ISIS and the U.S. Government Battle for the Hearts and Minds…Well, at Least the Hearts… of Potential ISIS Recruits

Clearly, ISIS members don’t think of themselves as the fanatical psychopaths that the rest of the world believes they are. Just the opposite. They believe they are the guiding lights of the world. They are convinced that they are doing god’s work, even if their god seems indistinguishable from Satan. I’m not sure what other god would demand murdering children, mass executions and crucifixions, schools that teach children how to torture, and creating herds of female sex slaves where girls as young as 9 are sold to the highest bidders. One must ask. How are normal people reduced to this level of behavior? How have Americans and other Westerners been convinced to join this depraved group?

Well, good PR is one reason. ISIS knows the psychology of the people they are looking to recruit and they know how to trigger certain behaviors. John Horgan, a psychologist and professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Center for Terrorism and Security Studies, cautions that potential ISIS members come in all forms and cannot readily be pigeon-holed. However, there are characteristics that seem to underpin many members. First, they seem to possess a sense of idealism and, possibly, justice. They may believe that they are members of a repressed minority that is being badly treated. They see the U.S. and other, rich, Western nations as working against them and Islam. To refuse to fight against this injustice is seen, by these potential terrorists, as immoral. Besides, they may have become disenchanted with their current place in life. Perhaps, they are unemployed or see no real future or purpose in life. ISIS gives them this purpose and supplies them with the ideals and meaning they long for. ISIS, then, justifies whatever it does as a way to help them attain these ideals.

Another group targeted by ISIS are disaffected youth who simply want to bring some adventure into their dull lives. They may have few, if any, ideals and no real knowledge about the fundamentals of Islam. As Max Abrahms, an expert on terrorism from Northeastern University, points out, many recruits are “ignorant people with respect to religion and they are generally the newest members to the religion. They would probably fail the most basic test on Islam.” In any event, into this array of mindsets comes ISIS with its arsenal of marketing tools. Among these are videos, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and Jihad apps.

Although ISIS’ media production has been praised for its slick design, it is lacking in any real content. Reading the ISIS English magazine, Dabiq, was like reading a copy of Watchtower with an Islamic twist. The idealization of the coming world is beyond the credibility of a normal thinking human. There is the usual mix of religious dogma and quotes with pictures of ‘apostates’ who’ve been executed without trials. There are appeals to those Muslims living in the West to leave their comfortable lives and join in the noble fight, and there is the attempt to make them feel guilty if they don’t. Of course, ISIS refers to itself as the ‘liberators’ and their opponents as ‘crusaders’ or ‘the regime’. Any Middle East country that does not support their goals is considered a ‘puppet of the West’.

One of the slickest recruitment videos features the Canadian, Andrew Poulin. In it, Poulin talks about leaving his comfortable life in Canada because he realized his money was going to support the non-believers who ran the country and who were using the money to “make war on Islam”. He appeals to others to bring their families to the so-called Islamic state, where they will be taken care of and lead a good, safe life. The video runs like a ‘visit Canada’ promo with beautiful natural scenes shown with a background of Middle East music and superimposed messages such as join “the Chosen Few’. Poulin implores Westerners to use whatever skills they have to help this pseudo Islamic state. They don’t have to fight. If necessary, they can simply send money. There are then scenes of smiling Jihadis riding in the back of a pickup truck, flying the Islamic state flag, and brandishing their weapons. Unfortunately for Andrew, Syria was not as safe as he claimed it would be. We are then shown scenes of Andrew battling for control over Aleppo airport. As the video portentously reports, “he rushed into the airport hoping to meet his lord and gain closeness to him”. The video purportedly shows Poulin, aka Abu Muslim, “storming the front”. The narrator, then, hints at what will happen in that Jihadi style so common in all of this propaganda. He continues, “and, thus, his lord had decreed an appointment for their meeting.” We see an explosion and then some grim scenes of the dead body of Andrew Poulin as he is groomed by his colleagues. Over the face of the dead Poulin and the background of supposedly inspiring Islamic music, we see superimposed phrases promising that those who die accordingly will have a great time in the afterlife.

Yet, there is something more than disturbing about this video. I kept thinking of what a coincidence it was that they happened to have a video focused on Andrew in battle. And then it hit me. This was no coincidence at all. It had all been planned. Indeed, Steven Emerson of the Washington D.C.-based Investigative Project on Terrorism claims that Western recruits are often made to record such videos as an initiation. Passport burning is also a big part of these ceremonies. “Before they actually participate in hostilities, one of the recruitment requirements is to make a video — sort of your last will and testament — for posterity, which are then posted online should they die in battle.” That Andrew did happen to die in battle was simply an extra propaganda bonus for ISIS. It is now known that many Western recruits are considered expendable and are often groomed to become suicide bombers. Why? Because ISIS considers them as basically useless for anything else since they don’t speak Arabic “aren’t very good with guns and have no battle experience”. According to a former ISIS member, “I saw many foreign recruits who were put in the suicide squads not because they were ‘great and God wanted it’ as IS commanders praised them in front of us, but basically because they were useless for IS.”

ISIS is attempting to recruit Western jihadis using any means available. This includes using Facebook and Twitter accounts. They also offered an app on Google Play called, Fajr Al’ Basha’ir or Dawn of Glad Tidings, which, supposedly, gives the latest news on the ongoing jihad in the mock Islamic state. In fact, the app comes with botnet capabilities and would hijack your Twitter account and use it to distribute jihadii propaganda. Amazon was selling t-shirts featuring the ISIS flag and slogans. In addition, ISIS is in the process of developing a video game showing jihadis fighting an array of enemies. The trailer recently appeared on YouTube.

However, you can no longer see this trailer because YouTube removed it. In fact, you’ll have a hard time finding any recruiting links because there is a concerted effort on the part of all social media to remove any links to ISIS propaganda. Though ISIS is certainly not giving up, they are clearly losing this battle. Alternative routes remain, but these will not reach those who have a passing interest in becoming a jihadi. Twitter has not closed down ISIS Media Hub and you can still read the latest news from the ISIS viewpoint on Actually, it’s not a bad idea to read the latest news here, as you often get a better view on how the fight against ISIS is progressing and what is aggravating them most. It’s true that new accounts keep popping up, but they appear to know their time is limited. The Twitter account, @Abu_Dujana__, for example, contains the opening message, “Please please please pretty please dont ban me twitter do you know how much effort it takes to make new email address and twitter in desertistan.” Let’s see how long this one lasts. To add to ISIS’ problems, the hacking group, Anonymous, has declared war on them, largely because they feel ISIS is misrepresenting Islam.

At the same time that ISIS’ media presence online is diminishing, the U.S. government is increasing its own anti-ISIS presence. It is actively trying to dissuade Americans and other Westerners from joining ISIS. Their Facebook site , Think Again, Turn Away, targets those thinking of becoming ISIS recruits. They also have a Twitter account of the same name. But does this strategy work? As Horgan notes, “I think right now the appeal of ISIS is largely impervious to our messages.” After all, what potential jihadi will believe anything they see on a site connected to the U.S. government? Who would want to give an opinion on the site when they would, at the same time, be giving out personal information which could be used to trace them down? Would you expect an anti-ISIS person to be converted to ISIS by what they saw on an ISIS site? True, the U.S. cannot sit around doing nothing, but perhaps another approach is necessary.

I have no doubt that the U.S. government is working behind the scenes to gather information on potential ISIS followers. This can be helpful but there may be other ways to influence this group. In short, take advantage of the pervasive paranoia that accompanies anyone who holds views in conflict with those of the nation within which they live. Make them believe that every website they visit, every video they watch, or every ISIS recruiter they meet, might very likely be working for the government. Hiring individuals to post comments to this effect on such sites would be enough to put the seed of doubt into them and, in essence, cut off recruitment efforts at the root.

There are other psychological ways to reach these individuals. According to Horgan, “one of the things ISIS is going to have to be sensitive to internally is not allowing accounts of disillusioned fighters to emerge from their ranks. Disillusionment is very, very common in every single terrorist and extremist group you can think of. That’s something that can be very toxic if those accounts get out and gather momentum …Disillusionment is the most common reason why people voluntarily choose to walk away from a terrorist group. People become disillusioned if they feel that the group has gone too far, if they don’t seem to have a strategy beyond indiscriminate killing.” That’s all well and good but there is a basic problem. What ISIS fighter would be stupid enough to complain about the organization? It would almost certainly mean death. Couldn’t they escape from ISIS territory? Yes, a few who came from nearby countries have escaped and told horrific tales, but what are Westerners going to do if they become disillusioned? Don’t forget that one of the first things they had to do was to burn their passports. No easy way back for them.

With social media uniting against them, ISIS is facing an uphill battle in this cyberwar. This is the best time for the U.S. government to ramp up the pressure on them. The government clearly has a wealth of information that they can use to lower the reputation of ISIS, but when it comes through a government website or social media page, it loses its potency. The government should launder its information through individuals whose government connections cannot be traced. If idealism and a sense of justice motivate these potential recruits, Islamic leaders should show how ISIS behavior is not in agreement with Islamic teachings and that the true source of injustice lies with ISIS. Middle Eastern media outlets, understanding this approach, have criticized ISIS’ methods in this way. In the Islamic Monthly, Arsalan Iftikhar wrote an article entitled, “Let’s call ISIS the Un-Islamic State”. British Muslims have organized against ISIS with a video and Twitter account entitled, NotInMyName.

However, the same media outlets bristle when non-Islamic Western leaders claim that ISIS does not represent Islam. They feel that these Western leaders are not Islamic scholars and have no right to make judgments on Islamic teachings.

Just as in a regular war, a concerted international effort must be made to minimize the ISIS cyber recruiting threat. Just as in a regular war, good tactics can often be more important than brute force. It is a war that certainly must be fought or, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out “We shall have to repent in this generation not so much for the evil deeds of the wicked people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

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Social media, such as Facebook or Twitter, are often used to launch attacks against businesses. Attackers know that if they can compromise one device connected to a corporate network, they can compromise the entire network…unless you have security architecture that prevents this. InZero Systems has devised such architecture. It divides a single mobile device into two devices wherein whatever a user does on their personal side of the device cannot cross over and gain entrance to the work side. Even if a social media-based attack compromises a network user’s device, your company data remains safe and secure.

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