The Islamic State (IS) has demonstrated a remarkable capability in enticing young Muslims from a variety of European countries into the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. These foreign fighters (FFs) have made numerous headlines, with pictures of them posing with heavy weaponry. News articles on present cases of FFs are aplenty on the Internet. Recent instances include that of the death of a Norwegian Kurd in his twenties, according the Norwegian news channel TV2. Magnus Ranstorp, Research Director, Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies, Sweden, points to a new generation of Jihadists. This phenomenon begs the question as to what about the IS attracts European Muslims?
Tool for Effective Recruitment
One of the key reasons behind the IS’ successful recruitment process is its public relations efforts and marketing skills, that employ a tactful use of social media to broadcast high-quality and professionally-made videos. Max Abrahms, Professor of Public Policy, Northeastern University, describes the James Foley beheading video and the beheading itself as a possible means of recruitment, citing how this could be viewed as the IS’s ability, commitment to and preparedness for violence. Hence, it not only attracts FFs, but, as Professor Abrahms says, it could also “induce defections from rival groups to join.”
Most of the IS’s videos, websites and social media activities – such as its video series named Mujatweets – are available in other languages. FFs are therefore needed to translate IS propaganda into English, French, and other languages. Accordingly, Mubin Shaikh, a former Taliban recruiter and presently a national security operative in Canada, told the International Business Times that “Westerners are involved, especially in the recruitment and social media dissemination.”
Furthermore, the IS deliberately builds on the FFs’ consciousness by emphasising on humiliation, prejudice and the stereotyping of Muslims and their cultural associates in the West – that may cultivate a sense of victimisation. This plays with their mindset and turns them into resources for terrorism. Identity crises and/or the sense of injustice among politically active social media users in Europe are some building factors the IS manipulates to their advantage by exploiting the potential FFs’ determination and willingness to sacrifice their lives for the implementation of worldwide Islamic rule. Furthermore, FFs can also be viewed as expendable soldiers. They may not require fighting skills, but a suicide-bomber's willingness to detonate the bomb amidst the targeted crowd alone would suffice.
Attraction Towards the IS
The IS tells people to join their friends in the battlefield, as opposed to al-Qaeda that told its fighters to hide among its enemies. According to Richard Barrett, former head, UN al-Qaida and Taliban Monitoring Team, jihadists are drawn towards the IS because of its attractive character. The IS welcomes people of all nationalities regardless of personal histories and/or criminal records. Thus, FFs might join the IS to improve the quality of their lives. Additionally, some jihadists view fighting for Islam as a fast-track route to heaven. Jessica Stern, Lecturer in Government, Harvard University, calls attention to identity crisis among Muslim converts, and says that their affinity and pledge is reinforced by joining the IS.
On the other hand, Hans-Georg Maassen, head, Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany, stated in an interview with Reuters that, “what attracts people is the intense brutality, the radicalism and rigor. That suggests to them that it is a more authentic organization.” Additionally, social media is teeming with videos carrying promises of a path to heaven, hashtags such as ‘FiveStarJihad’, luxuries and other facilities available in the ‘Caliphate’. While some FFs leave Europe for Syria and Iraq to fight, the others do so with an intention to live a prosperous life in the ‘Islamic State’.
Why are Europeans Choosing the IS?
Abu Tareq, a 23-year-old prospective engineer from Denmark, raised by Muslim parents, was, until recently, rather easygoing vis-à-vis his religion. A while ago, he began investing more into his religion, began praying regularly, practiced abstinence and became a teetotaler. His devotion to Islam resulted in a desire to join the IS. The defining moment for Tareq occurred when he watched a video of people being tortured, and his desire to join and support fellow Muslim brethren arose. In an interview with Louise Stigsgaard Nissen, Journalist, Berlinske and Weekendavisen, Tareq explained his attraction to the IS, saying “It was the humanitarian aspect that drew me to Syria. It is not only about the fighting. They have departments for Islamic education, media, humanitarian aid, electricity and roads.”
The IS openly advocates its ability to control and seize territory, its provision of social services, educational systems, and other tempting luxurious items. European fighters are attracted to the IS because of its savvy tactics, extreme actions, and most of all, these FFs’ appetite for a life better than the ones they otherwise live. They seek a sense of affinity, want to offer humanitarian aid to those in need, and want to live a prosperous life among fellow Muslims.