ISIS foreign recruitment: The pitch and how to weaken it

In the fifth beheading video released by ISIS, unmasked fighters led a mass beheading of Syrian soldiers. The world watched in horror as the camera brazenly focused on the faces of the fighters who represented diverse nationalities and lingered on the course of their terrible crime. It was a gruesome and horrific ‘coming-out’ for the foreign fighter contingent.

Thomas Hegghammer, a leading scholar of jihadist history, notes:

Foreign fighters are overrepresented, it seems, among the perpetrators of the Islamic States worst acts… They probably also make the conflict more intractable, because the people who come as foreign fighters are, on average, more ideological than the typical Syrian rebel.

It is estimated that 36,500 foreigners, at least 6,600 of which are from Western countries, have joined ISIS. Consequently, the often-asked, but no less serious, question remains: how can Western powers hinder recruitment? Scholars have identified the compelling narrative crafted by ISIS as a key variable to be undermined.

This narrative is along the lines of: ISIS is a strong military and effective governing force that has re-established the Islamic Empire, which will inevitably defeat Western powers. Moreover, it will guide its followers as the doomsday prophecy is fulfilled. This narrative is attractive to many recruits, and so we must briefly glance through the looking glass to understand it.

ISIS is one of most feared jihadist groups of modern times. It rapidly made large territorial gains in Syria and Iraq and continue to use the oil infrastructure of both to fuel military units and generate revenue. Its propaganda series, The Clanging of The Swords, focuses on these triumphs. From Part 2 forward, it abandoned themes of persecution and oppression. Instead, footage of executions, suicide bombings and armed fighters parading in columns proclaimed to the world that ISIS was powerful and already victorious. Alongside footage of brutal carnage, ISIS emphasizes the civil order it has ostensibly built. Publicized reports that discuss matters from the academic curriculum for children to the formation of an ISIS police force illustrate ISIS’s desire to present to would-be migrants a functioning society and Islamic utopia.

A second stream of ISIS propaganda focuses on messianic expectations; ISIS claims that it is fulfilling a Quranic prophecy of an end-times battle against the West. On June 29th, 2014, ISIS declared the return of the caliphate, the Islamic empire that at its peak extended from Spain to India, and which was prophesied to herald the end of the world. Moreover, in the summer of 2014, ISIS captured the town of Dabiq. Situated close to the Turkish border, the Syrian town holds little strategic value for ISIS. Rather, it is central to the prophecy. The Prophet reportedly foretold that the armies of Rome and the armies of Islam would meet at Dabiq where the West would experience total defeat.

Taken together, vulnerable members of society are gripped by the hope of living in a victorious utopia and achieving spiritual absolution by participating in the final battle. For example, when the 12-member Mannan family from Great Britain immigrated to the Islamic State, they purportedly released a press statement explaining their decision:

Yes, all 12 of us and why should this number be shocking, when there are thousands and thousands of Muslims from all corners of the world that are crossing over land and sea everyday to come to the Islamic State? That are willingly leaving the so called freedom and democracy that was forced down our throat in the attempt to brainwash Muslims to forget keflex online purchase about their powerful and glorious past and now present. Don’t be shocked when we say that none of us were forced against our will. In fact it is outrageous to think that an entire family could be kidnapped and made to migrate like this. It wasn’t by the command of a single person in the family but by the command of the Khalifah of the Muslims. Who has called all Muslims, whether young or old, single or in families, to make hijrah to the state of Islam. A land that has established the Shariah, in which a Muslim doesn’t feel oppression when practising their religion. In which a parent doesn’t feel the worry of losing their child to the immorality of society. In which the sick and elderly do not wait in agony, tolerating the partiality of race or social class [emphases added].

Even if the above press release was fabricated, it vividly illustrates the utopia that ISIS aims to advertise.

According to New York Times correspondent David Kirkpatrick, ISIS’s messianic cause is similarly powerful for many Tunisian youth. In interviews, dozens openly discussed their support for ISIS or the appeal of joining stating, “There are lots of signs that the end will be soon, according to the Quran,” and “We have been told in the sayings of the Prophet that this is going to happen soon.”

Now let us return to the matter of addressing the ISIS pitch. Some scholars claim that the best approach to shattering this narrative is quite simple: the West must dismantle and reframe the ISIS narrative. In ISIS: The State of Terror, Jessica Stern and J.M Berger argue that media coverage of ISIS often exaggerates the threat of ISIS to western civilians; this lends credence to the indomitable image of ISIS. They argue that attention should shift more significantly to ISIS’s military failures, the deterioration of living standards in ISIS controlled territory, it’s cruel treatment of fellow Sunni Muslims, and its weakening social media campaign as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have increasingly suspended ISIS accounts. Articles that critically explore the limited potential of ISIS as a revolutionary force exists, but they are sparse in a media landscape saturated with reports of ISIS atrocities. Moreover, Stern and Berger argue that the West can deliberately weaken ISIS’s messianic message by refusing to participate in the prophecy. For example, Western powers should ignore ISIS’s invitation to make camp at Dabiq. A similar policy suggestion made within the scholarly community is a ‘let them rot’ strategy in which ISIS is ‘contained’ but steered to collapse through internal failures rather than external forces.

While these are sharp and intelligent recommendations, the abovementioned scholars, for reasons unmentioned, fail to consider and analyze how a transition from the decade long offensive policy of ‘the war on terrorism’ to a ‘let them rot’ strategy would practically unfold. While the George W. Bush era of intervention has had a sobering effect on the American publics’ understanding of ground troop commitments, Democrat and Republican candidates for the 2016 presidency have also called for and promised a more aggressive and broader policy. This concern aside, the crux of the matter is that while ISIS’s narrative remains intact, a real opportunity to weaken its hold over the hearts and minds of would-be jihadists is unexploited. Worse still, the ISIS narrative will continue to serve its purpose of expanding the movement and the stream of cruelties and violence will continue.


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Sam Black 3 Articles
Samantha Black recently completed her MA in Modern British and European History from Oxford University. Her field of interest is memory theory, intercultural dialogue and the history of international relations with a focus on Europe in the mid-20th century.

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