The viral threat of ISIS ideology

There is an argument to be made against taking stronger action against the throat-slashing, slave-taking, genocidal terrorists of the Islamic State.  Granted, it’s a little hard to make the argument when you describe them like that, but let’s put our cards on the table and be brutally frank: if their worst direct threat to Americans is the execution of a few hostages here and there, maybe they really are a “manageable” problem, as President Obama described them the other day.

Of course, the White House realized Obama had made yet another hideous blunder by using that language, so on Friday he explicitly repudiated everything he said earlier this week, and started talking tough: “You can’t contain an organization that is running roughshod over that much territory, causing that much havoc, displacing that many people, killing that many innocents, enslaving that many women,” he said from a NATO summit in Wales.  “The goal has to be to dismantle them.”

No worries – Obama’s loyal drones will immediate forget all of his now-inoperable statements, delete the blog posts they were scribbling about how only right-wing warmongering maniacs would deny that ISIS can be contained and managed with “smart power,” and begin beating the war drums until their dear leader tells them to stop.  Still, there are intellectually serious people of a non-interventionist bent who think the Islamic State is primarily a problem for its neighbors, some of whom are rough customers we don’t like much anyway, such as Bashar Assad of Syria and the mullahs of Tehran.  You don’t go to war over a handful of beheaded hostages, do you?

Well, if you don’t, the enemy counts it as a victory, and presents it as such to potential recruits.  We sawed the heads off Americans with a knife, on camera, throwing their President’s empty words right back in his face, and we’re still here.  Americans traveling overseas become fair game, as attackers have reason to believe they can get away with a growing number of kidnappings… and the legend of ISIS grows with each new unanswered depravity.  At first the no-go zones from which Western journalists and aid workers have been routed are sections of Syria and Iraq, but the sphere of exile will grow.  The terrorists have every reason to make it grow.

There’s the lingering question of how much the Islamic State can pose a strategic threat to its neighbors.  They have a large and very effective fighting force, based out of territory they control, with an abundance of captured weapons and money.  They’re a battlefield player in a way the old al-Qaeda never was.  But let’s take it as a given, for the sake of discussion, that American air power can reinforce ISIS’ regional adversaries enough to stymie their territorial expansion.

That doesn’t neutralize the threat of ISIS ideology, a realm in which they’re also much more menacing than their al-Qaeda predecessors.  They’re a powerful presence on social media, actively recruiting support from disaffected people across the Western world.  NBC News reports the creation of “at least 28,000 Twitter accounts supporting the Islamic State” just since the release of the first beheading video, the one in which James Foley was murdered.  By some estimates, that brings the surge of jihadi accounts created over the summer to over 60,000.  A good ten percent of the total online reaction to the Foley video was positive.

Where’s ISIS getting the technical know-how and web savvy to run such a potent social-media operation?  According to ABC News, a good deal of it comes from… Northeastern University, in the person of graduate Ahmad Abousamra, who grew up in Boston, and did very well in school before signing up with the jihad:

Ahmad Abousamra, a dual American-Syrian citizen, was born in France in 1981 but grew up in the upscale Boston suburb of Stoughton under the watchful eye of his father, who was a prominent endocrinologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.  He attended the private Xaverian Brothers Catholic high school in Westwood up until his senior year when he transferred to Stoughton High. There he was on the honor roll, school officials said, and went on to make the Dean???s List at Northeastern University.

But Abousamra???s life changed drastically in 2004 when prosecutors say he and co-conspirators traveled to the Middle East with the goal of fighting and killing Americans in Iraq.

Once abroad, two alleged co-conspirators of Abousamra???s, Tarek Mehanna and another unidentified individual, worked as effectively the ???media wing??? of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a 2009 indictment against Abousamra and Mehanna says. AQI later would evolve into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

I’m old enough to remember Obama apologists insisting that AQI had nothing whatsoever to do with “core” al-Qaeda or any other group.  They were all supposed to be like McDonald’s franchises that hated each other and wouldn’t dream of cooperating.  Somehow the FBI managed to question and convict Abousamra’s chum Tarek Mehanna, but he was able to flee to Syria and put his college degree in computer technology, plus experience working in the telecom industry, at the service of the Islamic State.

Stories about seemingly normal young people signing up with ISIS are multiplying.  The Somalian immigrant community in Minneapolis is a troubling nexus for such recruitment, which might be one reason why the U.S. government just carried out a drone strike against the leadership of ISIS’ allies in Somalia, al-Shabaab.  Both of the Americans killed fighting for ISIS in Syria had connections with Minneapolis.  The local ABC affiliate brings us another such story, this time a 19-year-old Somali woman from St. Paul who just hopped a plane to Syria… leading to concerns about the equal opportunity employment policies of the Islamic State.

Sadik Warfa is a Deputy Director for the Global Somali Diaspora, which is an organization supporting Somalis that repatriates expatriates here in Minnesota and around the world. Warfa says the Somali-American community shares the universal revulsion of the brutality of ISIS.

“The actions of ISIS is roundly condemned by all religious leaders all over the world,” he said. “First of all, we are Americans. We are Somali-Americans. The concern for the safety of this country concerns us all.”

Warfa points out the number of Somalis that have traveled to Syria to join ISIS is a tiny fraction of the larger community and represents individual decisions. He also says this most recent case serves as a good example that these recruits are misguided.

[…] Warfa’s message for young Somalis thinking about leaving the state is this: “Please work hard. You’re living in one of the greatest countries in the world. You have opportunities that don’t exist in other parts of the world. Please take advantage and study hard and become a productive member of society of this great country we have.”

That’s a fine effort from Mr. Warfa, and he’s fighting ISIS on the right ground, but they don’t seem to be having any trouble attracting disaffected people from various walks of life, both in America and Europe.  The National Post of Canada has a disturbing profile of another recent recruit, 20-year-old Aqsa Mahmood, who vanished from her upscale apartment in Glasgow, Scotland last November, resurfaced in Syria, and has been contributing to the same online outreach effort that recruited her:

It appears her path to radical Islam came through proselytization on the Internet, a common entry point for young westerners. She was exploring the teachings of radical Islam through online research and by reading extremist texts, the Daily Mail reported.

Now, the woman is using social media, such as Twitter and Tumblr to carry her message of propaganda.

For nearly a year, Ms. Mahmood had been documenting her day-to-day life in ISIS and encouraging attacks on Western nations.

???[I swear to Allah] there???s nothing more beautiful than bringing fear into the hearts of the [non-believers] by attacking them where they think they are safest,??? the woman wrote soon after she surfaced in Syria.

Her messages also offer a glimpse into the recruiting methods employed by ISIS propagandists.

???Follow the example of your brothers from Woolwhich [sic], Texas and Boston etc. Have no fear as Allah swt [sic] is always with the Believers,??? she wrote in June, referring to the killing of a British soldier outside his barracks in London by Islamist extremists last year, the Fort Hood, Tex., mass shooting in 2009 and the Boston Marathon bombing, respectively.

She also encouraged those living abroad to carry out jihadist acts, telling followers, ???If you cannot make it to the battlefield then bring the battlefield to yourself. Be sincere and be a [jihadist] wherever you may be.???

Ms. Mahmood operated her Twitter account under a pseudonym until Tuesday, when it was deactivated.

In her posts, she claims to have married an ISIS fighter and offers tips to sisters hoping to join her, including the difficulty of getting modest Islamic clothing in Syria.

There are quite a few “sisters” offering helpful advice online for hooking up with ISIS, according to Melanie Smith of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence in London:

Ms. Smith stresses the importance of blogs, like Ms. Mahmood???s, in disseminating ISIS???s message to potential recruits in western countries. While exploring the prospect of travelling abroad to join extremist groups, online blogs and diaries written by ISIS members formerly from western countries will typically be consulted first.

???We???ve seen girls from the U.K. that have been there since February 2013, and are now acting as recruiters writing online blogs and diaries. So if they???re interested in going, that???s where they???ll get the information,??? said Ms. Smith.

She adds the online writings are also popular among ISIS fighters, who will often share and repost them in an effort to widen their audience, thus enticing more future recruits.

Shutting down ISIS’ online activities is proving difficult, especially since intelligence analysts say the terrorists have “‘clearly’ capitalized on the voluminous leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden” and are using his disclosures to “evade U.S. intelligence,” as reported at the Washington Times.  One official said “some Islamic State operators have virtually disappeared, giving no hint as to their whereabouts or actions,” which means we’re having trouble targeting them for surgical elimination via drone strike, or knocking them out of the social media universe.

Certainly many of the people responding to ISIS online, circulating their videos, and echoing their blood-curdling threats are just blowhards, bitter critics of the Western world talking some vicarious pleasure from its bloody nose, and thrill-seeking cellar dwellers who aren’t likely to carry out terror operations themselves.  But what percent of those 60,000 new terror-symp accounts have to be serious believers in order to create a very serious problem?  The great fear about the hundreds of Westerners (reportedly including a least a hundred Americans) who have traveled overseas to fight with the Islamic State is that they’ll return home, radicalized and trained for heavy-duty mayhem.  Toward that end, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) has announced he will introduce a bill to strip Americans who leave the country to fight with ISIS of their citizenship.  Cruz calls it the Expatriate Terrorist Act, but it might as well be named the “What Kind Of Frigging Lunatic Would Vote Against This Bill” Act.

But what about the people who are still here?  Those stories about young people who threw away their Western lives and bought tickets to Syria are scary enough on their own, but they also make you wonder how many willing recruits were told by ISIS to remain where they are, and await further instructions.  Some of the Islamic State’s Facebook friends doubtless said they weren’t in a position to fly to the Middle East right away.  Was the response something like, “No problem, brothers and sisters, we can still make use of you in your home cities?”

As for countering the viral spread of ISIS ideology, the responses quoted above seem to proceed largely on the assumption that terrorism spreads primarily among the poor and ill-educated.  That’s obviously not true in these cases.  These are people with solid educational backgrounds and comfortable lives, but they still found black holes in their souls, where the message of ISIS resonates.  They look at the culture around them and see weakness to be despised, and exploited.  There are many voices telling young people they have no place in a predatory society, no reason to value life in a system rigged permanently against them.  An even stronger voice reaches across the Internet from the Islamic State, offering them spiritual fulfillment and respect as warriors.  That kind of evil cannot be “contained” or “managed,” and has good reasons to spill blood on Western soil to prove it.