The Behavioral Economics of ISIS

Excerpt from a forthcoming article in the Harvard Economics Review, the on-line student economics magazine of Harvard College.

The beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians and the kidnapping of 250 Assyrian Christians are latest act of terror of ISIS.  While the emergence of Islamic terrorist groups has become a tragically common facet of the Middle East, North African, and South Asian landscape in the last decade, a strong consensus exists that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has pushed the envelope of terror and human cruelty to new frontiers.   ISIS is a terrorist movement that has employed the ritual execution of children to advance its aims, its acts being so radically violent that even Al-Qaeda has been unable to stomach its methods.  Perhaps one of the greatest testaments to its de-humanizing brutality is that it seems to have fostered a commonality of purpose between Iran and the United States in eradicating it.

ISISWithout denying the horrific nature of these acts and the culpability of those who have carried them out, and even celebrated them, it is worth trying to understand what are the human factors that lie behind this kind of evil against other human beings.  What were the latent factors that caused ISIS to emerge, what influenced the timing of the movement, and how can we understand the level of violence it employs to realize its goal of creating an Islamic caliphate?  Like many, I have followed the emergence of this group fairly closely, and though I am not specifically a Middle East expert, I believe that insights into these questions can be gleaned through the lens of behavioral economics.  And while other aspects of the group appear to be rather unique, such as the number of foreign fighters in its ranks, ISIS shares a number of common characteristics with other terrorist movements, namely that the insurgency of ISIS is characterized by  (1) a sense of loss, marginalization and victimization among its members; (2) a negative economic shock (in this case a drought affecting Syria and neighboring regions) broadly affecting relevant parties; and (3) the radicalization of violence fed by the supremacy of extremists over moderates.

Why are the Tactics of ISIS So Extraordinarily Violent?

                A number of concepts in behavioral economics are helpful in understanding the brutality of ISIS.  A first idea relates to the radicalization of leadership.  Here it is important to see how different political processes produce different types of leaders in different contexts.  One of the most fundamental theories in political science, the median voter theorem, dictates that in a perfect democracy, an elected leader represents the will of the median voter.  The competition for 51% of the vote produces a “moderate” leader in the community who best represents the middle ground.  But terrorist leaders are not usually chosen democratically.  In contrast, terrorist groups typically produce extreme leaders because competition for the top spot occurs through competition over violence.  Those able or willing to inflict less violence fall prey to those willing and able to inflict more.  This holds even more strongly among populations with a sense of victimization or marginalization, where these feelings allow individuals carrying out horrific acts of violence against the innocent to justify them.

                But this doesn’t explain why the brutality of ISIS appears to supersede that of most other terrorist groups.  Cruelty and purposeful dehumanization are a key component of the ISIS brand, marketed to the world for all to witness over social media.  ISIS members regularly murder Yazidis, Christians, and Shiites through crucifixions, decapitation, burnings, and other forms of torturous execution. The violence has spurred a backlash in that it has caused Western countries with significant military power to enter the fight against ISIS, for example in the recent attacks in France, but clearly in the eyes of the leaders the benefits of this extreme cruelty outweigh the costs. And there appear to be two main benefits to broadcasting its violence: recruitment and tactical advantage.

                A Westerner miISIS-Crucifyght pause to ask why anyone would be drawn to an organization through its reputation for intentional acts of cruelty.  However, ISIS seeks to recruit a particular type of individual to its cause, a Muslim male with a deep sense of victimization and humiliation by the West and Western culture, enraged by Shiite heresy, inspired by the most extreme interpretation of Koranic texts.  Graphic violence against an enemy inspires this type of recruit, and its recruits originate not only from the Middle East, but from Europe, former Soviet States, and the United States, young men of Muslim origin, often without employment, strongly drawn to quasi-Nihilistic and anti-Western themes in social media.  There may be as many as 10,000 ISIS troops originating from these countries.  Indeed, the individual believed responsible for the beheadings of American and British citizens, referred to as “Jihadi John” is likely to be a citizen of the UK.  ISIS, in its violent extremity, offers the possibility of a twisted version of hope, meaning, and revenge against the frustrations many have experienced in Western society.   In game theory, we say that these horrific acts represent a “signal” to recruits, conveying to them and others that it is a certain type of entity, one that acts in its interests without regard for human life and is therefore a credible force to be reckoned with.

                The second reason for the use of extreme violence is as a tactical advantage.  The most common device used to model conflict in game theory is the Hawk-Dove game, a game in which each of two players chooses “aggressive” or “passive” strategies.  For example, the game below represents one between an Attacker (say, a terrorist organization seeking to take and hold new territory) and a Defender (the state, or portion of a state, being attacked).  In the game, strategies and payoffs to the Attacker are in red, and for the Defender they are in blue.  There are two solutions to the Hawk-Dove game, and each occurs when one player senses that the other will play the Hawk strategy and then opts for the Dove behavior, and vice versa.   This avoids the worst payoff (-10, -10) for both players, where they both opt for take-no-prisoners-style combat (Hawk, Hawk).  Since both seek control of the contested territory, both players will also deviate from the Dove, Dove outcome (since 5 is preferred to 0).  So one of two solutions will prevail, (Hawk, Dove) or (Dove, Hawk). HawkDove

ISIS uses brutal tactics to convey to its enemies that resistance is futile, because they will only play the Hawk strategy, forcing a Defender to play Dove.  This may help to explain how 800 ISIS militants with small arms travelling in pick-up trucks were able to defeat an US-trained Iraqi force of 30,000 soldiers and billions of dollars in sophisticated weaponry to take Mosul, the second largest Iraqi city, many Iraqi soldiers witnessed fleeing for their lives.  In a Hawk-Dove game, the ability to signal extreme brutality to an adversary can be perversely advantageous in convincing others into capitulation and holding conquered territory.

Understanding Suicide Bombing

                Suicide bombing is used routinely by ISIS for tactical means and as a signal of the willingness of the group to subsume the interests of individual members to the goals of the overall group.  This degree of submission to group interests is prevalent among many species, such as bees, termites, ants, and some mammals, but uncommon among human beings.  Honey bees, for example, will sacrifice themselves for the welfare of the hive.  The African termite Globitermes sulfureus will slink into an enemy ant colony, and after being surrounded by ants, detonate exploding sacks of poison on their backs (Wilson, 2004 On Human Nature, p.152).

But critical to the submission of individual human life to a group is often an overarching idea or goal whose meaning is perceived to transcend individual self-interest.  To the ISIS fighters, the establishment of an Islamic caliphate embodies this kind of ideal, and suicide bombing is used regularly to achieve ISIS objectives with apparently little shortage of volunteers.  Many believe that only a crazy person would ever carry out a suicide bombing, but a number of studies clearly indicate that most suicide bombers are not crazy, but rather as rational acts by individual members of grouISIS-Exps that believe to be fighting for their survival, or the survival of an overlying principle, against long odds.  While the submission of the will of the individual to the group, here the extreme version of “taking one for the team” is less common among human beings, it may be consistent with membership in groups where such acts are promoted and celebrated.  It also may explain why the twisted use of religion is a key component of the modus operandi of groups such as ISIS, as suicidal acts in the name of the cause of Islam are promised substantial rewards in the afterlife.

                Clearly there are no simple responses to the threat posed by groups such as ISIS, but understanding the nature of the threat may yield some insights into how to craft policy to repel the advances of such groups. For example, the ability to cut off funding used to pay recruits and changing the economic incentives away from non-participation in terrorist activity is likely to be just as important as military intervention.  The provision of stable jobs for young men through public works programs or other types of employment–though extremely difficult in conflict areas–may represent one of the most promising non-military means of degrading the effectiveness of the organization.   While ISIS has used social media to its advantage, social media can also be effectively used against ISIS within the populations in which it operates.  In the long-term, there will be no substitute for the development of stable states in Syria and Iraq, where governance is perceived to be administered fairly across competing religious groups.

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