One of the many issues that need to be addressed regarding the Islamic State is that it attracts foreign fighters, as abundantly reported in the media. This issue is also one of the focuses of the latest issue of the Islamic State psyops product, Dabiq 7 (12 Feb 2015), as it features in five articles: “Major operations in Libya and Sinai” (foreign fighters from Tunisia and Sudan), pp. 40-41; “Among the believers are men: Abu Qudamah al-Misri” (foreign fighters from the UK), pp. 46-49; “A brief interview with Umm Basir al-Muhajirah” (foreign fighter from France), pp. 50-51; “The good example of Abu Basir al-Afriqi” (foreign fighter from France), pp. 68-71; “Interview with Abu Umar al-Baljiki” (foreign fighters from Belgium), pp. 72-75. This emphasis points out the importance of those people for the Islamic State.
According to the latest estimates, 20 000 people, originating from 50 countries, would now fight in Iraq and Syria, having joined “Sunni militant organizations” (using figures from the second half of 2014; Peter R. Neumann, ICSR, 26/01/2015). They would thus not all fight for the Islamic State. Indeed, considering the complex interactions in these countries between groups and factions, they could even join to fight against the Islamic State. Yet, part of them do fight for the Islamic State.
It is all the more important to pay attention to the phenomenon that it is on the rise, notably as far as Western Europe is concerned: the number of foreign fighters originating from Europe has nearly doubled since December 2013 (Ibid). The map created out of the ICSR figures by Swati Sharma for the Washington Post is particularly telling (27 January 2014). This increase would tend to indicate that these “Sunni miliant” groups, including the Islamic State, are increasingly attractive and successful in their mobilization.
Focusing on the Islamic State, we shall first, with this post, explain the risks entailed by the existence of and increase in mobilization abroad, or, more specifically, outside the territory the Islamic State rules or has recently conquered. As we shall see, this inflow of foreign fighters can be seen as a security issue for three major reasons. First, it enhances the Islamic State’s fighting power. Second, it leads to a threat to see attacks carried out at home by those foreign fighters, not only once they come back, but also if they are stopped leaving. Finally, the symbolic impact of a successful foreign mobilization interacts with the connectedness of each mobilised foreign individual to enhance the power of the Islamic State psyops and potentially intensify the first two elements of the threat.
With the next post we shall focus on a subjective analysis of the reasons why individuals may join the Islamic State, using the latter’s psyops products and underlining the specific points utilized in the recruitment effort. This approach should notably be useful from a counter-psyops perspective, if one wants to fully try to counter the existing mobilization effort by the Islamic State.
Enhancing the Islamic State’s fighting power
Among the 20 000 individuals who went to fight in Syria and Iraq, according to the ICSR (Ibid.), 4000 would come from northern and eastern Europe, 11 000 from the Middle East and North Africa, and 3000 from Russia and the ex Soviet Union countries (Ibid.). The largest originating countries would be Tunisia (1500-3000), Saudi Arabia (1500-2500), Morocco (1500), Jordan (1500), Russia (800-1500, a large part coming from Chechnya, the rest representing less than 500 fighters, see RFERL map), France (1200), U.K. (500-600), Germany (500-600) (Neumann, Ibid.).
This inflow increases the fighting power of the Islamic State on the major battlefields of Iraq and Syria. This fighting power must be understood first in terms of manpower. However, if we consider the latest public estimates in terms of fighters for the Islamic State, as given by the Kurds, i.e. more than 200 000 personnel (Patrick Cockburn, The Independent, 16 November 2014 – compare with the CIA figure: 20 000 to 31 500; Scuttio et al., CNN, 12 September 2014), then the overall number of foreign fighters only represents up to 10% of combatants. Thus, second, the knowledge and capabilities acquired by the Islamic State through this “human drain” must also be taken into account. It is exemplified by those ex-members of the French army – around ten, some served in the Légion Etrangère, others as paratroopers – who joined the Islamic State and brought to it various skills, including training ability and explosive device expertise (David Thomson, RFI, 21 January 2015).
The importance of this knowledge and expertise input is also underlined by the Islamic State itself, as pointed out in Dabiq #3, for example, although in the framework of civilian needs. The latter are, however, easily converted into military skills, all the more so when every inhabitant is thought about as mujahidin (“one who engages in jihad” or “one who struggles on behalf of Islam”, see Ultimate War).
“Therefore, every Muslim professional who delayed his jihad in the past under the pretense of studying Shari’ah, medicine, or engineering, etc., claiming he would contribute to Islam later with his expertise, should now make his number one priority to repent and answer the call to hijrah, especially after the establishment of the Khilafah. This Khilafah is more in need than ever before for experts, professionals, and specialists, who can help contribute in strengthening its structure and tending to the needs of their Muslim brothers. Otherwise, his claims will be- come a greater proof against him on Judgment Day.” Dabiq #3, p.26
In the near future, a similar inflow of foreign fighters may develop for other battlefields that the Islamic State would open once new groups pledge allegiance to it and its Khilafah. The areas currently potentially concerned are “Algeria (Wilayat al-Jazair), Libya (Wilayat al-Barqah, Wilayat al-Tarabulus and Wilayat al-Fizan), Sinai (Wilayat Sinai), Saudi Arabia (Wilayat al-Haramayn) and Yemen (Wilayat al-Yaman)” and more recently Afghanistan (Wilayat Khorasan) (Aaron Zelin, “The Islamic State’s Model”, The Washington Post, 28 January 2015).
Should such new flows of fighters to these locations take place, then they would have the potential to partly derail the prevention policies carried out notably by the European originating states. Indeed, if part of these policies focus too heavily and too narrowly on specific countries, such as Turkey, which are known to be used to cross over to the Islamic State (e.g. Eric Schmitt and Michael Schmidt, New York Times, 13 January 2015), then, should the route taken by fighters change, they would not be identified (at least through this means). Furthermore, if the destination of the would-be Islamic State fighters were to become broader, then the multiplication of the points and routes to monitor, to say nothing of the multiple bilateral co-operations to set up between countries, could become complex to manage, as well as increasingly resource-consuming.
A threat when returning… but also when staying
Second, most countries are concerned by the threat that fighters would be, after they have been trained abroad, experienced war, thus becoming further radicalized, and once they come back (assuming they were not killed or they do not desire to stay), as stated, for example, in the European Commission “Strengthening the EU’s response to radicalisation and violent extremism” (15 January 2014). The aim for originating states becomes, thus, to stop individuals travelling to fighting zones and/or coming back, as they would be then susceptible to carry attacks. This approach is taken, for example, by France, the UK, Germany or Sweden (e.g. Melanie Gower, “Deprivation of British citizenship and withdrawal of passport facilities“, Home Affairs Section, SN/HA/6820, Library House of Commons, 30 January 2015; Dina Newman Analysis, in BBC News, “France seizes passports of six ‘Syria-bound’ citizens“, 23 February 2015).
However, it is possible that this perception of the dynamic of the threat is grounded into the former “Al Qaeda model’, when no Islamic State nor Khilafah had been established, and when no other way of life was offered (refraining from any judgement on this way of life). Now, the Islamic State is offering not only a temporary battle but also a whole new system, as explained throughout our series on the Islamic State War. Thus, if some people may very well still abide by the former “Al Qaeda model” (at least as far as those individuals who join other groups are concerned), or indeed be willingly sent back to wreck havoc in their originating country – which, of course, pleads for continuing the existing policies – they may also depart because they want to stay in the Islamic State and settle in the Khilafah. If they manage to come back alive because they are disappointed with what they found, then they would hardly constitute a threat (although, from a security point of view, it will be difficult to make the difference between people genuinely running away from a type of life and those faking it to expand the war).
Thus, now, and as long as the Islamic State is not defeated or on its way to be, there is also another looming threat linked to foreign fighters, which seems not to be fully taken into account: if those would-be foreign fighters do not travel to the heart of the Islamic State or to one of its wilayat, then they will remain at home, when they have the ideological potential to carry out attacks there. They would be likely (see probability assessment below) to answer the multiple calls to battle issued by the Islamic State, as explained previously (see The Islamic State Psyops – Worlds War and Ultimate War). As a result, they would open new concrete points of ribat (a-localised, belief-based frontier, Ibid.), and contribute to make real the global and ultimate character of the war (Ibid.), as expected by the Islamic State. This is most probably what happened with the attack in Ottawa, for which no training nor radicalization abroad was involved (e.g. Woods and Bruser, The Star, 24 October 2014). It is even clearer in the case of Coulibaly in France. Coulibaly had not either been trained abroad in a Jihadi camp (e.g. Mathieu Suc, Le Monde, 10 Jan 2015), but was answering the Islamic State call, as explained in his video (see Pietervanostayen), and as fully exploited in terms of psyops by the Islamic State in Dabiq 7, for example (“A brief interview…”; “The good example…”, Ibid). True enough, the two men had a difficult past. Yet, are we sure, considering the profiles of others who voluntarily departed for Syria and Iraq, that all need to go through jail to be radicalized, or mobilised?
From this perspective, we must underline that the European strategy, to keep identified “radicalized” individuals at home, has the potential to blow-back if it does not go hand in hand with a fully successful deradicalization program (for a 2012 evaluation of such programs, see ICSR Report, Countering Radicalization in Europe, 12/12/2012). For example, we can very well imagine individuals who play the game of being deradicalized and then carry out attacks. Here we are referring to deradicalization aimed at individuals and not to collective deradicalization, which is actually part of the whole dynamics of escalation to and stabilisation from war (e.g. for a brief survey of the field, Omar Ashour, “Deradicalization revisited“, The Washington Post, 18 Feb 2015).
Incidentally, it would be useful to compare the approach through the more classical “mobilisation” to the one through “radicalization”, and use the most useful and powerful of the two. We should note that “radicalization” is seen from the ideal-type perspective of a “peaceful society” or, more exactly, a specific type of society (e.g. liberal democracy) during a period of stabilisation. “Mobilisation” means mobilisation by someone towards achieving a goal, including during escalating periods. In the second case, the focus is thus on the other, while in the first it is on the self, upheld as a model. The second tends to be much more neutral normatively, as all beliefs may then be considered as elements of the mobilisation process, while the first tends to assume some specific norms, that would be inherently non-violent physically, as fundamental and essential, when norms are historical constructs. Using “mobilisation” rather than “radicalization” could also help us move beyond the growing and sterile debate over the Salafi credentials of the Islamic State (see, for example, “Denying the Islamism of the Islamic State“), as the question would become “how does the Islamic State (a specific actor, with its specific belief system, organisation, aims, etc.) mobilises and recruits?”. Considering the fashionable character of “radicalization”, though, including the use of the word to access funding, it would be surprising, that the simpler political concept of “mobilisation” be considered.
To come back to the response policies to the foreign fighters’ threat, the current approach may work, considering the overall means necessary – from the identification of a person to its deradicalization – only if the number of individuals concerned remains sufficiently low. A quantitative threshold most probably exist, beyond which such a taylor-made one-to-one policy becomes impossible.
Symbolic impact, connectedness and psyops
Third, attracting foreign fighters has a strong symbolic impact, which, in turn, has consequences for the first two components of the threat.
When the Islamic state demonstrates success in its mobilisation abroad, then it shows that it can concretely, in real life and now, offer a different model, indeed world, compared with the current world order. It is thus an attack on a system that had seen itself as victorious after the end of the Cold War, as “the end of history”, with Western liberal democracy as sole system and form of government, had been asserted (Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History”, The National Interest, Summer 1989).
However, the problem is larger and deeper than an attack on the “liberal democratic” or rather “neo-liberal democratic” model, as foreign fighters also join from countries that do not fully adhere to the “neo-liberal democratic” order, and as it is indeed the very modern international system that is attacked, as pointed out previously (Worlds War and Ultimate War).
The symbolic importance of the recruitment of foreign fighters, or foreigners in general, is most probably one of the reasons why the Islamic State so often displays foreigners in its psyops products, from the series featuring hostage John Cantlie (e.g. “From inside Halab”, 9 Feb 2015, Jihadology.net; “From inside Mosul”, 3 jan 2015 Pietervanostaeyen website; “Inside ‘Ayn al-Islam”, 27 Oct 2014, Leaksource; see also articles in Dabiq, such as “The anger factory”, Dabiq 7, pp. 77-81) to the various videos portraying the most horrid deaths for prisoners, where executors are hand-picked to be recognised by their accents as foreigners: Al Furqan Media Foundation for the beheadings done by the infamous British “Jihadi John” (see A Framework; Holden and Hosenball, Reuters, 26 February 2015;), Al Hayat Media Center for “A Message signed with blood to the Nation of the Cross” with possibly an American as perpetrator in chief (e.g. Kirkpatrick and Callimachi, New York Times, 15 February 2015). In both cases, it allows the Islamic State to show how far these men have departed from their original “civilizational” model.
The symbolic impact may then be combined with the very practical one of having people who can, in turn, mobilise their original brethren through not only social media networks, but also more finely targeted psyops, as is the case, for example, with the latest magazine by the Hayat Media Center, Dar-al Islam (see Update – Islamic State Psyops), aimed more specifically at a French audience. Similar videos targeted at specific audiences seem to be developed (e.g. “Massage [sic] pour la France“, Jihadology.net, 14 Feb 2015). They could be done much more systematically with the arrival of new foreigners. The interview of a Syrian Islamic State defector by Michelle Shephard (The Star, 23 January 2015) confirms that “those from the West, especially recent converts to Islam like Maguire [Canadian], have key roles in the Islamic State’s important propaganda campaign.”
The higher the number of mobilised pro-Islamic State fighters abroad, the more difficult, then, to deal with the problem at home, for the originating countries’s security apparatus. Meanwhile, the more pro-Islamic State fighters at home, the higher the risks to see attacks carried out on new territories, which, then, could also be used by the Islamic State psyops. Threshold limits in terms of response capabilities, if the phenomenon continues and spreads, are most likely (see probability assessment below) to be progressively crossed.
For all these reasons, it is crucial to try understanding why individuals may come to be seduced by the Islamic State, so as to counter this specific mobilisation. Much work has been done and is ongoing, notably the research by the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), Department of War Studies, King’s College London, through interviewing as much as possible those leaving, or following specific individuals and listening to their dialogue on social networks. Many other organisations are also involved in this struggle, at a level or another (see, for example, BBC One, Panorama “The Battle for British Islam”, 12 January 2015, watch her inside the UK or on Youtube – length 30mn). With the next post, we shall take another approach and use the Islamic State psyops to underline the specific points it uses in its recruitment effort.
Featured image: Dabiq 5, Al Hayat Media Center, p.28
Ashour, Omar, “Deradicalization revisited”, The Washington Post, 18 Feb 2015
Cockburn, Patrick, “War with Isis: Islamic militants have army of 200,000, claims senior Kurdish leader”, The Independent, 16 November 2014.
Gower, Melanie, “Deprivation of British citizenship and withdrawal of passport facilities “, Home Affairs Section, SN/HA/6820, Library House of Commons, 20 January 2015.
Holden and Hosenball, “‘Jihadi John’ killer from Islamic State beheading videos unmasked as Londoner”, Reuters, 26 February 2015
ICSR Report, Countering Radicalization in Europe, 12/12/2012.
Institute for Strategic Dialogue, Strengthening Government partnerships to build resilience: the challenge of foreign fighters, Dec 2014 (?)
Neumann, Peter R., “Foreign fighter total in Syria/Iraq now exceeds 20,000; surpasses Afghanistan conflict in the 1980s”, ICSR, 26/01/2015.
Sciutto, Jim, Jamie Crawford, and Chelsea J. Carter, “ISIS can ‘muster’ between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters, CIA says,” CNN, 12 September 2014.
Shephard, Michelle, “Why are foreign fighters drawn to the Islamic State?”, The Star, 23 January 2015.
Zelin, Aaron, “The Islamic State’s Model”, The Washington Post, 28 January 2015.