Undermining the Effectiveness of ISIS Recruitment
By Cody Gardiner
The recruitment of Western Muslims by the Islamic State (IS) is one of the most critical foreign policy issues facing President Trump. As the flow of young, disillusioned Muslims from Western countries into IS-controlled territory continues, questions persist regarding why IS recruitment has been so successful and what efforts might be taken to counter the radicalization of disaffected youth. One particularly potent reason that explains the effectiveness of IS in recruiting young Muslim men and women from Europe and the United States is its appeal to differing backgrounds through its sophisticated social media-focused propaganda machine. A growing perception among young Muslims that Western culture is inherently anti-Islamic fuels IS recruitment.
IS recruitment centers around its mastery of social media platforms. A 2015 study of IS Twitter use found over 46,000 Twitter accounts in the US and Europe that supported IS. One key tactic to attract foreign fighters is to project its successes on social media. The Islamic State is unique compared to Al Qaeda and other extremist groups because it has captured territory with military successes in both Iraq and Syria. Western citizens who have joined IS often post tales of these successes on social networking platforms for propaganda and recruitment purposes. Documenting fighting and other events aims to demonstrate that joining IS action in Syria and Iraq is more exciting than laying low in Western cities.
IS social media recruiters use a variety of recruitment methods targeted at Western Muslims. Recruiters follow both radical and mainstream social media networks, looking for anti-Western sentiments or other triggers that signal a potential recruit. After finding potential targets, IS propagandists and recruiters use a process called “grooming,” in which they lavish attention on potential recruits to shape their worldviews and encourage action. Initially, IS social media recruiters answer questions casually and in a friendly manner until they develop trust, then find an opening to begin proselytizing. Recruiters send 50-60 tweets per day on average, continuously conversing with their targets until the communication "goes dark.” This shift is an indicator of deepening radicalization, as the move to private messaging signifies a move to potentially illicit discussions. A simpler but just as important strategy that IS uses to recruit foreign fighters is the broadcasting of its propaganda in languages other than Arabic, such as French, English, and German. This allows IS to reach out to the European Muslim population who may lack Arabic language skills.
Despite the many obstacles that exist in combatting IS recruitment of young Western Muslims, effective countermeasures can be implemented that would complicate IS recruitment strategies. Immigration programs and education campaigns designed to reduce Muslim alienation in Western countries would enhance this minority population’s sense of acceptance in their host societies. Disaffection of Muslims also can be counteracted with an increase in jobs available to immigrants and legislative actions that would help to preserve Islamic culture within Western societies. The use of former extremists to act as counter-messengers against the IS recruitment machine has proven to be more effective than government agencies or moderate imams in halting the radicalization of potential recruits. NGOs that provide specialized counseling to teach former extremists how to be effective in the online fight against IS recruitment are imperative to this mission. The use of quotations from the Quran or hadiths (sayings of the prophet Muhammad or reports about something he did) is crucial in the context of counter-messaging. Interpretations of religious texts like the Quran or hadiths can be decisive in preventing radicalization, as a counter-messenger can use them to make religious objections to extremism by painting IS ideals as ones that stand in opposition to Allah’s or the Prophet’s will.