Extremist Smarts

09.02.14

It'll Take More Than Bombs to Stop ISIS

The group’s recruiting message to disaffected Muslims in the West is sophisticated and modern. No amount of airstrikes will counter that.

If President Obama truly wants to formulate a plan to defeat ISIS, a military solution won’t do it alone.  It will also take a concerted effort by Muslim, governmental, and other community leaders working together to counter extremism.

As we all know, ISIS’s stated goal is to establish a Muslim nation (caliphate) across great swaths of the Middle East. And to accomplish this, ISIS needs to raise a massive Muslim army. I’m talking a military reminiscent of the one formed by famed Muslim leader Salah al-Din, who united Muslims from across the region to defeat the Crusaders and liberate Jerusalem in 1187.  But current estimates place ISIS at approximately 20,000 to 25,000 fighters. That is woefully short of what ISIS needs, and they know it.

So how is ISIS planning to raise this colossal army? By using every means possible.

They are employing Islamic history to entice people. Just ask their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. That isn’t his real name; it’s Ibrahim Awad. So why did he change his name to Abu Bakr? Because that was the name of the leader of the first Islamic caliphate, established after the Prophet Muhammad died in 632. 

The group has created YouTube videos in various languages and with subtitles to appeal to Muslims around the world. As The Daily Beast’s Jacob Siegel noted, they have shrewdly utilized social media to expand their reach.

France, with a Muslim population of 5 million, has seen 700 go join ISIS. Indonesia, by contrast—the world’s largest Muslim country—has seen just 30 recruits.

Plus, they have created a flashy online magazine, called Dābiq, in Arabic and English. The English version, which The New York Times posted via a PDF, is in essence ISIS’s detailed plea to recruit Muslims. Some of the magazine is very well written, likely penned by someone with journalistic or public relations experience.

The magazine’s editors even invite people to submit comments: “The Dābiq team would like to hear back from its readers,” although they note all submissions “may be modified by the Dābiq team” before publishing. It’s surreal that a terrorist group is warning people, in the same vein as a mainstream media outlet would, that it might modify your letter to the editor before publishing.

It also includes flashy images that range from the Abercrombie and Fitch-type shots of ISIS fighters to gruesome photos of people they killed.

As would be expected, the magazine seeks to recruit Muslims by claiming its actions are in keeping with the Quran, and its work is consistent with Islamic obligations.  

Interestingly, this issue of the magazine also offers a detailed explanation about why ISIS fighters killed so many fellow Muslims in Iraq. ISIS claims that these Muslims had been living immoral lives, drinking alcohol, taking drugs and alleging that some men were “married to more than four wives!” (Exclamation point theirs.) No doubt this is in response to the broad criticism across the Muslim world to ISIS’s brutal slaughtering of fellow Muslims.

And unsurprisingly, the magazine is highly critical of Obama. In an article entitled “In the words of the enemy,” it describes Obama as a “crusader, apostate.”  They also mockingly state that Obama is just like George W. Bush in terms of policy toward the Muslims, except for “cosmetic” and “superficial” differences.  

Flashy magazine and social media aside, the greatest appeal ISIS offers is a new life in an Islamic state. Al Qaeda couldn’t offer that. In fact, ISIS’s magazine talks of Muslims being “modern-day slaves” to un-Islamic, Western masters like “wages.” In ISIS’s new nation, it promises to put Islam over worldly demands.

The people being lured in by ISIS’s message might surprise some. But it should be a wakeup call for all.

The biggest number of foreigners joining ISIS are not from large Muslim countries, but from the West. For example, France has seen more than 700 join up, from its Muslim population of 5 million. The UK has seen more than 500 join ISIS out of its Muslim population of 2.7 million.  And Germany, with approximately 5 million Muslims, has seen close to 350 head off to ISIS.

Contrast that to Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world—more than 200 million Muslims. How many Indonesians have joined ISIS? Estimates are 30. And India, which is home to more than 150 million Muslims, estimates are that fewer than 20 have joined ISIS.

Why is this happening? The religious and government leaders in Muslim-dominated countries have swiftly and unequivocally denounced ISIS as being un-Islamic. For example, in Malaysia, a nation with 20 million Muslims, the prime minister denounced ISIS as “appalling” and going against the teachings of Islam (only about 50 have joined ISIS from there). In Indonesia, Muslim leaders not only publicly condemned ISIS, the government criminalized support for the group. And while some allege that certain Saudi individuals are financially supporting ISIS, the Saudi government officially declared ISIS a terrorist group back in March and is arresting suspected ISIS recruiters.

This can be a helpful guide to other nations in deterring ISIS from recruiting. A joint strategy of working with Muslim leaders in denouncing ISIS and criminalizing any support appears to be working. 

And to that end, on Monday, British Muslim leaders issued a fatwa (religious edict) condemning ISIS and announcing Muslims were religiously prohibited from joining ISIS. 

But that appears to be easy part. The more challenging issue is reducing the alienation and tension between the minority Muslim populations in countries that have seen the most people head off to join ISIS. Few can doubt there’s a connection.

For example, in the UK, a 2013 poll found that 28 percent of young people thought the country would be better off with fewer Muslims.  Those views contribute to a sense of estrangement Muslims feel from the rest of British society. In turn, it makes ISIS’s message more enticing because people feel more loyalty to their faith than their country.

No doubt in the near future our government, along with our allies, will announce a military approach to counter ISIS. But if the goal is to truly stop ISIS, and the ISIS of the future, it will take more than bombs.