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News & Analysis

‘ISIS Is The Sanctuary For The Desperate’

By Talmiz Ahmad

“The ISIS’ allure is that it is fighting these Arab tyrants across the region, even as it fulfils the longing of its adherents to participate in a cause that is founded on their own history and traditions”

Last year, as he addressed the congregation from the pulpit of the mosque in Mosul, the self-styled caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi invited all Muslims to migrate to the Islamic State “because hijra to the land of Islam is obligatory”. Read in Japanese

He described his territory as one where “the Arab and non-Arab, the white man and black man, the easterner and the westerner are all brothers, (where) their blood mixes and becomes one, under a single flag and goal”.

The number of those who responded to this call is staggering: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is said to have 200,000 fighters, of whom a third are already battle-hardened. Most of them are from Iraq and Syria, but at least 30,000 are foreigners from 80 countries; about 7,000 are from Europe, including 2,500 women.

Till last year, when controls at the Turkey-Syria border were lax, a few hundred young recruits used to cross over to join ISIS every day. Most of the men are aged between 15-20 years, while the minimum age of women is only slightly higher. The men are paid a salary of $500-650 per month. A marriage bureau facilitates marriages, while a counselling office handles marital difficulties.

Not surprisingly, most of the recruitment is done online. ISIS employs the latest social media and the most talented IT specialists, putting its messages across in different languages through hard-to-detect tools such as Kik, WhatsApp and Skype. It has its own Facebook (“Muslimbook”), mobile phone app and a videogame in which American soldiers in Iraq are targeted.

‘The Digital State’

Given the centrality of digital technology, the distinguished Arab commentator Abdel Bari Atwan refers to the ISIS as “The Digital State” and says that without the Internet ISIS would not have recruited its army or succeeded in its territorial conquests.

Most fighters are allured through slick recruitment films, such as one titled There is No Life Without Jihad, which has interviews with three jihadis from different backgrounds talking about their battles, as also the comfortable home life they have in the ISIS. One jihadi says there is “no cure for depression (like) the honour of coming to jihad”. ISIS does not only want fighters; people with different skills are welcome: “There is a role for everybody,” the video says.

Messages projected are of two kinds: Those that use the street slang of young people (“jihadi-cool”) and focus on the “brotherhood” of the gang, showing the ISIS as a place where you can “belong”, and the other that focuses on battles and the killing of hostages and enemy forces, and exalts martyrdom as the highest achievement of the jihadi fighter.

Messages directed at women reflect this same dichotomy: They refer to cooking recipes, the periodic shortages of certain food items and the need for warm clothing when seasons change, and also celebrate the martyrdom of their husbands or the killing of enemy soldiers, with their heads being shown alongside pet kittens!

Given the large number of recruits and their different backgrounds, the motivations to join ISIS vary widely. For a small core group, the principal allure is religious: they believe they are engaged in a holy war for Islam and rejoice in the setting up of the “Caliphate”; they say they have longed for the caliphate just as the Jews longed for the Holy Land for several centuries. They see themselves as pioneers in building the new Islamic realm after so many years of defeat and despair.

Some others in this group also respond positively to the ISIS’ sectarian approach: Anti-Shia feelings are deeply ingrained among many orthodox Sunnis who believe the Shia are not Muslims and, today, under the leadership of Iran, are seeking to take over all Muslim countries.

These sentiments are being robustly fuelled by the rabid writings of clerics on social media which have millions of followers.

But religious zeal motivates very few. Atwan has noted that some boys leaving for Syria took with them a copy of Islam for Dummies! For most young recruits, the allure is adventure and comradeship in an enterprise of global significance. Scott Atran, an American scholar based in France, sees the bulk of the ISIS cadre as “marginal misfits”, largely ignorant of religion and geopolitics, who are now engaged in a “profoundly alluring mission to change and save the world”, while experiencing “the joy of joining comrades in a glorious cause”.

Olivier Roy, the French scholar of Islam and jihad, agrees that there is no religious motivation involved in the allure of ISIS for Arab youth. For them, joining ISIS is an expression of the deep generational divide that separates them from their parents, a divide that is greater in Muslim societies because of the sudden changes they have experienced in a very short period.

In Europe, Arab youth blame their parents for their life at the bottom of the social ladder, their cultural rootlessness and their experience as objects of derision and Islamophobia. Their propensity to violence against society is thus similar to that of the French anarchists of the 19th century and of the Baader Meinhof fighters nearer our time.

Arab youth blame their parents for their life at the bottom of the social ladder, their cultural rootlessness and their experience as objects of derision and Islamophobia. Their propensity to violence against society is thus similar to that of the French anarchists of the 19th century and of the Baader Meinhof fighters nearer our time.

For Arabs in West Asia who constitute the bulk of the ISIS’ cadres, the sense of marginalisation and rootlessness emerges from the complete absence of transparency and accountability in their polities and non-availability of institutions for participation in political decision-making.

Over the last five years, the youth have witnessed the crushing of their aspirations generated by the Arab Spring and the ongoing violence to retain this political order.

The ISIS’ allure is that it is fighting these Arab tyrants across the region, even as it fulfils the longing of its adherents to participate in a cause that is founded on their own history and traditions. It therefore appeals to young Arabs’ sense of engagement in an enterprise of historic significance in which they themselves have a heroic central role.

ISIS is thus the sanctuary for the desperate. Its fatal attraction can only be diluted through a reformed political order in West Asia that provides its people freedom and dignity.

* Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian diplomat. He served as Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (2000–03; 2010–11), Oman (2003–04), and the UAE (2007–10). After retirement from Foreign Service, he is working with an energy company in Dubai. Read more. This article first appeared on January 11, 2016 in the Asian Age. [International Press Syndicate – 14 January 2016]