10 myths about Isis and violent extremists that should keep you up at night
Is Isis really finished? The reports of its death are greatly exaggerated
Men suspected of being Islamic State fighters wait to be questioned at a security screening centre near Kirkuk, Iraq, last month. Photograph: Ivor Prickett/The New York Times
The reports of Isis’s death are greatly exaggerated. Yes, Western-supported militias have finally ended the gruesome reign of Isis. But is Isis really finished? They have made unexpected gains especially on the battlefield that matters most to them, the information battlefield, an arena fought through social media and on the dark web with very real world ramifications. They have spawned “Isis 3.0” – now known as Tahrir-al-sham, this new incarnation of Isis has a ready base from which to recruit fighters.
With so many billions of dollars spent, and so many brave lives lost in the fight, why is Isis still operating? And why are they operating with impunity online?
Here are the top 10 myths about violent extremists like Isis and why we shouldn’t sleep so easy at night whether we are in Brussels, New York or Dublin.
Myth #1: Extremists like Isis are creating a market
Isis isn’t creating a new breed of extremists. It’s cynically exploiting a vast, already existing demographic. There is a prevailing narrative that Isis’s sophisticated use of social media is somehow luring young men who would otherwise be at home with their families, playing video games. That’s just not true. It’s not the stylised violence in Isis videos that motivates potential recruits. They prey upon their frustration, chronic unemployment, lack of education and a life with very few outlets for free expression.
Myth #2: Extremists are selling a medieval, dark narrative
Eighty per cent of extremist messaging tends to be positive messaging. But extremists are good at customer segmentation and deliver a grotesque and dark message to English-speaking audiences and very different messages in Arabic, French and Russia (which are the top three languages that groups like Isis message in. English isn’t in the top five). This is evident in the way Isis markets itself. If you look at their recruitment videos, you see Isis is selling a consumerist lifestyle, a western-modeled, efficient governance structure free of corruption. This isn’t a medieval return to the dark ages with archaic traditions. This is the new caliphate on steroids, bigger and better than the Ottomans.
Myth #3: Religious leaders don’t matter
Who is the most popular person on Twitter in the Middle East? An actor? Perhaps a politician? Maybe a musician or folk singer? It is Mohammed Al-Arefe, an extremist religious leader based in Saudi Arabia who has more than 18 million followers and is prolific on Snap (“Snap fatwas”) and other platforms. Based on new data and research in my book Digital World War, he is one of the biggest reasons young people from Saudi and the Middle East are buying tickets and traveling to Syria to join Isis and Jabhat-al-Nusra.
Myth #4: Counter insurgency strategies work against Isis
To stop more gruesome attacks in the West or anywhere in the Middle East we need a new approach. Public health research can teach us more about fighting Isis then current counter-insurgency strategies. Isis spreads like a sexually transmitted disease, through intimate, one on one contact. To contain this “infection” we need “ring immunisation”, which serves to inoculate against the further spread (looking at people’s networks, communities/neighbourhoods).
Myth #5: More Technology is the answer to extremism
Another mistaken assumption is that technology, on its own, can counter violent extremism. Actually, we’re seeing that technology can exacerbate the problem. Isis fanboys had a field day after the latest New York attack, switching from open source platforms to end to end encryption after the attack. Isis has become adept at using not only social media platforms, but now the dark/deep web and even Bitcoin. The fact that technology and access to information are cheaper today than ever before means that young people now have a virtual community where they can find others who share and amplify their grievances. Twitter is great for venting, but there isn’t a Muslim Peace Corps to complement this new channeled energy. Extremist groups provide a concrete alternative.
Myth #6: Poverty causes militancy and extremism
We need to look more closely at the backgrounds of the people who are actually joining extremist groups like Isis. They aren’t all destitute and desperate. Poor people aren’t joining Isis in droves (data shows there isn’t direct causation here). Rather, foreign fighters are coming from what you could call the thin middle class: young people who are educated and making between $1,000-$1,500 dollars a month are joining Isis. The motivation for joining is not so much about escaping poverty as it is about economic (upward) mobility and not being stuck.
Myth #7: It is all about counter-narratives
There’s discontent that the Arab spring and revolutions didn’t produce the change people looked for. People feel that playing by the rules of the game don’t work. Religion offers a change narrative that provides a practical outlet to “walk the walk” and be part of something bigger. But sometimes when you develop counter-narratives they only serve as a backfire effect, to reinforce previously held views. The challenge from a messaging standpoint is to promote the credible, local voices who can offer a more compelling and authentic alternative to Isis. Messengers matter.
Myth #8: Isis is done forever
Actually not only is Isis not done, but Isis 3.0 is already on the scene. Many have been quick to document and celebrate the physical battlefield losses Isis has suffered, in Raqqa, Dabiq and many other Syria strongholds. But Isis’s success isn’t only retaining these places – ISis has been successful in inspiring and directing attacks in Europe and SE Asia. And they have new franchise groups like Ansar al Furqan operating with rapid speed in several regional hot spots.
Myth #9: It is all about lone-wolf attacks
Research shows there is a rarely a “lone-wolf attack”. I would bet that the New York attack investigation will show that many people came into contact with the terrorist. Attackers and recruits are touched and engaged by dozens if not hundreds almost daily.
Myth #10: Extremists are running out of money
While the technology companies have done good work in taking down Isis fan boy accounts, Isis has found new ways to garner illicit money, including using Bitcoin. Others like Al-Shabab excise taxes on local populations, and others like Jubhat Al Nusra are continuing to smuggle oil and drugs.
Haroon K Ullah is chief strategy officer for the US government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors, and is the author of Digital World War (Yale University Press, £18.99)