Sacred Values and Violent Political Action – an update, by Scott Atran (French National Centre for Scientific Research and Atris Director of Research), September 2015


Scott Atran's lectures at Uppsala/Stockholm on 21st September 2015 went very well.

He came to us after spending 6 solid weeks on the road, first in Iraq conducting field research and then throughout Europe on an intense lecture tour. He was looking a bit weary but after a good night's sleep Sunday he performed well on Monday.

Both lectures were well attended. At the Uppsala University Department of Peace & Conflict Research, the seminar room was full with about 40 students; undergrads, Master's and PhD candidates. At YBC high school it was standing room only, with over 200 students attending.

The content of Scott's lectures at both venues was about the same, with some variation. At Uppsala, his lecture was peppered with historical allusions.

Later we will post a complete summary of his lectures. Here are some highlights:

Briefly, Scott gave an overview of the fighting against The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, focusing on how ISIS got started, what motivates them and why the ISIS fighters are more motivated than the Iraqi and Syrian armies.

The problems posed are historically less novel than one might imagine, and that present solutions are also much less compelling, because many proposals and policies are based on urban myths rooted in current political bias.

Scott critiqued US policy in Iraq as ineffective. He questioned the Administration's September 2014 assessment: " We underestimated The Islamic State and overestimated the fighting capacity of the Iraqi army . . . It boils down to predicting the will to fight, which is an imponderable."

He explained that if the methods and results of his team's field research prove reliable, then predicting who is willing to fight and who isn't, and why, are, in fact, ponderable and important to the evaluation and execution of political strategy.

He endorsed the June 2015 statement by US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter to the House Armed Services Committee: "The Kurdish forces are what we aspire to with respect to the Iraqi security forces in general. They showed the will to fight, they showed the capability to fight."

On our side, the Kurdish fighters are the most formidable and effective, but have difficulty in getting supplies from Baghdad.

It was surprising to hear that ISIS does not recruit as much as has been reported in the press, and that they are selective as to whom they accept into their ranks. According to Scott, ISIS does not really recruit much at all. Instead, Western volunteers are mainly disaffected youth longing for adventure and in a transitional period in their lives, are not particularly religious (radicalization rarely occurs in mosques), and join with small groups that are like-minded facilitated via social media independent of any effort by ISIS.

Most foreign volunteers who join ISIS are expected to fight, and to die fighting. Because of their relative lack of fighting experience (most have never previously even fired a gun), Western volunteers are preferred for use in suicide attacks -- often as drivers of primitive vehicles fitted with homemade steel plates that drive straight into enemy lines to pierce them for more sustained follow-up by seasoned fighters.

Western volunteers who are not used in suicide attacks, and survive a round of fighting, are often shifted to new fronts so as not know stalemate or defeat at the front (see, e.g., Eisenhower's strategy on the European front in WWII).

Some Western volunteers , however, come not to fight but as volunteers to help build the Islamic State: engineers, medical personnel, computer specialists and financial experts.

Once accepted, ISIS will kill any volunteer before letting them go. Thus, Scott questioned the reports of large numbers of volunteers returning to Sweden, explaining that they probably never actually made it to an ISIS group in Syria in the first place or, if they did, escaped under unusual circumstances.

He also explained the methods he and his fellow researchers use in their interviews in order to quantify behavior and motivations of ISIS and Kurdish fighters. He also played videos of his interviews. He explained that a key in getting truly insightful answers is to ask them questions that they could not have anticipated.

Their research method is:

1. Conduct interviews with political and military leaders, fighters and militants, supporters and would-be volunteers to generate hypotheses,

2. Followed by lab experiments to test plausibility,

3. Next, structured interviews and experiments with leaders, militants and supporters,

4. Then, experimentally designed mass surveys to test potential pathways to and from violence

He showed slides of encampments, separated by vast expanses of land, with medieval-like walls on each side:


Kurdish forward lines on the Mosul front.

Scott explained that the French fighter jets are more effective at hitting ISIS encampments. Before American jets can launch a strike, they must get clearance from HQ that there will be no collateral damage, and by that time the encampments have usually scattered. The French don't operate under such restrictions. He played a video of Kurdish fighters on the "wall" listening in on the walkie-talkie traffic among ISIS fighters just before a strike by French jets, and then the jets came in.


A Kurdish fighter to Scott: "Thank you for these binoculars. We will never forget you."


A Kurdish PKK sniper, with a box of chocolates given her by Scott. Women make the best snipers because they can more easily lower their heartbeat.