ISIS: Promise of Paradise, Ticket to Hell
ISIS, the dreaded terrorist organisation whose tentacles continue to spread across the globe, is using the internet to prey on impressionable youngsters, promising the dream of a supra-national Islamic Caliphate. Their chilling recruitment strategy involves the use of social media giants such as Twitter, WhatsApp, Kik, and even propaganda-laced YouTube videos to lure innocent people. The Islamic State’s reach online far exceeds their reach in the physical world, and they continue to draw thousands of people to their cause. The sophisticated propaganda targets audiences susceptible to their messaging; scouring Twitter, Facebook and dozens of blogs in search of potential recruits.
The statistics are alarming to say the least, and examples are a-plenty. The Muslim population likely to join ISIS is surprisingly the highest in western countries, as these are least associated with radical Islam. According to CIA estimates, about 2000 Westerners have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS. Out of these, at least 500 are from the UK, and more than 700 hail from France. Although, as of 2016 the flow of foreign fighters has plummeted from its peak of 20000, the number is still shocking.
In India, online recruitment by ISIS posed a major security challenge. An ISIS member, Mohammad Shafi Armar, alias Yusuf al-Hindi, set up a propaganda network to ensnare disgruntled Indian youngsters. Intelligence Bureau officials estimate that the Islamic State’s Indian cell, led by this one-time Indian Mujahideen operative Yusuf, has conversed with more than 700 people and raised more than twenty identified volunteers. In 2014-2015 itself, intelligence agents prevented seventeen Telangana-based youth from joining ISIS.
The terrorist organisation employs tailor-made strategies for recruiting youngsters; using women to target female teenagers, English speakers to target the English-speaking population, and so on. The moment an Internet user indicates interest in ISIS on a social platform, they are showered with followers and friend requests from ISIS-dedicated accounts. They exploit the youngsters’ sympathy towards their cause – misplaced or otherwise. This new-found popularity makes the user feel important, thereby piquing their interest further and allowing the ISIS-related dialogue to continue. These accounts bombard the user with pro-ISIS sentiment and a recruiter then makes contact, directing the conversation to a more private platform such as Kik, WhatsApp, Telegram or even Skype. Donning the guise of a friend, the recruiter feeds propaganda to the user. The last step is the exchange of personal information and arrangements for the new recruit to travel to Syria or other places within the ISIS stronghold.
This methodology has been used by the Islamic State’s Indian cell too. Once the potential candidate likes an ISIS propaganda-related Facebook page, they would get a message from the recruiter – in this case, Yusuf al-Hindi. Yusuf would then create a Skype account with chat names like ‘Gumnaam Bhai’, ‘Crazzyboys’, ‘Janta’ and even ‘Hindi Bhai’. The last contact he had made to operatives in India was as recent as late January 2016.
ISIS taps into teen angst and exploits the feeling of alienation experienced by these adolescents primarily in their coming-of-age years. The organisation seduces teenagers into joining by projecting a chance to do something bigger. The recruiters promote a radicalised sense of religious duty, even promising paradise for those who become martyrs. The group targets men and women differently with customised propaganda for both, although they are reminded of their religious obligation to join the Islamic State.
The ISIS caliphate is marketed as an idyllic Islamic community. Photos of crowded markets and children playing in the town square are sprinkled across social media, all emanating a general sense of well-being.
The men are sold a chance to exercise their religious duty, to fight for their beliefs and are promised wives. The women are marketed a “Disney-like” picture of life in the caliphate. They are convinced to marry jihadis and support the cause by raising the next generation of militants. In case they are widowed, they are promised adulation as the wife of a martyr. The match-making is usually done before hand, or after the woman enters the Islamic State. Sometimes, as in the case of American teen Shannon Conley, who was arrested before she could leave to join the Caliphate, the recruiter himself was projected as the ideal match.
Besides active Twitter handles and Facebook pages, other products of the group’s propaganda spewing machine are ‘Dabiq’ and ‘Rumiyah’, jihadist magazines which are distributed in print and online respectively. The last issue of ‘Dabiq’ was released in July of 2016. ‘Rumiyah’ is a shorter version of the previous magazine ‘Dabiq’ and is part of the group’s sophisticated propaganda efforts to disseminate their message around the world using the internet. The magazines feature articles promoting the group’s pernicious ideology, even featuring detailed pieces on how to carry out terror attacks. The topics range from monotheism and the slaughtering of the ‘unbelievers’ to the delights of paradise which the fighters are promised. The magazines even include interviews with ISIS officials and soldiers. Fifteen issues of ‘Dabiq’ were released and two issues of the online magazine ‘Rumiyah’ have been released so far.
Those who make it to Syria find a reality quite different to the one projected online. “When I was there, I didn’t have anything: no water, no electricity, didn’t have any money either. It was a really hard life,” a Swedish escapee from ISIS-controlled territory in Iraq told Reuters. The men, who are lured by a radicalised sense of duty, and maybe even a strictly patriarchal society, face such abhorrent living conditions.
Contrary to highly-circulated promotional photos and videos on social media, the women of ISIS are not allowed to fight or carry out suicide bombings. According to publicly released ISIS regulations, women are not to have an active role, and quite unlike other terror organisations such as Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram, which use female suicide bombers, they do not engage in fighting. The women are supposed to stay at home and, depending on their husbands, may not even be allowed to leave the house at all. The women usually join a recruiting committee or the Al-Khansaa brigade, an all-female police force that punishes other women for moral disobedience. The people are made to witness brutal violence in the public squares including flogging, stoning and other forms of merciless killings.
The Islamic Caliphate runs on antiquated patriarchal codes. According to a New York Times report, rape is rampant among ISIS fighters. Most women cannot leave their homes without an escort in ISIS-controlled territory. If widowed, the women are swiftly married off to another fighter as quickly as possible, with or without their consent. In case the recruit wants to leave the caliphate, they have to rely on a smuggler. This costs a lot of money, and for women, even entails rape.
The three American schoolgirls who skipped class and flew to Turkey to join ISIS, and the nineteen-year-old American nurse Shannon Conley are just some examples of youngsters who were brainwashed by recruiters online. About 4000 European youngsters are estimated to have joined ISIS and the threat remains serious even after the Paris attacks.
The counter measures taken have clearly been effective, considering a significant decrease in the number of foreign recruits. The strategies put to work have involved both online action and groundwork.
Twitter’s sweep of ISIS-dedicated profiles and Facebook’s strict policies, which quickly shut down any pro-ISIS activity, have aided the fight against online recruitment. Google has counter-narratives that pop up in the form of ads when key phrases are typed. These have been instrumental in disseminating anti-extremist content online and disrupting the radicalisation of at-risk youth. The hacker-activist group ‘Anonymous’ has targeted dozens of pro-ISIS accounts, affecting their credibility. After the Paris attacks, ‘Anonymous’ launched ‘OpISIS’, under which they claimed to have taken down hundreds of Twitter handles and a dozen Facebook pages, all ISIS dedicated. In response to the Orlando shootings, the group hacked into pro-ISIS accounts and filled them with LGBTQ banners and gay pornographic content. The accounts were even linked to the Central Intelligence Agency’s official website – CIA.gov.
In India, the Ministry of Home Affairs, after deliberations with state governments, the Intelligence Bureau, and the Research and Analysis wing, formulated the strategy of not going for knee-jerk arrests in cases of Indian youth getting attracted by ISIS. This strategy focuses primarily on the de-radicalisation of strayed youth. Under this policy, the seventeen Telangana youths who were prevented from travelling to Syria, and the four from Maharashtra who were stopped from travelling to the Middle-East, were not arrested. They were instead kept under surveillance, counselled and are now living normal lives.
Religious organisations and leaders providing counter-narratives and publicly denouncing ISIS have also been quite helpful.
Even as ISIS loses territory and suffers military defeats, it continues to expand its presence online, using the internet to recruit new members and disseminate its messages. It is imperative to keep the country’s youth from being consumed by religious fanaticism. Involving community elders, effective tackling of the spread of polarising content, both online and otherwise, and counselling at-risk youth are some steps that can help prevent youngsters from getting ensnared by radical propaganda spread by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.