20,000 foreigners have become jihadists in the Middle East -- and there are startlingly relatable reasons why

In a new feature for the New York Times Magazine, historian-journalist Mary Anne Weaver goes deep into the minds of the more than 20,000 foreigners who have headed to Syria and Iraq to become jihadists.

According to her report, 1,000 foreigners join groups like ISIS every month.

In her story, Weaver profiles the work of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (or ICSR), a research institute at King’s College London. ICSR monitors — and sometimes interacts with — 700 or so of those foreign-born jihadists through social media and phone calls.

While jihadists are usually portrayed as animalistic savages, ICSR’s work shows their humanity, in both the positive and negative sense.

From what ICSR research fellow Shiraz Maher told the Times, it’s largely about feeling important.

“Can you imagine, a 20-year-old kid whose peers are getting drunk, obsessed with finding a girlfriend, as opposed to doing something in Syria or Iraq that, within an hour, gets a response from the president of the United States?” Maher said. “Obama doesn’t know what a 25-year-old manager at [clothing retailer] Primark does, but if he goes to Syria and becomes involved with the Islamic State, he goes from being the manager of a second-rate clothing store to someone giving headaches to the president of the United States.”

This jives with the psych research. According to the work of DePaul University psychologist P. J. Henry, people who perceive themselves as having low status are more violent than people who are high status. This research suggests that low-status people might be using violence as a way to feel important.

And according to a 2011 study lead by University of Southern California researcher Nathanael Fast, power without status is especially dangerous. The reasons why? When people feel powerful, they don’t censor their actions. (In other words, power doesn’t corrupt; it reveals). And when people feel low status, they feel insecure and are more likely to lash out to assert themselves. Fast found as much in a experiment: participants who were manipulated to feel high-power/low-status were more likely to choose demeaning activities for their partners, like barking like a dog or repeating the phrase “I am filthy.”

In addition to making its recruits feel important, ISIS had done some very effective branding to attract young people. The terror group — which now controls a third of Iraq and a third of Syria — refers to itself as a Caliphate, a reference to Islamic kingdoms that stretched from Spain to Afghanistan in the eight and ninth centuries.

That Caliphate “has extraordinary appeal,” Weaver reports. It’s reportedly the richest terrorist group in the world, one that makes up to $US3 million a day selling oil. It has also made a reported $US25 million from hostage ransoms and makes $US3 million in rent a month from buildings it has taken over in its path.

Then there’s the compensation package. ISIS fighters get something like $US500 per month, plus any loot they collect in their attacks.

Therein lies the terror of ISIS: they’re high-powered, low-status, and feel important (and get paid) when they do awful things.

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