Early this year State Department spokeswoman, Marie Harf, offered the “nuanced” idea that the prime motivation for joining the Islamic State is a lack of employment opportunities. A year later most still do not understand the prime motivation of not only the leaders but the foot soldiers of the Caliphate. The issues of why an enemy fights or does not fight is pertinent to the issue of how to defeat such an enemy.
The very fact that the State Department tripped all over such an issue does not bode well for the campaign against the Islamic State. Yet one should not be surprised by the lack of insight. These are the conclusions arrived at in the West because all motivations for fighting have been quantified down to harmless theories like family abandonment, lack of employment opportunities or individual psychopathy.
In order to properly answer the question that was posed to Ms. Harf, I offer an alternative analysis on the motivations behind the men of the Islamic State. There are two major categories regarding their motives, the pragmatic and the ideological. These two categories are different sides of the same coin and are not mutually exclusive. The Islamic State from an ideological standpoint fuses Neo-Wahhabism and Sunni nationalism into one potent mix.
The Islamic State presents itself to Sunnis in Iraq and Syria as the only entity strong enough to push back against Shia domination emanating from the governments in Baghdad and Damascus that are puppets of the Shite powerhouse, Iran. As a result the Islamic State has been able to absorb thousands of Saddam-era Baathists and Sunni secularists and has given the group a military structure and organization that groups like al-Qaeda could never do.
The second ideological component is that Neo-Wahhabism seeks to re-create the pure version of Islam which was practiced under Mohammed and the Rashidun (the first four caliphs who ruled from 632 to 661 AD). Under Neo-Wahhabism there is zero separation between Church and State, Sharia law is the only legitimate law, and only the Caliphate system of government is valid.
According to this view all the nations of the current Middle East are illegitimate (Israel for being Jewish, Iran for being Shite, the Gulf states for being monarchies, Syria for being run by the secular nationalist Ba’ath, and Turkey for having a Westernized political system). This narrative attracts jihadists from all over the region and the world who dream of a transnational Muslim homeland free from all Western influences and political abstractions like nationalism or secularity.
From a pragmatic point of view the Islamic State currently controls an area the size of Great Britain occupied by 10 million Muslims. Its annual revenue is about half a billion dollars and it pumps out thousands of barrels of oil per day. The Islamic State runs its own police, courts and welfare departments. It is for all intents and purposes a country, an unacknowledged state. As a country it has the ability to summon men for a military draft or accept willing volunteers. An Islamic State fighter goes through a free training program and is then paid $150 a month and $100 for each additional wife along with $50 for each additional child.
Its soldiers also receive battlefield benefits. Islamic State soldiers are allowed to plunder non-Sunni areas, take personal loot and rape non-Sunni women. Their soldiers are given preference when it comes to the selling of sex slaves in the slave markets established in cities like Mosul.
Should a fighter fall his widow(s) are put to the front of the line to receive monthly welfare checks. Islamic State bureaucrats who run the jihadist machinery of the state receive similar salaries.
Therefore the majority of those composing the Islamic State are neither psychopaths, thrill seekers nor unemployed. They are young Sunni males who want to fight against the Shia and the infidels while being properly paid and accommodated to participate in such a jihad. This is the new “banality of evil” and its members are neither ignorant peasants in need of employment nor ravaging psychopaths looking to burn down the world but normal men who have an alien conception of good and evil.