An unorthodox anthropologist goes face to face with ISIS. Is the payoff worth the peril?

Tom Bartlett in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

ScreenHunter_1958 May. 21 21.40Weeks of planning can evaporate in an instant, forcing the researchers to improvise. Beyond the logistical aggravation, there’s the matter of personal safety. Where there are fighters, there is often fighting, and while the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq remains relatively sheltered compared with Syria or large swaths of southern Iraq, the proximity to bloodshed prompts understandable unease.

The least jittery member of the team is its leader, Scott Atran, an anthropologist who floats among several institutions, including the University of Michigan and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, part of the City University of New York. He’s also a founder of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict, at the University of Oxford. He’s normally the one arguing to go a little farther afield, to challenge the group’s comfort zone, perhaps to cross over into Syria. While sitting around the hotel he appears restless and testy, headed toward ISIS territory he is in his element, enlivened and unfazed. “We don’t want to drive off the road, because it’s probably mined on both sides,” he warns casually from the passenger seat, the way you might note a change in speed limit or a forthcoming rest stop.

Atran is known as an expert on terrorism, a title he doesn’t particularly want and a word he doesn’t find useful. He views his work, broadly, as examining what motivates people to do things beyond themselves, for good or ill. These days he focuses on the ill, specifically ISIS.

More here.