03/09/2015 04:33 pm ET Updated May 08, 2015

ISIS - What Motivates Western Recruits

End-of-the-world cults flourish in stressful times and in periods of rapid social change, like the present. That offers some clues to the otherwise baffling phenomenon of young people from developed countries streaming into Iraq and Syria to join ISIS.

Why would seemingly intelligent individuals leave a comfortable life in Europe, or the U.S., to cast in their lot with violent extremists who can take their lives away on a whim? A substantial proportion of the recruits are women who are voluntarily giving up their personal freedom and political rights to become mere possessions of men, whether as submissive wives, as prostitutes, or as actual slaves traded amongst the militants. The mind boggles but female recruits cannot be well-informed about the seventh-century social status that awaits them.

There are many different kinds of recruits with varied motivations and the reality on the ground in Iraq is likely very different from what recruits expect based upon slick Internet marketing by the cult. Even so, scholars of different stripes struggle to get their minds around the extreme irrationality of Millenarian cults who look forward to the end of the world and even work to hasten it.

I was struck by the following rationale from historian Norman Cohn, they were "poor people trying to escape the hardships of... life in an armed pilgrimage leading to apotheosis..." Of course, this description is of Christians in the medieval Crusades, rather than Islamic ISIS recruits. Apotheosis refers to complete forgiveness of all their sins for those taking up the Crusade, a promise that is boilerplate for contemporary violent Islamic extremists who see themselves as the only pure practitioners of Islam in its earliest form. Cohn writes that "to become a soldier for Christ was to express total devotion to God." Substitute "Allah" for "Christ."

Secretary of State John Kerry wrote: "They recruit among the disaffected and disenfranchised, but also among those of all backgrounds on a misguided quest for meaning and empowerment. They exploit anger, ignorance, and grievance."

Historians draw similar conclusions about the Crusaders who came from all walks of life and even contained a substantial number of women who made themselves useful by preparing food and doing the laundry. Of course, the majority did not survive the difficult journey to Jerusalem and a substantial number of the survivors were captured by slave traders and sold into lifelong servitude. So history rhymes.

Some Crusades were well-organized military campaigns, but some were populist movements led by firebrand clerics such as Peter the Hermit who mobilized a ragtag "army" of some 20,000, in France, equivalent to all the Western recruits to ISIS. Peter liked to ride a donkey, championed the simple life, and claimed direct appointment by God.
One of the more alarming aspects of the ISIS recruit demographics is that many are well-educated. This may be because uneducated people are neither particularly interested in ideology, nor particularly vulnerable to the sense of alienation with their own society that drives young people into radical causes. Terrorism experts draw a line between ISIS recruits and those attracted to radical causes in earlier generations. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, recruits to homegrown terrorist organizations, such as the Red Brigades in Italy, or the Red Army faction in West Germany were attracted to Communism, rather than Millenarian Islam because it held out the promise of a fairer, less corrupt, society. They ignored the horrors of real life in actual Communist states, just as current recruits downplay the unspeakable atrocities suffered by people in ISIS-held territory.

ISIS recruiting and marketing are essentially a rip-off of the Crusades with the important difference that they have access to a worldwide communication medium that is essentially unregulated. They hold out to alienated young people the promise of a better life. In reality, what recruits can expect is worse than anything they left behind -- far, far worse.