How Internal Division Could Shatter ISIS

Some jihadis are more equal than others.

In a March 25 Wall Street Journal article, Matt Bradley described the apparent spike in fighting between local and foreign ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria. One part of these tensions is due to the brutal rigors of fighting an insurgency, especially one that is gradually suffering losses on the battlefield in terms of blood, treasure and territory. But another part stems from the perception, according to Bradley, that foreign fighters are routinely treated better than the locals—given better positions and pay and viewed with greater esteem—and have little respect for local traditions and custom. Combined, these factors have triggered the ire and resentment of local ISIS members.

This raises two interesting points. First, the observation of divisions and violence within ISIS is real, and an underreported and underanalyzed feature of Islamic State today. Second, news reports have indicated that the reverse of what Bradley reported is also true: that foreign fighters are often treated much worse than local fighters.

In some cases, foreign fighters, notably fighters from India, Pakistan and Africa, are considered to be less motivated than the Arab fighters, are treated as cannon fodder, placed on the front lines to endure the violence of war and even “tricked” into carrying out suicide bombings, so that more valued ISIS members don’t have to suffer such brutality. But there’s more. The promises of riches and luxury goods never materializes. They are forced into menial tasks, like cleaning toilets, making kebabs and acting as waterboys, or quasi-servants, for other, “real,” ISIS members. Their daily life is controlled and suppressed by ISIS leaders. These foreign fighters believe they are valued only in the sense that their allegiance to ISIS is useful as a propaganda tool. But, overall, many have felt used and abused by the leadership in ISIS. To quote Sir John Falstaff: they are only “good enough to toss; food for powder, food for powder.”

So what’s going on? What explains the discrepancies in the various accounts of how ISIS treats and interacts with local and foreign fighters? One useful way to cut into these questions is to take a page from social and political psychology and explore the topic of in-group and out-group dynamics. Fundamentally, the extant fissures within ISIS are a product of beliefs and perceptions about who really constitutes the core of ISIS. In short, who are the real members of ISIS and who are the phonies and pretenders? This is the crux of the problem.

The reality is that although some individuals who travel to Syria to join ISIS are technically and accurately inside the group, many aren't perceived as being truly "in-group": they are treated as outsiders with little standing.

The in-group markers include things like ethnicity and religion, of course. Sunni Arabs are prized commodities. But other factors, such as prior contact with ISIS members (especially senior leaders), military expertise and wealth, also matter a great deal. These factors enable new recruits to bring an integral value-added contribution to the group, in terms of skills and resources—crucial factors in general, but especially at this point, now that Islamic State’s finances are increasingly constrained and shrinking, its territory is suffering losses, and its leadership is under attack and losing key members.

We also know that women, regardless of ethnicity and nationality, are important to ISIS. They cook, clean and produce babies, and also, arguably more importantly, lure new male recruits to participate in the fight against ISIS’s various enemies. But as Mia Bloom, among others, has pointed out, women are routinely disappointed with their role and function within ISIS in Iraq and Syria—it’s not the paradise that their recruiters promised.

But there many other members who aren’t highly regarded by ISIS. Recruits from Southeast Asia and South Asia, first-time jihadis, the poor, and the militarily unskilled are typically seen as outsiders. They are lured and welcomed into the group, to be sure. But once there, things change: the friendliness and warmth, and the long list of promises, are nowhere to be found. In their place are hostility and violence. They aren’t trusted, and considered unmotivated, contributing little to ISIS’s military and ideological struggle. Therefore, they are treated horribly, both on and off the battlefield. Their experience isn’t a utopia within a Hobbesian world; rather, they exist in a Hobbesian society within a wider world that would mostly prefer to cooperate and live in peace with the people of Iraq and Syria.

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