Torture, suicide bombings, beheadings, mass killings, sex slavery – these are among the horrors that ISIS uses to terrorise people and countries. While most people feel this is just a new genocide with brutal criminality practised under a fake umbrella of religion, a few extremists believe such actions are necessary to establish the religious, social and political power of the Islamic State.
And the perpetrators of the violence? Well, they probably don’t feel guilty at all.
Viewing ISIS’s acts from a criminological, rather than theological, perspective offers some provocative insights into the minds of its fighters. Studies have shown that criminals commonly use five techniques to justify their acts – allowing them to effectively neutralise their guilt.
Denial of responsibility and injury
The first recourse is the “denial of responsibility”. In this way, terrorists might refer to forces beyond their control, relieving them of responsibility for their actions.
After declaring the founding of a new Caliphate in June 2014, one of ISIS’s most senior officials, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani declared a compulsory oath for all worldwide Muslims to vow their absolute allegiance to the Caliph Ibrahim, leader of ISIS and since 2014 the head, or caliph, of the Islamic State. This means, in effect, that the ISIS power structure is an authoritarian one in which the caliph holds total, tyrannical power over his followers.
Second, ISIS terrorists employ “denial of injury” to justify violence. This technique of neutralisation centres on the injury or harm involved in the delinquent act. Any acts of cruelty hurt people, of course, and it is hard to deny the injury done by terrorists to their victims. But terrorists may believe that their actions will not have consequences to themselves since their cruelty will lead them to paradise, a better world under the Islamic rule of ISIS.
In 2015, for example, the ISIS online magazine Dar al-Islam claimed:
the one that follows the path of Islam and then Jihad should know that the road is long … and could lead him, if Allah wants this, near him in his Paradise.
Just deserts and condemning the condemner
The terrorists also use a technique called “denial of the victim”. For zealots, the population in the United States, France, Spain, United Kingdom or Germany deserves punishment; any injury is just retaliation for their society’s hatred of Muslims and Islam. Many jihadists even consider the civilians of Western countries as enemy fighters, since they support the politicians leading the war against ISIS.
In an adjunct attack to the January 2016 Charlie Hebdo attack, for instance, the perpetrator who attacked a Jewish supermarket in the surburbs of Paris, Amedy Coulibaly, justified killing a police officer and his deadly hostage-taking by claiming that the French government had decided to attack jihadists in Mali. He declared in a video that the French population was supportive of this French military action therefore, attacking French civilians was, for him, a “normal punishment”.
Similarly, in a recent audio message, Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, the Islamic State spokesman, said:
Know that in the heart of the lands of the Crusaders there is no protection for that blood, and there is no presence of so-called civilians.
The fourth tactic used by criminals to neutralise their guilt is to “condemn the condemners”. Rather than explain their actions, terrorists attack those who disapprove of their deviance. For them, the condemners – journalists, judges, police officers, and the like – are corrupted, depraved, brutal hypocrites and deviants, because they are kafir (non-believers). Thus the jihadists widely employ takfir - the branding of others as infidels who deserve death.
To justify such atrocities, ISIS members will call their victims infidels, crusaders, fornicators, drunkards, sodomites, and so on. This neutralisation technique allows criminals to shrug off denunciation of their actions by questioning those segments of society that critique terrorism.
Appealing to higher loyalties
Finally, terrorists appeal to “higher loyalties” to explain their crimes. Social control may be neutralised by sacrificing the demands of larger society for the demands of smaller social groups to which the terrorists belong, such as ISIS and its sibling groups.
The rhetoric of Islamic State makes much of its promises of brotherhood and friendship, and assures that ISIS endows its fighters with the gift of a shared higher meaning in life.
Dar al-Islam said in a 2016 article:
When they sacrifice their life for their religion, for their brothers and their sisters, we cry for them, really knowing that they are now with our Lord in his Paradise.
In such a situation, the terrorists can neutralise any sense of guilt by demonstrating the noble spirit of their criminal actions, carried out as a sacrifice at the request of their small, tight-knit group community (ISIS). Acting for the sake of your “siblings” in terrorism is portrayed as an honourable act of loyalty.
As these diverse neutralisation techniques show, it’s unlikely that even the most violent ISIS members suffer any feelings of guilt. Using total justification in their quest to achieve ISIS global domination, terrorists give themselves free reign to strike any supposed enemy, by any means necessary - even to kill innocents, non-Muslims and Muslims alike.