An excerpt from their forthcoming book.
‘Thugs Wanted – Bring Your Own Boots’: How Isis Attracts Foreign Fighters To Its Twisted Utopia
Isis has been hugely successful in attracting western violence junkies. Some are drawn by the prospect of adventure – and recruiters are increasingly promoting a sense of inclusion and purpose in the caliphate
Isis soldiers Isis soldiers on the frontline Photograph: ZUMA Press, Inc/Alamy
Jessica Stern and JM Berger
Monday 9 March 201513.53 EDTLast modified on Monday 9 March 201520.05 EDT
http://www.theguardian.com/ world/2015/mar/09/how-isis- attracts-foreign-fighters-the- state-of-terror-book?CMP= share_btn_tw
In August 2014, Isis marked Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, with a 20-minute HD video offering its greetings to the Muslim world. Gauzy images of smiling worshippers embracing at a mosque cut to children passing out sweets to break the Ramadan fast. This was interspersed with scenes of the muhajireen (emigrants) – British, Finnish, Indonesian, Moroccan, Belgian, American and South African – each repeating a variation on the same message.
“I’m calling on all the Muslims living in the west, America, Europe, and everywhere else, to come, to make hijra with your families to the land of Khilafah,” said a Finnish fighter of Somali descent. “Here, you go for fighting and afterwards you come back to your families. And if you get killed, then … you’ll enter heaven, God willing, and Allah will take care of those you’ve left behind.”
Hijra is an Arabic word meaning “emigration”, evoking the prophet Muhammad’s historic escape from Mecca, where assassins were plotting to kill him, to Medina. Abdullah Azzam, co-founder of al-Qaida and the father of the modern jihadist movement, defined hijra as departing from a land of fear to a land of safety, a definition he later amplified to include the act of leaving one’s land and family to take up jihad in the name of establishing an Islamic state. For most Islamic extremists today, the concepts of hijra and jihad are intimately linked.
As the video continued, an Islamic religious chant known as a nasheed played over and over again, promising that the state would look after its flock “with love and patience”, the camera focused on a child holding a realistic-looking submachine gun.
A few months later, the Eid video’s sidelong references to fighting and jihad were placed in a much starker contrast, in a release that again focused on Isis’s substantial foreign fighter contingent. In a procession were a long line of foreign fighters, each guiding with his left hand a prisoner identified as a Syrian soldier. They walked up to a bin containing serrated daggers, each fighter taking one with his right hand. There were at least 17 fighters and as many prisoners. Many of the fighters, emphasised by the camera angles, were white-skinned Europeans. Only one wore a mask, the British fighter known as Jihadi John (identified last month as Mohammed Emwazi), who had apparently executed James Foley and other western hostages.
The camera lingered on the knives and the terrified prisoners for long, long seconds before the fighters began to hack through the necks of their victims. The video was intensely graphic, showing parts of the executions in slow motion and lingering over each horrific detail.
Afterwards, the camera played over the faces of the executioners, ensuring that the foreign fighters were clearly visible and sparking a rush to name them. Media reports identified the perpetrators, with varying degrees of certainty, as French, German, British, Danish and Australian citizens.
Isis propaganda and messaging is disproportionately slanted toward foreign fighters, both in its content and its target audience. Important Isis messages are commonly released simultaneously in English, French and German, then later translated into other languages, such as Russian, Indonesian and Urdu. “Foreign fighters are overrepresented, it seems, among the perpetrators of the Islamic State’s worst acts,” said Thomas Hegghammer, a leading scholar of jihadist history, in an interview for the website of veteran journalist Bill Moyers. “So they help kind of radicalise the conflict – make it more brutal. 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.”
‘Bring expensive stuff’
Why do individuals travel abroad to take part in somebody else’s violent conflict? There is no single pathway, no common socio-economic background, not even a common religious upbringing among individuals attracted to foreign fighting in general or jihadist fighting in particular. “Four decades of psychological research on who becomes a terrorist and why hasn’t yet produced any profile,” says John Horgan, director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
Jihadist propaganda has often relied on external flashpoints, usually but not always involving victims from a potential recruit’s identity group. Events such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or the genocide in Bosnia have been used as a point of entry, with participation characterised as not only a reasonable choice, but a moral obligation. Indeed, jihadi ideologues often focus on the obligation of individual jihad when some or all of the ummah, or the world’s Muslim community, is under threat. But these flashpoints do not necessarily provide adequate motivation on their own. They offer outlets, either for social pressures in a fighter’s native land or for his own internal struggles and dilemmas.
The perceived benefits of membership in an extremist group may include a feeling of belonging, escape into a new identity, adventure or money. “They want to find something meaningful for their life,” says Horgan. “Some are thrill-seeking, some are seeking redemption.” According to the anthropologist Scott Atran, western volunteers are often in transitional stages in their lives. They are often “immigrants, students, between jobs or girlfriends … looking for new families of friends and fellow travellers. For the most part they have no traditional religious education and are ‘born again’ into a radical religious vocation through the appeal of militant jihad.”
During the course of the civil war in Syria, the balance of internal and external factors has shifted over time. At the start of the conflict, a diverse coalition of imported religious fighters and secular Syrian rebels united loosely around the goal of overthrowing the oppressive Assad regime. For the jihadists, a longer-term goal was the establishment of a state governed by Islamic law. In the wake of Isis’s rise, according to research conducted by Peter Neumann of King’s College London, along with Atran and others, that particular goal has shifted noticeably to establishing sharia law and supporting the institution of the caliphate, regardless of the wishes of the local Syrian population. With the emergence of large numbers of foreign fighters on social media, providing a conversational and continual commentary on the conflict, internal motivations soon came to the fore. While few would dispute the importance of religious allure in attracting fighters to the field, the conversation online frequently turned to the theme of fun and adventure.
Ifthekar Jaman from Portsmouth, who died, while fighting for Isis.Ifthekar Jaman from Portsmouth, who died while fighting for Isis. Public domain
One British fighter, 23-year-old Ifthekar Jaman, who was killed in December 2013, coined the phrase “five-star jihad” to describe the fun he was having fighting in Syria. A number of “celebrity” fighters upped the ante. One of the most popular was a former Dutch soldier named Yilmaz, who helped train mujahideen fighters with various factions in Syria. He documented his Syrian experience with a wealth of photographs, posted on Instagram under the name “chechclear”, a reference to a gruesome video of Chechen insurgents beheading a Russian soldier in the 1990s.
As chechclear, he documented the war itself, posting pictures of battles and fighters, but also images of the people of Syria, including children, and seemingly incongruous snapshots of jihadists cuddling with cats, all of the photos enhanced by the photographic filters that helped make Instagram so popular. Yilmaz and other fighters also took to sites such as Ask.fm, a social media platform oriented around answering questions from other users. Questioners often asked how to donate to fighting groups or how they could get to Syria themselves, which fighters answered with greater or lesser amounts of specificity.
“I will personally assist you, inshallah,” Jaman told one questioner on Ask.fm. “But know this, if you are a spy, when you are caught, your punishment will be with little or no mercy.” Others asked what to expect if they joined, querying everything from food choices to bathroom facilities to what sort of gear they should pack. “Cargo pants (combat trousers), 511 brand is good,” wrote Abu Turab, a 25-year-old American who had drifted among fighting groups. “I have Old Navy, lol, but water-resistant stuff is the best. Don’t hesitate to buy expensive stuff , for you’re spending as [an act of worship]. Jackets and boots, try to buy Gore-Tex.”
The rise of violent infighting among jihadist factions in early 2013 and the subsequent disavowal of Isis by al-Qaida put a significant damper on the five-star jihad. But Isis was already moving to provide a new answer to the question: “Why join?” With the rollout of its plans for a caliphate in mid-2014, the focus shifted to promoting a sense of inclusion, belonging and purpose in its demented utopia.
Where al-Qaida got it wrong
The battle between Isis and al-Qaida is not simply between the organisations but between the visions they represent for the future of the jihadist movement. Al-Qaida represents the intellectual side. While its ideology runs counter to hundreds of years of Islamic scholarship, it is nevertheless carefully constructed and has been articulated over the years in considerable detail. Al-Qaida’s vision for the restoration of the Islamic caliphate is framed squarely in the long term. Its most frequently cited theme is a classic extremist trope – the defence of one’s own identity group against aggression. Its most charismatic leaders are dead. Those who remain are prone to deliver long hectoring speeches while sitting barely animate in a chair.
Despite its distorted worldview and its willingness to kill civilians, a-Qaida’s recruitment message is ultimately intended to appear “reasonable” and to resonate with a wide audience of thinking people. Of course, al-Qaida has seen more than its share of bottom feeders over the years. Terrorist groups naturally attract a certain number of thugs and violence junkies. But there is now a more natural home for members of that demographic – the Islamic State.
Isis too has an articulated ideology with texts and an underlying high-level analysis. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, its so-called caliph, holds a doctorate in Islamic studies – considerably more religious education than Osama bin Laden. When it is expedient, Isis indulges in religious argument, for example, to justify its capture and sale of sexual slaves. But its messaging betrays a different kind of sophistication. Where al-Qaida framed its pitch to potential recruits in relatable terms as “doing the right thing”, Isis seeks to stimulate more than to convince. Its propaganda and recruiting materials are overwhelmingly visceral, from scenes of graphic violence to pastoral visions of a utopian society that seems to thrive, somehow, in the midst of a war zone.
Its calls to religious authority turned heavily toward the apocalyptic. For instance, an article in the English language magazine Dabiq that justified the enslavement of Iraq’s Yazidi minority by Isis cites a prophecy saying that slavery will return before the end times begin. Isis also distinguishes itself with a projection of strength and an appeal to populism – the gates are open for anyone who wants to join. All of these elements have coalesced into a unique offering in the world of extremism.
Identity-based extremism is frequently concerned with themes of purification, and the message of Isis was extremism itself, purified. No more rationalisations about self-defence; instead, talk of revenge. No more subtle and embedded assumptions of weakness. Instead, aggression, shocking violence and strength. No more talk of a generational war to restore the caliphate. It was here, now.
The focus on nation-building reflected a mandate given by al-Baghdadi, in his first speech as putative caliph: “O Muslims everywhere, whoever is capable of performing hijrah to the Islamic State, then let him do so, because hijrah to the land of Islam is obligatory,” Baghdadi said. “We make a special call to the scholars, [Islamic legal experts] and callers, especially the judges, as well as people with military, administrative and service expertise, and medical doctors and engineers of all different specialisations and fields.” For these professionals, as well as for fighters, emigration was a religious obligation, he said.
Andre Poulin, also known as Abu Muslim who fought and died for ISIS in Syria.
Andre Poulin, also known as Abu Muslim, who fought and died for ISIS in Syria. Public domain
The strange tale of Andre Poulin
In July 2014, Isis’s al-Hayat Media Center released an 11-minute video that drove this point home. Titled The Chosen Few of Different Lands, the video showed a Canadian fighter named Andre Poulin, a white convert known to his comrades as Abu Muslim. It was a masterpiece of extremist propaganda. The video opened with stunning high-definition stock footage of Canada (or a reasonable facsimile) as Poulin described his life back home. “I was like your everyday regular Canadian before Islam,” he said. “I had money, I had family. I had good friends.”
The barbaric nature of Isis can lead observers to conclude its adherents are simplistic, violent and stupid. The Chosen Few displayed a keen self-awareness of this perception and actively argued against it, with Poulin as its telegenic exemplar. “It wasn’t like I was some social outcast,” Poulin said. “It wasn’t like I was some anarchist, or somebody who just wants to destroy the world and kill everybody. No, I was a very good person, and you know, mujahideen are regular people too … we have lives, just like any other soldier in any other army.” Life had been good in Canada, Poulin said, but he realised he could not live in an infidel state, paying taxes that were used “to wage war on Islam”.
In reality, Poulin was not quite the model of social integration that he portrayed on film. He developed an interest in explosives early and had dabbled in communism and anarchism before settling on radical Islam as an outlet for his interests. He had been arrested at least twice for threatening violence against the husband of a man whose wife he was sleeping with. These facts were conveniently omitted from his hagiography.
In the video, Poulin said Isis needed more than just fighters. “We need engineers, we need doctors, we need professionals,” he said. “We need volunteers, we need fund raisers.” They needed people who could build houses and work with technology. “There is a role for everybody.”
A narrator gave a brief account of Poulin’s life, with pictures, which concluded with an action sequence showing him taking part in an attack on a Syrian military air base in Minnigh. The footage was remarkable, depicting Poulin rushing toward the enemy, highlighted among his fellow combatants using sophisticated digital techniques. Poulin was clearly visible in action, running out in front of his comrades until he was struck down in a massive explosion. Afterwards, his dead body was shown sprawled on the ground and later being prepared for burial.
“He answered the call of his Lord and surrendered his soul without hesitation, leaving the world behind him,” said a narrator in perfect, unaccented English. “Not out of despair and hopelessness, but rather with certainty of Allah’s promise.”
At the end, Poulin spoke again, his visage filtered in a gauzy light. “Put Allah before everything,” he said.
The “whole society” pitch had been presaged for some months. Isis supporters on social media tweeted manipulated images of an “Islamic State” passport, for instance. But as Isis cemented its control of territory in Iraq and Syria, such images took on an increasingly material reality, albeit presented through carefully filtered glimpses. Each of Isis’s provinces issued a steady stream of images showing the infrastructure of government taking form – police cars and uniforms emblazoned with the black flag, markets overflowing with food.
While some of its outreach involved active image management, some parts were pragmatic, such as its offer of handsome salaries for engineers able to maintain the oil fields on which Isis relies for black-market income. In November 2014, Isis announced it would mint its own currency in keeping with the “prophetic method”, posting images of the new coins to Twitter. All of this also provided important markers of stability and substance. The stark black flag, which had come to be emblematic of Isis’s fighting force, was not just a symbol of war, the images argued wordlessly. It was the symbol of a society; no distant dream, but a living, breathing institution waiting to be populated by the believers.
With its heady media mix of graphic violence and utopian idylls, Isis has sought recruits and supporters who are further down the path toward ideological radicalisation or more inclined by personal disposition toward violence. Once these pre-radicalised fighters and their families arrive in Iraq and Syria, along with the foreign women recruited via social media as jihadi brides, they are exposed to an environment seething with traumatic stress, sexual violence, slavery, genocide and death and dismemberment as public spectacles. Among returning foreign fighters of previous generations, perhaps one in nine would eventually take up terrorism on returning to their homelands. The fighters of Isis are a new and untested breed. If they and their families one day attempt to return to their home countries, they will be unimaginably different from their predecessors.
* Extracted from ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and JM Berger, published by HarperCollins on 12 March