Stopping ISIS from Luring People into Terrorism

4 min read
The self-proclaimed Islamic State group has revolutionized the way terrorist organizations recruit people.

The self-proclaimed Islamic State group has revolutionized the way terrorist organizations recruit people. Where in the past jihadist groups would spend months approaching, evaluating, and radicalizing potential recruits, ISIS succeeded to combine old-fashioned ways of communication, internet-based technologies, and an understanding of the global audience to accelerate a very effective pattern of support. Indeed, it should not only be the broad extent of their reach that should worry us, but also the speed at which they are able to recruit new fighters. 

But why would a person feel excited by the things ISIS is doing? Why do they pro-actively seek to offer support, and are often ready to sacrifice their own life to advance the terrorist cause? A recent publication by the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence sheds new insights on how ISIS lures people into terrorism.

First of all, one of the easiest ways is to encourage mental support and personal belief for the self-proclaimed Caliphate — rather than to ask for direct action from the potential recruit. ISIS uses religion, convictions, and social narratives to stress how important the intentions are for jihad. In many of its official publications, ISIS avoids to ask to participate in suicide missions or to engage on the battlefield. As such, the organization adopts a more accessible profile and effectively lowers the private acceptance threshold for those that still doubt whether they should support the organization. Indeed, for the people that do not want to fight, ISIS provides alternative ways to participate in the battle. For instance, they ask for financial donations that serve to support the Mujahedeen and their families. As such, ISIS also creates an appealing narrative of social protection. This narrative provides the potential recruits a feeling of trust that the fighters, as well as their families, will not be forgotten and that somebody will take care of them.

Secondly, ISIS aggressively uses multiple media platforms to spread and amplify news, education, data, and other messages among potential recruits. The strategy is designed around a carefully chosen series of words and images that repetitively talk about a ‘corrupt Western world’ that is a threat to the ‘Caliphate,’ that ‘insults Allah,’ and that demonizes the ‘glorious martyrs.’ The internet has become an excellent medium for spreading the call of jihad and news on individually featured fighters who are given the allures of Hollywood movie stars. The Internet gives a huge advantage to ISIS in a sense that the group does not need to be on the ground and connect face-to-face with potential recruits. Instead the Caliphate can support itself virtually by establishing global discussions forums or e-mail lists that facilitate the sharing of news and literature. For ISIS, online jihad is as important as boots on the ground.   


Finally, ISIS actively communicates how people can be engaged in the fight against its opponents. The group has built a narrative around the concept that ‘the Islamic State needs You,’ while stressing that the defeat of the Caliphate would not be due to the strength of the enemy, but rather to the weakness of the people who are still hesitating to give support. In this respect, ISIS actively appropriates the Islamic concepts of ‘Walaa’ and ‘Baraa’ — loyalty to Allah and hostility toward the enemies of the Caliphate — to galvanize personal commitment from Muslim believers around the world. Religious loyalty is used in hope that it will influence those that are still hesitating to actively engage in the battle. To that purpose, ISIS publications regularly feature inspiring stories of those who have already showed dedication and sacrifice by travelling to Syria or Iraq, and even engaged in suicide missions, but also suggesting a feeling of guilt to the Muslims who remain passive. 

The phenomenon of home-based and foreign fighters has long been on the list of concerns, but arguably, it is only since recent that it features among our top priorities. The international community may have underestimated the threat of radicalization among our populations. And many countries in Europe, in North America, and elsewhere in the world have paid a heavy price for miscalculating the impact of ISIS’s recruitment strategy on our security. Indeed since it declared its Caliphate in June 2014, ISIS has relentlessly used its recruits to spread fear and carnage. According to a running count kept by CNN, the self-proclaimed Islamic State conducted or inspired more than 140 terrorist attacks in 29 countries (other than Iraq and Syria) killing at least 2,043 people. These attacks were conducted across the globe including Europe, North America, Russia, and Asia. In this light it is of vital interest that we continue to improve our understanding how ISIS is luring people into terrorism. The recruitment of individuals who eventually become willing to fight and carry out these attacks is, and will remain, an essential part of the ISIS terrorist strategy. 


Photo by NATO STRATCOM Centre of Excellence