After having seen the threats linked to the existence of foreign fighters within the Islamic State (The Foreign Fighters’ Threat), we focused on identifying the reasons why those foreign fighters would join the Islamic State, using the latter psyops products and locating them within the framework of existing findings (Attracting Foreign Fighters (1)). With that post, we presented the psyops “recruiting” products used for this study, then, taking stock of the research done on foreign fighters by the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) and by the Sufan Group, we focused on two core elements that are meant to be present for all recruited foreign fighters: a quest for meaning and purpose and a need for belonging. Using the Islamic State psyops products we mainly confirmed, but also detailed those findings, including for non-Western fighters.
We shall now further refine, always using the Islamic State recruitment psyops products, the various elements identified by previous research, which we understand as organised in two complexes*, the first constellated around the core “quest for meaning and related need for belonging”, and the second around authority, rules and exercise of freedom.
The list of videos used is provided at the bottom of the post in appendix.
The quest for meaning, purpose and belonging complex
Salafism as answer
The first type of features that gravitate around the quest for purpose and meaning relates, first and foremost considering the nature of the Islamic State and its project, to religion, beliefs and spiritual life, whether one shares or not the latter’s perception (for a summary of and some references on the related debate, H. Lavoix, “Denying the Islamism of the Islamic State“, 19 Feb 2014).
Religion, beliefs and spirituality, in their extremist Salafi guise, is indeed the answer to the quest for meaning and purpose and the need for belonging that the Islamic State prompts, as exemplified by the accounts by Abu Muslim from Canada (12 July 2014) or by Abu Suhayb Al Faranci (7 Match 2015). The latter video emphasises more fully this dimension, which is, indeed, its main theme. According to the video, the “lack of something” Abu Suhayb Al Faranci felt was the absence of a spiritual purpose and link to God. He felt this spiritual connection first when he was a child in a church, then developed it during seminarist training, abandoned his spiritual yearning throughout his career (we are not sure how he could move from being a seminarist to a professional mundane career) and then found it back and fulfilled it through Islam and then by joining the Khilafah. The psyops product does not mention the existence of various Islamic sects but, on the contrary, presents an apparently obvious unity between an Islam that is imagined as being unique and the Islam of the Islamic State and its Khilafah. This specific aspect, as well as all Islamic State psyops’ themes including religion, is now countered by Haqiqah, the “counter-Dabiq” magazine created by Imams from U.K. and Europe, and launched on 27 March 2015 (e.g. Lamiat Sabin, The Independent, 27 March 2015). the first issue of Haqiqah can be found here (pdf).
From the point of view of the Islamic State, the unicity of Islam, or rather the fact that only the Islam of the Islamic State would be true, is further emphasised, for example, in the 2 November video, A message from brother Abu Muhammad Ar Rusi, where, besides a call to Russians to join the fight, the right, if not duty, to excommunicate other Muslims – takfir, i.e. a “pronouncement that someone is an unbeliever (kafir) and no longer Muslim” (for more references and detail, H. Lavoix, “The Islamic State Psyops- Ultimate War“, 9 Feb 2015) – is emphasised, while other Muslim scholars are denied any credentials. Here we, see at work one characteristics of these “recruiting videos”: recruiting specific people while, at the same time, addressing and answering specific problems.
The Islamic State’s Salafi-Islam is offered in all videos as either the solution to a lack felt, for Western audience, or as a reemphasis and strengthening of the sense of purpose for others, most of the time often living within largely Muslim – but not Salafi – societies: Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, with 87.2% of its 253.6 million inhabitants population following Islam, the North Caucasus in Russia is predominantly Muslim (e.g. CSIS, “The North Caucasus and Russian Islam“), in Kazakhstan 70 % of the population is Muslim (links, except for Russia, are to the CIA World Factbook). Moldova stands aside here, with only a tiny minority of Muslims (Werner Ende, Udo Steinbach, ed. Islam in the World Today, 2005: 598). However, it also has a complex history regarding Islam as it defended itself against the Golden Horde and the Ottoman empire (Andrei Brezianu, Vlad Spânu, Historical Dictionary of Moldova, 2007: 6-7). Salafi-Islam is also at the core of Flames of War, aimed at all fighters.
More specifically, as far as the theme of religion is concerned, in the recruiting videos, we find what Barrett points out as the “individual obligation to help a Muslim community that is under attack” (Barrett:18), as well as “the opportunity to live in a place where rules and behaviour are supposedly fully and solely in accordance with the teachings of Islam” (Barrett:20), which corresponds more or less to Neumann’s point (Ibid.) according to which “many were genuinely committed to the totalitarian project of the group that calls itself ISIL.”
By comparison, however, use of enticement, and release or happiness at living finally their faith according to the Sharia, as allowed by the Khilafah of the Islamic State, tends to be less important, although often both threat and enticement coexist. Yet, threat and anger tend to overshadow the rest, which refines Barrett’s point.
There is, however, a notable exception to the emphasis on anger and threats, with the 21 November 2014 – Race Towards Good (Kazakhstan). There, the utilisation as message of the creation of this utopic-idealist place actualised in the Khilafah is one of the major theme, as also expressed by the title. This video focuses mainly on children, including very young ones, education, from reading to military training, and displays the unity and friendship of all Peoples under one religion (for the way this video answers to the need for belonging see “Attracting Foreign Fighters (1)“). It may thus be seen as perfectly exemplifying the use of the creation of an utopic-idealist Khilafah in the making, as defined by the Islamic State’s vision, thus emphasising war and battle as both a way to maintain and develop the Khilafah on earth when alive, while achieving spiritual destiny and thus earning a place in paradise in death.
Here, we also find a variation on the classical triadic – or “triachronic” – mobilisation device identified by Levinger and Lytle (“Myth and mobilisation“, 2001): in the case of nationalist rhetoric, we find a use of a golden and great past, opposed to a bleak and imperfect recent past or present when a progressive and brighter future could be achieved. In the case of the Islamic State, we have a great and golden past, the initial Khilafah and the time of the Prophet, opposed to the destructions created by “the Crusaders, the Jews and the people of kufr”, thus all the enemies of the Islamic State, its Khilafah and its Salafi-Islam, when a bright future can be achieved through war and fighting after the latest battle in Dabiq with the reign of the Khilafah… or immediately with death. This “triachronic” mobilisation rhetoric is perfectly exemplified in Flames of War, but also present in video psyops products dealing with death. What thus changes with the Islamic State’s mobilisation, compared with nationalist one, is a variation on time and the moment when the objective will be reached: it may be later but it may also be now, because of the use of death and religion, the “after-life” dimension being impossible in the framework of nationalism.
As becomes increasingly apparent as our analysis of the Islamic State’s recruitment psyops products progresses, religion, war and death are intertwined from its perspective, and one cannot be conceived without the others. We shall thus now turn more in detail to this specific theme.
Religion, war and death
Death on the battlefield in the name of religion is a theme that is recurrent if not emphasised in most Islamic State recruitment psyops products.
It is not, however, as emphasised by David Martin Jones and M.L.R. Smith in their very otherwise very useful and interesting article (“The strategy of savagery: explaining the islamic state”, War on the Rocks, 24 February 2015), “adoring and serving death”, a “cult of death”, as opposed to all others who would practice “a belief in life”. This understanding would be true only if the Islamic State’s treatment of death were taken out of its religious context. The opposition is rather between a focus on an eternal life including in non material form and a belief in the primacy of terrestrial, material life, which indeed translates in acceptation – and sometimes search for in the case of martyrdom – of material, terrestrial death.
Here, the Islamic State, which, also, cynically, needs fighters who are ready to risk their lives in battles and die in dangerous operations, prompts a purpose that is larger than one self, in the service not only of a community but of God, and that thus implies the possibility of sacrifice and death. It is hard, if not impossible, to make the part between what may be a cynical need for fighters and what is true belief. Yet, they do not “adore death” in itself and for itself.
Death, in a quasi mystical way, and as shown in many videos, is not hidden, but transformed to emphasise the existence of an after-life, as well as the meaning of death itself. Meanwhile, the sufferings of agony, the sadness and horror of death are also displayed. This is most obvious in 12 July 2014 – Al-Ghuraba – The Chosen Few of Different Lands Abu Muslim from Canada, in 16 July 2014 – Those Who Were Truthful With God (Kazakhstan) and in 19 September 2014 – Flames of War.
Those Who Were Truthful With God showcases this theme, when the leader of the Kazakhs fighters’ group explains that they do not enjoy many unpleasant elements, such as dust, seeing blood being spilled and their comrades being killed. Yet, he goes on, they continue fighting because they hope for victory. The video then ends with a tribute to four members of the group that were killed a few days later, including the leader. The visual presentation (see pictures – the most shocking pictures are not presented here, to preserve readers’ sensitivity, but they are there) contrasts a light that is positioned close to the head of the fighters to the darkness of the image, representing most probably death.
This perception may have become very alien to materialist and sometimes atheistic societies, where the ego and material comfort are constantly put forward, but considering an after-life to assuage human fears of and pain related to mortality is common to all religions and sometimes ideals.
It is the very interrogation that men could choose to die for their homeland that prompted scholar Benedict Anderson to research nationalism and write Imagined Communities:
“What makes people love and die for nations, as well as hate and kill in their name?” (Benedict Anderson, Backcover, Imagined Communities, 1991)
Furthermore, whenever in history, when war is involved, death is the constant companion of all soldiers and civilians, even if, for example, recent Western societies’ recruitment army advertisements try hard to downplay, if not erase, this element for other values, such as sense of purpose, fighting for the good cause, protecting homeland and others, humanitarian work, self-improvement etc. (e.g. recruitment for Marines Corps (U.S.); French Army). War related death seems to be denied, and should be, for most of us, a part of history, of a past that is over, or an anomaly, an exception, even if in both cases tribute to soldiers killed are given during ceremonies. Yet, and unfortunately, war cannot be separated from death.**
Thus, we are not faced here with a new nor a very strange phenomenon.
Is its portrayal in videos newer? The medium as well as the reality brought about by videos certainly are, but the innumerable number of paintings, including those depicting horror, on or around similar themes are not.
However sad, unpleasant, disturbing, unsettling or whatever epithet can be added, it is only by accepting that for the Islamic State, its political project, its religion, war and death are conceived together and intertwined that we shall be able to provide adequate counter-narratives and counter-actions. This is all the more important considering the most probable element of self-transcendence that is part of this theme (see previous post). Indeed, if we continue focusing, in our counter-psyops on only the material side of death, as recently done, for example, by the U.S. when spreading leaflets in Syria “depicting graphically” a “meat-grinding” Islamic State, then it is most likely that this message will, at best, not have the expected impact (e.g. Al Jazeera, “US drops gruesome anti-ISIL leaflet on Syria“, 27 March 2015).
One of the last elements for the first complex enticing people to join the Islamic State is Neumann’s “sensitivity to the sufferings of Syrian people” (ibid.). Barrett, interestingly, further underlines that the Syrian conflict generates a sense of personal involvement, imbued with passion, which can be “translated quite readily into action” (Barrett: 18-20), thus empowerment. Barrett reasoning can be applied to most of the Islamic State’s recruiting psyops that stress its enemies’ actions, thus to the previous element regarding alleged attacks against Islam – in reality, the war against the Islamic State and not Islam, even if such differentiation is incompatible with the very world view of the Islamic State. The proximity of social network is very important here to allow for this empowerment, but also the very existence of Jihadis groups by essence and in general. Indeed, what finally allows for mobilisation and recruitment is the mix of virtual and real, social network and real one to one contact.
The establishment of the Islamic State, its vision and psyops, and its recruitment, allow even more for the transformation of the virtual into reality. If it were needed to be reasserted, psyops and reality work hand in hand, and, obviously, real military defeats would weaken and hollow out the Islamic State psyops. The showing-off or “bling bling” elements that can be found in some videos, as well as sometimes the display of weapons available for training, may also be an element used to assert the reality of the material existence and power of the Islamic State (for the importance of the combination between religion/idea/superstructure and material/terrestrial/infrastructure power, see previous “Worlds War” and “Ultimate War“).
To come back more specifically to the element regarding Syria, from the point of view of the Islamic State psyops products, this theme seems to be relatively secondary. One finds one specific reference to fighting Bashar al-Assad in 16 July 2014 – Those Who Were Truthful With God, then in the historiography created by 19 September 2014 – Flames of War. The discrepancy between the video psyops and the ICSR and the Sufan group findings is most probably due to the difference in timing between the research (pre-Islamic State for the most part) and the Islamic State psyops. Furthermore, the Islamic State’s aim is to establish the Khilafah and its power, not to save Syria.
Finally, seeking “thrill and adventure” (Neumann, ibid.; Barrett, Ibid: 21) may also be seen as part of this complex, if we refer to the archetypal symbolism that may be included into the broad idea of adventure, from hero to initiation. From the point of view of the Islamic State’s psyops, however, this element might only be seen through an emphasis on the heroic character of all fighters, as laid out notably in Flames of War, who are “the best of the best”, “stallions of life”, “fearless”, showing “valiance”. Those are also values attributed to warriors, thus, if one of the intended theme of the psyops is adventure, then it is definitely a war imbued one.
Assuming references to “thrill and adventure” are there, they would tend to be overshadowed by the religious dimension that is given even to heroes, besides, sometimes, some showing-off of wealth. Further detailed research may be needed on this specific aspect.
The need for authority and rules and the abdication of freedom
A second complex of elements attracting foreign fighters may be found in the relationship to authority and rules, notably, if there is a troubled personal history for the individual recruited (Neumann, ibid.; Barrett, ibid.: 20), but not only.
As pointed out by Barrett (ibid), in the case of individuals with a “troubled past” who join jihadis groups, they “react well to agreed rules and consistency in their application” (notably because of their past); “they do not question the authority of their leaders and believe what they are told”, even if they can become disillusioned. Note that the specific conditions that would lead to this disillusionment should be of particular interest, because it should be possible to act upon them with counter-psyops products and actions, once one knows the dynamics at work.
This theme or need for and acceptance of authority and rules, which may be perceived as counter-intuitive, notably for individuals thought to be rebels, is constantly present in the videos when references to the Khalif and obedience are made, and, of course, when the omnipotence of Allah is underlined. It is however, most of the time, not put forward in an obvious way.
On the contrary, it is strikingly present, in a different form, in what Abu Suhayb Al Faranci expresses when telling the “story of his life”. He very often mentions that, since he converted and joined the Khilafah, he found security, “full security”; he only had to follow the path that was laid out for him, that everything would be provided, etc. In other words, he has abandoned doubts, choices and decisions regarding life. He has given up exerting his fundamental liberty, as well as all the anxiety that may go with it, the famous existential Angst (for a short and easy definition and summary, see Wikipedia; for a longer development “Exegesis of Sartre’s “Existentialism Is A Humanism“, Think Philosophy, 2/27/2015).
We reach here a level that is not only of the domain of psyops and then counter-psyops, but that goes far beyond them. Indeed, for societies that are fundamentally grounded in the exercise of freedom and even more so for those that, since the hippie movement, try to actively promote libertarianism – we shall not dwell here on the fundamental contradiction between both – developing a proper response to such needs as authority, stable rules and abdication of freedom, as expressed by fighters who join the Islamic State and as answered by the Islamic State may be immensely difficult, however, certainly not impossible. As seen previously with other types of Islamic State psyops products, we are again in a case of a war of worlds.
* “A complex is a collection of images and ideas, clustered round a core derived from one or more archetypes, and characterized by a common emotional tone. When they come into play (become ’constellated’), complexes contribute to behavior and are marked by affect whether a person is conscious of them or not.” Andrew Samuels, Bani Shorter and Fred Plaut. A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis, Routledge: New York, 1986, pp. 33-35. See more details, for example, on the wesbite of the C.G. Jung Institute of Chicago.
** We may wonder if this dichotomy between the idealism or blindness of societies that have armies and send soldiers on the battlefield, yet cannot bear to hear about death does not favour veterans PTSD.
Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the Director of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for national and international security issues.
The Islamic State recruitment psyops products
As with Dabiq, we shall not give direct links to those videos, not to promote indoctrination. Most of the videos can be found on the excellent Jihadology.net. Members of the Red (Team) Analysis Society who would like to access or download them for analytical, research and professional use may ask us to make them available (please use the contact us form).
- 12 July 2014 – Al-Ghuraba – The Chosen Few of Different Lands Abu Muslim from Canada
- 16 July 2014 – Those Who Were Truthful With God (Kazakhstan) – warning, starts with harsh images.
- 22 July 2014 – Join the ranks (Indonesia)
- 19 September 2014 – Flames of War – all fighters – general mobilization
- 15 October 2014 – Wait. We are also waiting (U.K., France, Germany).
- 2 November 2014 – A message from brother Abu Muhammad Ar Rusi (Russia)
- 19 November 2014 – What are you waiting for (France)
- 21 November 2014 – Race Towards Good (Kazakhstan)
- 6 January 2015 – A Message from Brother ‘Abd Allah Moldovi (Moldova)
- 7 March 2015 – Stories of Life Abu Suhayb Al Faranci (France)
Featured image: Still from 25 March 2015 – A Message to the People of Kurdistan, Al Hayat media center.
Barrett, Richard, Foreign Fighters in Syria, June 2014.
Bressan, Yannick, “La force des psyops de Daesh. Leurs méthodes analysées a l’aune du phénomène neuropsychologique « d’adhésion émergentiste » : quelles perspectives de lutte ?”, Tribune Libre No54, C2FR, 13 March 2015.
Brezianu, Andrei, Vlad Spânu, Historical Dictionary of Moldova, 2007: 6-7.
Ende, Werner, Udo Steinbach, ed. Islam in the World Today, 2005.
Levinger, Matthew and Lytle Franklin, Paula, “Myth and mobilisation: the triadic structure of nationalist rhetoric,” in Nations and Nationalism, vol. 7. Number 2, 2001, pp. 175-194.
Neumann,”Professor Neumann’s Remarks at White House Summit”, ICSR Insight, 20/02/2015.