ISIS is a Salafi Jihadist militant group that follows a fundamentalist doctrine of Sunni Islam. It aims to establish an Islamic state (Caliphate) in Iraq, Syria, and beyond. It was formed in 2006, and Al Baghdadi was announced as its leader.
The global rise of ISIS is widely attributed to its successful recruitment efforts and strategy. Despite losing ground in Iraq and Syria, ISIS was able to recruit thousands of fighters from across the globe. Media has mainly focused on its recruitment efforts in Europe and the Middle East, but ISIS has recruited many fighters from Asia, Russia, the U.S., and Africa.
ISIS used the Internet as a primary tool for its recruitment efforts. ISIS has used its online propaganda in approximately 21 languages. They have used online videos, twitter, facebook, memes, and endorsements to propagate their ideology among masses. With the help of their large-scale social media drive, they had recruited over 30,000 foreign fighters from more than 100 countries. In the U.S., ISIS has mostly relied upon online recruitment and recruitment of approximately 100 individuals. From September to December 2015, over 46,000 twitter accounts were used by ISIS to propagate their ideology and increase their recruitment.
According to various sources, an alarming number of volunteers for ISIS comprised of medical doctors and students from the UK, Canada, U.S, Australia, Israel, and other developed and prosperous countries. Doctors and other professionals joined ISIS either because of gaining identity or fame or as a result of some harsh experience of discrimination.
ISIS repeatedly propagated videos and other content that they are the welfare and humanitarian organization. Some doctors joined ISIS because they thought they would get better opportunities in a Caliphate rather than a Western country. A survey of American Muslims showed that almost 24% of Muslim doctors faced discrimination in their careers. (Vogel, 2016). Out of all the content promoted by ISIS, only 10% is related to violence. Remaining 90% material projected positive side of Caliphate, human rights, social welfare programs, medical facilities, and many others.
The narratives built by ISIS to support their recruitment were compelling, complex, and comprised of multiple factors such as religious beliefs, social factors, influence and grievances and need for identity and opportunity. The narrative of Islamic ideology played a crucial role in convincing potential recruits. Islamic State was projected as an ideal place governed under simple principles of Islam and humanity. Therefore, going to Syria as a foreign fighter became more of an obligation and a way of protecting and projecting Islam. However, there is another narrative that attracted people with material needs. ISIS promised food, shelter, money, luxury goods, and many others. Personal recognition, the satisfaction of ego, and self-projection were also attractive to many. Lack of literacy and a strong sense of so-called religious obligation tempted people to join ISIS.
ISIS fighters are also recruited via direct personal contacts. Neighbors, mosques and other religious centers, family connections with terrorists and other relatives. Hatred for Assad’s regime, spiritual benefits of participation in jihad, so-called religious duties, the concept of Caliphate, hatred for Western society and culture, becoming a part of something big have all became prominent motivations for joining ISIS. Dabiq, an online magazine published by ISIS, played a significant role in projecting its agenda and narrative and actively radicalized masses. The magazine promoted the group’s ideology, military activities, culture, infrastructure, social services, medical and other facilities, and many others.
The group had also released feature-length videos such as “Flames of War” and shorter films such as “Eid Greetings from the Land of Khalifa.” ISIS used guidebooks such as “Hijrah” and “How to Survive in the West” to propagate their agenda and recruit foreign fighters.
The effectiveness of the recruitment strategy of ISIS can be seen in more than 20,000 foreign fighters from approximately 90 countries. Narratives such as Jahiliya (ignorance of God’s will), Badr (military victory of a small number of people over a vast army), battles such as Khyber and Kerbala, concept of Mahdi ( a Muslim great leader who will appear near the end of the world), crusades and few others have been widely used by ISIS.
ISIS has been successful in recruiting more than approximately 550 Muslim women from Western countries. The motives of ISIS women have ranged from religious, political, ideological, and personal issues. Firstly women responded to the call of Al Baghdadi who persuaded Muslims to join ISIS as a religious duty to built infrastructure, society, and economy of the new state. Many women left their husbands and children and moved to the Islamic State with new husbands. Women have seen ISIS as an alternative to the so-called morally corrupt and respect less society of the West. They have seen Islamic State as a place where their rights are protected, and they could live honorably under the pure jurisdiction of Islamic laws. Restrictions on wearing Burqa in France and many others have been widely used by ISIS recruiters to criticize Western society and lure women to join ISIS.
They widely propagated the concept of an Islamic welfare state that convinced many women to join their ranks to play non-traditional fighting roles too, such as cooking and nursing. ISIS widely used the feelings of discrimination, alienation, inequality, racism, and lack of religious freedom to convince women to join ISIS. Some women were fanaticized by the concept of marrying a warrior or a real man who can scarify everything for Islam. Such potential brides were promised free houses with fitted appliances and financial benefits for their children.
ISIS had not just attracted young men and women but also not spared children. They used children to carry small arms and light weapons and could escape search on the check posts. This facilitated carrying attacks in otherwise inaccessible locations. Children were also soft targets of ISIS propaganda as they could easily be convinced and demonstrate loyalty.