ISIS and video games

ISIS is not about religion. Studies prove that socio-psychological reasons are the main drivers of terrorist activities

Abdullah Hamidaddin
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ISIS is not about religion. This is something I have been saying over and over. Too many people keep insisting on its religious dimension. This is wrong. My argument is based on studies which disprove any consistent correlation between religiosity and terrorism. The studies prove that socio-psychological reasons are the main drivers of terrorist activities. In a few previous articles I pointed to some of these studies and I also mentioned that it is the sense of humiliation many Muslims feel that accounts for much of terrorism. Here I want to point to another motive: adventurism.


Adventurism has long been recognized as a motive for foreign fighters. The exact weight of this factor is difficult to assess for obvious reasons. Firstly it is difficult to do actual surveys for people fighting in foreign countries. More importantly, very few, if any, fighters would actually admit that their motivations boil down to an adrenaline rush. Of course not! The stated motives are always noble. I mean if one is going to go around beheading people then at least say it is for altruistic reasons! But what people say about their motives is one thing and their actual motives are another.


Adventurism has long been recognized as a motive for foreign fighters.

Abdullah Hamidaddin

There are many anecdotal stories to prove that at least some of the foreign fighters with ISIS – and other militant groups – are motivated by adventurism. Facebook profiles of ISIS fighters doing “cool” selfies are some. One darkly funny story was about a young fighter who would send his pictures to his girlfriend back home. Yes, girlfriend! This guy went to fight a so-called religious war to show off his machoness. I do not want to overgeneralize from one story but I think it is worth mentioning and taking seriously.

ISIS recruitment tactics

There is however another way to indicate, with a sufficient level of certainty, that many ISIS fighters are motivated by adventurism which is to look at their recruitment tactics. ISIS media campaigns are of a high quality. They present to their audience a life of inner serenity and pride. They also offer sexual rewards to those who join them as Arie Kruglanski recently noted. But they also use popular video games as well, ones that present a life of adventure via violence. And, sadly, these games are abundant.

The advertisement would come in the form of a game with a voice over. The viewer would watch a game going on and listens to excited chants of “Allahu akbar,” Islamic songs, and victory cries every time an enemy is destroyed. One advertisement I recently watched has already gained almost 400,000 views. This video is clearly not a call to jihad. This is a call to adventure and adventure in the minds of many youth is in risk and destruction. Given the millions of young people exposed to these games, I would expect that a few thousand of them wish to “play” in real life.

ISIS is not the first to recognize the role of adventure in motivating recruits. It is not even the first to recognize the effectiveness of such violent games in exciting young men and attracting them to participate in a “real” game. The U.S. Army has been doing this for many years now. Its recruiting strategy includes inviting young people to play a war game. According to a 10-year-old CBS report, it is considered one of the most effective recruiting tactics. I would not be surprised if we later learned that ISIS’ idea was conceived while researching U.S. military tactics.

The importance of factoring in adventurism as a motivation is in the media campaigns against ISIS. I want us to minimize using a moderate religious discourse in countering ISIS simply because it will not work. If religion is not the main motivator then a moderate religious discourse will not have an effect. We also need to bring our youth closer to the brutality of war. War is an adventure until one is fully immersed in it. Then it becomes hell. Is there a way to make young people see that hell before?


Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

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