Why do Europeans join ISIS or ISIL? That’s a question that keeps coming up and bewilders governments, intelligence agencies, and counter-terrorism experts alike.
One of the most common theories out there suggests that Muslim immigrants in Europe often face discrimination when they are trying to find jobs. These immigrants, mostly of the North African descent, also face problems assimilating and integrating into the European society.
The Islamic State’s claim to have re-established the caliphate and to be preparing for the apocalypse has clearly been a large factor in bringing Jihadi-Salafist volunteers to its banner
Philip Verwimp, a Belgian economist, who studies violence, suggests there may be a link between ISIS recruitment in Belgium and the economic exclusion of immigrants.
Furthermore, a conflict over religious practices also alienates these Muslims from the societies they live in. The niqab ban in France, for example, creates frustration within the Muslims who find their rights being impinged upon. ISIS in its vast propaganda often exploits these resentments found within the Muslims by inviting them to a land where they can fully practice Islam without any fear. The wave of Islamophobia in the West, especially in Europe, thanks to the far right parties only plays in the hand of ISIS.
Talking to DNA, Kyle W Orton, an analyst on Middle East and Sunni Jihadism and Research Fellow at Henry Jackson Society, suggests: “The Islamic State’s claim to have re-established the caliphate and to be preparing for the apocalypse has clearly been a large factor in bringing Jihadi-Salafist volunteers to its banner rather than others like al-Qaeda.”
We live in the age of social media where the spread of information is very fast and the connectivity makes it easier for the information to spread out to a lot of people. It was thanks to this phenomenon the youth participating in the Arab Spring were able to topple dictators in places like Egypt and Tunisia. How the Arab Spring turned out for some other countries is a different story for another day. ISIS is fully cognizant of the power of social media and milks it for all its worth. ISIS’ web savvy through slickly produced propaganda videos and social media allows it to exploit the alienation found in the youth and the economic dissatisfaction already mentioned above. Research has also shown that ISIS exploits connections between its fighters and their friends and families residing back home. Some of the men are also attracted to the “macho” side of ISIS where they get to brandish high-tech weaponry and fight against the “infidels” and enemies of Islam.
“More than any other segment of IS’s membership, the foreigners, especially Europeans, are ideologically driven. There are adventure seekers as well, but they are smaller in numbers than the true believers,” said Orton while talking to DNA.
Many of the European Muslims who are part of Daesh (another name for ISIS) actually went to Syria with good intentions. They saw the scale of the murder being carried out by Assad and his allies and wanted to help Syrians
Another reason for the Europeans to join ISIS is this noble cause in their eyes to come to Syria and help the people who are fighting against tyranny. The people in Syria revolted against the regime of Bashar al-Assad who decided to brutally crush the revolution by labelling it a ‘foreign conspiracy’ designed to destroy Syria and his regime. Bashar in his interviews given to Western media often pins the blame squarely on Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia and never admits to the carnage caused by his own regime and his allies. The bombing of hospitals, markets, schools and laying brutal sieges in towns like Daraya and Madaya are never mentioned by him. For ISIS, that is their ticket to recruit people from all over the world.
While talking to DNA, Sam Charles Hamad, an activist, and writer based in Edinburgh, said: “I think there are two main elements to it. The first is that many of the European Muslims who are part of Daesh (another name for ISIS) actually went to Syria with good intentions. They saw the scale of the murder being carried out by Assad and his allies and wanted to help Syrians. However, due to circumstances on the ground, they ended up within the ranks of Daesh. The second element is that Daesh provides logic for people who have been socially, not culturally, alienated – Muslims in Europe who have faced racism and who see Daesh as a way for them to be part of something that is strong and that is unapologetically ‘Muslim’.”
The constant bombardment of Muslim countries has also helped ISIS in its recruitment from all over the world, including Europe.
A German journalist Jürgen Todenhöfer, 74, was embedded with ISIS and spent 10 days in Mosul in northern Iraq with its fighters and had this to say about it: “I think the strategy of the western countries regarding the Muslim world is completely wrong. With our bombardment, we have never been successful. We have not been successful in Afghanistan; we have not been successful in Iraq. The bombardments are a terror-breeding programme. We had much fewer terrorists before 2001 and these bombardments, which killed hundreds of thousands of people, have created terrorists and increased terrorism.”
These massive bombing campaigns have had a little effect in destroying ISIS, but have only helped ISIS further its propaganda. Todenhöfer in another article of his mentioned, “In October 2014 I was the first western journalist to spend time with ISIS and return safely. During my stay, we were repeatedly targeted by American fighter jets and drones. It’s hard to overemphasise how quickly our ISIS escorts managed each time to disappear among the local population.”
For the ones who can’t come to Syria or Iraq for different reasons are often asked by ISIS to carry out attacks in their own countries after they have pledged their allegiance to the group. About these foreign attacks, Orton mentioned: “The foreign attacks are driven by ISIS’ foreign intelligence service, Amn al-Kharji, which infiltrates ISIS’ enemies and has guided most of the attacks in Europe. This is a concerted campaign by ISIS to portray strength and to punish those governments that are fighting it.”
These lone wolf attacks are very hard to predict and counter because these radicalized individuals, after getting radicalized online, often don’t have a prior history of crime.
“I think the lone wolf attacks are certainly attempts by sympathisers to sow the seeds of hatred of Muslims in Europe, but I don’t think they’re done out of desperation,” said Hamad after being asked by DNA if these attacks were done out of desperation.
As long as the greater evil of Assad remains in place and as long as the main forces fighting them in Iraq are sectarian they’ll always have an ideological and material logic.
A Western coalition of many different countries have consistently bombed ISIS, but the attacks in Europe clearly suggests that even after destroying ISIS completely the ideology of ISIS would still be there. The network of these European ISIS members and sympathizers would also be there until and unless it is dismantled comprehensively.
“In Syria, Daesh can still launch major offensives against the rebels and, quite recently, they just bombed Qamishli. Then you saw their attack on the Hazaras in Afghanistan. I think they’re still quite confident. They know that as long as the greater evil of Assad remains in place and as long as the main forces fighting them in Iraq are sectarian, they’ll always have an ideological and material logic,” said Hamad about the current strength and future of ISIS.
In order to prevent the flow of fighters and the recruitment drive of ISIS, Syria and Iraq would have to be stabilized, and that is easier said than done. This problem cannot be solved without addressing all the factors mentioned above. The solutions are long term and there is no magic wand for it, but it is imperative that Muslim community leaders all over the world and European governments begin to devise ways of solving the problem together instead of creating an environment of Islamophobia and distrust which is quite often very counterproductive.