ISIS and the Sex Factor
American Members of ISIS, By the Numbers
The exact number of Americans who have joined ISIS is unknown, but in late February, the Director of National Intelligence, General James Clapper, testified in front of Congress that roughly 180 Americans have traveled or have attempted to travel to Syria in order to fight with extremist organizations. This marked a steep increase as six months prior to his testimony the number was estimated to be only 100. As of April, over 30 people had been charged with trying to join terrorist groups in Syria over the previous 18 months.
Also of note is the fact that since the beginning of 2013, a mere seven American residents are known to have conducted a grand total of five terrorist attacks inside the United States that were possibly linked in any way to either ISIS or some other form of Islamic extremism (the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, the October 2014 hatchet attack on four NYC police officers, Ismaaiyl Brinsley’s December 2014 murder of two NYC police officers,*[i] the May 2015 attack in Garland Texas, and most recently the July 2015 shootings in Chattanooga).
If we accept the above numbers to be generally correct, we can then make several useful deductions. First, likely between 75% and 90% of Americans who attempt to join Jihadi organizations in Syria are successful in doing so. Second, only a small fraction, less than five percent, of Americans who do decide to wage Jihad end up doing so within the United States. The pertinent question to analysts is not merely why individuals decide to travel to Syria to wage jihad. Equally, if not more important is the question of why these individuals are deciding not to wage jihad in the United States. This question is particularly puzzling since ISIS leadership has repeatedly called for potential jihadists inside the United States to do just that, wage Jihad inside the United States. Keep in mind that the lowest standard for carrying out such a terrorist attack is obtaining a hatchet and swinging it at random people while yelling Allah al-Akhbar, a far easier feat than linking up with jihadists in Syria. Why then do more than 95% of said jihadists not follow this call?
The Sex Factor
To answer this question, I offer a Mancur Oslen-esque Rational Choice Theory based answer. Sex (and also not dying so that one can enjoy such sex) is likely a largely overlooked primary explanatory factor that lies towards the top if not at the top of the long list of explanatory factors associated with the perceived splendor of the jihadi experience in Syria. Simply put, Americans who have decided on jihad have two main options. First, they have the option of traveling to Syria, fighting in the jihad, and enjoying up to four wives and countless sex slaves while doing so. If they die, then they will enjoy 72 virgins in paradise. The other option is to stay in the United States, forgo the multitude of wives and sex slaves, wage the jihad, enjoy a near 100% chance of death while waging such jihad (of the seven individuals cited above, only one survived the attacks, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and he has since been sentenced to death), and then enjoy the 72 virgins in paradise. To over 95% of those Americans who have entered the jihad, option one seems to be the preferred option, and one can certainly appreciate why.
ISIS’s “Pamphlet on Female Slaves” (released on 4 December 2014) coincides with the swell of American jihadists into ISIS’s and other Islamic extremist organizations’ ranks. In it, the rules of dealing with sex slaves are outlined. It explains that having sex with prepubescent females who are “fit for intercourse,” partaking in coitus interruptus with them, having sex with female virgins immediately upon their capture, having sex with non-virgins once their uteruses are cleaned, and beating sex slaves are all permitted within ISIS’s caliphate. Another circulated document with similar effect is the actual price list of such sex slaves. It outlines the price of Yazidis and Christians between the ages of one and fifty and the policies regarding their sale as sex slaves. These documents, whether intended to or not, seem to have been far more effective in pushing potential recruits into joining the jihad in Syria than ISIS’s repeated calls to wage jihad in the US were in convincing potential jihadists to stay inside the United States.
Of course, documents alone can only be marginally effective in influencing people’s decisions. Sadly enough, a morose reality accompanies such pamphlets. We continually hear and read accounts of mostly Yazidis and Christians, either in Iraq or Syria, being captured and sold as sex slaves. Just last Friday, ISIS captured more than 200 Syrian Christians near the town of Qaryatain, many of whom will likely become sex slaves. These accounts confirm the viability of the “wage jihad in Syria” option to potential jihadists.
It is extremely important to understand the potential threats that the U.S. faces and the magnitude of the sex factor. When ISIS captures large swaths of people and converts many of them into sex slaves, the act is not merely a representation of ISIS’s barbarism and the suffering of its victims. ISIS’s sex slave trade both demonstrates its success as well as creates more success. ISIS’s sex slave trade helps to fund the organization, but more importantly it very likely has a tremendous impact on recruiting. The ranks of ISIS are swelling as a result.
Changes to any of three components within this paradigm (changes to the “wage jihad in Syria” option, changes to the “wage jihad in the U.S.” option, or changes in perceptions of either option) will likely bring about fundamental change to current trends as jihadists decide how to wage jihad. A more permissive environment for deviant behavior or increased terrorist survival rates within the United States could lead to more potential jihadists selecting the “wage jihad in the U.S.” option. The continued expansion of ISIS’s caliphate and its sex trade could lead to jihadists continuing their influx into Syria. However, the end of hostilities in Syria and Iraq however, would lead jihadists to pursue other options, and the “wage jihad in the U.S.” option very well may be one of them. Finally, changes in extremist indoctrination practices (increased isolation or potency), both in the United States and abroad, could alter jihadi actors’ perceptions. As a result, they might be more apt to tolerate higher risks, forego potential pleasures, or not be able to correctly identify and evaluate such utility.
As we continue to formulate strategies to defeat ISIS and protect the homeland, understanding how potential jihadists think is of paramount importance. I submit that sexual factors likely play a key role as potential jihadists decide both what they will do and what they will not. Our strategies should reflect this reality.
[i] Brinsley’s ties to Islamic extremism is questionable, as police believe that he was revenging the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.