Who Joins ISIS?
Note: Euphrates Institute stands with the people of Paris, as well as the citizens of Beirut and Baghdad affected by recent terrorist attacks. May this serve to unite the world even more strongly instead of divide it, which is what ISIS aims to do. May we realize that extremist forces can strike anywhere, and that the best counter to them is strengthening and empowering moderates. Wherever you live, wherever you are, turn fear into friendliness, hate into love, otherness into brotherliness.What kind of person becomes a terrorist?The common misconception is that someone becomes a terrorist because he or she is easily brainwashed and a simple minded individual. Furthermore, it’s believed that they come from a poor family and have no other options. And the most popular reasoning is that Islam is inherently a violent religion. However, the reality of the terrorist demographic isn’t restricted to rich or poor, smart or uneducated, or geography. They come from all social classes, various education backgrounds (many with higher education degrees), and they come from all over the world.
- Grievances with their country’s government
Former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, issued an ominous warning to Arab leaders in 2011, days before the start of the Arab Spring. She warned the Arab states that they risked “sinking into the sand” if they did not accelerate political and economic reform. Days later, Tunisia erupted in civilian protests against the government, and subsequently, the Tunisian president fled the country. From there on, the Arab Spring spread across North Africa and the Middle East.Many Arab governments invested mass resources into one, maybe a few industries (namely energy). Thus, the only jobs available to citizens of their country are government jobs (many of which require little to no meaningful work) or jobs in the energy industry. Many young Arabs have higher education degrees, but no industries to apply their degrees within their home country.According to nationalinterest.org, “This is catastrophic for a region where one in five people are between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four. Twenty-nine percent of Arab youth are currently unemployed, many with high levels of education. Recent estimates indicate that 105 million jobs are needed by 2020 to absorb new entrants into the labor market.”Whether it’s a disgruntled Algerian immigrant in France disenchanted by French culture and its unwelcoming population, an Egyptian who was brutally beaten by government security forces during the Arab Spring, a Syrian looking for a strong faction to fight Assad to avenge the loss of their countrymen, a Central Asian Muslim from the Caucasus seeking training in order to fight and terrorize Russian security forces, or a Sunni Iraqi who has been marginalized by the Shia-Baathist party in Iraq:A young, frustrated man or woman whose government oppresses or ignores their needs will be inclined to seek recourse through whatever means possible. What better way to fulfill the need for revenge or seek meaning than with an organization that has conquered lands in two sovereign states?
- Weak religiosity in local Islamic leadership and spread of weak morality in the West.
Some devout followers of Islam view their local Muslim leaders as corrupt, inefficient, and a misrepresentation of Islamic values. Muslims living in western countries see the rise of secularism and individualism as a deterioration of moral standards. Those who share this view look upon the Islamic State as the pure, embodiment of Islam. The strict interpretation of the Koran and its implementation of Sharia law embodies the idea that the Islamic State is the only true sanctuary of holiness on Earth.
- Money and Opportunity
A crucial aspect of the rise of ISIS lies in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), Paul Bremer, issued a disastrous mandate that dissolved the Iraqi army and Ba'ath Party (which was encompassed the entire Iraqi government). Thus, leaving hundreds of thousands of people unemployed overnight. This catalyzed the insurgency and sectarian war that erupted in Iraq. What happens when thousands of soldiers lose their job? They rallied together and fought against the occupation using their skills developed from military careers. The majority of these soldiers were Sunni Muslims, which became the prevailing Islamic sect of ISIS's membership. Worse yet, many of the Iraqi prisons released their prisoners during the initial lawlessness of the invasion of Iraq. The CPA believed many of the prisoners to be victims of Sadam's regime when in fact there were a large number of real criminals in the prison system. This added to the toxicity that created ISIS.The Islamic State’s capture of Iraqi oil fields, black market sale of antiquities and art, and heavy tax on local business in the Caliphate allows them to offer high wages to their fighters. The growing population of the Middle East and North Africa have created an extremely large young population. Thus, many young men have found themselves without work in their home countries and view the Islamic State as a chance for meaningful employment. ISIS offers social welfare and services whereas many Arab states have little or no social services to offer.
- The victimization complex: searching for meaning through adventure in hopes of becoming a hero
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the youngster who sees the Islamic State as a chance for adventure from his/her normal life. We’ve all been there. My close friends and I in high school daydreamed about being in the special forces or CIA hunting down bad guys who have wronged America. We never gave much thought to the huge sacrifice that comes with that job. Now put that adolescent fantasy through the lens of a young Arab who lives in a country who’s government oppresses them, marginalizes their religious beliefs, and allows them no voice in politics. The Islamic State, who seeks to fight said governments, is seen as an opportunity to be part of an exciting political revolution or theological fight in the Armageddon. The Islamic State’s rhetoric about fighting in the Armageddon against the infidels gives their life deep meaning. Furthermore, social media allows young fighters to immortalize their feats on the battlefield, and become heroes for their followers.
- Strategic social media, despise for the West, and death culture
IS utilizes high definition cameras to show off their warfare, executions (WARNING: graphic video), and life in the Caliphate in vivid detail. Their social media accounts are prolific and attractive to young people. Much of the rhetoric used in the Islamic State’s social media speaks in a beckoning fashion that calls upon fellow Muslims to rise to the occasion to act as real believers. In order to be a real believer according to IS, one must be willing to fight and die in the war/armageddon against the infidels. Other galvanizing ideas used in their propaganda are things such as their love for death more than their love for life. Another interesting, recurring word in their lexicon: stranger or gharib. IS calls upon all Muslims to be “strangers” together. This can be interpreted as “emigrant” or “foreigner”, which gives everyone within the Islamic State equal social status since everyone is a “stranger” together. The Prophet Muhammed in the Koran states,"'Islam began as something strange,' the Prophet told his companions, 'and it will return to being something strange as it first began, so glad tidings to the strangers.' 'Who are the strangers?' someone asked. 'Those who break off from their tribes,' the Prophet replied."Perhaps more importantly, IS propaganda perpetuates that Western powers only aim to fulfill their own selfish interests at the expense of Arab progress. 77 percent of Arabs feel that the Israeli occupation of Palestine is unjust because Israel is continually supported by the West. Furthermore, Western militaries intervened in Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. Yet, the West failed to intervene in of the greatest humanitarian disasters, Bashar Al-Assad’s quelling of the civil uprising, along with Egypt and Libya’s uprisings. IS propagates that they seek to unite all Arabs and fight the two-faced Western powers.
- Successful Land Campaigns, Establishment of the Long Lost Caliphate, and Staying Power
In a matter of months, the Islamic State fought against formal Syrian and Iraqi armed forces, and claimed massive swaths of land in both states. They inflicted massive casualties and demoralized entire armies to the point of retreat. Raising the IS flag over conquered territory is a profound symbol of victory. Take a step back into history and you will see that many have tried to win these lands in one fashion or another: the Russians, the British, and the Americans. None have succeeded. IS knows that a war-fatigued public has little ambition to engage in another ground war and fight IS with full force. IS is here to stay until overwhelmingly challenged otherwise. This success and staying power is attractive to those whose local revolutionary movements have been unsuccessful. Hence, why many Syrians, who may not totally align with ISIS's views, join ISIS in order to fight Bashar Assad.What is ironic about the Islamic State is that it claims to fight against the tyranny of secularism and Arab regimes. However, it functions exactly like its "enemy". It is a totalitarian organization that has a monopoly on violence in order to foment obedience and keep its followers in fear. ISIS claims to be demolishing the legacy of colonialism, yet it's administration bribes local businesses and relies on oil for revenue.
"Freedom fighters": begone. Dissidents and libertines: step up. The invasion of Iraq and Arab Spring broke the chains holding back the ideas of democracy and freedom. The widespread campaign for better governance and economy is commendable. However, there is a prevailing inclination toward violence rather than strategic communication between dissidents and government. The choice of violence disregards the option of negotiation. Rather than resorting to the emotional allure of revolutionary war and becoming a freedom fighter; groups should collaborate, communicate, and compromise. This warrants a need for academics, community leaders, NGOs, religious leaders, and politicians to step up to the plate and engage in dialogue. Critically thinking about complex problems over a long sustained period can produce creative solutions.What next?Countering this deadly trend of young recruits traveling to the Islamic State will take years (if not decades) to reverse. The key players in fighting this trend are not the US or Western powers. Instead, this responsibility lies with Arab States. Without transparent governance, diversification of state economies, civic participation, and opportunities for young people, the Islamic State will continue to be an attractive alternative for the young and the old who seek a better life.