Why ISIS is a big deal?

While many of us look at 2014 with bewilderment, disappointment and perhaps a healthy doze of fear of what 2015 will bring, somewhere out there in Raqa a new recruit would have just arrived today, sparkly eyed, intelligent, determined and motivated by a cause and the willingness to die for this cause. Now, before anybody starts attacking me for glorifying a murderous bunch, I must ask you to be patient with me and read to the end.

A new bread of Jihadists

Let us examine the standard narrative that says that most jihadists are brain washed, zombies, none educated, poor and taken advantage of by a media savvy terrorist organization — more importantly they are only willing to fight and blow up themselves only because they are promised a certain number of virgins once in paradise. Allow me to counter this and entrain the possibility that this new bread of jihadists is actually driven by a cause. To do so I’ll try to debunk these assumptions one by one.

Firstly, the all too come brain washed argument. We are all brain washed to various degrees. The question to ask is to what degree? Are they that brain washed that they run on automatic, controlled at well by the brain washers? Clearly this is not the case for ISIS recruits. To start with, most ISIS new recruits arrive after they were ideologically doctrinated by the ISIS mission of an Islamic Caliphate, a process that happens back home in the comfort of their homes and under no duress. They often have the opportunity to be convinced otherwise by people around them but rarely do. They navigate many obstacles to arrive to an ISIS controlled area, often after numerous failed attempt, sometimes escaping even after being stopped by authorities or by their families. I would say this is the behavior of a driven person not a brain washed zombie.

Secondly, the low education, poor and taken advantage of argument, this could be true in many cases but not all. These new recruit can be from the slums of Manila but equally they can be highly educated individuals from rich western countries, often also successful and well integrated in society. True, they are taken advantage of by a media savvy terrorist organization but not because they are poor or not educated but because they feel that ISIS causes aligns with their values and aspirations so much so that they are willing to give up everything and join them — more on why does ISIS message resonate later.

Lastly, the suicide bombers and ‘the virgins in paradise’ argument, this had been for a while a convenient way to explain why would someone kill himself or herself for an ideology or a cause. But the truth of matter suicide missions to inflict maximum damage on the enemy has been recorded in history in many wars and revolutions — not all of these are religion driven. The truth of the matter is that suicide missions are often carried out by someone who believes that they need to do this in order to protect a higher goal. It might be a Vietcong protecting their village in Vietnam, or a Palestinian resisting the might of the Israeli army or even an American soldier protecting their battalion in Afghanistan, none are promised virgins, so why they do it. Firstly, they believe in the higher goal, secondly they are made to believe it is the only solution, and thirdly they are after glory. In the case of ISIS some are driven by the concept of being better off as a martyred in heaven but I dare to say most are simply part of a well-trained army willing to die for a cause. Otherwise, how do we explain these fighters accepting to fight female Kurdish fighters, knowing that such martyrdom does not bring with it the forty four virgins? In all ISIS propaganda the talk is about advancing the mission of an Islamic caliphate not about virgins and other after-life fringe benefits. In fact ISIS goes out of their way to emphasis the worldly benefits of salary, war loots, salves and status, most of these fighters are already sexually services in this life and thus ISIS fighters are not really concerned with the number of concubines that they are getting when they move to the other side after death.

A media savvy terrorist organization

Firstly, I would like to note that ISIS is past the stage of being called an organization, they are a country, they have set up a government, administrative institutions, army, even civic institutions, more importantly they control a large swath of land the size of Britain. Reports from ISIS controlled Mosul suggest that ISIS is running the show smoothly and efficiently, and asides from the harsh treatment of voices of dissent within and the occasional panic resulting from an allies strike, daily life for the majority of it’s inhabitant is business as usual.

Let us examine if ISIS is indeed media savvy and if this in turn results in it be very efficient in recruiting? Clearly ISIS social media expertise and the high production value of their propaganda videos shows a questionable sophistication. Questionable in the sense that it can’t be just random successes that came with the establishment of ISIS but clearly raises serious questions of who trained them so well that they became so effective in their messages especially targeting western youth. So effective that even fifteen years old teens from a stable secular western home environment are flocking to join ISIS. So effective that men who are well established including business people, rappers, lawyers, and doctors are all sold on the propaganda. The question of who trained them is an important one but is currently pure speculation. A more important question — and easier to answer — is why is their message so effective. I would like to point out two key factors here, one the above mentioned effective use of social media as a propaganda and recruitment tool, and two is the world context in which this media is consumed. Clearly the first factor is an indication of a highly trained ISIS PR team that can only be trained by a state sponsored entity. I don’t want to speculate who these entities are but just ask yourself who is the most media savvy countries in the world and you have your answer. The second factor is the more telling in that we are now in a world context such that politics is so polarized and young Muslims find themselves these days with two choices neither is good. Either you integrate and join the anti-Islam campaign or become an extremist and viciously defend Islam against an increasingly Islamophopic west. In Europe you have to be deaf not to hear the calls of ‘we don’t want Muslims in Europe’. In the case of the USA, their foreign policies makes Muslims feel that they are targeted while Israel is given unconditional support. This environment has reached pitch fever in the last five years so much so that in the current climate a moderate Muslim feels targeted from all direction, and so it is inevitable that this will make ISIS propaganda more effective.

Why is ISIS scary?

I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news but the next five years are not looking not just in the Middle East but all around the world. I know this is stating the facts but I want to put ISIS in the wider context of what’s happening in the world. In order to do this we need to go back to the early 1930s at the time of the great depression and the rise of the Third Reich, there was a lot of element that created the perfect storm and drove the world to a mad illogical war. The world now is much more advanced, wars are fought by drones, many countries have nuclear weapons, but essentially we are in similar equlipriam like that of the years before WWII. Most analysts agree that the political climate is so charged and that most of the world top powers are running on an economy of war, that is without constant war their economies will simply collapse. Some would say a third world war is out of question simply because of the nuclear arsenate that works as a peacekeeper. I’m not so sure about this argument, who said a third world war will include nuclear war, wars can be fought in many ways and I’m afraid the situation at the moment is akin to the beginning of a new untraditional war fought on a global level from Raqa to Sydney, from Sydney to Kiev and all the way to Washington. I’m predicting (and I hope I will be proven wrong) that this trajectory is on the rise so much so that there will be a tipping point where all logic will go out of the door, economies will collapse and the world will enter a severe stormy decade, many will suffer, many will die and sadly it will only end after much damage have been done. So this is the world context painted as realistically as possible. So where does ISIS fit in this? I’m predicting that because of all these factors that are now aligned, ISIS will provide that tipping point and the new war will be fought on religion ideologies that would be disastrous. I was hoping that the inevitable war will be fought between china and the USA on economical grounds and mainly fought in Africa after resources to feed the Chinese middle class. That was the prediction few years ago but ISIS seems it be tipping the direction to a war of ideologies which is the worst type of wars. Give me an economic war anytime.

So is there no hope? I think there is a glimmer of hope even though the odds are against it but there is counter current of people driven by the desire to live in harmony and there message is seldom heard but every now an then we hear it, softy it appears as a tiny blimp in a ever increasing trajectory of us against them we see it in the #IllRideWithYou and #notinmyname campaigns. I see it in the many daily conversations I have with people from all around the world, people like us that choose not to take sides instead they want harmony but feel helpless. Then all of a sudden they hear other voice like them and they feel more empowered and they dare to hope — but only a little.




“Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there” — Rumi

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Sohail Dahdal

Sohail Dahdal

“Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there” — Rumi

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