Semiotics of the Islamic State: Interpreting Narratives of ISIS’ Western Sympathizers

By Moses Adams
Submitted to Session P4896 (Rethinking ISIS: War, Crisis, and Transformation, 2017 Annual Meeting
Europe; Iraq; North America; Syria;
Identity/Representation; Political Economy; Sociolinguistics; Terrorism;
The questions asked to understand a phenomenon inform both the data collected and how research is operationalized. For instance, attempts to determine who joins the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria lead one to collect demographic data, which is typically utilized to construct a profile of those most likely to sympathize with the group, empowering national security and law enforcement agencies to single out groups of people for additional surveillance (or often entrapment).

Attempts to understand why people have joined ISIS have typically focused on material concerns, psychology, or religion. The interventions which flow from this path have resulted in Countering Violent Extremism/De-Radicalization programs and attempts to restrict expressions of Islam to state-approved forms.

Neither of these approaches has a promising track record; indeed, the latter is often a catalyst for increased sympathy for radical religious views. In this paper I attempt to answer a different question, namely, what does ISIS signify for Westerners aligned with the group?
Narratives produced by ISIS’ Western sympathizers, defectors, and fighters will be collected and compiled into a searchable database--tagged by source and according to the demographic characteristics of the narrator (i.e., country of origin, sex, age, race/ethnicity). These will subsequently be broken into narrative packages, in order to determine which themes, descriptions or justifications are most common, and whether and how they seem to systematically vary along demographic dimensions or by source. This provides valuable information about how ISIS is constructed, both by its sympathizers and in the broader public discourse. It also demonstrates which features or objectives of the group seem the most compelling for different respondents.

In order to determine how representative the narrative sample is, metadata about the narrators will be cross-referenced against data about who joins ISIS, collating available information from law enforcement, national security agency reports, arrest records, media investigations, and caches of ISIS documents into a parallel database.

By simultaneously exploring what kinds of people are gravitating towards ISIS and the reasons they provide for their allegiance, one can glean robust insights into what ISIS signifies for those Westerners who find their cause compelling—leading to new and more productive means of undermining the Islamic State and engaging with its sympathizers.