ISIS’ capital in Syria may be liberated. But the terror group has 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—terrorists like the one who drove a truck into bikers and pedestrians in lower Manhattan on Halloween.
How has ISIS been able to evolve into this new incarnation—despite so many billions of dollars spent, and so many brave lives lost in the fight?
In part, it’s because our conception of groups like ISIS is still largely based on myths about extremists, rather than realities of who they are and how they operate.
Here are seven of those myths:
Myth #1: Extremists like ISIS are luring people into terrorism.
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’ 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 stylized violence in ISIS’ videos that motivates potential recruits. A recent meme with a picture of a foreign fighter enjoying a bike ride with a kitten in tow is attempting to show that young people are liberated as part of this ISIS ecosystem, a Club Med for foreign fighters.
Myth #2: Extremists are selling a medieval, dark narrative.
Eighty percent 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 Russian. (Those are the top three languages 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. A recent video shows them focusing on governance and recruiting service professionals—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 over 18 million followers and is prolific on Snapchat (“Snap fatwas”) and other platforms. And based on new data and research in my book Digital World War, al-Arefe is one of the biggest reasons young people from Saudi and Middle East are buying tickets and traveling to Syria to join ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra. Al-Arefe understands audience segmentation (saying one thing that appeals to youth in the Levant versus in Europe) and provides change narratives in eight second sound bites.
Myth #4: 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 of the over 6500 foreign fighters that have gone from Europe and North America, 70 percent of them have secondary and tertiary higher education). Rather, foreign fighters are coming from what you could call the thin middle class: young people who are educated and making between $1,000 and $1,500 per month are joining ISIS. The motivation for joining ISIS is not so much about escaping poverty as it is about identity grievances—these young people want to be part of something that is being built, something bigger which is an aspirational group identity.
Myth #5: It’s all about countering ISIS’ narrative.
The Arab Spring and its subsequent 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. In the game of counter-narratives, many say we should counter step-by-step ISIS propaganda and ideas, everything they say. But sometimes when you develop counter-narratives they have a backfire effect to fortify already-held positions and views. For example, government affiliated religious leaders proclamations on social media fall on deaf ears. The challenge from a messaging standpoint is to promote the credible, local voices who can offer a more compelling and authentic alternative to ISIS. We need to amplify the thousands of young Malala’s out there and allow them to tell their story.
Myth #6: Extremists are running out of money.
While the technology companies have done good work in taking down ISIS fanboy 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.
Myth #7: It’s all about lone-wolf attacks.
Research shows there is a rarely a “lone-wolf attack.” During the 2016 Brussels terrorist attacks, for example, early analysts thought it was limited to lone-wolves acting rather independently. As they later found out, the terrorists had significant connections to the tragic 2015 Paris bombings and to ISIS fanboys in the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek. I would bet that the NYC attack 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.