COUNTER TERRORISM: Understanding the Islamic State Threat

April 6, 2015 at 7:59 pm Leave a comment

Fighting a Radical Tide on Social Media.

Islamic State insurgents in Iraq's Anbar Province in 2014. (Wikipedia)

Islamic State insurgents in Iraq’s Anbar Province in 2014.
(Wikipedia)

WASHINGTON — You’ve seen them on TV or the Internet: faces masked, waving black flags and AK-47s , videotaping heinous acts of barbarism against soldiers and civilians that fall into their hands. They call themselves the Islamic State.

But what is the United States and its allies to do about the growing number of people from around the world — the CIA estimates 10,000 — flocking to Iraq and Syria, pledging allegiance to this self-styled caliphate, a terrorist group so vicious its parent organization, al Qaeda, disowned them?

Two professors at the National War College tackled that and other questions Monday (April 6) in a briefing at the National Press Club sponsored by the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative.

Dr. Richard Andres said the group has been very successful using social media to recruit new members and raise money. Despite the disturbing images of beheadings and other violence that IS has spread across the Internet, despite the knowledge that Islamic State practices severe Sharia law that calls for stoning, flogging and mutilating wrongdoers, hundreds of mostly young people are leaving their homes in Europe, the Americas, North Africa and Asia to join IS and risk their lives in a war zone. The group is also called ISIL (for Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) by the U.S. government and ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) by others.

Andres, professor of National Security Strategy at the War College, says social media takes advantage of two psychological quirks: People are attracted to the sensational, whether it be lurid gossip or disturbing images, and will click on a webpage to see it. People are also “attracted to things that confirm our existing biases,” Andres said, so the politically unsophisticated or economically frustrated are drawn in to view more and more outrageous information.Soon they’re hearing just one side of the story and straying farther and farther from mainstream cultural attitudes. This is especially true in undemocratic regimes where the government controls the media. If you can’t trust mainstream media in your country, Andres said, you’re going to be drawn toward more radical information. The message IS sends of fighting repression and exploitation by the West “resonates with young people,” playing on their desire to initiate change and fight injustice.

Dr. Omer Taspinar said most of Islamic State’s new recruits are believed to come — not from the poor and downtrodden of Middle Eastern slums — but from middle and working class immigrant families in Britain, Germany, Italy, France and other European countries. While these radicalized young Muslims are often educated and have grown up in democratic societies, social and economic inequality still play a role in what Taspinar called “relative deprivation.” Dissatisfaction grows with unmet aspirations and expectations of a good job, family and a better life until, in some cases, it becomes unbearable. “It’s about the gap between opportunities and expectations,” he added.

This frustration leads to a feeling of alienation. “They become rebels looking for a cause,” and that makes them susceptible to radical propaganda on social media, said Taspinar, whose expertise includes political economy and Europe, the Middle East and Turkey. Both he and Andres stressed they were expressing their own views and not those of the National War College or the U.S. government.

Islamic State's territories in Syria and Iraq. CLICK TO ENLARGE (Map from the Institute for the Study of War)

Islamic State’s territories in Syria and Iraq. CLICK TO ENLARGE
(Map from the Institute for the Study of War)

Here at the 4GWAR Blog we’ve written often about the Department of Homeland Security’s concerns that American citizens who have been radicalized and served with Islamic State’s insurgencies in Syria and Iraq may return home with dangerous military skills that could be used for terrorist attacks.

Andres said the United States needs to get better at countering radical propaganda on the Web, not an easy task in a country where free speech is enshrined in the Constitution and spying on citizens is unlawful and unpopular. Unlike Russia and China, “the U.S. can’t stop people from saying what they want online,” he added. While the U.S. State Department has a small, underfunded program to challenge radical Islamist propaganda “it’s only a drop in the bucket,” Andres said.

“Not all radicals become terrorists,” Taspinar said, adding that the United States should do what it can at home and abroad to encourage tolerance. He suggested that helping autocratic regimes in the Middle East sends the wrong message to disaffected Muslim youth. Countries with good governance and rule of law can “afford” to be tolerant, he said but “once you lose your sense of security and are threatened by many enemies, you lose your sense of tolerance.” Taspinar noted that after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, “the U.S. lost its sense of security. It feels much more vulnerable and it became much harder to be a Muslim in America after 9/11.”

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Entry filed under: Counter Insurgency, Counter Terrorism, Homeland Security, National Security and Defense, News Developments, Unconventional Warfare. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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