Why the Islamic State keeps winning over our young

The Killing Game examines the foreign-fighter phenomenon


The Killing Game: Martyrdom, Murder and the Lure of ISIS by Mark Bourrie. (no credit)


By Mark Bourrie

It’s hard to imagine it’s already been a year and a half since Jihadi John became a household name. Even after being killed in a drone strike, the British national, identified as Mohammed Emwazi, remains a potent bogeyman, the first major personality to emerge from the Islamic State propaganda mill, after a series of videos showed him holding a knife to the necks of condemned Western journalists and aid workers while berating Western societies. His message had been communicated by others before and after him, including Canadian converts André Poulin and John Maguire.

They are part of a long history of foreign fighters who have latched onto a communal cause in distant lands—a phenomenon that has fascinated academics and frightened laypeople for decades. Who are these people? What drives them? Should we be worried?

The Killing Game is part of a growing sub-genre of books about the foreign-fighter phenomenon that attempts to contextualize the success of Islamic State propaganda in concrete terms. Bourrie’s thesis is straightforward: Islamic State operates a highly sophisticated propaganda machine that has tapped into the cloud of existential malaise hanging over Western youth. Its recruitment drive promises meaning and adventure, much in the same way the Canadian military does.

“So much of ISIS’s war-porn propaganda is directed at the same people targeted by the Canadian army: bored young people who aren’t engaged by the consumer ethos of their own society and who feel that adventure is passing them by,” he writes. Both groups, he adds, use the “graphic violence that is part of the new language of young men raised on video games and CGI. They appeal to cravings for action, not to patriotism or to public service.”

Bourrie notes the barrel-protruding first-person point-of-view of both Islamic State battlefield videos and video games like Call of Duty. But rather than treat it as a new phenomenon, he argues propagandists have been employing these techniques for centuries. Throughout history, he says, young people have sought out wars to escape the numbing boredom of everyday life, encouraged by promises of action and glory. Rather than treat these young people as sociopaths in need of psychological help or, worse, arrest, Bourrie favours treating them as legitimately disenfranchised and in need of reintegration, not more marginalization.

His analysis is tantalizingly fresh, at least for a book intended for a general audience (academics have been making the same argument for years). Where The Killing Game falls short, however, is in its digressions into historical analysis. The development of Islamic State’s ideology, which Bourrie situates at the end of the First World War, when a “moribund Ottoman Empire” was carved into the untenable nation states of the Middle East, is superficial. Islam, like every major religion, has struggled with fanatics virtually since its inception. The upheavals of the 20th century simply set the stage for their re-emergence.

More perplexing are his flights into the supposed relationship between some Islamists and the Nazi regime. As propagandists, the Nazis and Islamic State do share similarities, but Bourrie tries to link the development of modern Islamic radicalism with the rise of Nazism. It’s a tenuous link at best, and at worst a kind of propaganda in itself, one that seems to equate not only Islamic State but Palestinians as well with fascism.

Overall, Bourrie makes an important point. Rather than look outward to explain Islamic State’s attraction, we should look closely at ourselves. The propagandists have pinpointed the lack of meaning that pervades modern Western cultures and exploited it to attract recruits, like a virus spreading through a weakened host. Rehabilitating our own societal corpus is our best defence.


Why the Islamic State keeps winning over our young

  1. Boredom doesn’t really explain the Boston marathon bombers or others who have attacked on home soil. It doesn’t explain Timothy McVie. Going off to war might be seen as exciting and perhaps even in some ways brave and righteous. Driving planes into buildings of civilians cannot really be seen that way. Blowing up a public building with a daycare cannot either. I believe he is incorrect. People often feel disenfranchised and not necessarily for a good reason. Perhaps they don’t socialize easily. They might feel that they have been wronged and they are going to seek out a cause that lets them get back at someone or something. I believe they are psychopaths or sociopaths and they react in a way just like serial killers do. They might be bored but they can’t really be rehabilitated because they did it for the heck of it. There was recently an article about how many terrorists are engineers. Brilliant mathematically but perhaps not socially.

    • The article you mention stated that people with engineering degrees are over-represented as terrorists. It should be obvious that your average terrorist is far from brilliant, in math or anything else. If they were, the death toll would be staggeringly higher. If, as you say, psychopathy or sociopathy, are the root cause of people becoming terrorists, then, again, the death toll would be higher. These traits are, again, often correlated with higher intelligence. Terrorism is only correlated with failure. Utterly stupid failure.

      Engineers design and build cruise missiles, mortars, or other weapons that actually work. Terrorists try to sew bombs in their underwear, and fail at that. The successful terrorists are the ones that entirely give up on trying to be smart and hijack planes with box-cutter knives. Low tech and simple. Not engineering. Your typical serial killers, again, outsmart the terrorists. By definition, they kill people and get away with it, at least for a while. Terrorists seem to enter into whatever they do expecting to get caught right away, because they probably will, because they are idiots.

      No, you are looking for the root cause of terrorism in all the wrong places.

      Terrorists become what they are because A) they failed at whatever they tried to do. B) They blamed other people for their failure. And, C) they picked the stupidest possible solution their problems. They became terrorists because they are stupid losers.

      Now, the other issue is that the label ‘terrorist’ is also used when trying to create moral outrage against an enemy. Many, if not most of the people going off to join ISIS are not terrorists in the sense I’m describing above. ISIS is an army that uses terrorism as a weapon, but they are still an army. All armies fighting to win have and will use terrorism as a weapon. “Shock and Awe” differs little from mass-executions in intent; only the weapons reach is different. As well, there are actual, real engineers fighting for ISIS. They are not sewing bombs into their underwear but rather making weapons systems for battle. Calling both kinds of people terrorists muddles everything up.

      Yes, some going off to join ISIS are suicidal idiots that want to blow something up. They blame others for their failure and that’s the solution they pick. Most of them are too stupid to actually make it all the way to Syria so we have “lone wolf” attacks here, and they manage to cause a little damage. Most are so stupid they get caught even before this.

      Others go off to join ISIS not because they are terrorists that want to blow something up, but rather that they are, indeed psychopaths that want to blow something up. They want to kill people and this is a perfect opportunity for them. They go, they kill, maybe they come back… not a whole lot different than sex tourism.

      Others go off to join ISIS because they are sick of western PC society, stifling laws, gender neutrality, inclusiveness, and the safety first mentality. Yes, they are bored and war is exciting, a place where they think a man can be a man. They are wrong, of course. They find out they are just replacing one set of stifling rules for another. They find out that the thrill of war can’t be turned off when they’ve had enough of it and crave nothing but safety.

      Others go because they are indeed radicalized, brainwashed into believing that they are part of some divine purpose. They wage battle fully expecting Armageddon and fight for the next life rather than this one. These are the people that scare me.

      A person joining ISIS may (or may not) be a terrorist, a psychopath, bored, or a religious zealot. It is highly doubtful that they are all of these. Understanding why people join ISIS must incorporate all these sources, not just one. Dismissing one argument because it doesn’t explain all misses this point.

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