Getting to Know the Enemy: Scott Atran’s Frontline Science

A portrait of Islamic State (IS) fighter Florent Prince N., a 17-year-old also called Bilal, stands on display at the St. Pauli Church prior to an interfaith memorial service for him on May 27, 2016 in Hamburg, Germany. Florent was born in Cameroon and g

In February 2016, Scott Atran, an anthropologist who studies what motivates people to take extreme, sometimes absurd, actions, sent me some field notes about the battle for a village called Kudilah, along the front lines not too far from Mosul, Iraq. In the course of the battle, Islamic State (IS) fighters surrounded and mostly destroyed the Iraqi army’s position in the village:

As Karzan [a Kurdish gunner] tells it: “Daesh [an Arabic acronym for IS] was shouting its war cry: ‘The Islamic State is enduring and expanding!’ (ad-Dawla al-Islamiyya baqiyah wa tatamaddad!) ‘We will behead all you infidels and apostates!’ (Sanadhbahkum antum kufar wa murtadin!) That cry brings fear to the heart.”

But Karzan taunted back (as his comrades confirm): “I swear to God, I will kill you one by one!” while ululating like an Arab woman at a wedding “to drive Daesh crazy,” as other Kurds hooted: “Daesh, you are only the State of Sex [Maniacs] (dawla seksiyya)!”

General Ziryan as well as everyone else we talked to who participated in the battle—some who had been fighting Saddam since the 1970s, and later with or (as with some Sunni Arabs) against Americans—told us that this was the hardest battle they’d ever fought. “The Daesh Amirs [leaders] fight until they die,” Ziryan said. As Karzan put it: “They were coming at us full of heart, with full commitment to their beliefs. It was much more vicious than Falluja or Ramadi. Death or victory, they would not retreat until our reinforcements overwhelmed them, and then I saw 4 inghamasi [“those who go in deep”; individual suicide bombers] blow themselves up to cover the retreat and heard the explosions of maybe 3 more. Daesh fights to die.”

Where does this extraordinary willingness to die come from? And what, if anything, can be done to weaken it?

Atran is a 60-something native New Yorker with a languid, disillusioned baritone voice and a brush mustache. Watching him crunch into a BLT in a café on Manhattan's Upper West Side, the first thought that comes to mind is not the Islamic State (IS). But as an anthropologist, he has long been fascinated by what motivates human groups to do things that seem to defy all understanding. In the investigation of that question, Atran and the Islamic State seem to have been destined for each other.

“The paradox for me is: why do absurd ideals lead human beings to make their greatest exertions, whether for ill or for good?” Atran says. “While social contracts and rational cost-benefit calculations are effective, they cannot compare in terms of explaining such exertions and such commitments. These apparently absurd ideals create a world that cannot be logically verified or falsified, or empirically verified or falsified, and people are willing to die for them.” A 21st-century caliphate is one such world.

In late 2014, President Obama (echoing the words of his national intelligence director) said that the U.S. had underestimated IS’s will to fight while overestimating that of the Iraqi army, adding in mitigation that will is inherently “imponderable." Now, as a lifelong social scientist who had studied extremists for many years and in several parts of the world, Atran thought that it was ponderable. He cobbled together a small group of researchers to interview fighters on the front lines in Iraq, and set out to design an experiment to measure the fighting spirit. And since the willingness to fight is only really quantifiable when one can act upon it, he and his team went to Iraq, armed with a series of questions aimed at finding a scientific way of measuring just that.


I was flabbergasted in Iraq to look at dead Uighurs from China in Kurdistan, and Chechens, and Frenchmen. Somehow the Islamic State is appealing to all these people with very different life experiences and frustrations and grievances.
— Scott Atran

“I first developed the method while working on the Maya with Doug Medin, a great psychologist from Northwestern," says Atran. "We took people from all walks of life—biologists, linguists, Mayanists. We brought everybody into the field, sort of doing the natural history of the Maya. And doing it in such a way that there would be actual scientific results that would be useful in answering questions like: what is the best way to save a rainforest? We actually did answer that question, and our work shaped the setting up of rainforest preserves.”

When assembling a team to work in the field with fighters, Atran looks first for people who know the region and the issues. But perhaps more importantly, he looks for people who know how to establish a sense of empathy, people who know how to put other people at ease. For example, Lydia Wilson and Houshang Waziri. “She got her degree in medieval Arabic mathematics and the philosophy of science at Cambridge. She founded the Cambridge Literary Review, is an accomplished violinist, and is so charming she can get in anywhere.” Waziri, a Kurd, is “an award-winning playwright in Arabic, and the best person in the world to interview ISIS guys.” They are both on the Iraq team, along with Doug Stone, a retired U.S. Marine general. Of German-Navajo descent, Stone spent some of his childhood on a reservation in Arizona, and was instrumental in reforming U.S. detention policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Finally, Richard Davis, a former White House counterterrorism official who, with Atran, cofounded ARTIS International, which brings cognitive and behavioral scientific methods to field research on politically motivated violence. While ARTIS is a private organization with both governmental and corporate clients, it has academic partners, and Atran himself juggles academic posts in New York, Paris, and Oxford.

“All these people had little or no formal training in experimental techniques,” Atran says. He has other team members with that expertise, and they train the interviewers.

The method requires interviewers to stick to a list of questions for the fighters. At first interviewers often hate the process. There they are, surrounded by the excitement of battle, and they are restricted to asking a set of particular questions, in sequence. It seems very odd. And even a well-planned experiment can go wrong. “It isn’t like the classroom," says Atran, "where you can just wait another year and get everybody together again. But once you get an experiment that works, it’s pretty exciting. Then the interviewers really get into it, once they see that it's working.” A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education captured some of the strangeness of the work, as well as Atran’s offhanded approach. As he said to me, “It isn’t that expensive actually. You pay for a hotel. You pay for some beat-up car to take you to the front. But you can learn more about a conflict in a day at the front than you can in years of study away from the actual field of battle.”


Atran is fascinated by the role that values play in war, but he doesn’t exclude other variables. With religiously motivated warriors, it’s tempting to see the values component as exclusive of other motivating factors. Historically, that lack of individuality, at an ideological level, is part of the appeal of many movements. Yet motivations are in fact frequently quite personal and circumstantial.

“When I was working with mujahideen groups,” Atran recalls, “I saw that they all form these ‘bands of brothers.' Yes, there’s social media, but if it were just social media you’d see a very diffuse pattern of recruitment, while in fact it’s very clustered, it’s very clumpy. There are preexisting groups—of friends, neighbors, soccer teams, whatever. And you see that on the front lines everywhere. Anyone who fought in Vietnam, World War II, or Korea will tell you about the willingness to sacrifice for your buddies. But in those more familiar conflicts, that other key component—sacred values—is mostly missing. Not entirely: it wasn't missing for many among the Viet Cong, or the Nazis. But it wasn’t a fundamental shaper of the will to fight for the majority of combatants. But today it is a fundamental shaper in some conflicts, including in Syria and in Iraq. So the idea was: let's see what happens when these two independent factors—commitment to a set of values, and total commitment to your buddies—interact. So we did experiments on that intersection.”

Atran and his colleagues have studied fighters in Ireland and Iraq. They have worked among the Kurds in the durable revolutionary movement known by the initials PKK, and they have interviewed ISIS recruits in Morocco and supporters of the Islamist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) in Spain. Overall what they’ve found is that “the willingness to fight is different from simply a norm. And when a person is presented, in a controlled experimental setting, with evidence that his buddies don’t actually believe in the values, the subjects nonetheless want to continue fighting. They become outraged at those who have abandoned the values."

"We actually show," Atran continues, "that for example on the battlefield in Iraq, when push comes to shove and you have to choose between your group—whether it’s the Islamic State or the peshmerga—and the values that your group is supposed to represent, you will go with the values. For us, this was sort of surprising. It means that the commitment to these transcendental beliefs was even more important than the commitment to kin or friends. One of the reasons you go to the battlefield is because the gap between what you say and what you do is erased. So we can actually do objective measures. How many days have you spent at the front? How many battles have you been in? How many times have you been wounded? Those are real, quantifiable indicators.”

Fighters with this level of commitment led Atran to develop the idea of devoted—as distinct from rational—actors. He has found plenty of them in Iraq. “Never have so few people with such meager means caused so much fear in so many,” he observes. “They have no air force, the only heavy weapons they have are the ones they captured. They have a few howitzers, some Humvees, and some old Soviet tanks. But I’ve seen them fight and they’re amazing, especially the foreign fighters. In the battle at Kudilah, the battle I described: 90 guys, 52 dead, 17 suicide guys in the original attack, 7 suicide bombers covering the retreat of the last 15. I mean, that kind of commitment is hard to deal with.”

You don’t need counter-narratives. You need counter-engagement. You need to get into these young peoples’ networks and deal with them in an empathetic way
— Scott Atran


What can be done with people who have such a “commitment to non-negotiable values, and for which there is no exit strategy”?

For the thousands of recruits outside the theater of war, Atran believes the key is the kind of intense personal communication that has been the hallmark of ISIS’s own recruiting. He explains: “One thing ISIS will say is that, to join, you have to deactivate your old Facebook account. But when you become activated on Facebook again as one of us, we’ll give you a thousand ‘likes.' It’s a big thing for kids. They want likes. They don’t know half the time what messages they’re propagating but now they’re in a network where they’re getting a thousand likes, right? And their buddies and their friends are getting likes too, and they feel like they are in a whole new world. You don’t need counter-narratives. You need counter-engagement. You need to get into these young peoples’ networks and deal with them in an empathetic way.”

Where war is underway, as in the caliphate and on its borders, Atran believes the only viable path is to destroy the "dream word" that such devoted actors have imposed on the real one. “It’s really hard," he says, "if the dream is still there, which leads me to believe that you would really have to destroy the Islamic State, as a state, before you’re going to be able to address this. Because everybody joins as a group with their friends, and how are you going to be able to tip these groups of people? With ideology? That is nonsense. Many of these people don’t even know what a caliph is. They want to be mujahideen more than they care about being Muslims. The idea of preaching moderation as an alternative is hilarious; doesn’t anyone have teenage kids? To get them to move, you either have to give them an alternative dream, or you have to destroy the dream that’s mesmerizing them. This idea of providing them with an alternative dream is not working at all. The counter-narratives are a waste of time, as is all of this mass negative messaging. I’ve listened to these programs with jihadis, and they just laugh. Their own approach is much more intimate. They’ll spend hundreds of hours talking to just one woman. They’ll work with her, drawing out her own frustrations before getting to any kind of dogma. And they’ll do this with people from China. I mean, I was flabbergasted in Iraq to look at dead Uighurs from China in Kurdistan, and Chechens, and Frenchmen. Somehow the Islamic State is appealing to all these people with very different life experiences and frustrations and grievances. There’s no similarity I can see between the grievances of a Chechen who’s been fighting the Russians and the grievances of a kid growing up in the banlieues of Paris. The only way to get to these violent young people is to engage with them directly, person to person. The vertical territorial structures have collapsed. These kids hook up horizontally, peer to peer, across the world's borders. The way to reach them is how ISIS reaches them, one on one.”