Over the past year, ISIS has dominated headlines around the world for its savage, violent attacks. But what drives ISIS and other armed groups? And how do they view the “outside world”?
UBC’s Will Plowright, a Liu Scholar and PhD candidate in political science, has travelled to some of the most dangerous locations in the world to interview militants from countries including Syria, Myanmar, Indonesia, Colombia and South Sudan. Here, he discusses some of his key findings, and highlights the difficult path forward.
Your research focuses on armed groups, and you’ve interviewed members of ISIS and other factions around the world. Do these groups have anything in common?
Surprisingly, the most common theme is the extent to which these groups genuinely care what the rest of the world thinks about them. I had always assumed that either they didn’t care, or that they wanted to be depicted as fanatical or cruel, in order to boost their image.
But the majority of people fighting in armed groups are doing so because they believe it is the right thing to do. They believe their cause is legitimate, and they want the rest of the world to believe it too – this applies even in the case of groups like ISIS, which is often seen as the most brutal armed group in the world. In the Philippines and Myanmar, I met armed groups begging for UN peacekeepers and observers. In Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, I met armed groups crying out for attention to their cause.
You note that your subjects are “fundamentally normal people in horrifically abnormal situations” — what do you mean by that?
Usually in the media, armed groups are described as “thugs,” “terrorists” or “warlords.” They’re pictured as cruel fanatics or radicals who are indifferent to the suffering of others. Yet most of them are indeed completely normal people in horrifically abnormal situations. Most people who join armed groups don’t do so out of a love of violence, but because they feel it’s their only choice – something I definitely saw in Myanmar, where many people felt they were victims of a government campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Even armed groups that engage in human rights abuses are composed mostly of normal people. I found this to be the case in Syria, where I met people fighting with armed groups including al-Nusra (the local al-Qaeda affiliate) or ISIS. Even though I in no way sympathized with their cause, it was hard not to sympathize with them as people, since many were suffering. Most of them came from destroyed homes and shattered communities, and had chosen to fight back. Even if we see this decision as a mistake, it’s hard not to sympathize with their pain.
Your work highlights brutal acts that are carried out by people who have also suffered greatly. How can this cycle be broken?
There is no simple solution. The process of peacemaking is long and slow. This is especially the case in places like Afghanistan, where violence has continued for decades, or Syria, where the violence has raged with such intensity that it has killed hundreds of thousands, displaced millions and traumatized an entire nation.
The first step is dialogue. It is necessary to engage in discussions with as many people as possible at all times. Usually armed groups – especially Islamist ones – are painted as being impossible to negotiate with. The U.S. refused to negotiate with the Taliban in 2001, and it took more than a decade of war before that position changed and peace negotiations began.
Regardless of the country, dialogue needs to be fostered so people can be given space to air grievances peacefully – whatever those may be. Myanmar is a great example. A decade ago, peace seemed impossible there. Now the government is signing deals with different armed groups at an incredible rate, and peace is breaking out across the country. It’s amazing to see.