beat the Islamic State without strengthening US adversaries … It’s perfectly clear now that choosing which wars to fight or ignore in Syria is not possible – and it probably never was.
From an Australian perspective, Syria presents a concerning spectacle. Canberra suspended missions by the Royal Australian Airforce over Syria (not Iraq) after the US shooting down of the Syrian warplane out of concern over a suspension of “deconfliction” arrangements with Russia. It is not clear whether those missions have resumed.
More broadly, deeper US involvement in the Syrian conflict would potentially pose challenges for an Australian government – if indeed a request was made for on-the-ground assistance.
At this stage there is no sign of that occurring. But Australia should be prepared for an unravelling of circumstances in Syria and be ready for any eventualities. Needless to say, it should hasten slowly.
In all of this, it doesn’t take much imagination to consider what would be nightmare scenario in which the US and Iran found themselves at war. As Nader Hashem, director of the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Denver and an expert of sectarian conflict in the region, has observed:
I suspect the biggest problem is a clash between American and Iranian forces somewhere in Syria where there will be a major loss of life, and then a slow, steady decline toward war with Iran, where Iran chooses to retaliate in the Persian Gulf with American shipping or some sort of escalation along those lines. That would have huge consequences for the nuclear agreement and the broader stabilisation of the region.