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A War With ISIS is a Battle Against Ideologies
Time and time again the concept of being at war with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is echoed in print, the media, and talks throughout Washington, D.C. Granted ISIS, or the Islamic State (IS) as they like to call themselves, is a formidable foe on the frontlines however, when contemplating the issues at hand, we are not “at war” with ISIS. We are “at war” with an ideology.
This poses the questions: how can we be at war with an ideology, what is it that attracts its members, and can an ideology really be combated?
Presently, some intellectuals propose that healing the socio-political issues facing the Middle East will eventually help eradicate the scourge of radical ideologies in the region. Nevertheless, we also heard this theory when al-Qaeda (AQ) was brought to our attention in the 1990s.
Additionally, when the Arab Spring broke out in 2010, it emitted a feeling of hope across nations that perhaps this was the catalyst of socio-political change that would spark a new era where brutal ideologies could not flourish. The hope that truly democratic nations would be formed in Middle East and North African (MENA) nations lead some to believe that it could put a cap on the growth of extremist notions such as those of AQ’s. Yet over two decades later since AQ came on the scene and subsequently the Arab Spring fizzled out, we are still faced with violent ideologies. Furthermore, the ideology of ISIS has been described as more radical than its predecessors.
The concept of healing a country's socio-political woes to eradicate extremists view such as those of AQ and now ISIS, at first seems like a valid notion until contemplating the present, past, and some of the motivations behind these radical outlooks.
Both AQ and ISIS have visions of liberating the Middle East from unjust, un-Islamic, and what they identify as apostate rulers in order to create their versions of “true” Islamic systems. Yet the two groups have different ideas on where the root causes of these unjust governments stem from. AQ focuses on what has been describe as the “far enemy” with the bedrock of Middle East transgressions deriving for the west; in this case the United States and its policies in the Middle East. On the contrary, ISIS views itself as liberating the Middle East from itself, the “near enemy”, by cleansing the region of what it views as apostate regimes and replacing them with its own vision of an Islamic governorate.
One of the things that stands out when comparing ISIS as opposed to AQ, is the desire to hold territory. In order to have an Islamic State, territory must be held. This is a top priority for ISIS. AQ on the other hand, had long-term goals of setting up an Islamic State but holding territory was not one of its immediate objectives unless it was an area for refuge or training camps.
An ideology that plays a key factor in ISIS’s rise to power is this concept of creating an Islamic State and holding territory in its name. By creating a “state”, this accomplishment has provided members with a sense of affinity, status, and a group identity to be associated with. A recent report by Quantum Communications found that out of forty-nine testimonies of ISIS members the majority had joined the group seeking status or identity. 77% of internal fighters, categorized as fighters recruited by jihadist organizations in the same country where they lived, in this case Syria and Iraq, were found to be seeking status. Only 8% of Western external fighters and 15% of Arab external fighters were found to be seeking status. While 63% of Western external fighters sought identity with 25% of internal recruits and 12% of Arab external fighters seeking the same thing.
The report also highlights that the majority of interviewed western recruits were facing an identity crisis with a need to find meaning in their lives. “The transnational Islamic identity (Ummah) offers them a pre-packaged identity in a context of anti-Western culture” the report stated.
For recruits this “pre-packaged” identity and the idea of making an emigration (hijra) to ISIS’s Islamic State, evokes a recreation of the Prophet Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina due to an assassination plot against his life. There is no doubt that this semblance adds weight to ISIS’s “state” as being a refuge from a land perceived to be full of disbelievers just as Medina was for the Prophet Muhammad.
A Canadian woman in her early twenties, going by the name Umm Haritha, traveled to Syria to “live a life of honour” under Islamic (sharia) law rather than the laws of the “kuffar,” or unbelievers. In an interview she told Canada’s CBCnews “when I heard that the Islamic State had sharia in some cities in Syria, it became an automatic obligation upon me since I was able to come here.” Her words echo a statement that ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi issued via audio recording in the summer of 2014. “Rush O Muslims to your state. Yes, it is your state. Rush, because Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis," he stated. “O Muslims everywhere, whoever is capable of performing hijrah (emigration) to the Islamic State, then let him do so, because hijrah to the land of Islam is obligatory," he declared.
Another ideological factor that plays heavily into the common narrative of ISIS’s jihad, is the idea of assisting one’s fellow Muslim brothers and sisters in a righteous battle against the “other”. In this case the “other” would be considered the al-Assad regime, Shiites, minority groups, and anyone else ISIS views as misbelievers. In his summer of 2014 message, al-Baghdadi also alluded to this idea: “So listen, O ummah of Islam. Listen and comprehend. Stand up and rise. For the time has come for you to free yourself from the shackles of weakness, and stand in the face of tyranny, against the treacherous rulers – the agents of the crusaders and the atheists…”
This notion of aiding the ummah applies to internal recruits, i.e. those from Syria and Iraq, as well as recruits from other MENA and western nations. The concept of helping the Syrian people, which can be viewed in the greater context of aiding the ummah, resonates strongly in the initial radicalization of individuals. Yasmin Qureshi, a British lawmaker told CNN that individuals joining ISIS “erroneously believe they are going out to help people”.
There have been numerous events throughout recent history which have fed into this desire to help the ummah. Afghanistan, Palestine, and Bosnia presented strong cases. Currently Syria provides the perfect catalyst with the brutal atrocities inflicted on the Syrian people by the hands of its own government. A Twitter message posted by Muhammad Hamidur Rahman, a twenty-five-year-old from Portsmouth, U.K. stated that his reason for traveling to Syria was because he was "called by God to help Muslims being killed by President Bashar al-Assad". Rahman was killed fighting for ISIS in the summer of 2014 during a firefight with forces loyal to the al-Assad regime. His family received news of his death via text message.
On another degree, the desire for survival in an unstable region fuels many to join ISIS. Survival on many levels both basic and arbitrary can be a practical and seductive reason to align with a group. In Syria a country rocked by mass-destruction and violence and Iraq, a country on the verge of potentially greater bloodshed than seen in the past, the basic concept of survival and aligning one’s self with a discerned winner can be a strong factor in recruitment. As human nature shows us, many people will find a way to survive no matter what the costs.
ISIS offers an enticing package to recruits looking for a livelihood. According to Aqsa Mahmood, a young woman who left her family home in Glasgow, Scotland to join ISIS in 2013, who has been a strong supporter of the Islamic State, and a recruiter of young women over social media; the ISIS rewards package includes "a house with free electricity and water provided to you due to the Khilafah (the caliphate or state) and no rent included". When the ideology of survival factors in, the thought of a paid roof over one’s head is an appealing attraction especially to individuals seeking status and identity.
Some Syrian refugees driven by desperation have offered an oath of allegiance (bay’ah/baya’ah) to ISIS. Accounts of refugees who fled to the Turkish border town of Akcakale, flanking the Syrian town of Tel Abyad which has become a border crossing into the Islamic State, are entering back into Syria to live under ISIS rule. Scarcity of work, low wages, and a desire to return home are driving some refugees to take their chances with ISIS.
Mohammed, a former leader of the FSA's Omar bin Khatib brigade and a refugee stated in an interview that, “If you see us on the side of ISIS you should not blame us”. Pointing to a fellow ex-soldier with an injured foot that needed attention, Mohammed expressed that the FSA let them down and that “If you are injured then no one cares for you. I would rather live in an ISIS area. In 15 days I will go back and give them baya'ah."
Likewise, twenty-two-year-old Abu Hussein, complained that, “There are no jobs here, I have no money”. Hussein, fought against ISIS in Tel Abyad before escaping to Akcakale. Considering his desperate situation and ISIS’s decrees on atonement, he said, “They have declared that anyone who wants to repent can come. They have some negative sides and some positives ones. Tel Abyad is very safe now because people are afraid of them - before it was chaotic. But I have not seen with my own eyes yet how they are applying Shariah (Islamic law)."
Taking all of this into consideration, can an ideology really be combated? The only feasible answer is no. There are no measures to completely eradicate a mind-set, particularly one that is complex on many levels, both personal and socio-political. Currently we are witnessing an ideological war that is being set for generations to come.
Prevention is the only way to reduce the growth of what we are observing with ISIS. Many of today’s generation can be described as a disenfranchised group that saw powerful authorities sitting by while innocent people were harmed by either their own governments or what they viewed as influential players who lacked action. Consequently, anger grew towards harsh regimes such as al-Assad’s as well as powerful Western governments like the U.S., Britain, and Canada. Due to this idea, there is a conviction that there was a lack of actions and policies that have helped the innocent, in this case the Ummah, on the part of these governments. For some, this indignation has morphed into radical ideologies that ISIS now thrives on. AQ also fostered this ideology but, in recent times the organization has come across as frozen to those seeking a group to belong to. ISIS, on the other hand, is viewed by many as taking action. ISIS, just as AQ has fought the al-Assad regime but, ISIS now holds territory, and they have created a caliphate which provides its members with a sense of status and a belief of being on the side of a winning team.
As stated above, prevention is the only means of cutting back on the amount of individuals drawn to radical ideologies such as those of ISIS. There are a number of prevention methods available, from utilizing law enforcement, community elements, outreach, and countering violent extremism (CVE) programs. Law enforcement can be good at intercepting individuals from traveling to Syria to join ISIS and potentially inhibiting attacks on their home countries but, it is not built to thwart radical ideologies. Community programs in at-risk neighborhoods that apply interactive and interpersonal group activities that foster real discussions on grievances, personal experiences, and interpretations on how individuals perceive ISIS with the reality of life under ISIS, are valid methods to potentially sway individuals from glorifying the ideologies of the group. Outreach initiatives to counter these views through youth programs, school workshops, online interaction methods, and campaigns such as Extreme Dialogue, all add to reducing and bringing awareness to radical views and the motives that form them. Lastly, CVE programs that take a hands-on approach to the root-causes of violent extremism are important entities in the battle, although many are new and have yet to be proven effective. Still, these programs need to be implemented, worked on, and perfected because, tomorrow’s radical generation are the children of today’s ISIS recruits.