Despite losing its strongholds in Raqqa, Syria and Mosul, Iraq in recent months, ISIS continues to be a global threat. But how did the movement gain so much traction in the first place? Their killer social media strategy may have had something to do with it.
Learn more about it at Disruption Network Lab’s Terror Feeds conference (Nov 24-25 at Kunstquartier Bethanien’s Studio 1). Presenting the keynote on Friday is the award-winning British journalist and documentarist Sue Turton, a former Al Jazeera correspondent who was convicted of “conspiring with terrorists” in Egypt. She told us the cornerstones of ISIS’ appeal and what the next steps are in stopping them.
The subject of your keynote is “How ISIS Became a Global Threat”. The answer is obviously a long one, but can you give us a brief overview?
ISIS is the product of a perfect storm. It gained strength and got the furthest in Iraq and Syria because of two things. One being the West going into Iraq and taking apart the Ba’ath party [which Saddam Hussein led until 2003] and the other being the growth of extremism through people being disillusioned by the way they are treated. ISIS has these two sides to it. There’s the extremist side, where they’ve learned from experts in insurgency how to take on areas with suicide bombings. [Secondly], it has some of Saddam Hussein’s greatest commanders who had been disrespected in their own country. The unholy alliance of these two groups is what really gained them strength so quickly. As ISIS moved in and out of Iraq, the Iraqi army just melted away and didn’t put up a fight until the Peshmerga and the Iranian militia came to its aid.
That’s how they gained traction locally. How did ISIS end up being such a major force when it comes to global terrorism?
A lot of it comes down to feeling disaffected – in these communities around the world where Muslims, young Muslims, specifically boys, don’t feel they have a part in society. Here I’m talking about terrorism in places like the Bataclan, not what happened in Marawi in the Philippines earlier this year. But in these places, particularly in Europe, it’s racism, people that don’t quite understand the Muslim faith. They see it as a threat instead of seeing it as an extraordinary religion that should be embraced. I think a lot of the time these young people don’t think they have a part in society. And that’s why they turn and look to something else. ISIS has gotten incredibly good at recruiting. They use social media to attract people who are falling between the cracks.
We’ve heard countless stories by now about young European men and women travelling to fight in Syria or Iraq. How does ISIS appeal to these kinds of people?
It is doing this double-sided thing of taking the Muslim faith, but turning it into something extreme. ISIS has reached out to youngsters playing computer games at home and suddenly told them that they can be given an AK-47 and go and start firing at people. And then they believe they can justify it by referring to religion and saying the world they’re living in doesn’t understand that religion. So ISIS is exciting, but it’s also making people believe they are doing something that is true to their background and their faith. That’s also where they differ from Al-Qaeda or the Taliban, for example. ISIS doesn’t just want a caliphate, it wants a brand new way of life for the world. That’s the pull. That and the fact that nobody else before has used social media like ISIS has. A guy who was locked up in a Moroccan prison used to work for the production arm of ISIS. He talked about the incredibly sophisticated way the group was calling attention to their daily shooting ritual. It was like the running of a proper TV channel promoting ISIS. Nobody, no fighting force, insurgency or terrorist group, has ever behaved that way before.
Could anything have been done earlier, by Western or local governments in Iraq, to prevent the expansion of ISIS?
The West, particularly the US, gave the Shi’a government carte blanche to do whatever they liked to Iraq. There was a real push against some of the Sunni minorities within the government. If they had been more thoughtful and more considerate to a very large part of the population, I think ISIS wouldn’t have become so strong, because they wouldn’t have been shielded by this frustrated community.
That’s why everyone is watching what’s happening in Mosul now. Even though you’ve liberated an area, you have to be incredibly careful about what happens next. It’s subtle, it’s complicated, and it’s certainly something that the Western countries that went into Iraq after Saddam Hussein didn’t understand. I hope that they’ve learned that lesson. I know that there is such a worry in Mosul at the moment that the Iraqi government will repeat the mistakes it has made before.
There’s been talks about how ISIS will start doing more terrorism abroad once their caliphate has been broken down. Do you think this will happen?
I was in the Philippines for the battle for Marawi [earlier this year]. When Raqqa and Mosul were being squeezed, we heard quite a lot that ISIS was calling on people to come to Asia if they couldn’t stay in those areas. We know as well that there are certain numbers of ISIS fighters going to Afghanistan. Just because they are being kicked out of their caliphate, they haven’t all decided just to bake bread for the rest of their lives. They are either moving on to somewhere else or they are disappearing back into communities. The fear is that they’ve done that in Syria and Iraq, forming what you’d call “sleeper cells”. The intelligence divisions all over the world, I’m sure, are absolutely rushed on their feet trying to work out where the next real threat is going to be.
What can actually be done to stop ISIS at this point, in your opinion?
First, the intelligence communities have to share all of their information with each other. This group moves all around the world and gets through borders seamlessly. I remember being in Turkey talking to one of ISIS’ human smugglers and he said the Turkish border police are all being paid off; there’s a lot of pressure being put on Turkey to change that. Then, obviously, there’s the other side where you need to tackle the areas where these young, disaffected guys are coming from. And there’s no shortcut to this. You have to treat people properly. There must be a better understanding of people who have a different religion. You can’t be thinking people are weird just because they wear a headscarf.
So would you say that in terms of shutting down ISIS on a global scale, the truly hard work is just getting started?
I don’t think it’s getting more difficult than it already is. Even though we keep a fighting force in Syria or Iraq, the sleeper cells and the insurgents are still going to be there. Intelligence services are getting better at tracking their communication, but it’s still hard. It’s the so-called “lone wolves”, the kids that are not attached to anything, that you can’t stop. If you’ve got a lone wolf who’s just hiring a van on Europcar and driving it over a bridge, mowing loads of people down, that’s not about stopping a network from talking to each other. That is why the social media side is so important to ISIS, and why the social media world has to get responsible with stopping the message from getting out there. Which is something completely different. In many respects it’s almost like taking away freedoms. We have to discuss how important social media freedom is. If you can see something on Facebook or Twitter but it’s detrimental and creating these lone wolves, is that something we want in our society?
Terror Feeds | November 24-25, Studio 1, Kunstquartier Bethanien, Mariannenplatz 2, Kreuzberg. Full programme at http://www.disruptionlab.org/terror-feeds/