“Why are young Westerners drawn to terrorist organizations like ISIS?” That is the question that Omar Sultan Haque, a psychiatry resident at the Alpert Medical School, explored in a cover-page article of the same name for the September edition of Psychiatric Times along with his co-authors Jihye Choi, Tim Phillips and Harold Bursztajn.
The co-authors combined their respective psychiatric and real-world experiences to delve into the minds of young adults who have baffled their families and communities by joining terrorist groups.
The article “brings together an account of the vulnerabilities in individuals as well as the vulnerabilities in Western society to explain this particular phenomenon, as opposed to a particular profile of a person,” Haque said.
By analyzing existing literature on the topic including case studies, reviewing the work of terrorism experts and drawing on their own personal experiences, the authors developed a deeper understanding of the issues at hand.
“I think of it as a mixture of political science and the psychology of happiness and religion,” Haque said.
The authors looked outside of religious affiliation and recruitment tactics to identify why ISIS, as well as fanatical cults, have amassed such large followings.
“There are these psychological, emotional and cognitive reasons that run deeper than religious affiliation,” said Phillips, co-founder of Beyond Conflict, a nonprofit that aims to resolve international conflicts. “You need to understand that it’s not just about recruitment. It’s about motivation and what motivates people to do that.”
The authors found that the desire for meaning and belonging were two motivators for joining ISIS and cults, especially for individuals who were socially isolated or undergoing a transition.
“There is too much information in a changing world,” said Bursztajn, a senior clinical faculty member at Harvard Medical School and a practicing psychiatrist. “When there’s uncertainty inside and outside, you search for certainty, and what fanatical cults give is absolute meaning and absolute certainty.”
“There is the universal longing for belonging to something,” Phillips said.
Lorenz Boellinger, a professor at Bremen University in Germany who carried out a simulation in which groups of students were charged with the task of creating a terrorist act, emphasized the importance of belonging and the manner in which groups develop a common ideology.
“The group closes itself off against the outside, and it develops its own system of norms and coherence,” Boellinger said. “They only find the feeling of belonging when they share this common ideology, even though the ideology is a rationalization of psychologically caused wants.”
Authors of the article also found that individuals struggling to find their identities considered Western society’s focus on individualism a burden.
Much like people who join totalitarian cults, “they don’t like that they have to decide what they believe and what their morality and personal philosophies are,” Haque said, adding that this can lead them to “relinquish their will” and “give themselves to a transcendent force.”
The authors stressed that their work is not done.
“This is the next generation,” Bursztajn said. “There is only going to be more change and more ambiguity.”