Internal conflict in the West turning foreign fighters into the hands of ISIS By lejla brackovic

Resent reports shows that the Muslim population whom are most likely to join ISIS in fact are not from Middle East or other Islamic countries, but rather from highly developed Western countries. What is a group like ISIS that is widely known for videos of beheadings of soldiers and civilians, including several journalists and aid workers in addition to destruction of cultural heritage sites and repeated terrorist attacks around the world offering that highly developed Western countries have failed to provide?

War as we know it used to be a conflict between states, but the traditional format of war has changed. It has become a conflict between states and non-state actors. For instant, of the 216 peace agreements signed from 1975 to 2011, 196 of them were between a state and a non-state actor. Armed groups are becoming more complex, nonetheless, they have become masters of multitasking between different channels that works for their benefit and ISIS is no exception.

Although ISIS took most of the world by surprise when it swept into the Mosul two years ago, the group has been proclaiming their goals for more than a decade. The terrorist organization ‘The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS) is a Salafi jihadist unrecognized state and militant group that follows a fundamentalist, Wahhabi doctrine of Sunni Islam and has been active since 1999. Since the terrorist group announced in 2014 that they renewed their conditions and goals they have quickly expanded their influence and presence beyond the two original countries and become one of the biggest threats to the west. ISIS pledged allegiances to al-Qaeda and participated in the Iraqi insurgency that came as a result of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by United States and its western allies. The raise of fighters joining terrorist groups in Syria raises questions about the effectiveness of the work that has gone into undermining the appeal of terrorism since 2001, nonetheless, the general understanding of its causes.

It is not surprising that ISIS emerged in the aftermath of the Arab spring, during the upheaval in Syria and the failure of the Western intervention in Iraq. The Arab spring had a strong anti-Western component. Great expectations of young people who were the backbone of the anti-government protests were not met, even worse they felt, once again, politically betrayed and ideologically abandoned and ISIS offered them hope. Through its ideology and its action, they show commitment to change. Surprisingly, this appears to be working just as well in the West as it works in the Middle East.

‘’What is ravaging the Middle East right now is deeper than ISIS. To understand this long-lasting frustration, one can look back in history and understand what happened after WWI. After the collapse of the Ottoman order in the Middle East, Western powers, first of all the UK and France, had drawn — the “lines in the sand” – which are the artificial border lines between newly born Arab states in the Middle East. Conjured in 1916 by the British and French diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot those border lines have been source of a long and deep frustration.’’ Said Vesko Garcevic, Professor at Boston University's School and Global Studies.

ISIS has religious, psychological, and technological faces. But in some fundamental respects it is an anti-colonial and anti-Western movement that refers to Islam’s pre-colonial conception of power—an Islamic state, a Sunni caliphate. Even if ISIS is crushed, which may happen soon, the idea the terrorist group holds is likely to persist, and return. Two major elements that feed popularity of ISIS are: long-living anti-Western sentiment among Arabs and the orthodox interpretation of Islam which are both rooted and inspired by the concept of ‘Arab caliphate’. Lack of support from society secondary feeds strong anti-Western sentiment among young Muslims in the West, particularly in Europe. They don’t consider themselves fully integrated in the society that they live in and crave for a feeling of belonging. ISIS gives them a false chance to feel important and, finally, have a purpose of living. The fundamental change in approach must be resolved domestically within the Western countries.

ISIS has managed to recruit an estimate of 27,000 foreign fighters since the fighting broke out in 2011. Its western supporters could have joined other militias that are less illegal, less hated and even less demanding. Yet they flocked to the Islamic State rather than its competitors. In April 2016, National Bureau of Economic Research revealed shocking information in their ‘What Explains the Flow of Foreign Fighters to ISIS?’ report. The report shows that Muslim population whom are most likely to join ISIS in fact are not from Middle East or other Muslim countries, but rather from highly developed Western countries. Countries that most often are least associated with Islam. Almost 3,700 of the total 5000+ European foreign fighters come from just four countries; France, United Kingdom, Germany and Belgium. Nonetheless, Finland, a Western, well-developed country that can has equal number of joined ISIS fighters as Pakistan, a Majority-Muslim country with strong Taliban presence in addition to holding the 7th largest population in the world. Despite the countries significant differences, they both hold an equal number of ISIS fighters

ISIS Foreign Fighters by continent (2015) according to The Soufan Group (Foreign Fighters: An Update Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq rapport.

In contrast to what many have assumed, poor economic factors are not the root cause of ISIS successful recruitment. With ISIS’s recent gain in land and wealth, these attractions may seem even more appealing and powerful to confused teens and young adults. If anything, this report claims that low income inequality tends to produce more ISIS fighters. The conclusion appears not to be economic difference nor low education level but rather ethnically and homogeneous countries, where assimilation is more difficult for immigrants with different backgrounds and the other theorizes that it is the cultural isolation that induces radicalizations of Muslims in these areas.

For someone in the West, who is not living in a war zone the pain ironically enough often seems to be more personal. It is therefore important to distinguish the terrorism of war zones from the acts of terrorism committed in the United States and European countries. ISIS claimed to have daily recruited approximately 20 new members in 2014. Alarmingly, most of the foreign fighters recruited were between 15 and 20 years old. Children and young teens are frequently featured in the terrorist group’s propaganda. Analysts claim that the reason why ISIS appeals to young people is their desire to escape the frustrations and often and lack of understanding of their lives by Western cultures. They are often excluded from Western values and societies which makes them an easy target, convincing them that ISIS can provide them the good life and adventure. Believed to be operating from Turkey, Syria and Iraq, the online recruiters helped provide how-to guides for Westerners who are inclined to travel and join the ISIS fight. What may be even more surprisingly, is the terrorist successful recruitment of female foreign fighter. Traditionally, female fighters who then joined did it to help liberalize victims from Assad’s human rights violations. However, in the Western countries anti-Islamic propaganda and islamophobia affected the rise of foreign female fighters in the recent years. In countries, such as France, not being able to follow traditional customs like being able to wear a hijab and forced assimilation creates a divide that ISIS can slowly work to pull apart. The prominence in Western news contributed to raising young females interest in the Muslim religion.

‘’What is ravaging the Middle East right now is deeper than ISIS. To understand this long-lasting frustration, one can look back in history and understand what happened after WWI. After the collapse of the Ottoman order in the Middle East, Western powers, first of all the UK and France, had drawn — the “lines in the sand” – which are the artificial border lines between newly born Arab states in the Middle East. Conjured in 1916 by the British and French diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot those border lines have been source of a long and deep frustration,’’ says Professor Garcevic.

Nevertheless, one would think that strong religious belief would be the main reason for their successful recruitments, however, recently leaked ISIS documents that were acquired by the Syrian opposition site ‘Zaman al-Wasl’ reveal that as many as 70 percent of recruits have little to no knowledge of Islam. According to the document, newly recruited fighters were handed a 101 Introduction of the Koran to get familiar with the religion. The leaked documents also show amazon orders of ‘Koran for Dummies’ and ‘Islam for Dummies’ that appear to be used for jihad preparation abroad. Of the 3,000 Western recruits, 23 percent are reported to have an intermediate knowledge of Islam and only five percent are categorized with advanced knowledge of the religion. Typical recruits included former bar-hopping hooligans, drug traffickers and school dropouts. For instant, Mohamed L. Bouhel, the terrorist who murdered 85 people by driving a rented truck into a promenade in Nice was described as clueless about religion in addition to loving alcohol.

While there are no confirmed figures of the official numbers, experts estimate that 20-30 percent of the fighters have returned home. Some of the foreign fighters may not return as terrorists to their respective countries, but all of them will have been exposed to an environment of sustained radicalization and violence with unknowable but worrying consequences. Bouhel’s attack in Nice and the attack by a returned fighter in Brussels in May 2016 are two horrifying example that were not stopped in time. Compared to the ten-year long war in Afghanistan, the ISIS have already managed to recruit far more fighters than Al-Qaeda did over a decade long period.

In contrast to Al Qaeda, ISIS horrifying propaganda spreading include a high production quality, often with multiple cameras, good editing and heavy use of special effects. Similar to most army recruiting videos, ISIS promises the reward of having a purpose and playing an important role in something that is larger than yourself. The Internet is a powerful tool for ISIS to reach a wide range of audiences. Many become radicalized by the posted teachings and spread of the ideology, which spreads like wildfire once there is one upload or one tweet. However, the power of instantaneous and ubiquitous communication can also divide the extremist groups. Religious terrorists see the world in terms of good and evil, with no gray, or middle, ground. Young terrorists are often confused about the religion they profess to follow. Perhaps the most powerful tool in ISIS recruitment is the way they have mastered social media. Even though Social Media for the most part has been invented in the West, ISIS has found ways to use it to its fullest capability in their recruitment of foreign fighters. The terrorist group shows remarkable efforts on social media websites by stirring courage to refuse the ongoing situation in Syria and to incite fighting and struggle for freedom in addition to a falsely promotion of a unique adventure. Methods often include exploiting popular hashtags to disseminate their message.

Democracy has removed almost all restrictions on Social Media and it is available to almost anyone. Ideally, these groups should be extricated, but we need to find a better way of making burying the ideology at the same paste as we try to extinct ISIS. Nonetheless, the internet will remain alive and becomes reachable to more people every day. The West must change its approach. European states have to be more focused on minority groups, find a way to integrate them better in their societies and make them feel as an integral part of the system. A change comes only after a long, deep and painful process of self-reflection, recognition of its mistakes and willingness to take a new approach. A social movement is comprised of ideas, narratives, symbols and leaders and we need to understand the power of it.

‘’Western allies must deal with the ‘cancer’ of ISIS and its ability to spread and to metastasize all over the Western world. The terrorist group can be militarily defeated in the Middle East, which may happen in 2017, but the idea will remain alive. We are not fighting against a military group; we are fighting against an ideology. The more globalized the world gets, the more accessible the internet will be and the easier will it be for extremists to brainwash people. The fact that ISIS is targeting mentally unstable young adults from the West is not a random choice. Not only do they have a strong anti-West belief but also a much simpler way of reaching their target audience do to the level of technological development in the West.’’ Garcevic said.

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