The Young Muslim Members of ISIS: Origins and Motives
Faruk Arslan, MSW, MA, RSW, Psychotherapist, PhD Candidate in Human Relationships, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo-Lutheran Seminary (Martin Luther University), Canada.
Presentation: Albertapresentation27Sep2015 (1)
In Turkish as a book: IŞİD’in Sosyolojisi-İhanet Çemberi
Pending for publication for the peer reviewed journal, Digest of Middle East Studies, in USA. This paper is originally presented at the UPAS international interdisciplinary conference. The Unfinished Project of the Arab Spring: Why “Middle East Exceptionalism” is Still Wrong, on September 25-27, 2015 at University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada, Lister Centre. The proceeding book coordinated under two themes as “The unfinished project of social movements in the MENA region, and the fallacy of MENA Exceptionalism.”
The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), ISIL, DA’ISH (in Arabic) or IS, represents a Jihadi Salafi a subculture of fundamentalism and a violent brand of Sunni Salafi-Baathist political Islamism. Since the Arab Spring, ISIS has recruited militants from at least eighty nationalities and introduced heretical sectarian praxis of enforced proselytization, ethnic-cleansing and bigotry. ISIS attracts remarkable numbers of young Muslims because of the emptiness, unemployment, alienation, marginalization, humiliation, fear, hatred and hopelessness experienced in their lives. ISIS claims leadership of global Jihad and the caliphate. ISIS has created by Al Qaeda in Iraq (AIQ) who has been organizing Iraqi Sunnis against Shias since 2003, starting mass sectarian violence after the US-led occupation of Iraq, and launching brutal and bloody Jihadi tactics, vulgar propaganda and apocalyptic strategies. The objective of this research is to identify the young Muslim members of ISIS, where they come from, and what type of economic interests and values have played a role in them joining this controversial Jihadi group. ISIS follows the “Neo-Takfirist” Salafi doctrine, while dictates Sharia war law for legalizing rape and womanizing. The Salafi ideology, helping Muslim brothers and sisters, unity, solidarity, purification of Islam, wealth, sex and power are main issues attracting youth, but they are also dilemmas for ISIS. A strong counter propaganda needs to be developed on social media; new national and regional strategies must launch awareness campaigns, educate grassroots-based NGO organizations on the ground with trustworthy local imams; and scholars must empower actors in local civil society to overcome the ISIS problem, domestically and globally.
Key Words: ISIS, Salafi, Jihad, Neo-Takfirist, Iraqization, Propaganda, Recruitment
The period in question – 2003 to the present day – begins with the founder of ISIS, former Al Qaida, Jordanian born-militant, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, recruiting Iraqi Sunnis against Shias, starting mass sectarian violence, and launching brutal Jihadi tactics and apocalyptic struggles (Stern and Berger, 2015). Jihad means “the struggle,” both internally and externally, and provides a vibrant global identity and a sense of solidarity through war against the “outsider,” and also against “enemies within,” in order to effect unity (Barber, 2002: 24). So why is ISIS so attractive to some Muslims, but not to others? The answer here is that ISIS openly offers attractive worldly benefits, including a solid monthly salary, free land and, for the males, polygamy. In terms of other-worldly benefits, ISIS also offers guaranteed eternal life in heaven, since its followers are supposedly performing Jihad against colonizers and pro-western local puppets, and are thereby countering neo-colonial local and international oppressors. This is a very different discourse from the one that says Jihad is a driving force in the region and that its followers join out of a desire to help Muslim brothers and sisters. ISIS claims to reconstruct a universal presentation of the Islamic Caliphate as a symbol of Islamic supremacy, something that has been officially absent since 1924. Such large interests aired through social media propaganda have created an irresistible and unavoidable attraction for some Muslim youth. Even some well-educated and intelligent young Muslims are interested in ISIS, because of their socio-political, geo-cultural, and religious contexts and their marginalized circumstances.
The Iraqi Baathists have played the ISIS card to gain fighters from eighty nationalities, but ended up with a Jihadi Salafi catastrophe. Before 2003, this would have been an unthinkable collaboration between the highly secular Baathists and the radical Islamist Salafis in Iraq. Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan have found that the former secular Baathists shifted position and backed Islamic fundamentalist methods, however, because most of ISIS’ “top decision-makers served either in Saddam Hussein’s military or security services” (Weiss & Hassan, 2015: 1). After 2003, 100,000 Baathists, including large numbers of angry military personnel, were removed from the government and subsequently joined Islamist groups. “De-Baathification” and “disfranchisement” allowed this seemingly impossible collaboration (Bassa, 2013). The root of ISIS came from former Al Qaida, Jordanian born-militant, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, who lived in a bohemian and hipster cult when he was a teenager, but then cleansed his sins while launching brutal Jihadi tactics and apocalyptic struggles (Felter &Fishman, 2014) Al Zarqawi used this opportunity in 2004, when he made an agreement with Bin Ladin to join Al Qaida and renamed his organization, Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn Zarqawi or, as it was briefly known, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) (Felter & Fishman, 2014). Unlike Bin Ladin and Al-Qaeda Jihadists in Afghanistan, he did not come from an elite or rich family. He held strong beliefs against “the other as apostate”, established a hatred of Shiites, Israelites and Americans, and disagreed with the former leader of Al Qaida, Osama bin Laden regarding Shia targets and some tactics (Zelin, 2014). He relied instead on his extremist mentor, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (Kirdar, 2014). Al-Zarqawi was also influenced by Abu Musab al-Juri and Abu BakNaji, well-known Takfirist Jihadi mentors, and as the founder of Jama’at al-Tawhid wa’al-Jihad (JTJ) in Jordan in 2002, recruited Iraqi Sunnis against Shias and started mass sectarian violence in Iraq after the US-led occupation in 2003. Later on, the Baathist-affiliated AQI joined an umbrella Salafi organization in Iraq, which contained a collective of six jihadi Salafi groups, called Majlis Shura al-Mujahidin (MSC), forming a strong counter mobilization against foreign invaders (Kirdar, 2011: 9). After Zarqawi’s death in 2006, AQI announced an Egyptian, Abu Ayub al-Masri, as successor, an individual who had trained and fought in Afghanistan (Stanford, 2015). Al-Masri declared the foundation of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), and its new leader, an Iraqi, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, successfully organized global Jihadists to join them against US-led coalition forces. Baathist-dominant groups were also radically trained in ten jails in Iraq (Felter & Fishman, 2014). Iraqi prisons became recruitment, training and educational centers for Jihadists, despite 80 percent of the detainees testing illiterate (Zelin, 2014). Mostly radicalized by their Salafi mentors, at least eight of ISIS’ senior leadership were former inmates of Bucca Camp, including Abu Mohammed Jawlani, Abu Muslim al-Turkmeni, Abu Ayman al-Iraq and Abdulrahman Hamad (Stern & Berger, 2015: 37). The United States-led occupation increased violence in the region.
My major questions are: 1) What is the appeal of ISIS? 2) Who is encouraged to join ISIS? 3) How is violence justifiable in the minds of these followers? This study is not ethnographic research; it relies on website information, scholarly academic and journalistic writings as well as published books. I am not focusing on the historical development of, or theological debate about Salafism, but instead provide a critical discourse about the religious terminology that has been misused to fortify vulgar extremist propaganda for the purpose of recruitment. In this research I analyze ISIS practices using Geertz’s anthropological definition of thick descriptions as well as textual analyses of a qualitative nature. This method provides an “interpretive” explanation of religion as a cultural system, and hence a useful distinction between the force and the scope of religion (Geertz, 2009). Cause and effect relationships are explored through situational analyses within an ontological and epistemological frame. Global Salafi culture is an interconnected network of many local Salafi cultures, as Anderson has argued, with the last two centuries of nationalism fabricating the concept of ‘imagined communities” in an effort to reconcile Marx’s theories of colonial imperialism with modern nationalist politics (Anderson, 2006: 125). The ‘locality’ of ISIS is essentially included within global transnational Salafi identity, with ISIS becoming involved with global Jihadi culture through the intervention of locality and the construction of an imagined community that never existed before. Salafi ideology is “constantly producing and reproducing a new identity, through transformation and difference” in the host country (Hall, 2006: 438).
ISIS strategy, propaganda and recruitment tools
ISIS targets recruits from university, college and high school students in western countries such as Canada. With former Taliban recruiters on the job, the mentor-recruiter relationship often begins through religious seminars, community activities or Arabic language classes. Moreover, the “jihad” or “dawa” training begins through Skype, Facebook, Twitter or any other social media web communication (Massi, 2014). ISIS attracts quite astonishing numbers of young Muslims, because of their idealism, resistance to Western capitalism, boredom, unemployment, emptiness, fear, hatred, humiliation, alienation, frustration, marginalization and hopelessness. ISIS attracts recruits for four reasons in particular:
- A) Worldly benefits.
- B) Other-wordily benefits.
- C) Iraqization, with its accompanying transnational Salafi identity and ideology.
- D) Political, economic, cultural and social interest for foreign fighters.
These reasons need to be studied employing ethnographic research in the near future. For example, how do Jihadi returnees rate the romantic Jihadi marriage, international life, travel and work experience, humanitarian concerns, against their sense of isolation and boredom in the West?
- A) Worldly benefits:
Worldly benefits seemingly include multiple marriages (polygamy), free sex with unfree women slaves, free land, cars, houses, easy money (monthly salary), and power and status, all of which attract the youth. ISIS uses poverty and buys out unemployed youth with little or no monthly salary in poor Muslim countries through well-established cells or recruiters, humanitarian relief organizations, and Arabic or Salafi schooling. ISIS even competes with the Taliban in South Asian countries over recruitment of Jihadi youngsters, by paying four times higher monthly wages (Ariente, 2015). Non-Muslims are forced to pay the jizya (religious tax) in Syria and Iraq in return for protection, and are given the choice: “Convert to Islam, pay a religious tax, or face death” (The Guardian, 2015). This power gives ISIS fighters strong feelings of superiority and status over the non-Muslim population. ISIS thus acts like a mafia organization, and offers much worldly economic wealth to its members, (McCoy, 2015) with moral obligations discarded, since Jihadists gain free sex slaves and property through vandalism, and also diverse revenues from activities such as “kidnapping, human trafficking, smuggling and theft, plus extortion and shakedowns passed off as taxes and fines” (Mastou & Guensburg, 2014) A British journalist, Peter Taylor, has gathered reliable information from Abu Hajjar, a former ISIS finance head, and has provided a list of five solid means of acquiring income: “oil, antiquities, ransoms, theft and extortion” (Taylor, 2015). This is how ISIS has conducted its business to become “the most brutal billionaires on Earth” (Taylor, 2015).
With ISIS members often being killers and rapists, sex slaves are a very attractive benefit from the holy war. A French, named Nadia and two British female converts who went to Syria and returned in 2015 who became sex slaves there (AFP; The Daily Star, 2015). Nadia as disappointed that ISIS members did not read the Qur’an or practice traditional Islam, and said that women have no status, power or privileges (Ozerkan & Baillon, 2015). Sex victims are distributed to ISIS’s central leadership so they might select the best, thereafter dividing the young, mostly teenagers or children under 16 from both genders, amongst the ranks. This is a moment in the spoils of war when the moral obligations of Qur’an and Hadith are not important, instead taking revenge for fellow Muslims more important. Much news coverage, several US departments and UN official reports reveal that unknown numbers of Shia, and Sufi Muslims, Alevi Kurds and Turks, Christians and Yazidi religious refugees have been forced into sexual slavery. ISIS sells captive women and children into the sex trade, holds twelve oil fields in Iraq and Syria, smuggles the oil at prices three times cheaper into the black market, kidnaps hostages for ransom, smuggles stolen items and imposes taxes, tolls and fines to retain sustainability (Mastou & Guensburg, 2014).
However, the fact that some well-educated Muslims or radicalized converts are joining ISIS needs explanation. The recruiters offer an international life, travel and work experiences, the adventure of camping activities, practicing firing weapons, wedding gifts, the excitement of free polygamous sex, a monthly salary, free land, cars, houses or “martyrdom”, depending on the person’s expectations (Massi, 2014). ISIS recruits are friendly towards Western members and foreign fighters until they arrive in the region. If they want to return home, accusations are made they are working as “agents” for foreign intelligence organizations and their criticisms ignored.
- B) Other-worldly benefits:
Other-worldly benefits offered by ISIS focus on heaven, martyrdom and include the rhetoric of afterlife, coupled with the many virgins awaiting the martyr. Most young members of ISIS are “motivated not by hatred of the west but by the desire to help” their Muslim brotherhood and sisterhood to cope with “pain and humiliation,” and it seems the welfare of the whole Muslim community is the strongest attraction (Armstrong, 2014: 24-31). Karen Armstrong claims that blaming only the influence of Wahhabism leads to a superficial analysis, and that pan-Islamist ideation is the central propaganda tool created by ISIS, in a similar way as Bin Laden’s speeches (Armstrong, 2015). Lorne Dawson (2015) is also of the opinion that helping Muslims is the key term whereby ISIS promotes the benefits of eternal life within its effective psychological warfare, using simplified slogans for recruitment which are also very intelligently created towards rejecting the West (Dawson, 2015). Some brainwashed innocent Muslim girls search for romantic Jihadist marriages, and seek a meaningful life, wishing “to fully embrace and protect Islam” as part of their sisterhood duty (Taub, 2015).
Dawson’s recent study found youth were radicalized in a group atmosphere and through social networks (Dawson & Bramadat, 2014). The nature of this narrative is connected to adolescent crises and that’s why religious terminologies such as the following are misused by the group through social media recruitment: “Born again religious”; “Fight for Umma and Join them”; “Unity to come”; “Help your brothers and sisters”; “You cannot be a true Muslim without a Pure Islamic life” (Dawson, 2015). The Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London, released a report that shows ISIS ideology advertises the opportunity of being a “hero” and presents a simplified world of black and white (Kirka, 2015).
Armstrong suggests ISIS attracts young Muslims because it offers “spiritual endorsement” and survival, and because it has become the wealthiest Jihadist group through strategically planned chaos and violence, efficiently financing itself through oil trades, looting and smuggling businesses (Armstrong, 2014: 29). Despite this, ISIS still finds it impossible to establish a caliphate without support from the Islamic scholars it has rejected. It has failed to construct a sustainable and “truly national spirit” (Armstrong, 2014: 31).
- C) Iraqization with its accompanying transnational Salafi identity and ideology
A very strong discourse in the Muslim world has led to this seemingly impossible Baathists and Salafi marriage in Iraq. Transnational Salafi identity is a Jihadist ideology carrier. ISIS symbolizes a counter revolutionary force, challenges the “ecology of cruelty,” and represents young voices of freedom and justice in order to do battle with imperialism and colonialism (Haney, 2008). Western journalists and academics describe ISIS as a “hybrid terrorist and insurgent organization,” (Stern & Berger, 2015: 24) or “a child of war”; in other words, it is “the outcome of a war” against the injustice that resulted from foreign occupation (Cockburn, 2015: Location 209). Foreign invasions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestinian left millions of young Muslims living in refugee camps over six decades; they were raised by hatred and fear towards colonizers, and as a result the cult of killing became normalized. Social-cultural, political, religious and economic realities caused some young Muslims to want to take revenge, and they are now living a fantasy of the Islamic State. Many children have been killed by the Iraq government, which constitutes a war crime, and Sunni Iraqis had nothing to lose in rising up against their oppressors (Human Rights Watch, 2014). The Syrian government uses extreme power on own population with Russian and Iranian supports. The Iraqi-dominant AQI strategically created a local insurgent group among Syrians, named Al-Nusra, which is in conflict with ISIS regarding the global caliphate. Before changing the group’s name to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2013, AQI recruited militants from this local group of al-Nusra in Syria, at a time when both organizations obeyed Al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahir (Basma, 2015). AQI then broke eight jails, including the Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons in Iraq, and Mosul in Syria, and freed all political prisoners with Jihadist affiliations. ISIS then turned into a bloody business – an organization operating with criminals (Joscelyn, 2013).
In addition, power struggle caused splits among Jihadists and their unity was dismantled. After making territorial gains in Iraq and Syria, ISIS clashed with other Jihadist Islamist groups, and after many failed consultations with al-Zawahir, AQI and Al Qaida separated. Syrian expansion seems to have caused business, political and theological conflicts and has led to another split. AQ Central and al-Nusra relationships broke down in April 2013, and the group was then named Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi changed the name once again to the “Islamic State” (IS), declaring a Caliphate on June 29, 2014 and Al-Nusra re-joined ISIS after a reconciliation (Laub & Master, 2015). Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed at the beginning of 2015, and the new leadership is once again a mystery. The relationship between ISIS as a global player and Al Nusra as a local actor has opened controversial discourse about why they are marrying, divorcing and re-marrying and then separating over and over again. It seems either a strategic tactic to receive support from different radical individuals and some countries, or an identity crisis which is causing the splitting, because of competition and overlapping local, economic and political interests. A British journalist Robert Fisk argues that competition is an important factor between ISIS and Al-Nusra (Fisk, 2015). For instance, Abu Mohammad Al-Golani, declared at Al Jazeera that: “The “Caliphate” is “illegitimate” because “scholars” have rejected it. After ISIS killed 700 members of Al-Nusra, it seems Al-Nusra supporters asked to split from ISIS, following Golani’s advice to “repent and return to the Sunni people” (Fisk, 2015; Al Jazeera, 2015). Real actors behind the Syrian civil war have come now to the front stage. Since 2015, Saudi Arabia and Qatar now defend only Al-Nusra, not ISIS, and is helping American forces to destroy ISIS fighters. Erdogan’s government has supported both groups and many other Salafi Jihadi organizations secretly until Saudis and Qatar changed politics; then Turkey has switched sides and banned both ISIS and Al-Nusra since September 2014.
As a matter of fact, the bloody business of war and politics has many faces: some ISIS supporters have made fortunes out of this terrorism business; some countries are using ISIS as a “scarecrow” to justify their investments in their armies. ISIS became a business, a scapegoat or the lame excuse to weaponized and patronized in the region. For example, between 2010 and 2014, Saudi Arabia spent about $90 billion on weapons, and became one of the world’s biggest arms importers. The US and coalition forces spent 25 billion dollars on the Iraqi army in eight years (Cockburn, 2015: Section 123). Furthermore, corruption, injustice and the lack of democracy increased hatred and anger towards the Iraqi government among youngsters. As more and more Sunni Syrians were killed during the American air strikes in Syria, more youth joined ISIS. There is now no clear wall between ISIS, Al-Nusra, Al- Qaeda representatives and America’s supposedly “moderate opposition forces” (Cockburn, 2015). On the other hand, the Kurdish opposition is a third group in Iraq and Syria, but is separated into eight different camps. Kurdish separatist group, called PKK in Turkey, YPG and PYD in Syria, an umbrella name created in 2011 as KCK in all Middle East that is legalized separatists who fight against ISIS fighters (Kemal, 2015). The US, Turkey and allies failed to overthrow the Iranian and Russian-backed Asadian Nusayri dominant secular sectarian government, because of religio-political, socio-cultural and military weaknesses (Cockburn, 2015: Location 162).
Ironically, since the beginning, ISIS has been killing mostly Muslims, as well as destroying ethnic diversity or non-Muslim populations. Well-known Syrian Islamic leader Ramadan Al Buti, and local Islamist groups, including Ahrar al-Sham and Liwa al-Tawhid’s leaders and members are among those killed by ISIS. Pragmatically, as part of its strategy, IS and the secular opposition group, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) signed a contract to release prisoners in Syria and Turkey in 2014 for exchanging 49 Turkish hostages captured in Mosul from the Turkish Consulate, although the connection with the Iraqi Baathists was questioned after Saddam Hussein’s former official, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, was killed by ISIS (Todays Zaman, 2015). Al-Douri was a member of the Men of the Army of the Naqshbandia Order (JRTN) and his religious group of elite Iraqis and former soldiers provided crucial support to ISIS at the beginning, because former Sunni Baathists had been radicalized since 2003. ISIS may no longer consider JRTN support necessary, however. Another former Sunni Baathist elitist official, Tariq Hasimi, escaped from Iraq and became a refugee in Turkey in order to recruit Jihadists for al Nusra, the FSA, and approximately eight other opposition groups in Syria (Yeginsu, 2015). From the aforementioned network of relationships, ISIS seems a far more complicated organization than that publicized on the media. There are many suspicions arising from US sources that the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT) and The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) selected and trained about 20 percent of Jihadists in Turkey, along with a small number of British officers, as part of the US “train and equip program” collaboration with the Western-Arab coalition against IS (Kemal 2015). The former head of the Turkish General Army Intelligence, İsmail Hakkı Pekin, claimed that MİT exports terror, weapons and Jihadist groups, especially to al-Nusra and FSA in Syria. One former Turkish general, and the owner of some fake companies, organized transport for weapons and arranged former soldiers’ passage through Turkey, something Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan kept a national secret, ordering the arrest of polices, soldiers, and many prosecutors who tried to stop these arms smugglers (Ertugrul, 2015). Erdogan refused to accept Al Nusra and ISIS were terrorist organization until September 2014, but by then it was too late to recognize their danger, especially as his party members were still gaining benefits. When a Turkish journalist Can Dundar, as the editor in Chief at Cumhuriyet newspaper, released a proof about video tape of arm smuggling incident, photos of weapons being transported to radical groups in Syria, including which allegedly included al-Qaeda and ISIS by trucks run by Turkey’s intelligence organization, Erdogan, accused him and other journalists working for foreign intelligentsia and betraying their country (Todays Zaman, 2015). Why did US departments, including Foreign Affairs, the CIA, the Pentagon and the White House, act differently regarding ISIS? The main accusations are made towards the USA, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Gulf countries and Turkey, regarding the way they have armed several Jihadist groups, including the Jabhat al-Nusra, the Free Syrian Army, Ahrar al-Sham and Liwa al-Tawhid. All of these groups share a similar desire to establish an Islamic caliphate, but all have differing economic, cultural, religious and political interests.
While many Muslim youth are more attracted by money and status, the Ba’athists may be preparing a long-term plan to dominate politics in Baghdad in Iraq. Many Iraqi and Syrian Shia and Alewitis suggest that ISIS does not really exist; that the Sunni dominant Iraqi Baath party is simply using Salafi Jihadists to get back their power. It is thought 350,000 Iraqi soldiers and 300,000 Iraqi police felt betrayed by either the government or the US-led coalition forces (Cockburn, 2015: 401). The Moujahideen Army and Ansar al-Islam are involved at some level, but Ansar al-Islam is now cooperating with Kurdish forces against ISIS on the Kobani issue (Cockburn, 2015: 262). Not only the Kurdish separatist group of PKK gained legitimacy when fighting against ISIS, also many Kurdish tribes became united, including Barzani group in Northern Iraq, called itself Kurdistan. Alienated former soldiers and members of the Baath party of Iraq and Syria joined ISIS to destroy Hezbollah, Kurdish groups, Turkmens, Yazidis, Armenians, other Orthodoxy Christian minorities and to facilitate genocide and ethnic cleansing against Bashar al-Assad’s sectarian cynicism, in the broader context of religiously-backed authoritarianism in the Arab world (Issam, 2014). Khalid Abou El Fadl strongly suspects that not only the Baathist Sunni group, but also the Saudis and their allies, are the behind-the-scene masters of this imagined community or so-called caliphate. ISIS will be destroyed when their socio-political interests are achieved. As he puts it: “Scary Islam plays a very useful functional role for the proto-Western elites of the Arab world. Perhaps political Islam should be defined as any form of expression of Islamicity for purposes not consistent with the pro-Western military regimes and oil sheikhdoms in the region.” (Khaled, 2015: 2). Apparently, Pax-Islamism and Pax-Turkish fears then appeared strongly in the Arab region, emerging from the fundamental dilemma of Pax-Erdogan or new Pax-Ottoman caliphate politics (Unver, 2015). These ideas collapsed domestically and internationally, however, when Ankara allegedly supported suspicious radical groups and became involved in civil wars in Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Syria. ISIS now appears broadly as a radical political faction causing friction in Islam, and falling far outside the belief systems and practices of real Salafi Islam and lived Sufi Islam. Turkish politics in former Ottoman lands appears to be a leftover from the imperial era. The Erdogan government overemphasized its “historical area of influence,” and started re-engaging forcibly with former Ottoman territories in a proactive way (Arslan, 2014).
The root causes, angers and humiliations that are driving the younger generation into political violence in the Middle East, Muslim Asia, and the Arab world, can be described as follows: Muslims have clearly suffered from weak, corrupt, and failing undemocratic states, but also from strong or “over-developed” dictatorship states which are the product of Western hegemony and colonizers (Hamid, 2014). The failure of the Arab Spring, and the continuity of circumstances in Palestine and Arakan in Burma, all triggered reactionary protest and a counter culture among a certain portion of Muslim youth. They are also reacting against corruption, cruelty, poverty and unequal rights in their home countries. Iraq became a dysfunctional state since 2003 and Syrian secular system has collapsed since 2011, whereby injustice, inequality and cruelty are increased anger and poverty on majority that put extraordinary pressure on the youth to join ISIS. Foreign interventions caused “high unemployment, stagnating societies and unjust social systems” only benefit the nationalist dictators, and worsening living conditions set up a dysfunctional society for the future (Sakbani, 2015: 248).
ISIS has become the most powerful and wealthy Islamist militant group, is financially self-sufficient, and a contestant and claimant to leadership of Global Jihad. Salafi (Madrasa) schooling for a Jihadist setting has been implemented since the Afghani Jihad against the Soviet Union. ISIS has polarized Sunni Muslims around the world, increased cyber radicalization, and the Jihadist groups are creating ideological new narratives to achieve a deeper penetration of the Salafi Jihadist ideology among youth. They have gained operational capacity and mobility through strategic transformations. The rise of political Islam and a new form of radicalism are two growing trends that are parallel and that have been globalized using two methods: 1) networking madrasa (religious schools) with curricula based on a Salafi or Wahhabi doctrine; and 2) “De-territorialisation” through migration from the West which is leading to “Unculturation” and “Re-Islamisation” in their home countries (Roy, 2004: 1-2).
- D) Political, economic, cultural and social interest for foreign fighters.
There must be other political, economic and cultural factors that have a significant effect on how and why individuals become radicalised (Malcolm, 2014). ISIS intentionally publicizes violence, such as beheading Western captives, and creates black propaganda using populist jargons. Lorne L. Dawson investigates the psychological group dynamic of Muslim youth, including Western converts; the unique nature of the Jihadist narrative; and the grounding in religious morality that prompts people to join ISIS (Dawson, 2014: 3-6). ISIS has a utopian ideal that has attracted many customers. So how did ISIS construct its leadership model? As a known mythical hero, a mystical image was constructed for Al-Baghdadi. He used a polemical and populist language to attract angry youth by saying that if Muslims were strong enough, the caliphate would take Spain again, and even conquer Rome (Cameron, 2015).
ISIS allied itself with many radical Islamist groups in different countries. The Jihadist dream is the renowned caliphate that would embrace the entire Muslim world. That’s why Al-Baghdadi viewed the ongoing civil war in Iraq as an opportunity, and furthermore, the lack of authority in Syria allowed further expansion among Jihadists and also gained attention from regular Muslims. AQI was transformed into ISIS which was in turn transformed through Iraqization, with its accompanying transnational Salafi identity and ideology – a useful tool for Jihadist recruitment, especially became attraction for converted Muslims (Massi, 2014). Salafi affiliated organizations joined ISIS and sent their members, including Abu Bakar Bashir in Indonesia; Ansar Al-Shariah and Islamic Youth Shura Council in Libya; Boko Haram in Nigeria; Salafi Taliban in Afqanistan; Jandullah, Shahidulah Shahid Group, Tehrik-e-Khilafat and Jamia Hafsa Students in Pakistan; Gamah Islamiyah and Ansar Bait-ul-Maqdis in Egypt; Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Philippines and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in Uzbekistan (Abdul Basit, 2015). ISIS offers its own purified world: one dominant homogeneous ideology that is not compatible with democracy, human rights and pluralism.
The vast majority of Muslims ignore ISIS and its open invitation to join them, as they watch daily news stories about the apostasy of mass killings, torturing and cleansing of others, and the disobeying of Islamic morality, values and Sharia laws as if they were not relevant. ISIS is now “the new trend of the modern terrorist iconography” in transmitting radical Jihadism among youth (Abdul Basit, 2015). India, South Asia and Southeast countries such as Indonesia have banned ISIS. This was a positive response, but still the future of Jemaah Islamiyeh (JI) was left to a judicial decision, because providing evidence of terrorist activities and links takes time (Ariente, 2015: 11). Some Muslim Jihadists have joined ISIS, mostly from their diaspora communities. Afghanistan and Pakistan are still home for radical Salafists, and Indian Muslims now show their protest against extremist-terrorist organizations for the first time. However, most eastern, Middle Eastern, central Asian, far eastern and western governments follow Jihadism through social media.
Part of the reason Muslim youth are being recruited into ISIS could be a lack of acknowledgment of their particular historical, cultural, political, and social grievances; a sense of worthlessness and alienation and separation from true Islamic morality and civilization. Juergensmeyer describes how religious fanatics can reconstitute and reshape the modern language of politics, use discursive religious symbolism and provide a new basis for the nation-state or the unified homogeneity in one belief as an abstract new community (Robertson, 2003: 118). Environmental factors and marginalized conditions have alienated young Muslims in Western nations. These factors of isolation are clearly being capitalized on by ISIS with their use of apocalyptic imagery as a recruitment tool. This is particularly evident in ISIS’s propaganda magazine, Dabiq, founded by Al-Baghdadi, which focuses on the mythological Dabiq reconstruction as part of an exhortation to “all Muslims to pledge allegiance” to him (Weiss &Hassan, 2015: 120). So what is Dabig and why is it such an important myth for Jihadists?
The myth of Dabig
North of Aleppo in Syria, a small town named Dabiq is used for the purpose of attracting prospective Western recruits from among young Sunni Muslims. Dabiq provides a popular apocalyptic metaphor which, when embedded in radicalized minds, carries a passionate myth and powerful lure for Jihadist fighters (Cameron, 2015). Dabiq is a symbol of the end of time, a signifier for Muslims who have arisen and are declaring a disenchanted war against crusaders. However, the place suggests different messages to different audiences. For Turks, the Ottoman Empire defeated the state of Mamluk in1516 in order to gain the caliphate in Dabiq (Mercidabik in Turkish), actually this signified a successful event in taking over the caliphate from corrupted Arabs. According to Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, who was a “martyred hero” for ISIS, this was a place for fighting “until [ISIS] burns the crusader armies in Dabiq” (Cameron 2015). Some radical evangelical Christians have produced a similar theory, i.e. that Dabiq is the location of a final war between Christ and anti-Christ believers, the so-called “Armageddon” and that this conflict symbolizes the second coming of Jesus. From a strategic standpoint, ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced his caliphate when ISIS started to control Dabiq. Recruiters were encouraged to appeal to radicalized Muslims in “a theological call to make the pilgrimage to join their jihad” afterward aggressively and recruited 6,000 Jihadist during the summer of 2014 (Cameron 2015; Sorenson 2015). These strategies caused big theological and historical debates in between Arab and Turkic-origin Muslims.
In Islamic terms, this is called the“fitne” or “nifak” (causing crises), with the fitne sinking and losing or winning the war in Dabiq unsolved debate. Wiktorowicz’s anatomy of Salafism argues conflict in between the mainstream purist traditionalist and the mainstream establishment of political authority causing different reality and various misinterpretations of Islam because “the purist strategy for promoting the Salafi creed” but the reality of traditional interpretations are given different results (Wiktorowicz, 2006). The Saudi state-Wahhabism had become “the religious center of Salafism” for the salafi frictions and factions, while ISIS symbolizes as the latest version of heretical salafi movement (Wiedl, 2012). The myth of Dabig (place of the end time) re-explained over time, for instance, that place is mentioned in several hadiths. As a matter of fact, the event of “Melahim” (the final war on the earth before the judgement day) is pictured completely differently from the way ISIS members present it: it is a prediction that an army of 70,000 black forces will cause mass killings and chaos among the umma. The Sufyan (a Muslim leader of wrongdoing) will follow this nifak (Gulen, 2014). As describing “dark” fighters, and very clearly stating that their members will have long beards and hair, will be wearing black clothing, black turbans (Taylasan) and carrying black flags (Unlu, 2015). Taylasan is also considered even intellectual imams obey the Sufyan because of their fears, worldly benefits and power status. However, similar interpretations made for Mongolian black fighters ten century ago by many Islamic Scholars when the Mongolian army killed millions of world population and destroyed well-developed Islamic civilizations.
As a matter of fact, Muslims disagree with each other, but conflicting ideas are not automatically accepted as heretical. There should be limitations and restrictions enforced, and a fine line must be drawn between Salafi polemic and militant Jihad, discharging one does not entail dismissing the other. ISIS can be categorised as a new neo-fundamentalist movement, and, uprooted from its cultures of origin, it singles out religious norms of purity and selects a few doctrines that allow its adherents to then move to a higher level of commitment than the masses. Islamist activism, politics and violence are diverse, reflecting the fluidity of a group’s fundamental policies and principles, and always attracts a particular group in different historical periods. Thomas Hegghammer argues that jihadism is “a modern revolutionary political ideology” and using violence as a tactic “very narrow view of Sunni Muslim understandings” (Hegghammer 2009: 244). Dogmatic Salafism, political Islam, and local Salafi groups have taken various paths in different countries in our own time, and present-day Salafi movements should be seen as three phenomena that are inherently different from one other. For instance, Al Qaeda-associated ISIS is deeply rooted in the last three decades of the twentieth century. True Salafism was unrelated to political Islam before the 18th century. While for Salafis the emergence of an Islamic state is seen as a result of doctrinal purity and a devout society, for Islamists it can be brought about only by a religiously-inspired program of socio-political reforms, despite also bringing “new interpretation of religious creed” and state-terrorism (Zelkina 2011: 376). The fundamentalist Baathist and dogmatic Takfirist Salafi marriage gave birth to the monster that is ISIS. It is fourth way od Salafism, produced a new Salafi ideology: Neo-Takfirist.
ISIS offers resistance to pluralism, provokes and damages on true Sunni Islam to resurrect its own pluralistic peaceful model of co-existence and loudly declare resistance to the ISIS type ideology. ISIS seeks to create one single religious state as an officially recognized brand, and wants to ban diverse religious practices. It is against Islamic morality, theology, human dignity, humanistic principles, values and the long standing pluralistic traditions of the Middle East. ISIS creates a new-type Salafi Wahhabi establishment, based on a hatred of Shi’ism that has become obvious. David S. Sorenson explains that ISIS practices a very extreme form of Takfirist Salafi doctrine, as he traces down radical types of Wahhabi followers around the world and provides discourse about definitions and practices of Takfir (Sorenson, 2014: 21). Obviously ISIS kills diversity and humanity, and is similar to Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the religious field. It consists of “a network of power relationships between religious agents” in the religious and political markets (Reddig, 2014). Saudi Arabia now suffers from a wide range of political, socio-economic and religious discrimination, because it rejects Shi’ism for theological and doctrinal reasons (Meijer, 2009). ISIS declares its intention to kill many Muslims, and not only those of Shia beliefs, because of their alleged disrespect for the main Islamic beliefs of unity (tawhid). Arab Muslim leaders have been targeted for their corruption or dictatorship, with ISIS radically criminalizing their rejection of its practice and extending this to many individuals. Seemingly, “ISIS actions far exceed even Salafist doctrine” in spreading dangerous poisons of discrimination and hatred others (Sorenson, 2014: 23). Islam seems to be turned a political project by ISIS, but it appears impossible that ISIS can regulate alternative spiritualties and cultures in the post-modern era. A strong online propaganda through social media is to be needed to make believe to target vulnerable population.
Online Jihadism through Social Media
“Jihad becomes a live force” in the region, because “humiliation, foreign occupation and secularizing aggression” towards believers have caused many grievances among Muslim youth (Armstrong, 2014: 218-322). The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan attracted only 20,000 Jihadist fighters, whereas Iraqis and Syrian civilians have mobilized far more foreign fighters since 1945, surpassing the Afghani civil war conflict in the 1980s (Neumann, 2015). Examining the composition of ISIS recruitment, and, according to ICSR’s estimate, the total number of foreign fighters has reached 20,730. There were 100 militants from Canada out of a total of 4,000 militants joining from the Western world. France, the UK, and Germany produced a far greater number of Jihadists than Australia, and the USA even less (ICR, 2015). The Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College, London, released a report that shows that of 550 young women wishing to belong to a sisterhood sharing similar beliefs who have travelled to join ISIS, with some as young as 13, at least 100 connected through platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr (Kirka, 2015). Online marketing of Jihad, which has been defined as an “internet phenomenon” and “hybrid terrorism,” shows ISIS offering a “dystrophic state,” while using a “form of marketing of utopia, manipulation and recruitment” in its strategy of state formation (Stern & Berger, 2015: 3). Berger and Morgan studied 20,000 twitter accounts of ISIS supporters, and define and describe the population (Berger & Morgan, 2015).
ISIS increases its recruitment capacity on social media platforms, where their phone and broadcast messages spread out on mass media, including television or radio. ISIS uses 46,000 twitter supporters reaching a maximum of 90,000 accounts to effectively gain new members to its ranks through social media (Berger & Morgan, 2015: 14). As part of this recruitment tool, social media strategies intentionally publicize violence, such as the beheadings of Western hostages or the killing of Shi’as, advertising these through direct messages to its own trusted social network, which exists mostly for the purpose of attracting potential external new members from wider audiences (Berger & Morgan, 2015: 60). Apparently, most ISIS supporters are sending tweets from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries. However, not all twitter supporters are aggressively active; only between 500 and 2,000 accounts are hyperactive users with high volume tweets. Using unverified sources, Al Jazeera claimed that IS has 50,000 fighters in Syria (Al Jazeera, 2015). In fact, official records of size from home countries do not seem accurate. There are a variety of reasons countries might hide information, such as concerns about national security, with the US only indicating 40-50 fighters, for example (Stern & Berger, 2015: 75). Concerning other countries, in Belgium 335 young unemployed Muslims found ISIS attractive, 200 Filipinos became ISIS fighters, 1200 Moroccans, nearly 3000 Tunisians, 600 Turkish, over 2500 from Saudi Arabia, around 2000 from Egypt, and 1500 from Jordan also joined. Eleven thousand recruits were from the Middle East and 3,000 from countries of the former Soviet Union. Recruiters of ISIS hire mostly males between the age of 16 to 35, or couples, and they target young women. For instance, over 300 Kazakh citizens arrived in Syria and Iraq and half of them were women (Neumann, 2015). However, Jihadi marriage and womanizing is a big dilemma for ISIS. Female fighters are forced into Jihadi marriage in Iraq and Syria. ISIS executed “150 female in Iraq’s Fallujah province for refusing to accept jihad marriage” (Zaimov, 2015).
In addition, “humanitarian relief concerns” are mentioned by many Belgians fighters as a reason for joining ISIS. A group of youth Muslim named Sharia4Belgium whose members indicates that the youth participated in protests against “Innocence of Muslims,” a film that portrayed “the prophet Muhammad as a homosexual and a child-molester” (Taub, 2015). Hatred-based humiliation towards Mohammed led counter cartoon campaigns such as those observed after the Charlie Hebdo incident, which was a trigger for radicalism and caused deadly protests across the Middle East, Asia, Europe and North Africa. In fact, European and many other Jihadists have since gone to Syria through Turkey, and fighting on the front line is often called the “gates of heaven” (Taub, 2015). Furthermore, Dawson states that most home-grown terrorists have no religious background and insufficient education, and that recent converts turn into extremists rapidly when infected by political motivations provided by global and local Salafi Jihadists (Dawson, 2014, 2015).
Moreover, Paul Freston (2015) argues that three possible limitations exist within ISIS, constraining the movement from moving forward to further success. These he identifies as an “ideological self-strangulation” self-prisons by one’s own ideology; the notion of a “utopian self-destruction”; and the limitation of a “war economy” (Freston, 2015). ISIS changing its name several times in three years also indicates the problem of an identity and unity crisis, despite the fact that ISIS is a game changer. Freston compares the theocratic fundamentalism of ISIS with Nazism and Leninism; it represents anti-diversity and is opposed to democratic religious plurality (Freston 2015). In fact, the role of charismatic leadership is important in new religious movements – these psychopathologies and the attributes of charisma influence the youth (Dawson, 2006: 3). When it comes to ISIS, the group emphasizes an unusual and marginal leadership model, which he states is “either mad or driven by a perverse lust for sex, power, and money” (Dawson 2006: 6). Dawson’s Jihadist principles, which provide a logical description of the dangers and “the problematic legitimacy of charisma” fit the ISIS leadership well. The group reconstructed “a historical or mythical ideal from a remote abstraction into an immediate psychological reality” as part of “negotiating the routinization of charisma”, “maintaining the leader’s persona”, and “moderating the effects of psychological identification of followers” with “the leader achieving new success” through the process of social interaction (Dawson, 2006: 6). However, US military intervention in Iraq and Syria did not solve any problems or brought democracy; instead it made them worse. As root causes continue, thousands of civilians in Sunni areas in Iraq have been tortured since 2003, and there have been still more extra-judicial killings in prisons. The Iraqi justice system seems exponentially more abusive than just, and Maliki’s incorporation of Shia militia into the government’s security forces was so thorough that the two were effectively indistinguishable, creating a bulwark style rebellion such as that of ISIS (HRC, 2014).
In conclusion, neo-Takfirist Salafi ideology, helping Muslim brothers and sisters, unity, solidarity, purification of Islam, womanizing, wealth, sex and power are main issues attracting youth, but they are also dilemmas for ISIS. The term “sexual holy war” (either exchanging sex for Jihad, or rape) puts all women and children at risk. A strong counter propaganda needs to be developed on social media; new national and regional strategies must launch awareness campaigns, educate grassroots-based NGO organizations on the ground with trustworthy local imams; and scholars must empower actors in local civil society to overcome the ISIS problem, domestically and globally. Trans-national Salafi identity appears to be a carrier in a “de-culturalization” process, because many second and third generation Muslim youth, who are socially and culturally isolated from mainstream society in the West, reject their parents’ way of Islamic practice and choose a new path.
In summary, civil society has a role in promoting respect and acceptance to others. Curing radicalism needs serious steps but counter strategies must be mutually developed in both Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. Many Muslims have different discourse, living in various reality and skeptical about Western solutions. Having suffered oppression is no excuse for causing it or for failing to condemn terrorism. Muslims must publicly promote human rights, dignity, life, liberty, equality, mutual respect, freedom and justice. Islam is not a political ideology nor offer violence, it is a religion. Promoting a holistic understanding of Islam is necessary, as a whole and the flexibility to accommodate diversity as a primary goal. Western governments avoid using statements and actions that result in the humiliation and alienation of Muslims, instead help marginalize terrorists and prevent recruitment. Governments in the Muslim world must design school curricula because proper religious education to Muslims is critical that respect diversity of culture and religion, in order to nurture democratic, human rights and civil society values.
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