As the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields come under heavy siege and ISIS continues to sustain substantial losses, it leaders are calling for and even directing, via encrypted social media apps, homegrown terrorism in the West. As a rest, we have seen airports attacked in Brussels and Istanbul; pedestrians mown-down in Nice; an attempted IED explosion in Canada; a massacre in Bangladesh – the list goes on. And it begs the question: Is this the new normal?
The United States and its allies continue to achieve significant military victories against ISIS, assassinating top leaders and degrading their territory and the ability of ISIS leaders’ to finance terrorist operations through taxation and the illicit sale of oil, antiquities and sex slaves. As of May 2016, ISIS lost approximately forty-five percent of its territory in Iraq and ten percent in Syria. Successful military campaigns can thus be credited with diminishing the group’s ability to exercise full control over large swaths of territories and its member base, and also help stem the flow of new foreign fighter recruits to ISIS-held territories, who now take pause before traveling to Syria and Iraq. However, as ISIS defectors told the authors of this article – losing their territory will not stop them. The ISIS plan, if defeated on the military battlefield, is to shave their beards, blend into normal society in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere, and mount terrorist operations including guerilla style attacks.
The ISIS fight is also clearly not limited to a military battlefield – the fight also needs to be taken to the Internet and social media where the digital “Caliphate” is currently winning. ISIS uses the Internet, around the clock and on a daily basis, with deadly precision, to radicalize and recruit terrorists in multiple languages – having over the past few years successfully recruited an unprecedented 38,000 foreign fighters from over one hundred different countries, as well as inspiring dozens of homegrown terror attacks with their polished and prolific online campaign. In this regard, ISIS is the highest volume terrorist recruiting group to date, having attracted foreign fighters streaming in from all over the globe – from such unlikely and far-flung places as Trinidad and Tobago, Australia and the United States.
In its online recruiting campaign, ISIS more than any previous terrorist group, has also learned to leverage social media as it produces a steady stream of Internet messaging, including carefully crafted videos and Internet-based posters, that promote their Islamic “Caliphate” as a utopian vision that falsely promises dignity, purpose, belonging and prosperity to the disenchanted, disillusioned, discriminated against and yes—even the mentally ill – who mistakenly buy into the ISIS brand. ISIS is adept at attracting the curious, then “swarming” those expressing interest (evidenced by their reTweets, Follows, and Likes) to seduce them into the group. As with all cults, when ISIS recruiters make contact, they at first cleverly meet the needs of their vulnerable recruits, providing them with a sense of belonging, mission, adventure, excitement and visions of justice, dignity and purpose as they simultaneously seduce them along the terrorist trajectory to the point where ISIS ultimately overtake the recruit’s life and uses him or her as a weapon to destroy others.
The ISIS narrative and plans for the West are outgrowths of al-Qaeda’s strategic messaging and plans, building into those plans the added idea of a tangible Caliphate that all can join. The ISIS narrative (as well as the al-Qaeda one that proceeded it) argues that all Muslims have an individual duty to militant jihad and are obligated to join a mythical battle that is cast as defensive, because according to ISIS – Muslims, Muslim lands and even Islam itself, is under attack by the West.
This view popularized in English by Anwar al-Awlaki, the hallowed hero of both al-Qaeda and ISIS, is almost always a part of the ISIS mix for homegrown terrorism among English speaking populations—in Australia, Canada, the U.S. and the UK. Anwar al-Awlaki, a charismatic imam and excellent English speaker – despite being long dead as a result of a drone strike by the United States in 2011- still manages to inspire new recruits from beyond the grave, convincing vulnerable individuals, Muslims and new converts alike, that their Islamic duty is to come to the battlefield to fight jihad and if they for some reason cannot, their duty is to bring the battle to where they live – to mount homegrown terror attacks. In nearly all homegrown terrorist attacks in English speaking countries, al-Awlaki videos have played a part including such attacks as the Toronto 18 in Canada and the recent Orlando shootings in the United States.
In June 2016, Omar Mateen, the infamous Orlando shooter, claimed to act on behalf of ISIS and was found to have been viewing al-Awlaki videos prior to his attack. According to the FBI, he even told a friend that he wanted to be a “martyr”. Mateen, a second generation immigrant from Afghanistan, born in America, was apparently dating gay men and frequenting gay bars but was stymied from openly coming out as gay by his highly conservative Islamic background – his parents were first generation Afghans. Mateen apparently fell for al-Awlaki’s promise that by killing and dying in a “martyrdom” attack, killing the gay “enemies of Islam” he could cleanse his “sins’ and go immediately to Paradise. Believing al-Awlaki’s lies that in a homicidal death he would win the rewards of “martyrdom” and cleanse his “sins” Mateen apparently felt he had found a solution to his problem – resolving what, to him, may have seemed an irresolvable conflict between his condemned sexuality and cultural/religious beliefs.
Likewise In 2014, Shannon Conley, the American, Catholic convert to Islam attempting to join ISIS, was also found to be in possession of al-Awlaki videos as she boarded a plane in Denver. Convinced of their ideology, Conley was not dissuaded from believing ISIS lies, despite multiple visits from the FBI. She even showed FBI agents al-Qaeda guerilla training manuals she had downloaded and admitted to considering carrying out a homegrown, VIP attack inside the United States as well as naming U.S. military and police as legitimate terrorist targets. As she deepened her relationships to ISIS via the Internet, watching al-Awlaki videos, in chat rooms, and ultimately in Skype sessions with a Tunisian ISIS fighter who proposed marriage to her, Conley decided instead to travel to Syria to join the terrorist group. Thanks to a phone call by her father to the FBI, she was thwarted in that desire.
The list of those convinced by al-Awlaki, ISIS and al-Qaeda recruiters of this extremist version of Islam (that most Muslims would not recognize as their Islam) is long and continues to lengthen as we see increasing bursts of ISIS inspired and directed terrorist attacks taking place in the West. The ISIS and al-Qaeda narrative that thrives on the perceived, and real, victimhood and grievances of Muslims worldwide has become widely disseminated at this point, and is tragically, firmly entrenched in many sectors of society.
The fact that a substantial number of Muslims do in fact, live under despotic dictators, live under under occupation, do not enjoy normal human rights, and are often the innocent victims of Western bombs and missiles – including women and children – while also facing discrimination and marginalization, even in Western countries, all act as powerful fuel for the ISIS narrative and need to be addressed to ultimately put an end to terrorist groups like ISIS. In the meantime, however; these perceptions and realities make it easier for ISIS, when it reaches someone who already sees the West militarily active in Islamic lands and believes that the West is at war with Islam and Islamic peoples, to take the vulnerable recruit further down the terrorist trajectory to believe in revolution, violent overthrow of the existing world order and adherence to a utopian dream of social justice, inclusion, prosperity and dignity for Muslims worldwide. Tragically, however, the ISIS “Caliphate” will never deliver any real solutions to the pressing global problems it purports to address. Nevertheless, the ISIS dream is a potent poison that many continue to consume.
While luring male fighters and female wives to the so-called ISIS “Caliphate” was the priority for ISIS over the past few years as they attempted to build an actual state, they have now shifted to calling for retaliatory attacks in the West as revenge for Coalition airstrikes and to further the militant jihadi narrative and strategic global plan shared by both ISIS and al-Qaeda, which is to drive a real and enduring wedge between Muslims living in the West and their non-Islamic neighbors. With each homegrown attack in the West – from attacks using machetes, knives and improvised explsive devices to cars and trucks – like those called for by ISIS spokesman Adnani in his June Ramadan address as well as recently circulated ISIS videos – divisions in Western society potentially deepen as fear and anger fuel growing rifts based on distrust and outright rejection on both sides. And when terror attacks carried out in the name of ISIS increases discrimination and marginalization of Muslim minorities in Western countries, when unemployment, despair and ennui increase in these sectors, this in turn fuels ISIS recruitment for even more attacks – as those carrying out those attacks believe from their own personal experiences in the West, as well as by what they see going on globally viewed through the ISIS lens, that indeed Islam, Islamic lands and Muslims everywhere are under attack and a defensive jihad is indeed a necessity.
In addition to luring foreign fighters to its ranks, ISIS has also been working over the last years to recruit and quickly weapons train, ideologically indoctrinate and then turn Westerners who come to Syria and Iraq back to attacking in their home countries. Recently, a jailed German ISIS defector admitted to journalists that he was invited by ISIS to join an elite group to train for and return home to carry out attacks on German soil. He refused, but chillingly told his interlocutor that there was no shortage of ISIS volunteers to do so in France. In our ISIS Defectors Interviews Project, our defectors also told us that European members were being sent home to attack.
All evidence points towards ISIS continuing its global recruiting success and we have seen that the longer ISIS goes unchallenged on the digital battlefield, the more dangerous it becomes. In the United States, Deputy Director of the FBI Michael Steinbach, states that the flood of ISIS adherents is almost impossible to keep up with and that predicting who, among the thousands of ISIS followers, is moving to violent intent is extremely difficult. Likewise the FBI reports that the time between “flash to bang” is increasingly becoming shorter, making law enforcement’s job even more challenging. And recent revelations in the Garland, Texas attacks make clear that ISIS inspired and so-called lone wolf attacks are not always what they seem. ISIS is able to communicate with and direct attacks among its followers through encrypted online apps such as Telegram. Indeed a Daily Mail reporter recently disclosed the undercover work of one of their reporters who was admitted into an encrypted ISIS chat room where he was coached into constructing a bomb and picking a populated London target to attack in a so-called “martyrdom” mission. Thankfully, the reporter was not a genuine ISIS adherent.
The fight against ISIS is thus not only a military one—it is also a battle in the digital space, where ISIS is currently winning. The battle with ISIS must be fought through a combination of “hard” and “soft” power measures, specifically through security and preventative measures designed to diminish the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria and by targeting the ISIS Internet and social-media-based narratives that argue that Islam, Islamic lands and peoples, and even Islam itself is under attack and that fighting to establish and uphold the ISIS “Caliphate” via terrorism and extreme brutality is the answer.
‘The ISIS narrative (as well as the al-Qaeda one that proceeded it) argues that all Muslims have an individual duty to militant jihad and are obligated to join a mythical battle that is cast as defensive, because according to ISIS – Muslims, Muslim lands and even Islam itself, is under attack by the West.’
To effectively fight ISIS, we must also understand that ISIS is not just a terrorist organization. It is a brand that sells its vision of a utopian Islamic “Caliphate” and a path to justice for those who feel marginalized and discriminated against, fearful of their governments, and under attack by the others.
We at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) are working to creatively and effectively fight the digital “Caliphate” and break the ISIS brand. Over the past year we have conducted in-depth interviews with 38 ISIS defectors—Syrian, European and Balkan former ISIS fighters – men, women, teens and parents of fighters – who have shared personal horror stories of ISIS brutality and hypocrisy. They’ve born witness to Muslim children as young as six manipulated into suicide bombings; systemic rape of Muslim women as sex slaves; massacres of Muslim dissenters; and the complete perversion of their faith. As insiders to one of the most lethal global terrorist organizations to date, these defectors who joined ISIS, and then risked their lives to escape, are uniquely qualified and are the most credible voices to speak up against ISIS. They are the real and disillusioned ISIS.
Using the voices of ISIS defectors denouncing the group, we are editing these in-depth video interviews into short, compelling counter-narrative clips, that named with pro-ISIS names and openings similar to ISIS videos, can seduce those who are consuming ISIS products into consuming ours. But the message these vulnerable individuals and ISIS wannabes will get in our videos, is one of a disenchanted ISIS defector denouncing the group as well as the ISIS brand as corrupt, morally bankrupt, and totally un-Islamic. In this way, along with others, we are beginning to compete with the prolific online ISIS campaign, attempting to break the ISIS brand.
Our products – videos and Internet memes of ISIS defectors speaking out, subtitled and produced in the languages that ISIS recruits in, can be used for education, intervention, prevention and remediation. As cult expert, Steve Hassan states, there is nothing like a former cult member to shake someone out of joining, or disengaging, with a cult once partway or all the way inside.
Our ISIS Defectors online campaign however, is not enough. Along with breaking the ISIS brand, we also need to develop professional helplines, and de-radicalization interventions to intervene with those already moving along the terrorist trajectory. We also need to acknowledge real and perceived grievances and to find creative and genuine means of meeting the needs of the individuals ISIS is able to recruit, as well as means to redirect their passion for justice, dignity, purpose and significance into meaningful and nonviolent solutions to these very real and pressing issues.
Unless we take the fight to the online battlefield in the same creative and emotionally engaging manner that ISIS does, more global citizens will buy into what ISIS is selling, and as long ISIS operates online with impunity, we will continue to see attacks in the places we all routinely frequent: airports, restaurants, nightclubs, concerts, parks, trains, sporting events. ISIS attacks will tragically become our new normal.
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE).
Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D. is the Deputy Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and Adjunct Professor at the Department of Criminology, Law and Society at George Mason University. Dr. Yayla is co-author, with Anne Speckhard, of ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate.
Both authors are sought after counter-terrorism experts and have consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications.
 As cited in Chia and Xeuling (2016): soufangroup.com/tsg-report-cited-on-channel-newsasia-isis-is-targeting-southeast-asia-amid-declining-mideast-support-terror-expert