Sunday,17 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1242, (16-22 April 2015)
Sunday,17 February, 2019
Issue 1242, (16-22 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Cubs of the Caliphate

The recruitment techniques of the Al-Qaeda and Islamic State terrorist groups differ in Europe and North America and the Arab and Islamic worlds, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

“About twenty thousand years ago during the Paleolithic Age, human beings evolved a ‘new brain’, the neocortex, home of the reasoning powers and self-awareness that enable us to stand back from the instinctive, primitive passions. Humans thus became roughly as they are today, subject to the impulses of their three distinct brains” – Karen Armstrong

Apocalyptic reasoning is a primary feature of many religions, whether monotheistic or polytheistic. And so is the unsettling ambiguity of violence. Islam has no monopoly on bloodshed. Nevertheless, in recent years Islamist terrorists have tarnished the image of Islam, particularly in the West where the religion is sometimes projected as being synonymous with bloodletting and terrorism.

Numerous questions continue to be unanswered. So traumatised have the victims and their families been by the ferocity of terrorist psychological warfare methods that the terrorists’ recruitment techniques that lure young people into their lairs have often left the world befuddled by precisely how the recruitment system works.

Paradoxically, warfare and terrorism were in some cases originally intended to champion the underdog. Ostensibly Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) groups recruit disaffected and disfranchised youth invariably from poverty-stricken backgrounds. Or so the myth says. It may be true in some instances, but it is certainly not always the case. Violence has metamorphosed into the terrorists’ alter ego.

The myth and its accompanying rituals of recruitment abound. The Islamic State group uses different tactics in recruiting young people depending on their different cultural backgrounds. Young people in the Middle East in particular are coerced into joining the terrorist movement. North Africa is somewhat different, as young people there are cajoled and captivated in a similar fashion to the methods used in Europe and North America.   

Proactive assertions of religious sanctity are invariably re-enacted by attracting the young people to incarceration in the Middle East, especially war-torn countries such as Syria and Iraq. The religious texts have been taken over by zealots. It is the hereafter that matters, with the present being transitory if not entirely irrelevant.

Tunisia is a case in point. The country is the most westernised and secular in North Africa, and yet jihadist Websites tell a bloodcurdling tale. The Tunisian Interior Ministry estimates that at least 2,400 Tunisian citizens have been recruited by IS. They have left the country for the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. Others crossed into neighbouring Libya. Countless Tunisian young people have headed for Al-Qaeda-affiliated and Islamic State Libyan training camps.

Tunisia, or rather a segment of Tunisian society, is also in tune with the terrorist mindset. Arguably, in the Tunisian setting poverty and unemployment play a part in the dissatisfaction and discontent of the jobless youth. Publicity videos on social media networks explicitly demonstrate how militant zealots masquerading as charity workers enter impoverished homes bearing “gifts” of food and handy household utensils to attract followers.

Heroism is a potent disease, according to the ancient Hindu sages. The same can be said of contemporary jihadism. Even as many poor Tunisians flock to the Levant to join the Islamist groups, it is important to note that not all Tunisian participants in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are drawn from impoverished households. Many of them are comparatively well to do.

Overwhelmingly secularist Algeria faces a similar predicament. An Algeria-based Islamist terrorist group called Jund Al-Khilafah that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State claimed responsibility for kidnapping and beheading a French hiker, Hervé Gourde, in the remote Djurdjura massif east of Algiers in September 2014. Once again, the familiar terrorist tactic of displaying the gory deed on social media was re-enacted.

Child soldiers are constantly bombarded with sermons about the “honour of martyrdom” and untimely death and urged to put their faith in the afterlife. Martyrs, including suicide bombers, are glorified. Algeria’s ministry of defence announced last December that the leader of the terrorist group, Abdel-Malek Gouri, had been captured and killed by the Algerian military. Many of Gouri’s associates were adolescents.

THE SITUATION IN SYRIA: In Syria, an entirely different technique is at work.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an NGO, published a report recently on the recruitment of adolescents and young people to the Islamic State group. The report specifically mentioned two Syrian cities, Al-Mayadin and Al-Bokamal, saying that street children and students who attended extra religious studies in mosques were particularly vulnerable.

“IS also tries to lure children by promises of money, weapons and cars,” the report noted. Children who are regarded as headstrong and refuse to comply are tortured, raped and in some instances even murdered in cold blood, it said.

The children are often recruited from broken homes, or from those pronounced by the terrorists to be irreligious, apostates or atheist. They are taught to spy on their parents by the terrorist warlords and report their presumed abominable deeds. They are often dissuaded from showing any signs of sympathy with their parents.

The unfortunate adolescents recruited by IS are often emboldened to behead those deemed to be traitors, in some cases childhood friends. Ruthlessness and savagery are supposed to be signs of machismo. As proof of their manliness, the adolescents are moved from their hometowns to distant regions where they sever any ties with their families.

The most promising children are recruited into the terrorist forces as fighters. Those who display psychological problems are encouraged to become suicide bombers, and the adolescents are systematically classified according to “strength of character.”  

Girls are especially vulnerable and are subjected to a different style of brainwashing. Young women are systematically used as sex slaves. “It hurts my heart to live here [in Britain]. I yearn to be the wife of a mujahid [an IS militant]. I so badly want to go to [the Syrian IS stronghold] Raqqa and live under the Sharia and live in the land of the khilafa [caliphate], but as a young Muslim woman in Britain it is really difficult,” one young woman of British nationality said on social media recently.   

“I swear by Allah I completely understand the feeling,” another young British Muslim woman confided. “I refused in the West to marry anyone unless he was a mujahid, I wanted someone who fought for the religion of Allah,” she extrapolated.

The London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, an NGO, claims that as many as 4,000 Europeans have flocked to IS, some 600 from Britain alone. And according to social media monitoring sites, there are many more young women from Europe and North America who given the chance would go to fight alongside IS militants in Syria and Iraq.

When Amira Abase, 15, Shamima Begum, 15, and Kadiza Sultana, 16, left Britain for Turkey and crossed the  porous 400-km-long Turkish-Syrian border to IS-controlled territory without the permission of their parents recently, it triggered much soul-searching in the British and international media.

Western women are encouraged to become brides of fighters and raise warriors, according to IS propaganda circulated on social media. “The best thing for a woman is to be a righteous wife and to raise righteous children,” one blogger expounded.

 The life of the brides of the mujahids was “never meant for ease but as a lesson of patience and hardship,” another blogger clarified. “Groups like IS believe they have a theological right to the bodies of women and girls,” notes Karima Bennoune, an Algerian-American professor at the University of California Davis School of Law in the United States.

It is still unclear why so many young women in Europe and North America succumb to such misogynist ideology and propaganda.

LOOKING FOR ANSWERS: Fadel Soliman, a London-based preacher and member of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, has produced three documentary films about Islam, the series called “The Fog is Lifting.” He is the director of the Bridges Foundation that focuses on the enlightenment of Muslim youth in Britain today. He also conducts a workshop in the East London Mosque on the Surat al-Nur [The Light] in the Quran.

According to Soliman, IS has entirely subverted the original Islamic message. “We did not make much of the address by Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the Al-Qaeda leader, when he urged a declaration of a caliphate in India some years ago. We overlooked the implications of this. However, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State leader, is very savvy. He took his cue from Al-Zawahiri,” Soliman told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“He instructed Muslim youth to embrace the concept of a caliphate, a state where Islamic Sharia law predominates. He stressed that he had created a state where Muslims can live freely under Sharia law. He went a step further, however, warning that the objectives of Muslims cannot be realised by peaceful means. He advocated violence. Youth were the fodder of his ideology,” Soliman added.

When the militias of the IS in flight from Iraqi government forces rampage through Palestinian refugee camps such as Yarmouk in Damascus, they represent a terrifying threat to the most vulnerable sectors of society. This wave of terror and persecution is inspired by a distorted ideology, Soliman said.

British Muslim Asian adolescents had been motivated to join IS by Al-Zahawiri’s injunction, further articulated by Al-Baghdadi, Soliman said. However, he said that the number of recruits had been exaggerated in the international media. IS has recruited at least 400 adolescents in Syria over the past three months. Indoctrination is crucial as strategy, and only a select few are actually conscripted.

“They use children because it is easy to brainwash them,” Soliman said. The US state department claims that there are “dozens” of US citizens who have been enlisted in IS and the British government’s most recent headcount is 500. Likewise, the Canadian government claims there are now many Canadian IS combatants.

Disquiet about what is perceived as the “decadence” of life in Europe and North America is viewed as at odds with the teachings of Islam. “The adolescent members of the Islamic State do not have to be religious fanatics. Many just want to learn more about Islam and lead a pious and idealistic Muslim life. And hence they pay allegiance to the terrorist organisation,” Soliman stressed.

The IS is constantly recasting its recruitment policy. Al-Qaeda, too, has launched a comprehensive recruitment policy review. Douglas McAuthur McCain grew up in Minnesota and then moved west to California. He is a typical example of the disfranchised youth who embrace the ideology of IS. McCain was killed in a clash with a secular Syrian opposition faction, the Free Syria Army. The Pentagon noted that McCain was “the first name and face we can put on home-grown terrorism.”

“It’s Islam over everything,” McCain said before he died on his Twitter account. He was an ordinary African-American. Before he left for Syria via Turkey, he worked in The African Sun, a Somali restaurant in San Diego, California.

But not all recruits end up dead in the wastelands of Syria and north-western Iraq. Some survive to tell the tale of their defection and shed light on the lives they led when under the tutelage of IS.

“The worst thing I saw was a man getting his head hacked off in front of me,” confessed a female former IS recruit. On her Twitter account she spoke of brothels where prostitutes were exclusively Yazidi, Christian and Shia Muslim women. Sunni Muslim women were cooks, cleaners and child carers.

INTERNATIONAL REPORTS ABOUND: “We ask what does it take to end this crisis? The future of a generation is at stake. The credibility of the international community is at stake,” said a joint statement of the United Nations, with officials such as Valerie Amos, under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, and Leila Zerrougui, special representative of the secretary-general for children and armed conflict, both expressing their disquiet.

According to a recently released UN report, IS militants specifically target vulnerable children in Syria and Iraq, in particular those with disabilities, those living on the street, refugee children, and those who have lost their parents. These are especially selected as suicide bombers.

Buttressed by statements from UN officials, the world has been reminded that human rights law declares 18 to be the minimum legal age for army recruitment. Several UN reports about child recruitment have been released in quick succession in recent months. “Ethnic or religious divisions fuelled by power struggles have also enabled the rise of extremist armed groups who use tactics of extreme violence targeting children and adults indiscriminately and with no distinction between civilians and combatants,” Zerrougui said in a statement.

“Many children are abducted and beaten into submission,” she observed. “What is tragic is that what we have seen, monitored and verified is only a fraction of the violations suffered by the children,” she added. “Children urgently need our protection.” She stressed the disastrous consequences of the “violations and specific needs of children affected by armed conflict.” The psychological impact of the violence on children was particularly perturbing, she said.

The UN report also expressed concern about what it termed the “systematic sexual violence committed against children.” And IS also uses children as human shields.

A battalion of 140 teenagers was forcibly dispatched to fight for IS in the Syrian city of Kobani recently. They came from as far afield as the Caucasus, the Balkans and North Africa, even though the bulk of them were local Levantines and Iraqis.

Distinguishing between the ways Muslims, and non-Muslims for that matters, are recruited in the West and in Arab and predominantly Muslim nations and in particular Syria and Iraq are recruited is critically important. The recruitment techniques and target groups are radically different.

Reports indicate that “boredom” and “alienation” are the chief reasons for recruitment in the West. “Boredom” is often cited as a reason for the relatively wealthy and pampered youth in Saudi Arabia for being drafted into the IS militias. The Internet plays a crucial part. Social media is the main technique for recruiting youth in Europe, North America and Australia.

However, the honour code remains a vital aspect of many Middle Eastern societies. Religiously sanctioned relationships, the so-called “marriage jihad,” have convinced many young women in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East to marry jihadists as a virtuous duty. Some in Arab countries prefer to use the Islamic State’s Arabic acronym of Daesh to refer to the group, a word which has become interchangeable with “hoax” and “charlatans” in certain secularist circles.

In Europe, too, many Muslims are disassociating themselves from the jihadists. “A jihad against IS” was recently launched by the Muslim Youth League in Britain.

Saudi Ministry of the Interior spokesman Mansour Al-Turki recently disclosed that as many as 2,275 young people had left his country for the battlefields of IS in Iraq and Syria. IS is more sophisticated in its recruitment techniques precisely because of its mastery of social media techniques. In countries like Saudi Arabia, which has one of the highest levels of Internet use in the Arab world, this is especially important.

Saudi Arabia and other predominantly Arab and Muslim nations face a legal conundrum in how to deal with prospective terrorists, and especially as in many cases these are young people. According to the Saudi Ministry of the Interior, some 2,600 Saudis have been enlisted in IS since 2011. No fewer than 600 adolescents and young men have also returned to the kingdom from their engagement with IS.

In response, Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in counter-terrorism forces. “Whoever made [IS] made it for purposes, and one of those purposes was to attack Saudi Arabia,” Al-Turki recently told the BBC. But jihad has emerged as an Islamist vocation. The original meaning of the word is “fighting evil in oneself.” But this concept is ignored by the terrorists, who focus instead on the so-called “lesser jihad” of religious war.

Lawless aggression especially among brainwashed adolescents remains a menace in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern and North African nations. But the twofold crises of internal violence and social protest are often inextricably intertwined.

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