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ISIL's Biggest Weapon: It's Not A Gun But Social Media


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The aggressive and monumental rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or the Islamic State as they are now calling themselves, in Syria and in Iraq has dominated the news recently. The group, that wishes to create a medieval Islamic caliphate incorporating vast swathes of the Middle East, has been fighting in one way or another in Syria, against the rule of President Bashar Al-Assad, for several years now.

Yet, it was the group’s lightning fast capture of much of Northern Iraq and the allegations of the mass executions of thousands of Iraqi army soldiers that truly captured international headlines. The militants were some 30 kilometers from the capital Baghdad and something had to be done.

International leaders rushed to condemn ISIL and to offer their support for Nouri al-Maliki’s struggling government; burned bridges were hastily rebuilt; and Russia sent fighter jets to support Iraqi government forces. The ISIL tide has ebbed in the last few weeks, both by the firepower of the Iraqi and Syrian governments and also by rival militant groups fighting for power and control across the Iraq-Syria border.

However, the conflict is still very much ongoing, and doesn’t appear to be stopping anytime soon. Syria has now been at war for over three years. Many of its major cities are ghost towns, its occupants fleeing in the face of the ever-escalating violence. The only people who remain are the militants, collecting arms and claiming strongholds under constant bombardment from Assad’s bombs. Iraq is looking more and more like a divided country, split along sectarian lines.

These circumstances have been seen before in the Middle East and unfortunately seem to almost have become a part of life for many countries in the region. The conditions have long been a prime breeding ground for Islamist terrorists, and Western powers have sought to crack down on specific, physical, targets in the region, namely leaders of militant groups, terrorist training schools and the worldwide networks of militant cells that supply them.

But now there is a new threat – a threat that could be impossible to stop unless fast, decisive action is taken. Islamist groups, such as ISIL, are social media-savvy.

Al Qaeda used to spread their words of hate to the world through the intermittent dropping of videos at a television broadcaster’s headquarters. The videos would then be verified. Editors would ponder whether to release the footage. It would be shown, but only with a disclaimer. And only in certain countries.

Not so now. Now, some groups in Syria and Iraq are posting hundreds of videos a day. And these videos do not have to be verified. There are no graphic warnings on these videos. There are no impartial voices attempting to contextualize these images. Mainstream news channels are no longer needed by Islamist fighters to spread the words of jihad.

And nobody should be under the impression that these videos are poorly made and poorly shot on five year-old mobile phones. No, these are sophisticated, high definition recruitment videos, not dissimilar to those you might see as part of a US Marines recruitment commercial. They even have ‘trailers’ which run on official ISIL Twitter accounts as they countdown to publishing their latest gruesome exploits.

One such video, produced and uploaded onto social media by a militant known to have links to ISIL, made with an HD GoPro camera, was shot from behind a gun, similar to how the protagonist in the video game Call of Duty shoots and kills his enemies. Just like in the video game, little red targets were imposed on people, before they were gunned down. Slow-motion replays were provided. If it weren’t so gruesome it could perhaps be called art.

This particular video has now been deleted from YouTube. But the damage is done. The video had been seen by over 10,000 people in the first 24 hours. For a video posted from an obscure account, that is an incredible figure.

There are thousands and thousands of videos just like this one, posted on YouTube and Twitter and banded around incredibly easy to find and access forums. ISIL and groups like them are now reaching millions of people every day. In some cases the videos posted online have greater viewership than mainstream news channels.

And this recruitment drive is working. Hundreds of young Europeans are known to have traveled from Britain, or Holland or France to Syria and Iraq to fight for jihad. These are European citizens, who have grown up in a Western culture, who have seen what it is like to live in the West, and they don’t like it.

The big fear for Western governments isn’t so much of those who will die fighting in Iraq and Syria. It is those that return. At a meeting with his Chinese counterpart in June, British Prime Minister David Cameron said, “No-one should be in any doubt that what we see in Syria and now in Iraq in terms of ISIS (ISIL) is the most serious threat to Britain’s security that there is today. The number of foreign fighters in that area, the number of foreign fighters including those from the UK who could try to return to the UK is a real threat to our country”.

These young men and women hold certain beliefs opposed by many in the West - and more critically – they also hold a European passport. Conservative estimates claim over 2,000 members of ISIL hold Western passports. This means no security checks, no need for a visa. And the same applies to them traveling to the US, something acknowledged by US President Barack Obama during a recent ABC news interview.

The West is scared, and rightly so. The conflict being fought thousands of miles away can be brought home in a second. In the second it takes for a video to be posted onto YouTube.

So what can the West do about it? An alternative has to be offered to these young, vulnerable individuals who see fighting jihad in the Middle East as their calling, their destiny. Or their only option.

Better integration is key. Maintaining one’s cultural heritage is crucial, that must first be said. Integration does not mean abandoning your own culture. But a good understanding of each other’s cultures has to begin in school. It is no good throwing kids together and expecting them to embrace each other and to automatically integrate. It has to be done through specific school programs that encourage the sharing of ideas and of joint activities.

Australia have recently introduced legislation that will make it easier to detain suspected extremists who may be looking to travel to conflict areas, and Prime Minister Tony Abbot has said that the potential for terrorism in Australia, and the south east-Asian region, has increased “substantially”. There should be no doubt this is a global problem, and will need a global solution.

The Muslim communities of western countries have to feel they are part of the fabric of a country, to be fully incorporated in the life and culture of a country. This must come from both sides – leaders in the Muslim community must encourage greater integration and allow for this assimilation to take place. Western governments have to make sure there are greater opportunities for young Muslim men and women.

Kuranda Seyit, the executive director of the Forum on Australia Islamic relations, says that Australia’s attempt to target and prosecute radical Islamists in the country is the wrong approach. These groups are small and incredibly hard to penetrate. It is much harder to change somebodies’ mind than it is to form their opinion in the first place.

Australia and other western nations need to address the moderate Muslims who make up the vast majority of the community. These groups are those in danger of being radicalised but engagement with them can prevent more Western Muslims traveling to the Middle East to participate in jihad.

The West won’t win the propaganda war. They shouldn’t try to fight fire with fire. But there should be options. There should be understanding. There should be something that stops young men and women saying yes when ISIL comes calling.

Text: Jack Tarrant for Generation C

Article originally published for Generation C on 19th August 2014
Photo credit here

Written by Jack Tarrant and published on 21-August-2014




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