Lasting and Expanding: An Analysis of the Islamic State's Incentive System

By Isabelle Canaan
Cornell International Affairs Review
2016, Vol. 10 No. 1 | pg. 1/3 |


In the past five years, millions of people have lost their homes, loved ones, and lives.2 The Syrian territory is now a battlefield, contested by multiple actors. The rise of the Islamic State underscores the hopeless nature of this bloody quagmire. The speed at which the Islamic State has captured and held territory, as well as the degree to which it has dominated the Western psyche and monopolized Western fears, has been met with both shock and panic. Newspapers headlines scream about the unique and terrifying threat of the Islamic State and the imminent destruction of the West at its hands. But at its core the Islamic State is, like any other organization, dependent on manpower and materials. Control of large population centers and the constant recruitment of new members are essential for the Islamic State's continued success and the expansion of its caliphate, especially in the face of increased military opposition from its adversaries and the on-going drain of its resources from the use of suicide bombings and military campaigns.

The collective action problem burdens the Islamic State. Broadly defined, the collective action problem states that an organization cannot inspire mass mobilization with ease.3 Why would someone participate when the costs are so high and the benefits are so low? For example, an individual deciding whether or not to join the Islamic State must consider (consciously or not) the free rider problem and the fact that individual contribution is not pivotal, while also confronting fears about the risks associated with participation.4

The Islamic State has repackaged and re-worked techniques to alleviate the collective action problem in a highly successful and visible way, publically recruiting both locally and internationally. I will examine how the Islamic State exploits security considerations and individual-level grievances, all while mobilizing community and patronage networks to attract new recruits. In doing so, I will critically assess how effectively the existing literature on incentive systems captures the Islamic State.

In the past decades, scholarship has focused on insurgency groups' incentive structures to better understand individuals' motivations for joining them. During a conflict, the leadership on each side try to out-maneuver their opponents in controlling the unarmed and unaffiliated masses. When it comes to Syria, violence proliferates amongst multiple actors. Notably, the Islamic State is competing with the Russian and Iranian-backed Bashar al-Assad Syrian regime, the United States-backed Iraqi government, the Free Syrian Army, the Kurds, and the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front. Each of these groups has carved out small areas of influence, semi-order, and pseudo-sovereignty, which they use as springboards for their territorial and political objectives. With the globalization of conflict and the technological revolution, the methods of recruiting have broadened significantly. These changes are particularly evident in the Islamic State's recruitment of foreign fighters. Foreigners have historically played a role in conflicts, famously in the Spanish Civil War and the Greek War of Independence, but never to the extent made possible by modern telecommunications technology.5 The Syrian situation recalls these prior instances; especially as the foreign jihadi and foreign fighter phenomena have evolved into an essential and highly visible element of the conflict.

As the Islamic State targets a variety of audiences, it is pertinent to ask how the Islamic State's incentive system works. Although it must be acknowledged that there is extreme variation in the type of actor and the intensity of participation within each audience, I am interested in exploring the general trends that differ in this targeted process. Namely: How does the Islamic State repackage oft-used mechanisms, like material benefits or protection, in successful and potentially new ways? How does it change, morph, and redefine itself in relation to these different audiences?

In pursuit of a satisfactory answer to the above questions, I will examine three elements of the Islamic State's recruitment practices: 1) How the Islamic State's incentive system operates on both a local and global level, 2) Where there is overlap between these two audiences, and 3) Where distinctions arise. Additionally, I will examine how intentionally the core structure of the Islamic State actually promotes and propagates certain narratives. I focus my analysis on two specific locations as case studies for the Islamic State's audience. To evaluate local dynamics and describe how a conquering insurgency traditionally entices local actors to opt-in, I will focus on Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State's caliphate. To explore how the Islamic State fuses itself to pre-existing societal ills, I will study the incentive system at work in Belgium, namely the Molenbeek and Schaerbeek neighborhoods outside of Brussels. These areas have been labeled as safe-havens and hotbeds for jihadist activity and are where the Paris attacks of 2015 were planned.

Therefore, my project is aimed at unpacking the Islamic State's networks and incentive system and looking primarily at how it overcomes the collective action problem on a multi-tiered level; both in terms of the local Syrian-Iraqi community (specifically in Raqqa) and in reference to the global community (using Molenbeek and Schaerbeek as exemplars). This paper presents a nuanced account of what "membership" at its core entails, and how its intensity ebbs and flows between Raqqa and Belgium. In confronting previous literature, I hope to demonstrate that the audience to which the Islamic State directs itself is wide and varied in motivations and roles, as well as undermine the simple narrative of ideological impetus as the sole motivating factor.

Literature Review

I will assess the strategies and actions of the Islamic State in reference to these seven mechanisms: contingency and sovereignty, protection and security, material benefits and club goods, individual level incentives, social focal points and community, patronage networks and quotidian relationships, and ideological commitment. While I am limiting my study to a discussion of these seven mechanisms, I acknowledge that scholarship has explored and identified other mechanisms, but have chosen these seven mechanisms as, in my opinion, they encompass the largest swathe of scholarship.

Contingency and Sovereignty

As Ana Arjona and Stathis Kalyvas discuss in their article, "Rebelling Against Rebellion," when a ruling group has a monopoly over violence and the power of the purse, it permits them to control the use of selective violence, the dispersion of information, quotidian norms and rituals, and the economic market.6 In order to survive, individuals living under the new sovereignty of an insurgent group must shift their preferences to align with those of the sovereign. By functioning, as a would-be state, an insurgent organization establishes a bureaucratic apparatus that commands local presence. In this narrative, control signals credibility, allows for the allocation of goods and services, facilitates direct monitoring and population control, monopolizes socialization, and, as argued by Arjona and Kalyvas, is a self-reinforcing dynamic of legitimacy.7 Sovereignty, at its most basic, therefore, incentivizes individuals to comply with the group in charge.8

Protection and Security

As asserted by Macartan Humphreys and Jeremy Weinstein in their article "Who Fights? The Determinants of Participation in Civil War", the desire and necessity to improve one's own security drives decision-making in times of anarchy and conflict. Security considerations can also explain why individuals join certain factions in times of war.9

Similarly, Kalyvas and Kocher argue that non-participation is not costless. It is their estimation that, in irregular wars, especially where the state actor employs indiscriminant, retaliatory violent tactics, civilians are directly implicated and more likely to be victims of incredible violence.10 Thus, participation in the terrorist organization actually improves an individual's odds of survival because combatants are both better equipped to deal with threats as members of the group and because cooperation buys protection.11

Material Benefits and Club Goods

Incentives like material motivations and benefits often persuade individuals to join organizations. In order to rapidly attract followers, many groups use material resources as selective incentives and "club goods", conditional on loyalty and membership. Organizations with control over a territory (and thus, its economic apparatuses and markets) use goods to force membership. By positioning themselves as the sole providers of goods and services, these organizations can socially isolate civilians who do not opt-in.12 Membership is required in order to gain access to even the most basic everyday goods, like bread and electricity.13

In his book The Politics of Insurgent Violence, Jeremy Weinstein examines how insurgent groups form, highlighting groups that use material resources to rapidly attract followers to overcome collective action problems. He describes these "consumer groups" as organizations that entice opportunists and loyalists by promising luxury items, like cars, scarce Western goods, and tax exemptions deemed "club goods."14 Greed is a motivator for active loyalty and membership. Per Weinstein's assessment, those attracted by material goods lack ideological commitment and community ties, remaining involved only as long as it is materially beneficial.15

Individual Level Incentives

When assessing individualist logic, it is important to avoid the assumption that individuals are merely actors manipulated by the state or the organization at large. As Kalyvas argues, "The locus of agency is as likely to be at the bottom as at the top, so civilians cannot be treated as passive, manipulated, or invisible actors; indeed, they often manipulate central actors to settle their own conflicts."16 An individual's reasons for mobilization are often highly personal and unrelated to the over-arching ideological vision of an organization. Building on Kalyvas's conclusions about the agency of individuals, membership in a successful organization, especially one in charge of the mechanism of coercion and control, can function as an opportunity to increase social position and self-worth. Individuals desire power to settle local scores, for example: taking revenge, engaging in personal feuds, obtaining local power, and eliminating-off local rivals.17

Social Focal Points and Communities

As argued by Timur Kuran, most individuals are threshold-based actors, meaning that, if they were to see their peers joining, they would feel more inclined to do the same.18 Mechanisms such as accessible information, status rewards, and norms of reciprocity motivate more and more people to mobilize.

The community-level analysis is further championed by Roger Petersen, who defines communities according to the following essential five conditions; direct relations between members, relations that are many-sided (with economic, social, and cultural components), norms of reciprocity acknowledged amongst members, rough equality of material conditions, and a common set of beliefs and values.19 Since mobilization and opting into participation involves the acceptance of risk, strong communities can play a role in mitigating fears.20

Social focal points, which serve as indictors for individuals of the general opinions of the community, are manipulated and controlled by the ruling group.21 In line with Kuran and Petersen's assessments, individuals use the actions of their fellow community members as reference points on which to base action or inaction.

Patronage Networks and Quotidian Relationships

Patronage networks structure trust and information between individuals. An incoming power often attempts to integrate itself into pre-existing patronage networks, using them to achieve its objectives. On a micro and familial level, patronage networks help organize participation as they permit face-to-face contact and visible touch-points of belief and trust. According to Sarah Parkinson, quotidian and familial networks often serve as the blueprints onto which insurgent goals are pasted.22 Consequently, social ties provide a way of layering new organizations atop older relations, and thus combining local and wide-reaching objectives.

Ideological Commitment

Finally, as Jeremy Weinstein argues, ideological commitment to a group's goals and sense of duty to join can push individuals to aid in the cause.23 He argues that religious extremism drives insurgents to incur greater dangers in the name of God. In this narrative, there is a coupling of rational calculus and ideological fervor – sacrifice is presented as a logical step towards promised salvation.24 In her book Peripheral Visions, Lisa Wedeen discusses how Islam becomes highly political, describing how "Movements are political in the sense that they aspire to render all aspects of Muslims lives a means of realizing God's will."25


All armed groups face the problem of mobilization, as they must provide a persuasive answer to the question: "Why should I fight and die for you?"26 In its' answer, the group must overcome the collective action problem, a problem of coordination between principals and agents, and a time-consistency problem for the acquisition of benefits and rewards by those who mobilize.27 Unlike previous theories and the rhetoric of mainstream media, that often spout one silver bullet reason for mobilization, or overemphasize the importance of ideological and radicalization without paying appropriate attention to the extreme variation in motivation or the constant coupling and uncoupling of local and global dynamics, I assert that the Islamic State's use of mobilization techniques in accordance with its' differing audiences has fundamentally redefined understandings of both membership and participation.

From the above toolkit of potential incentives to mobilize, the Islamic State picks and chooses based on audience ensuring a narrative with powerful resonance. For those in the seized territories, the Islamic State employs sovereignty and contingency, security considerations, material goods, individual-level incentives, community-level incentives, and ideology to varying degree. However, the assessments of the previous literature, especially its presentation of conflicts and communal norms as static, do not fully capture the tendencies at place. For those in the seized territories, the Islamic State employs sovereignty and contingency, security considerations, material goods, individual-level incentives, community-level incentives, and ideology to varying degree. However, the assessments of the previous literature, especially its presentation of conflicts and communal norms as static, do not fully capture the tendencies at place. When conceptualizing participation under these conditions, I want to emphasize that the participation of the majority of Syrians in the seized territories, though deemed voluntary in the literature, is actually a question of survival. Joining the Islamic State is about choosing the best among a collection of terrible options. The perceived order provided by Islamic State is actually a product of fear and anxiety. As Mousab Alhamadee, a Syrian writer originally from Hama describes, the Islamic State controlled areas are "hostile environment[s] not just for minorities, but for a broad swathe of citizens."28

When assessed in the foreign fighter context, security and protection must function differently. Target audiences abroad – namely those the Islamic State aims to recruit (loyalists) or inspire (sympathizers) – are not subject to the same present and physical day-to-day danger as those in the seized territories. Separated and insulated from the anarchic conditions that rage in Syria, they do not naturally assume survival and utility maximization roles that prioritize immediate security overall. In other words, joining the organization does not boil down to a life-or-death consideration. The same promise of immediate physical security made to citizens in Raqqa should not be enough to convince foreigners, who arguably have more to lose by going to Syria than staying at home in Belgium. The following sections of the paper will illuminate this claim. Firstly, I will describe the choice of the two case studies, and then will examine the evidence to support my claim, demonstrating the variation between what resonates in Raqqa versus what resonates in Belgium.

Case Selection

In order to assess my hypothesized theory, I will use the cases of Raqqa and Molenbeek and Schaerbeek. While obviously each population in itself includes high levels of variation, as well as multiple other interesting distinctions, these cases have been chosen for a particular reason in regards to the multi-faceted nature of the Islamic State. The Islamic State has positioned itself as not only a dually oriented organization, but also one that promises to fulfill multiple roles structuring a society and providing goods and services as a state does and directing military action. The "state" aspect of the Islamic State must not be taken for granted, and in choosing to assess both Raqqa and Belgium, I hope to explore the full dynamics of statehood at play.

The Islamic State is not the first transnational organization to preach its message abroad. Al-Qaeda, for example, recruited and targeted foreign audiences, using the Internet to reach far-flung potential jihadists.29 The Islamic State has built on these past attempts at transnational recruitment with a specific combination and marketing of incentives that has drawn, by some estimates, between 27,000 and 31,000 foreigners to the Islamic State.30 This level of support massively outstrips the high-water marks of both their organizational predecessors and contemporary competitors. Coupled with on-the-ground alliances and membership of conquered people in Iraq and Syria, the success of recruiting efforts contributes to the ongoing longevity and expansion of the Islamic State.

On the choice of Molenbeek and Schaerbeek – I recognize that these are not the only places from which foreign Islamic State fighters originate, nor are they the sole areas where attacks on foreign soil are planned. However, because they are the hometowns of the Abaaoud and Abdelsalem brothers, the masterminds and perpetrators of the recent attacks in Paris and Belgium, Molenbeek and Schaerbeek, and have therefore become the face of the foreign fighter and foreign jihadi syndrome.31

Concerning Raqqa, there is little information available when it comes to daily dynamics and procedures. I am, to some degree, beholden to the image of Raqqa that the Islamic State wants to distribute. Outside of Islamic State propaganda, it is very difficult to even partially access objective information on how that society functions. Therefore, I recognize the speculative nature of my analysis and hope that, as more information is revealed and as the society opens up, my primary claims are re-assessed.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

The civil war in Syria has taken an enormous toll on civilian populations. One of the most commonly overlooked aspect of this crisis is the impact on healthcare in the region. Syria’s health capacity has been ravaged by years of government bombings and Islamic State expansion. As the Islamic State (IS) continues to consolidate... MORE»
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (more commonly known as “ISIS,” but also referred to as the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” or simply “the Islamic State”) has been on a reign of terror in the Middle East for the past three years, and emerged seemingly out of nowhere. However, though... MORE»
The so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – also known as ISIL, IS and Daesh – has during the last years disseminated videos throughout the Internet in a new recruitment and media strategy focusing... MORE»
The rise of Islamist militant groups and their propensity towards violence has perplexed researchers and policy-makers and lead to debate about how to handle this evolving asymmetric threat. However the general focus of past research has been on groups in the Middle East and Central Asia, overlooking African Islamist extremist groups... MORE»
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