How Research Can Help Counter ISIS's Success, Part 3

My recommendations to the UN Security Council on how to deal with ISIS.

Posted Dec 17, 2015

The following are the research recommendations I submitted to the UN Security Council on how to treat ISIS. This is Part 3 in a series, and outlines who fights for ISIS and why.

Read Part 1 and Part 2.

Click here for the video of my address.

UN Web TV
Source: UN Web TV

Basic Research Facts Concerning Foreign Volunteers for ISIS

–More than 3 of every 4 foreign volunteers to Al Qaeda and ISIS join through peer-to-peer relationships

–In some countries (e.g., France), about 1 in 4 who join are converts.

–The overwhelming majority has no formal religious education or training but are “born again” into radical Islam in late adolescence or early adulthood. Few are recruited in mosques.

–Most who join are youth in transitional stages in their lives—immigrants, students, between jobs and before finding their mates, having left their homes and looking for new families of friends and fellow travelers to find purpose and significance.

–Unlike America, Europe was not built to absorb immigrants. In the U.S., Muslim immigrants attain parity or surpass the average American in wealth and education in the first generation. In Europe, they are much more likely to be poorer than the average citizen, and poorer still after the second generation. In France, 7 to 8 percent of the total population is Muslim, the largest Muslim population as percentage of the total population in Europe; however, up to 70 percent of the prison population is Muslim, contributing significantly to an underclass ripe for radicalization. As one 24-year-old who joined Jabhat an-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, described his experience:

“They teach us to work hard to buy a nice car and nice clothes but that isn’t happiness. I was a third-class human because I wasn’t integrated into a corrupted system. But I didn’t want to be a street gangster. So, I and my friends decided to go around and invite people to join Islam. The other Muslim groups in the city just talk. They think a true Muslim state will just rain down from heaven on them without fighting.” 

But other volunteers for the Islamic State are far from marginal in their home countries. As one family practitioner wrote to us earlier this year:

“During the past few months, two groups of medical students from the University [of Medical Sciences and Technology in Khartoum, Sudan] have fled to the Levant in order to join ISIS. The families of those students have had difficulties coping with their loss. It was almost grievousness of death. The students who left from our university… are well funded by their parents (Higher middle class with multi-background). I find difficulty identifying the factors that led those smart, straight A students, to [ISIS]. Could it be lack of identity? Could it be the university's fault? Could it be… the family's lack of influence?”

A banker from Mosul recounted:

“Daesh fighters came into the bank and our staff was terrified. They offered to help in any way. An Algerian, about 25, polite, asked only to be led to our computers. In a short time he downloaded of all of our bank’s transactions. He said that he came to the Islamic State to put his education in computer engineering to good use.” 

–The Caliphate is an attractor to all of these young people, providing purpose and freedom from what they have come to see as the vice of a material world based on a specious freedom to make only false and meaningless choices. Some speaking for Western governments at the East Asia summit in Singapore last April argued that the Caliphate is mythology, covering traditional power politics. But research in Europe and North Africa, involving structured interviews and behavioral experiments with participants randomly selected from neighborhoods previously associated with jihadi support or violence (e.g., Paris suburbs of Clichy-sous Bois and Epinay-sur-Seine; the Moroccan neighborhoods of Tetuan’s Jemaa Mezuak and Casablanca’s Sidi Moumen) indicate that this is a dangerous misconception. The Caliphate has re-emerged as a mobilizing cause in the minds of many. Ignorance of such developments even threatens to alienate Muslims who favor interfaith cooperation. As one Imam in Barcelona who helps run an interfaith dialogue initiative with Christians and Jews told us:

“I am against the violence of Al Qaeda and ISIS, but they have put our predicament in Europe and elsewhere on the map. Before, we were just ignored. And the Caliphate…. We dream of it like the Jews long dreamed of Zion. Maybe it can be a federation, like the European Union, of Muslim peoples. The Caliphate is here, in our hearts, even if we don’t know what real form it will finally take.”

–Like all global marketers trying to influence millennials, ISIS uses the most popular social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, as well as peer-to-peer and gaming platforms. Their strategy is targeted and scripted. They use sophisticated marketing technology to sift hundreds of millions of social media messages in search of a few thousand users who are likely to support their causes. (Many of the conversations are encrypted to avoid law enforcement detection. ISIS even offers an online encryption “help desk.”). Some estimates have ISIS managing upward of 70,000 accounts, sending approximately 90,000 texts daily. A recent study found that ISIS issued more than 1,146 official communiqués in a single month. These messages come from a determined army of online digital operatives who have won over tens of thousands of recruits worldwide.

–The “counter narrative” strategies developed in think tanks and used by governments are largely ineffective. They try to dissuade youth with mass negative messaging. “So DAESH wants to build a future, well is beheading a future you want, or someone controlling details of your diet and dress?” As I noted at the UN meeting last April: Can anyone not know that already? Does it really matter to those drawn to the cause despite, or even because of, such things?”

In contrast, the Islamic State may spend hundreds of hours enlisting single individuals and their friends, empathizing instead of lecturing, turning personal frustrations and grievances into moral outrage. ISIS understands that young people empathize with each other; they generally don’t lecture. From Syria, a young woman messages another:

“I know how hard it is to leave behind the mother and father you love, and not tell them until you are here, that you will always love them but that you were put on this earth to do more than be with or honor your parents. I know this will probably be the hardest thing you may ever have to do, but let me help you explain it to yourself and to them.”]

-We already know the people ISIS targets. We also know that in social media, the messenger matters. Government voices lack for authenticity, agility and are suspect due to their policies and practices. As one Imam who was a former recruiter for ISIS explained:

“The young who came to us were not to be lectured at like witless children; they are for the most part understanding and compassionate, but misguided. We have to give them a better message, but a positive one to compete. One in our religious frame. Otherwise, they will be lost to Daesh.”

In brief, seek to understand the passions that motivate the move to what has become the world’s most dynamic countercultural movement, with the largest extraterritorial volunteer fighting force since WWII. For if we ignore these passions, we risk fanning them, to our likely detriment and that of others across the world.

In Part 4, I will go over what we have wrong about ISIS and what we can do about it.