Making Sense of IS’s Violence: Is its Ideology the Cause?


      The classic argument in the study of civil wars is that ideological tendencies of movements account for their character and actions.  As a result, in the Western world a wide assumption has been established that violence against civilians is one of the fundamental characteristics of Islam.  Terrorist organizations in the Middle East have often been called “Islamists, jihadists, Muslim groups.”

     Rejecting or accepting such assumptions require a throughout study of Islam.  The goal of this article is not to investigate the so called link between Islam and violence, for that purpose there is a large literature in the field. Instead, I would like to talk about the theory of endowments, which argues that it could be the factors other than ideology (religious, political etc) that may encourage violence against civilians.

  Recently I read a book called “Inside Rebellion”, written by Jeremy Weinstein. Weinstein argued that the ideology of rebel organizations is not a determinant factor in the conduct of violence. Instead, we need to look into social and economic endowments of rebel organizations. The rebel organizations with high levels of economic endowments are associated with high levels of indiscriminate violence, as leaders are unable to use their wealth in support of their groups’ social purposes.

    Weinstein separates recruits of rebel organizations in two groups.  The first group is composed of high-commitment recruits (investors) , who are dedicated to the cause of the organization and willing to make costly investments today for the rewards in the future. The second group is composed of low-commitment individuals (consumers), who are seeking short-term material gains. Consumers are tied to rebel organizations usually for material gains. They are less productive, as they require a continual expenditure of resources in the short term.

    In the long run, resource-rich rebel groups tend to be filled by opportunistic joiners, while those fighting with little economic endowments attract committed soldiers. Because they are held together by short-term material incentives, resource-rich rebel groups should provide material support to their combatants to prevent their collapse. These groups are therefore permissive of attacks on civilian populations to maintain their membership.

    In addition, the groups that are built on economic endowments do not need civilian support to survive; therefore they behave in a more predatory fashion, with no concerns about the reactions of the populations. The same holds true for obtaining resources. Where they are provided externally or require minimal labor, groups have few reasons to ensure broad-based participation of population.

The Case of IS

 IS made considerable money through war itself, plundering millions of dollars from local Christians and Shiites, whom they viewed as “apostates” (Johnston, Bahney). They kidnapped foreigners for ransom, as it was noted that they asked for about 132$m dollars for the release of American journalist James Foley (Rukmini).  There were reports that ISIS stole 429$m dollars from financial institutions when they raided Mosul (Jack More). IS is engaged in oil industry, which helps to build up a surplus of $100m to $200m dollars of revenues (Johnston, Bahney). With all the revenue that is generated, ISIS provides salaries that are higher than those of governmental forces (Shelton, Tracey). As a result, ISIS is largely composed of low-commitment opportunistic  fighters. The short-term, material motivations of its membership rendered ISIS’s commanders unable to police defection or indiscipline within their units, abusiveness was an unintended result of a recruitment strategy that attracted opportunistic joiners first. In addition, IS does not need the broad population’s support or hard labor for its survival, therefore IS commanders do not have much incentive to prevent the application of indiscriminate violence.

   Applying Weinstein’s theory into the case of IS violence shows us that we may not be able to find the causes of civilian violence by solely looking into IS’s ideology.

Johnston, Patrick, and Benjamin Bahney. “Disrupt ISIS’s Cash Flows.” The New York Times13 Aug. 2014. Web. 21 Aug. 2014.

Shelton, Tracey. “No More Mr. Nice Islamic State.” CNBC 19 Aug. 2014. Web. 21 Aug. 2014.
Rukmini, Callimachi. “Before Killing James Foley, ISIS Demanded Ransom From U.S.” The New York Times 20 Aug. 2014. Web. 21 Aug. 2014.

Weinstein, Jeremy M. Inside Rebellion: The Politics of Insurgent Violence. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. Print.


Posted by yasunsalih on October 11th, 2014 | Filed in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Making Sense of IS’s Violence: Is its Ideology the Cause?

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