ISIS may be “defeated” and without a caliphate, but its global influence remains strong. Since Trump’s declaration of the group’s defeat on December 19th, ISIS has claimed responsibility for 261 attacks around the world, resulting in 1,144 fatalities.
Who are these fighters?
While many fighters are native to the MENA region, particularly Syria and Iraq, ISIS has recruited globally. A number of extremists are foreign fighters who trained with ISIS and have since returned to their home country. Returning fighters sometimes create regional hubs, such as in Sri Lanka, where many like-minded individuals reside, recruit, and plan terrorist acts. Many others have been inspired by ISIS but remain in their home countries to carry out attacks.
ISIS fighters aren’t all Arab. In the U.S., about 65% of people “drawn to ISIL since 2013 have been either African American/black or Caucasian/white.” ISIS fighters are diverse in gender, ethnicity, and location. Many are well-educated and hail from middle and upper-class families.
How does ISIS recruit?
Although ISIS focuses on recruiting in the Arab World, Central Asia, and Western Europe, it has also been able to attract fighters from Cambodia, Australia, the United States, Chile, and parts of Southeast Asia. Originally, ISIS was able to do this “through its tremendous success on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, as well as its declaration of a caliphate, which it trumpeted aggressively in its propaganda and media operations.”
But even though ISIS has lost its territory and failed to maintain a caliphate, the group continues to attract fighters. How have they continued to recruit?
ISIS has demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt and reach new populations. This has been accomplished by personally connecting to individuals. ISIS recruiters know the importance of individualization and speaking to “particular grievances” as “personal or private messages are more effective in persuading people” to join.
ISIS is also deliberate in who it is explicitly targeting. The group emphasizes the importance of media, and so it focuses on finding people knowledgeable in graphic design and video production. Southern India and Sri Lanka boast high literacy rates and people with these specific skills, and this is where ISIS has placed special attention in recent years.
How can we combat ISIS’ influence?
There are several steps the U.S. can take to combat ISIS’ influence. First, it is essential to cut off ISIS’ finances. Much of ISIS’ money comes from illegal channels, such as smuggling, kidnapping for ransom, and extortion. But the U.S. can target, and needs to continue to sanction, ISIS-linked businesses. The U.S. has “made a dent in [ISIS’] finances by targeting its oil network,” but the group is suspected to still have access to hundreds of millions of dollars.
Beyond limiting finances, we need to prevent radicalization. This begins by understanding why individuals join ISIS. Some are persuaded by the false promise of a better life. Some want adventure. Others feel disconnected with their communities. After understanding the rationale, we need to better engage these people, so they feel there are options beyond joining a terrorist organization. Many foreign ISIS recruits are 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants, who don’t feel “at home” in either culture. Stronger efforts need to be made to better include and assimilate these marginalized individuals. Engaging potential recruits can be done through large-scale government projects and simple actions by civilians that make people in schools and communities feel welcome and accepted.
One way to prevent radicalization is using the fighters who have returned home who are displeased and surprised by the reality they experienced. As Professor Roger Griffin explains, “Some of the Muslims coming back from fighting in Syria… would have actually seen slaughter, cruelty, and the nauseating aspect of violence. They could be wonderfully used, if used sensitively, as part of a counter narrative.” ISIS propaganda has glamorized the group but returning militants may be able to successfully dispel this myth and discourage youth from joining.
Finally, the U.S. needs to improve its counterterrorism messaging. ISIS is known for its inspiring and exciting videos, but the U.S. has largely failed to create its own that counter the group’s messages. It seems crucial to use ISIS’ tactics against them, but we’re not very effective.
Despites losing its territory and caliphate, ISIS has continued to be responsible for hundreds of terrorist attacks worldwide. The U.S. needs to better understand how ISIS is recruiting individuals, and focus resources on cutting off the group’s finances, preventing radicalization, and improving our counterterrorism messaging.