What motivates ISIS terrorists? This was the question asked by Jeff Goodwin, a global sociological authority on the study of social movements, during the recent International Sociological Association forum in Vienna, in which I participated.

I was very curious to see what Goodwin had to say about ISIS, both as a sociologist but also as a father who, like many people, feels an eerie sense of anxiety with the terrorism phenomenon.

It is as if terrorism is now a fact of life, a lottery of death for persons busy living their lives in different continents. And if the terrorist imagery is now so present in public discourse, it is very important to understand what it is and what it is not.

I am very wary of quick-fix replies and rock-solid certainties which come so easy to various populists of our times. Such rhetoric can, of course, offer nice sound bites but this is not often reflected in informed and evidence-based policy formulation. Indeed, I believe that if we need answers that can help policymaking, we should give more importance to asking questions that matter.

In this regard, some of the findings of Goodwin’s research on ISIS were very different from what we are accustomed to hear in public discourse.

If the terrorist imagery is now so present in public discourse, it is very important to understand what it is and what it is not

For example, he reported that even though Tunisia provides the largest number of ISIS recruits in absolute terms, a more accurate quantitative analysis reveals a different story.

A look at recruits’ nationality per capita shows that fighters are more likely to come from democratic, affluent countries. They are also more likely to come from relatively ethnically homogeneous societies where Muslims are a minority. Examples in this regard include Finland, Sweden, Austria, Denmark and Belgium.

Goodwin then delved into a real-life micro-example of two Belgian brothers with radically different life outcomes, namely Najim and Mourad Laachraoui. They came from the same family and had similar upbringing. Yet, Najim became a bomb maker and suicide bomber. Mourad, on the other hand, became a medal-winning sportsman who proudly waves the Belgian flag. So why did one integrate in Belgian society and the other one not? “We don’t know” is what Goodwin could humbly reply, before deconstructing popular opinions on terrorists.

For example, the ‘Muslims are terrorists’ hypothesis is incredibly simplistic. Indeed, how can we explain one terrorist out of, say, 30,000 Muslims sociologically? And what about terrorists who are not Muslims?

The ‘youth’ rebellion hypothesis is not necessarily useful. Sure, some young people join ISIS but others join national armies to fight ISIS, and many many others have motivations which have nothing to do with this issue.

The ‘social media’ hypothesis has gaps too. It is not only ISIS which uses the internet but practically society in general.

Some people do opt for psychological terrorism but others would seek Pokemon and songs on YouTube. Or chatting with their grandmother. Besides, more and more social movements of different stripes and colours are using Facebook and Twitter nowadays.

The ‘radicalisation’ hypothesis is problematic too, according to Goodwin. Again, yes there are Muslim radicals in ISIS’ ranks. There are also recent converts but there are also ISIS fighters who don’t really know or understand what Islam is about. And there are many, many Muslims who oppose ISIS tooth and nail.

Therefore, more data is needed to understand the motivation of such persons, unless we are content with crass generalisations. And this presents us with a huge research dilemma.

To study the motivations of such individuals, a biographical approach could be most useful. Here, the focus is on qualitative and long face-to-face interviews, in line with established research methods and ethical procedures.

Yet, this is easier said than done.

One main quandary is the lack of access to such persons. In the case of Najim Laachraoui, he is dead, as is the case with other suicide bombers or fighters. Others are active in inaccessible places like ISIS territory. And others are in prison, which are not likely to be very accessible to sociologists and other researchers.

Perhaps the biggest quandary of all is that there are many other potential or actual ISIS recruits who we don’t know about and who might hit the news headlines in the future.

Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.

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