Researchers and observers have offered many reasons why people join terrorist organizations. Humans are complex and generally there is no single factor; explanations often span a range of social, geo-political, ideological/religious, and psychological reasons. In reference to psychology and ISIS’ terrorist propaganda, one consistently recurring theme is the emphasis on masculinity and humiliation. What is particularly interesting is how women and children are used to convey these messages to their mostly male audiences.
Arie Kruglanski, a University of Maryland professor in psychology, points out that much of the appeal in ISIS’ messaging lies in its ability to exploit a person’s desire to feel respected by oneself and by others. Extremists exploit this “quest for significance,” as Kruglanski calls it, by speaking about Muslims’ collective humiliation at the hands of Western powers and their Muslim allies.
For young men, this quest for significance gets personal when ISIS directly challenge a male’s masculinity and shames him to join their cause or commit attacks in the West. It gets especially personal when one considers the messengers along with the message.
For example, one of ISIS’ latest propaganda videos features a French-language a cappella chant containing footage of young children dressed in military fatigues, fully armed, and marching in bombed out city streets. The video was accompanied by lyrics declaring, “Our warriors are everywhere ready to sacrifice themselves, beware our orphans are growing.” In another video, potential recruits are encouraged to join up and fight alongside ISIS militants while a picture of a young boy holding an assault rifle is shown as the words “What’s your excuse?” flash across the screen.
ISIS’ use of child soldiers in their propaganda videos plays on the discomfort many men experience at the thought of a child being more empowered than themselves to avenge Muslims’ perceived humiliation.
However young kids are not the only ones employed for these manipulative and violent ends. Female ISIS supporters also use narratives of shame and emasculation to reach out to and recruit impressionable “fence sitters” who have not yet taken decisive action.
For instance, a 2015 tweet by a user named @UsofNuh declared, “There are women who are already here before you and look, they are already doing more than you have for the Islamic State.” A February 2016 message over Telegram, by an alleged American female ISIS recruiter named Umm Isa al Amirikiah, was even more excoriating in tone: “Stop sitting behind your screens posting [sic] couple of dawlah [ISIS] videos, getting yourself 'caught' because of it. You are not men. You are an embarrassment for the Ummah [global Muslim community].”
As early as late 2014, shortly after the beginning of ISIS’ meteoric rise, more than 100 social media accounts of ISIL-sympathizing women were discovered and attributed to the UK alone. In these posts, researchers from the Quilliam Foundation observed these women -- who were often married to Syrian fighters-- would attempt to shame men into joining ISIL by claiming they were not “real men” or “real Muslims.”
The use of women and children as messengers for shame and emasculation, however, is nothing new.
During World War I, the “White Feather Movement” swept across the UK, harassing and shaming men to enlist in the army. This “White Feather Brigade” began as 30 women who distributed white feathers—well-known symbols of cowardice at that time—to men in civilian clothing as a means of making their non-service more noticeable among the public.
Children were also instruments of WWI recruitment propaganda in the UK. As history professor David Welch notes, “British recruitment posters changed in tone, from appealing to an individual’s honour to ‘mobilisation by shame’. Savile Lumley’s famous poster of 1915 depicted two young children asking their father about his military prowess after the war: ‘Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?’”
Responding to these kinds of cultural and emotional blackmail, particularly from powerful messengers like women and children, will not be easy. In the short-term, non-governmental actors like parents and female peers are the kinds of credible messengers to speak out and counter this type of manipulation.
As researchers, our role is to inform these debates with research-based counter-narratives. At our organization, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, we are developing a “Narratives/Counter-Narrative” library for community-based actors as a central resource of intellectual tools to fight violent ideas with non-violent ones.
Over the long run, the best protection against these emotional predations are when communities and male leaders within them, promote and sustain healthy notions of masculinity and manhood. As leaders like California-based Imam Marc Manley observe, this crisis of manhood is not specific to one community and its violent manifestations come in multiple forms—such as mass shooters Elliot Rodger, Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold and Norweigan terrorist Anders Breivik.
However he notes that all communities, including Muslims, are “in desperate need of a new model of manhood as well as an uplifting theology. A model that allows for men to be strong without feeling the only means of expressing that strength is through violence.” We all would be wise to put the Imam’s advice into practice, irrespective of our creed, color, culture, or gender.