By Robin Stein
In the nearly two years since President Obama notoriously likened ISIS to a “jayvee team” of terrorists, the group has staked claim to a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, and recruited tens of thousands of foreign fighters from across the globe. Today even administration officials admit that the group is dominating the digital battlefield, but there are private citizens, including former jihadis and parents of Western recruits, who are quietly taking up the fight against the ISIS message machine.
THE ISIS MESSAGE MACHINE
Beheadings, immolations, drownings, explosions — it seems like a parade of apocalyptic horror more fit for comic-book villains than for a global call to arms. But with branding tactics that rival Madison Avenue, propaganda videos that look like Hollywood blockbusters and a virtual footprint that Brookings researchers estimated encompassed at least 45,000 Twitter accounts and more than 200,000 social media posts a day — ISIS has created a messaging juggernaut.
“They’re much more sophisticated than al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda had guys sitting on a hillside in Pakistan talking directly to camera for 40 minutes,” Richard Stengel, U.S. Department of State’s Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, told Yahoo News Global Anchor Katie Couric.
“ISIL has used social media better than any terrorist group before or currently,” said Michael Steinbach, FBI’s assistant director of counterterrorism. “They have mastered the use of it … as a propaganda tool, as a recruitment tool and as a targeting tool.”
Steinbach says the message from ISIS — or ISIL as the group is also known — is clear: “Come join the caliphate, and if you can’t join the caliphate, conduct an attack in the U.S.”
How does ISIS seduce suburban teenagers across the Atlantic to embrace that message?
“It’s all about the grievance ideology narrative,” said Mubin Shaikh, 40, a former Taliban recruiter from Toronto who now spends much of his time trying to prevent young people from being lured by ISIS recruiters online.
“In the first two years of the Syrian War, my Twitter was just filled with broken bodies, amputated limbs, emaciated infants, starving people, all from Syria,” Shaikh said. “When you sit there looking at those videos and then ISIS comes out and puts a video and saying, ‘Look at what they’re doing to your people,’ how can you not act?”
Shaikh says it is essentially no different from the rationale he used to recruit jihadis in the late 1990s. “The West is at war with Islam and Muslims. We need to fight back. And every individual Muslim has a duty to do that.”
After 9/11, Shaikh says he disavowed the Taliban and spent several years as a Canadian undercover intelligence agent. Now he’s part of a small band of digital deradicalizers.
What’s helping ISIS amplify the grievance ideology today, Shaikh says, is not just the brutal violence in Syria, but the group’s sophisticated messaging campaign.
While grisly videos have become the ISIS calling card, their media team also puts out photo essays and videos filled with images of smiling fighters handing out candy to children, markets teeming with food, peaceful farms and bustling factories. The goal is to paint an idyllic picture of life in the caliphate — a widely embraced, noble Islamic vision of a utopian state created by Allah for all Muslims.
The use of religious concepts and scriptures is a tactic used to appeal to mainstream Muslims, according to Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and founder of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which recently released a report about jihadi ideology.
“We kind of think of [ISIS] like a weird cult — at one level it is, but at another level [it] is much more than that,” Blair told Yahoo News. “It basically takes some themes which have resonance in wider parts of the Muslim community, and provides a scriptural and theological basis for turning that into a justification for violence.”
WHO IS ISIS RECRUITING?
According to a recent congressional report, the number of foreign fighters who have flocked to Syria to join ISIS and other jihadi groups has tripled in the past year, creating the “largest global convergence of jihadists in history.“
Among the seemingly unlikely recruits are people like Damian Clairmont, a troubled 22-year old from Calgary, Canada. Damian’s mother, Christianne Boudreau, says that after narrowly surviving a teenage suicide attempt, her son converted to Islam. She says his new faith was initially a source of calm and purpose in Damian’s life, but that changed after he met a group of extremists at a local mosque.
“He started talking about justified killings. He started talking about having more than one wife. You could sense this agitation. He had another whole private life that he kept hidden from us,” Boudreau told Yahoo News.
In 2013, Damian announced he was going to Egypt to study to become an imam, but instead, Boudreau says, he traveled to Syria to join ISIS fighters.
“He admitted that he was there. He was there to help save women and children that were being tortured, raped [and] murdered by Bashar al-Assad,” she said.
In January 2014, Boudreau got the devastating news — from a Twitter post — that Damian had been killed by rival group of Syrian rebels near the city of Aleppo.
“We don’t have any proof. We don’t have a body. We don’t have a death certificate. So all we can do is keep looking for answers.”
Boudreau says she believes her son was brainwashed into thinking he was going to help people.
“These kids aren’t dangerous. They’re looking for something,” she said. The recruiters are the ones that we have to look at. They’re the dangerous ones.”
Nobody knows that better perhaps than Mubin Shaikh, who says he’s witnessed ISIS recruiters seduce dozens of young people on social media.
“In the ISIS context, it’s not just a video is posted and they click ‘Like’ and now they want to go to Syria,” he said. People may be initially drawn in by propaganda, but what hooks them, he says, is an intense one-on-one grooming process.
Shaikh says that it often begins with a curious teenager posing a simple question on Twitter. That alone can unleash a full-court press by a team of virtual recruiters, who are online 24/7 posing as friends, mentors, even potential matchmakers. They spend weeks or months, he says, luring recruits into the ISIS theology and, eventually enlisting them into their cause.
“It’s a lot of ego caressing … to make the person feel that they’re wanted “ Shaikh said. “Then, they escalate. “I’m here. It’s great. Your brothers are here. We’re fighting jihad. … This is what you’ve been waiting for.”
Shaikh says his informal group of online deradicalizers has worked behind the scenes in several well-known ISIS recruiting cases — including one featured in a groundbreaking report by the New York Times about “Alex” — a 23-year-old Sunday school teacher from Washington State.
“It’s a textbook recruiting operation,” he said, tailored in this case to appeal to a young woman. “I have a screenshot of an email exchange… where the recruiter says, ‘I know someone who will marry you … he’s not good looking, 45, bald, but nice Muslim.’”
After several weeks, Shaikh says, he and others who intervened managed to raise some flags.
“I brought her into direct messaging,” he said.” I engaged her not just on the theological level, but also on the personal level, as a girl. I said, you know, ‘You’re a young girl. Do you know what happens to young girls like you when they go to Syria?’”
Alex isn’t alone. Of the 69 cases of people across the U.S. charged in federal court with supporting ISIS, more than 80% were lured through social media, researchers at Fordham Law School’s Center of National Security found.
COMBATING ISIS RECRUITING
Since 2014, ISIS-related arrests by the FBI have increased more than four-fold, Steinbach says, which suggests their message is “resonating to a larger population set than we’ve ever seen before.”
And social media, he says, is helping ISIS recruit people faster than ever.
“With push notifications and smartphones, you literally have radicalization 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. Instead of it taking months before recruits are traveling to Syria or plotting homegrown attacks, Steinbach says now it’s only a matter of days or weeks.
But even with hundreds of people across the country engaged in ISIS social media, the FBI and the other federal law enforcement agencies have not launched an official nationwide countermessaging campaign or deradicalization program. And at the U.S. State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, which puts out social media and videos primarily for foreign audiences, coming up with an effective antidote to the ISIS message machine has been a learning experience.
Last year, critics panned the center’s “Think Again Turn Away” Twitter campaign and its sarcastic YouTube video, “Welcome to the Islamic State Land” — arguing that the attempts to undercut ISIS backfired miserably.
Even Stengel conceded — in an internal memo from June that was leaked to the New York Times — that the State Department’s countermessaging center – which has only a 60-person staff and a budget between $5 million and $6 million — is “deeply under-resourced.” The other problem, Stengel’s memo stated: “When it comes to the external message, our narrative is being trumped by ISIL’s.”
But Stengel said now the battle is starting to shift as the State Department — along with allies from the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt — is rolling out a new approach.
Part of the new game plan, Stengel said, is the “defectors videos” campaign — a compilation of testimonials and news reports featuring first hand accounts from former ISIS members with shocking accounts of the group’s brutality and abuse. And a few week ago — the State Department co-hosted the Global Youth Summit Against Violent Extremism, where young activists from the around the world gathered to showcase local deradicalization projects.
“Governments and NGOs have been really late to the dance, frankly,“ said Mark Wallace, CEO of the summit’s co-host — the Counter Extremism Project — and a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “We are playing catch up. ISIS is still winning the online communications game, but I think we’re closing the gap. [A]nd hopefully … one day ISIS will be flooded online and won’t be able to effectively communicate.”
But In the meantime, Mubin Shaikh — who’s working on a PhD in psychology and lives with his wife and five homeschooled children — says this not the kind of battle that can be won by volunteers in their spare time.
“I can’t do this by myself. I can’t do it with a ragtag bunch of anonymous people on Twitter, “ he said. “That’s like trying to plug the breaking dam with your thumb.”
For Christianne Boudreau, it is a very personal fight. After deciding she could not let her son die in vain, she co-founded “Mothers for Life” and Hayat Canada Family Support, which help counsel extremist recruits and their families.
“These children don’t start off as terrorists. They start off caring so much about the suffering that’s going on and get drawn into it that way,” she said. “It can happen to absolutely anybody. It doesn’t take some sort of criminal. Most of our children were never criminals. They were all good kids.”