Here is an article I have with Ross Frenett on HuffPo arguing for the need to invest resources in films, campaigns and digital activities to push back on the messages that violent extremists use to attract young people to travel to Syria to fight.
Today’s report by the UK Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee warns of the alarming number of westerners traveling to Syria to fight and calls for stronger efforts to counter the recruitment narratives of extremists. As Committee Chairman, Keith Vaz, warned “without the Government helping peer-led projects to tackle this problem, many more may be lost to radicalisation.”
Also launched today is a report we have written for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, (ISD) in which we outline the nature of the problem and what must be done to stem the tide of western citizens willing to become so-called ‘foreign fighters’ in countries, such as Syria, Mali and Somalia. Drawing on research conducted by ISD on the effectiveness of counter-narratives, our own database of suspected foreign fighters, and interviews with members of the Against Violent Extremism who have travelled and fought in previous conflicts, the report offers a concrete roadmap for success in pushing back on the kinds of extremist messages that draw people to places such as Syria to fight.
We define three distinct messengers that need to be countered:
Violent extremist groups: The formal propaganda wings of the armed movements engage with potential supporters, produce propaganda and provide justification for their actions.
Their supporters: There are many associated groups and networks that use their websites, forums and social media accounts to support and encourage the actions of groups that employ foreign fighters, celebrate martyrs and produce large quantities of propaganda. These are, in most cases, more influential than the violent extremist groups; a recent ICSR report found that two of the most influential supporters and cheerleaders for the Syrian Jihad were not even based in Syria, but were in fact western supporters with a strong social media presence.
Individual foreign fighters: Some foreign fighters tweet from the frontline, sharing their experiences; everything from accounts of their daily routines, to reflections on life on the frontline. The most famous example is the late Omar Hammami, an American Jihadist killed in Somalia. Others, such as Abu Fulan al-Muhajir, tweet their experiences from Syria in English.
Just as there is no single profile of violent extremists, there is no one discernible ‘type’ of foreign fighter. From ignorant novices who view the trips as a rite of passage, die-hard militants looking for combat and martyrdom, and individuals who go for humanitarian reasons but get drawn into conflict, individuals become foreign fighters for a range of reasons: boredom; intergenerational tensions; the search for greater meaning in life; perceived adventure; attempts to impress the local community or the opposite sex; a desire for increased credibility; to belong or gain peer acceptance; revenge; or misguided conflict experience expectations.
In response, counter-messages or counter-narratives need to mirror these motivating factors. Based on the types of propaganda that are being used to convince young people to travel, we identify five main areas of counter-messaging:
You are being duped – don’t be taken in by their propaganda: the idea of betrayal is an especially strong and compelling one for young people. This message could focus on how potential recruits are being misled by propaganda for example, images of dead children taken from other places and presented as happening in the theatre of conflict or stories about al-Shabaab’s extensive use of the forced recruitment of children.
We are not all in this together – there are as many divisions as bonds between different Islamic factions. As noted above, the idea of camaraderie and unity is one stressed very often by those groups that utilise foreign fighters. Highlighting the vicious infighting between and within groups could go a long way towards countering this message. This could consist of examples of foreign fighters finding themselves under fire from other Islamic groups rather than the ‘enemy’, or even examples of foreign fighters who were betrayed and murdered in the conflict zone by the very groups they traveled to join. The most famous and powerful example of this is the American foreign fighter, Omar Hammam, who even live tweeted one attempt on his life.
This is not an Islamic struggle – you do not have a ‘duty’ to fight. This could include messages about why fighting is not justified within Islam, why it is not a ‘just war’, and therefore bringing into question the Islamic duty to fight.
You are useless and you’ll get in the way – do something more constructive instead: This message could be unpacked in a number of ways: local fighters explaining that foreign fighters will be a liability on the frontline, and may not be allowed to fight anyway; citizens explaining that their need to protect foreigners will put them in danger; refugees on the indulgence of foreigners wanting to have adventure when there are women and children starving in refugee camps. This message could also give very clear ‘calls to action’: collect money, raise awareness, work for political dialogue, lobby your political representatives, etc.
Conditions on the frontline are terrible – it is not the adventure you are expecting. This message could focus on the reality of poor conditions in these conflict zones, including testimonies from returned foreign fighters, and accounts from journalists or locals on the ground. It could include a ‘call to action’ linked to the adventure motivation, such as volunteering in other Islamic/Muslim majority countries or regions.
The problem of foreign fighters is not new; it goes back to the Spanish civil war and beyond. But the advent of social media opens up multiple new possibilities for direct communication to encourage ever more numbers of young people to respond to a so-called ‘call of duty’.
Social media can also be a tool for good; with concerted efforts and smart campaigns, we too can reach these young people and give them the knowledge to ask the right questions about whether travelling to Syria to fight is the right thing to do. For now, the violent extremists are winning the war of ideas online. It’s time for the counter-messengers to raise their game.