News Release

“What I Discovered From Interviewing Imprisoned ISIS Fighters”

LYDIA WILSON, lydia.wilson at hmc.ox.ac.uk, @lsmwilson
Last month, The Nation published Wilson’s article “What I Discovered From Interviewing Imprisoned ISIS Fighters.”

In an interview on “Democracy Now” this week, she described the goals of ISIS: “One is to cause as much terror on the streets as you can, to attack tourist destinations so that security is strengthened in those places, and it costs the unbelieving nations more money. And one is to drag us into a war, to drag our forces into wars that we cannot win, and — as they see it — and also that we will spend an awful lot of our money and power fighting.”

Of the fighters she interviewed, Wilson said they had “very low education rates — one was illiterate entirely — and big families and often unemployed. So, ISIS was not only offering them a chance to fight for their Sunni identity, but they were offering them money. They were being paid to be foot soldiers. And, I mean, one of them was the eldest of 17 siblings. …”

In her article, Wilson writes: “‘The Americans came,’ he said. ‘They took away Saddam, but they also took away our security. I didn’t like Saddam, we were starving then, but at least we didn’t have war. When you came here, the civil war started.’ …

“These boys came of age under the disastrous American occupation after 2003, in the chaotic and violent Arab part of Iraq, ruled by the viciously sectarian Shia government of Nouri al-Maliki. Growing up Sunni Arab was no fun. A later interviewee described his life growing up under American occupation: He couldn’t go out, he didn’t have a life, and he specifically mentioned that he didn’t have girlfriends. An Islamic State fighter’s biggest resentment was the lack of an adolescence. Another of the interviewees was displaced at the critical age of 13, when his family fled to Kirkuk from Diyala province at the height of Iraq’s sectarian civil war.

“They are children of the occupation, many with missing fathers at crucial periods (through jail, death from execution, or fighting in the insurgency), filled with rage against America and their own government. They are not fueled by the idea of an Islamic caliphate without borders; rather, ISIS is the first group since the crushed Al Qaeda to offer these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity, family, and tribe. This is not radicalization to the ISIS way of life, but the promise of a way out of their insecure and undignified lives; the promise of living in pride as Iraqi Sunni Arabs, which is not just a religious identity but cultural, tribal, and land-based, too.”

Wilson is a research fellow at the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict, University of Oxford; a visiting fellow at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the Graduate Center, City University New York; and a senior research fellow and field director at Artis International. She edits the Cambridge Literary Review.