From Cornell International Affairs Review VOL. 10 NO. 1
Lasting and Expanding: An Analysis of the Islamic State's Incentive System
The study of the literature and the application of incentive systems scholarship to the Islamic State makes evident that there are many different motivations that push participation at both a local and international level. The Islamic State's slogan is baqiya wa tatamadad, which translates to "lasting and expanding."159 The only way that Islamic State can fulfill this objective is to continue to motivate participation. In confronting the collective action problem, the Islamic State adapts previously identified incentives, orienting them differently towards each audience
In this study, I have attempted to present a more complete picture of why local Syrians engage in, at the least, basic complicity with the Islamic State. Yet, I want to reaffirm a note of caution that I sounded in the introduction. For all intents and purposes, Raqqa is an unknown quantity. The information available is limited at best and any information is biased either released by the Islamic State itself or by defectors who, because of feelings of complicity or personal guilt, have incentives to manipulate their narratives. Hopefully, the situation de-escalates soon. When this occurs, on-the-ground dynamics should be re-assessed.
The wide global audience (made even wider by the Internet and social media) is a large population of untapped potential for the Islamic State, but with it comes a unique burden and challenge to the mobilization narratives and incentive system. In response to the questions "Why should I fight and die for you? Why should I join you when the costs of participation are so high relative to the tangible costs of non-participation?", the Islamic State must fashion a new answer.160 The Islamic State mobilizes individual level incentives, tapping into personal grievances, local motivations and networks, and presenting itself as the most worthwhile alternative to a boring life. It promises not only salvation in the afterlife, but also salvation from the malaise of current life. In this paper, I aimed to present an overview of mechanisms pushing participation at the international level. However, more work must be done in this regard. The intentions of these adolescents who leave safety to fight and die are unknowable and impossible to generalize.
Regardless, the simplistic narrative about ideological radicalization must be avoided. A simplified understanding and hardening of the "us versus them" sentiment reinforces the in-group bias being socialized within these disenfranchised teenagers. For these foreigners, reasons for mobilization are often grounded in their experience back at home – in Belgium and in the rest of the West. I encourage further research into how historical tendencies in Belgium, as well as the nation's initial response to the alarming rate of Belgian foreign fighter transmission, have impacted mobilization.
With this project, I hope to demonstrate that no part of the Syrian conflict is static. Terms like "membership", "culture", and "order" fluctuate and are re-defined as conditions change. An incentive that may function one day in one capacity may be rendered unimportant the next. Therefore, I urge other scholars to maintain a constant study of the mechanisms at play for they are constantly in flux.
Finally, while this project focused on the Islamic State, the active role and continued brutality of the Assad regime should not and cannot be ignored. The emergence of the Islamic State and the incentives to which it appeals were not created in a vacuum. Especially in Raqqa, the regime is responsible for many the openings of which the Islamic State takes advantage. Building off of what I have tried to do in this project, future studies must address the role that the state plays.
The death toll in Syria is placed as high as almost half a million, with the rate of killing escalating each year (Taub 2016).161 Brutality and anarchy has hollowed out the country, with nearly 5 million Syrians displaced externally (Taub 2016).162 This conflict is not isolated to the region; it has entangled the world. Understanding the Islamic State's ability to last and expand is one of many steps necessary to effectively respond to the conflict.
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