As western powers discuss to what extent their military capacity should be used against Islamic State they are also having to face the reality of radicalisation processes taking place in their own countries. Estimates of foreign fighters leaving Europe, North America and Australia remain staggeringly high compared with previous conflicts like the Afghan War. Rough estimates dictate that between 2-3,000 Europeans, 500 of which are British citizens, are thought to be fighting alongside jihadists in the Syrian War, and now Iraq. This reality of home-grown radicalisation was brought to the forefront of our concerns with the recent gruesome murders of John Foley and Steven Sotloff at the hands of a British jihadist, publicised by both extremist networks and mainstream media alike.
In order to counter these trends, it is necessary to understand how western citizens can find themselves willing to travel abroad to participate in a foreign war, filled with chaos, violence and instability. What does the Syrian and Iraqi crisis offer to young recruits coming from, often comfortable, European backgrounds?
Today, young Europeans generally face daunting future forecasts. This is the first generation who feels that their prospects are worse than their parents’ generation. Job prospects for young adults are highly competitive and often discouraging, with 7.5 million young Europeans between 15 and 24 being recorded as unemployed, not in education and not in training. For young individuals coming from immigrant backgrounds, this tension is further strained by the reality of coming to terms with one’s identity, often facing verbal and sometimes physical abuse based on race and ethnicity.
In exchange for the isolation, poor job prospects and questions of identity young individuals face today, recruiters for extremist groups offer a four-strand solution: a social network, a sense of adventure, a heroic goal and theological justifications. In this respect, recruiters for extremist networks seem more in touch with the hopes and desires of their target audience than broader society.
Islamic State recruitment propaganda
Following a number of Islamic State Twitter feeds and analysing IS literature material it is easy to see the four strands of propaganda at play. The language of brotherhood, comradeship and unity depicts the terrorist organisation as a band of brothers, offering family and friendship. Imagery of weapon-laden individuals in expensive military vehicles, tweets discussing the prospects of local women marrying jihadi soldiers and discussions about the rugged beauty of Syria and Iraq provide an alluring adventure narrative.
To justify the more violent and brutal realities of war, the extremist ideology of jihadists largely revolves around the end goal of martyrdom and the establishment of a pristine ‘Islamic’ utopia. Islamist terrorist propaganda, from al-Qaida to Islamic State, all praise the concept of martyrdom and dying for God’s cause above all else. Indeed, to die in the name of God is the pinnacle of being a Muslim according to extremist rhetoric.
It is also important to recognise that part of the priming process for young individuals has taken place via western media and government rhetoric. Media headlines and leading political figures have all spoken of the atrocities carried out by the Syrian government under the Assad regime. Many viewers were shocked and appalled at the brutality and human rights abuses taking place in Syria at the hands of Assad, and thus called for the fostering of a strong opposition. Unfortunately, the only strong opposition groups able to take shape were jihadist organisations. Because of this, many of the original ‘foreign fighters’ to have left for Syria persuaded by the humanitarian cause, found themselves bottle-necked into joining extremist militant groups. As such, the feeling that western governments were failing to assist in the Syrian crisis has served to bolster the ranks of groups like IS.
How to develop a counter-narrative
Everyone has a part to play in developing a counter-narrative to quell the shocking prevalence of radicalisation. The real needs and concerns of society need to be addressed. For governments and media we need more transparent and unbiased depictions of foreign conflicts that include straightforward reporting on how this crisis has developed and what role various governments play. Why western governments do, or do not, carry out military missions is very important to understand, such as explaining why the Assad government was not confronted more forcefully by the international community.
At the heart of this crisis, however, there is a civil society solution. We need to address the roots of radicalisation. Community leaders, religious figures, youth activists and educational establishments should all be openly discussing the different aspects of the crisis in Syria and Iraq to counter the unhealthy ideologies espoused with impunity by both violent and non-violent extremist groups. Engagement both online and offline must take place. Explanations as to why Islamic State’s goals are not religiously sanctioned need to be expressed openly. Young activists also need to engage, to debate these topics openly and take action in expressing the vast majority’s solidarity against violence and exclusionist ideologies in support of pluralism and democratic values.
Erin Marie Saltman is a senior researcher at Quilliam
Photo: Michal Przedlacki
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