Tag Archives: IS

Why Mosul matters

WASHINGTON – As the Islamic State continues to gain territory in the Middle East, the fall of Mosul, a city of Northwestern Iraq, has been ISIS’ largest victory to date. More than a year after it invaded Iraq’s second largest city, ISIS is still in control of its population of more than one million people.

With nearly daily reports of new land ISIS has conquered, military experts say the U.S. will not successfully counter the Sunni extremist organization without making Mosul a key focus.

The Islamic State’s takeover of Mosul doesn’t mean just a physical dominance over the land and psychological problems for the city’s citizens. An estimated 60,000 Christians fled when the group took over, and those who stayed are under constant intimidation with things like ISIS shutting down schools and destroying rival Shia mosques.

“On a larger psychological scale, which frankly is what’s really hurting our national interest, is that this is not just a problem for Iraq or more for Iraq and Syria,” said Steven Bucci, senior fellow for Homeland Security and Defense Issues for the Heritage Foundation. “It’s a problem for the whole region and is having implications here in the homeland, in that, when an organization like ISIS can stand up to the United States of America and the coalition of its friends, and not be crushed… that’s tantamount to a victory” against the West.

Bucci served as an Army Special Forces officer for more than 30 years and is a former Pentagon official. He believes the U.S. has a vested interest in countering ISIS and needs to take a more aggressive approach because of the movement’s lone wolf attacks brewing in the homeland.

“Their ability to continue to control places like Mosul, to continue to basically thumb their nose at us, even though we dropped bombs on them, continues to allow them to be an incredible recruitment magnet to either get folks to come there and fight with them, or take actions in their homeland like we’ve seen a couple times here in the states,” Bucci adds.

Stabilizing Mosul will be no easy task; it will require re-establishing local leadership and rebuilding a developed city that has almost completely been destroyed. The military force needed to combat ISIS will yield more destruction for the city, but Bucci says things will have to get worse before they can get better. A more aggressive strategy is essential in not only to release ISIS’ tight grip on the Middle East, but to keep the U.S. safe in the future.

“The only way to stop that from happening is to crush them, literally to go in and destroy them,” Bucci said. “They’re not going to negotiate with anybody; they’re not going to make concessions in any way. The only way to remove that magnet is to destroy it.”

If the U.S. does not seriously consider Mosul in its counter-ISIS strategy, Bucci predicts other religious extremists will attempt to take over the city in the future.

“Unless we go in and help them directly, is going to be the Shia militias, which is not necessarily a good thing,” Bucci said. “Their track record of dealing with predominately Sunni population centers has been pretty visible. They get in there and yea, they might chase ISIS out eventually, but their attitude towards their Sunni brothers is colored by the decades of abuse that they got from the Sunnis from under Saddam Hussein.”

As ISIS continues to gain more territory, counterinsurgency strategies must not lose sight of reestablishing Mosul to take back ISIS’ largest victory and control. ISIS will continue to dominate Middle East territories so long as it has a hold on the regions biggest cities. Even with U.S. troops being in the midst of withdrawing from the Middle East, aggressively working to eliminate ISIS is key for both national interest and to keep the homeland safe.

Turkey joining the fight against ISIS

WASHINGTON – For the first time since the Islamic State – also known as ISIS – began to spread across Iraq and Syria, neighboring Turkey has launched air strikes against positions of the jihadist organization in Syria.

Air Forces commanded from Ankara responded to the attacks launched by ISIS last month in the Turkish location of Suruç and the bordering city of Kilis. With this new development, the conflict takes on a new profile, perhaps one that many were expecting from a NATO ally, to slow down and undermine the progress and consolidation capabilities of the Islamic State.

For Ayça Alemdaroglu, Associate Director at the Keyman Modern Turkish Studies Program, this decision is related to Turkey’s domestic policy situation. “The governing party is making a clear effort to maintain its power in times of decreasing electoral support. A way to balance this is to look for support in the international community – especially the U.S. – and so, their current fight with the Kurds is not seen.”

If the Islamist militias were aiming at a military escalation, they are indeed succeeding. So far Turkey, which borders to the south with Syria and Iraq, had maintained a poorly defined defensive posture towards the advancement of ISIS. This, even though ISIS’ assault to Kobanî in October last year came dangerously close to the Turkish border.

Turkey, let’s not forget, has also been a haven for sympathizers of jihadism. Many of them are in the Kurdish southern provinces that have chosen to provide support to ISIS given the lack of prospects offered by the Turkish government for their cause.

Alemdaroglu, who has worked as a post-doctoral scholar at the Anthropology Department at Stanford and earned her doctorate in sociology at Cambridge, highlights the fact that several reports indicate that the Turkish government has been indirectly supporting ISIS. “Central intelligence agencies from Turkey have been transporting trucks across the boarder loaded with ammunitions, including anti-aircraft rockets that end up in the hands of Al-Qaeda,” she says.

Turkey is also the gateway to the territories controlled by ISIS for youths coming from all over Europe and the rest of the world to join the Islamist militia. And if that isn’t enough, there are more than a million and a half Syrian refugees living on Turkish soil.

Ankara had wanted to maintain its own agenda on the issue and on more than one occasion refused to provide facilities to the U.S. military. However, in this new stage, the Turkish government has yielded to Washington’s request to use the Incirlik Air Base and although the details of the agreement are unknown, it appears that the U.S. activity in the area will require greater Turkish cooperation.

The U.S. has made their conditions very known to Turkey in order for this cooperation to succeed. Among them is to fully respect the Kurds, who have become key allies to America in the area, and which they have armed to the teeth to avoid having a single boot on the ground.

So far Turkish Presidente Erdoğan has found it difficult to agree, mainly because he doesn’t like the Kurds to be armed by the U.S. and gaining international recognition for their work to eradicate extreme jihadism in the area.

This agreement and the new attitude of the Turkish government will mark a profound change in the management of the crisis by both Washington and Ankara. Before this, it was unacceptable that Turkey, a country that belongs to NATO, had turned a blind eye to the jihadist activity in its own territory.

Furthermore, it was strategically ineffective for the U.S. to combat ISIS militarily from bases and aircraft carriers located more than a thousand miles away.

This turning point, however, will not come without risks and the crisis could spill over to neighboring countries and even deepen the less known violence happening in Turkey right now.

“If you think about national security in a much broader sense, the security of human beings for example, what Turkey is doing right now is not strengthening national security at all. I just came back from Turkey on August 10 and there were two attacks in Istanbul. I think around 10 people died. This could be unrelated to the main ISIS issue but it shows that Turks are not safe at this moment,” says Alemdaroglu.

Are we giving our kids the tools to talk to terrorists?

One of the biggest pushes in education today is to give students more access and exposure to new technologies. Schools all across the country are advocating for curricula that encourage teachers to incorporate Smart Boards, computers, iPads and even students’ own smartphones into daily lessons in schools.

Many schools are even providing every student who enrolls at a school with one. While there are obviously endless benefits of cultivating a technologically literate generation, this one-to-one approach to technology has some major drawbacks, critics say – especially when the students take these devices home with them.

Out from under the watchful eye of a school’s Wi-Fi, which usually restricts what websites are accessible, students have unlimited access to the worldwide web. This means that we are potentially handing out students a tool for bullying, for looking up pornography, for illegally purchasing guns or drugs, and for communicating with terrorist organizations like ISIS. The group has a strong presence on social media and frequently uses Twitter to recruit new members. There are about 46,000 active ISIS supporters on Twitter, according to the most recent figures from the FBI.

Sara Rubin, a psychologist at John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, Illinois, worries what students are doing with these devices.

“Twitter and Facebook use is easier to monitor at school. However, the students take those iPads home with them and theoretically can use them all night if they wanted,” she said in a phone interview.

Rubin also said parents often find it difficult to monitor how their children use these devices at home.

Experts have found that there is no specific profile for potential ISIS recruits through social media.

In October of last year, three Denver teenage girls were caught attempting to run away to Syria to join ISIS. In November, a 20-year-old college student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham successfully traveled to Syria to join the movement. These young people are among more than 150 U.S. citizens who have attempted to join ISIS, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Worldwide, more than 3,400 people from western countries are now ISIS fighters, CNN reported in February.

David Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Senate committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs that it’s difficult to profile exactly the type of person who is likely to sympathize with or join ISIS. Some have criminal backgrounds, while others are educated. “There is no one-size-fits all,” he said.

The parents of all four young people reported that they later found communication between their children and ISIS members on their children’s social media accounts. Ah, okay. A definitive link. Might be worth mentioning higher.

One thing all ISIS recruits do have in common is that they like the message ISIS puts forth. “ISSI is excellent at messaging,” Gartenstein-Ross said. “They have a winner’s messaging. They project strength.”

Rubin believes that this message could be especially appealing to young teenagers.

“Terrorist organizations’ effectiveness at recruiting this population is in part because of how much time teens are spending online without adult supervision,” she said. “It’s also because the message from these organizations is really resonating with teens who are looking to be a part of something bigger and form their identities. Their message is very enticing and warm when you feel isolated from your peers and are trying to form both your personal identity and peer group over the Internet.”

Senator Ron Johnson (R.-Wisc.), chair of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, has called for more aggressive solutions to this growing problem.

“In order to understand the nature of the current threat to America, it is important to understand these changing recruitment methods and the challenges they pose,” he said.

Rubin thinks that better education on Internet safety for students could help illustrate for them how ISIS manipulates them in its messaging.

Gartenstein-Ross also believes that debunking ISIS’s messaging is also part of the solution. In order hamper the effectiveness of ISIS, the U.S. needs to begin attacking the group’s persona of strength, which it too can do through social media. “The U.S. may not be the best voice to deliver this message,” Gartenstein-Ross said. “But it can provide the media with reliable information that it can use to show when and where ISIS is failing.”

In the meantime, Rubin urges schools and parents to better supervise students’ use of technology. “It’s a school issue, but it’s also a parental issue and parents need to do a better job of supervising their kids.”

Parents and schools have begun taking a more proactive approach to combatting bullying in schools and online. Consideration of this new potential threat to kids’ safety and well-being is long overdue. Blindly handing technology to kids without first educating them on the dangers that exist on the Internet is irresponsible. We’ve taught them about predators on the street and to be vigilant in real life, but as more and more of our time is spent online and on social media, we need to start educating kids on the dangers that exist on these platforms.

Iraqi Christians forgotten as ISIS threat grows

WASHINGTON—Amid the furor currently surrounding the Islamic State group, the US has remained more or less on the sidelines. There are no coalition boots on the ground, Western, Gulf Arab or otherwise. Barrel bombs and chlorine gas have been used to call President Barack Obama’s “red line” bluff. Perhaps, as some American officials have argued, this is an Arab war, to be fought and won by Arabs. It must be this way, they say, lest ISIS and its extremist brethren use American soldiers on Arab ground as a recruiting tool.

And while all of this rhetoric plays well with non-interventionists and probably is the wisest policy route, that doesn’t mean that the decision to stand by is easy, especially when one considers the probable fate of one of the region’s oldest peoples, the Christians. Also known as Assyrians or, in some contexts, Chaldeans, many of them have been expelled from their homes in Mosul and northern Iraq.

Assyrians are a Semitic Christian people whose ancient homeland reaches from Turkey to Iran. Their mother tongue is Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus of Nazareth. Because their presence in the Near East predates the Arab settlement of the region, most Assyrians will, with irrepressible pride, tell you that they are the indigenous people of ancient Mesopotamia.

“It goes back a very long time. Assyrians were at the very center of the cradle of civilization,” said Peter Bityou, director of the Assyrian Aid Society of America.

Bityou was born in Iraq and left for the United States in 1982 to look for work as an engineer. Many of his relatives —including his brother— remain in Iraq to this day and have been displaced by ISIS’s ongoing campaign. Since early 2014, Bityou and the AASA have been instrumental in delivering food, water, kerosene, clothing, medicine, gas stoves, generators, mattresses, blankets and other essentials to the refugees struggling to rebuild their lives.

The AASA and other aid groups must help, Bityou said, because no one else will. Assyrians in Iraq have been abandoned by the central Iraqi government and, in general, are not treated well by the Kurdish Regional Government in the north, he said. While the Kurdish peshmerga, or military force, allows Assyrian refugees to cross into their territory, those fleeing violence are not provided with food or other essentials.

“No one is looking out for the Assyrians. That’s why we have to do for ourselves,” Bityou said.

Martin Youmaran, an executive director of the Assyrian American National Federation, sees ISIS’s persecution of Assyrians as part of a larger pattern of racist oppression and disenfranchisement that goes back many hundreds of years.

“In Iraq, the Assyrian people have faced continuous persecution,” Youmaran said.

Historical fact largely supports that narrative. While Assyrians have peacefully coexisted with their Muslim Arab neighbors for centuries, to say that they were treated well would be a conceptual stretch. Under the Seljuqs and the Ottomans, Assyrians were given three options: convert to Sunni Islam, pay a tax (known as jizia) or face expulsion and possible death. Ottoman discrimination against Christians became so severe that, during World War I, the nationalist government killed 1.5 million Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians —all Christian subjects of the empire.

The treatment of Assyrians during the 1960s and 1970s under the Iraqi Ba’ath Party varied widely. Ba’athist ideology stressed secularism and sought to brush aside religious differences in the service of national unity; Islamic extremism was largely kept at bay. Many Assyrians ascended to high levels of power within the Iraqi government, including Tariq Aziz, a former deputy prime minister who was also one of Saddam Hussein’s closest advisors.

Assyrian expressions of ethnic pride however, met with severe repression.

“People will say that under Saddam, Assyrians were not persecuted. But Saddam hanged three Assyrian nationalists,” said Bityou, referring to the executions of Youbert Shlimon, Youkhana Esho Jajo and Yousip Hermis, who were put to death without trials in 1985.

“What can you call that other than persecution?” Bityou asked.

Saddam’s relationship with Iraq’s many ethnic and religious minorities worsened in the late 1980s, when Kurdish peshmerga forces rebelled against the government. Faced with a secession campaign, the government used conventional weapons alongside unidentified chemical agents —most likely the nerve gas sarin mixed with mustard gas— to eradicate entire villages; according to Human Rights Watch, nearly 2,000 Assyrians perished from gas alone.

Iraqi Assyrians fared even worse after the 2003 American invasion. By 2004, Islamic terrorist groups like Ansar al-Islam and al-Qaeda in Iraq were blowing up Assyrian churches and enforcing hardline sharia law on Assyrian Christian communities. Many Assyrians sought refuge in Turkey, Europe, Syria and the United States.

“In 2003, there were 1.2 million Assyrians in Iraq. Today, less than 300,000,” Bityou said.

ISIS has continued the violence instigated by its predecessors, expelling and in some cases kidnapping Assyrians along the Iraqi-Syrian border.

Due to the escalating violence, Youmaran and the AANF are more insistent than ever. Among their most pressing concerns: military intervention against ISIS.

“We want intervention not only from the US but from the UN under Chapter Seven,” Youmaran said, referring to the section of the United Nations Charter that gives the UN Security Council the power to intervene to stop crimes against humanity.

Beyond a foreign offensive against ISIS, Assyrian groups have renewed calls for an autonomous Christian homeland in Iraq’s Nineveh Governorate, known as Nīnwē to the Assyrians.

“We need an internationally protected homeland,” Youmaran said. “We demand that the international community preserve it [the Assyrian homeland in Nineveh], because the Iraqi government cannot.”

Iraqi leader: ISIS still ‘frightening’

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi speaks Thursday morning at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. (Tobias Burns/MEDILL)

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi speaks Thursday morning at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. (Tobias Burns/MEDILL)

WASHINGTON — Despite a recent series of military losses, the self-proclaimed Islamic State is still more than capable of concerning Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi.

“They are frightening their enemies,” he said this morning at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “and they’re very good at using the media to achieve this end.”

Al-Abadi is making his first official visit to Washington this week, meeting with President Barack Obama and Congressional leaders to drum up support for his campaign against the insurgent group, which still controls significant portions of the country including major cities Mosul and Anbar, as well as to seek foreign investment in Iraq’s flagging economy.

To combat “the psychological force” of ISIS, Al-Abadi stressed the need for his own government to “remain visible.”

“People want to see the restitution of their government,” he said. “The state must actually be there.”

Last month Iraqi forces were able to recapture the city of Tikrit from ISIS, which had initially taken the city in June of 2014 as part of a major offensive in the north of the country.

Increasing the presence of government in both the minds and day-to-day lives of Iraqis is one of the new administration’s primary objectives. Iraq’s last president, Nouri Al-Maliki, who left office only after threatening what looked like a coup, garnered a reputation for exploiting sectarian rifts within the country and diminishing public services.

Creating a unified perception of government will require international cooperation, Al-Abadi said. This week he meets with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to secure development loans that will fund a host of different economic and security initiatives, including investment in petrochemicals, agriculture and police.

This evening the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will host the prime minister at a reception as he attempts to woo the American business community.

He also addressed questions surrounding his critical comments about Saudi Arabia’s air campaign against Houthi insurgents in Yemen, which prompted a harsh rejoinder from a top Saudi official and astonishment in the press.

“We are very sensitive to wars,” Al-Abadi said in a tone that was markedly more conciliatory. “The end to this war must be soon.”

Iraqi official: Decentralization key to nation’s survival

With smoke still clearing from Iraq’s victory over the Islamic State group in Tikrit, Iraq’s prime minister is busy selling his post-conflict vision of his nation.

“If we don’t decentralize, the country will disintegrate,” Haider al-Abadi bluntly declared in a speech Wednesday to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“To me, there are no limitations to decentralization.”

Al-Abadi’s comments came at the end of his first visit to Washington since his appointment as prime minister last summer. He is seeking to secure sustained American support in the struggle against the Islamic State and beyond.

On Tuesday, President Obama pledged $200 million in humanitarian aid for Iraqis displaced by fighting with the Islamic State.

Only eight months in office, al-Abadi is keen to distance himself from his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, whose preferential sectarian policies, many believe, helped precipitate the current crisis with the Islamic State.

“This is not a Shiite government, it just happens to have a Shiite prime minister,” al-Abadi told the audience at the Washington think tank.

Reconciliation of fractious ethnic and sectarian divisions is key to rebuilding Iraq, reviving economic growth and attracting long-term investment, he said.

This can be achieved only by decentralizing power to the local level and transitioning from a state-dominated economy to a mixed economy, according to al-Abadi.

Al-Abadi wants to create a more federal political system, granting greater autonomy to provincial governments, in order to reverse al-Maliki’s centralization of power in Baghdad.

“We must not only win the war, but win the peace,” al-Abadi said. “Our goal is not only to liberate but also to restore a level of civilization worthy of all our people.”

The Iraqi military, Kurdish fighters and pro-Iranian militias have been battling the Islamic State, also called ISIS, since June, when its fighters swept through parts of Iraq with the assistance of local tribes disaffected with Baghdad.

Saddam Hussein’s home city of Tikrit was recaptured by Iraqi forces March 31.

“Al-Abadi has to be a cosmetic surgeon now to put the parts back together,” former Iraqi Brig. Gen. Ismael Alsodani told Medill News Service. “He has a long road ahead.”

Published in conjunction with Military Times Logo

Understanding the Islamic State: National War College professors break down its roots and rise

  • Panelist Dr. Omer Taspinar speaks during the Understanding the Islamic State Panel at the National Press Club in Washington on April 6, 2015. (Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory/MEDILL NSJI)
    Panelist Dr. Omer Taspinar speaks during the Understanding the Islamic State Panel at the National Press Club in Washington on April 6, 2015. (Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory/MEDILL NSJI)

WASHINGTON – Two prominent National War College professors of Strategy and Policy gave reporters a detailed look at how Islamic State terrorist group recruits and operates during an April 6 National Press Club panel.

The event, cosponsored by the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative (NSJI) and the National War College, and moderated by NSJI Director of Education and Outreach Josh Meyer, sought to increase the media’s knowledge of the Islamic State.

The analysis by Dr. Omer Taspinar and Dr. Richard B. Andres broke down into two sections: the relationship between radicalization and the Islamic State’s rise to power, and the role of social media in radicalization.

Radicalization and the Islamic State

Taspinar said that the creation of the Islamic State is, at its core, a result of Sunni Muslims’ oppression by a Shiite majority within Iraq.

According to Taspinar, de-Baathification in Iraq – or the breakup of the Saddam Hussein-led Baath Party – led to the rise of a Shiite majority within the country, a backlash against Sunni Muslims and the birthing “a sense of Sunni resentment.”

“It’s very hard for the Sunni minority of Iraq to come to terms with the fact that Shiites now are running the country,” he said, noting that Sunnis had historically possessed control of the country from its initial founding until the Baathist fall.

Taspinar also teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and serves as a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution focusing on foreign policy and working with the organization’s Center on the United States and Europe.

He went onto explain that former Baathist leaders became delegated to a lower class and “felt persecuted.” The resulting anger, he said, fueled radicalization. According to Taspinar, in the wake of the Shiite rise to power, Sunnis suffered from collapses in security, capacity and legitimacy (or the descrecration of their former socioeconomic and political status).

“All this contributed to the rise of ISIS, which captured basically the most radical elements within the Sunni groups … starting in Syria,” he said.

Iraqis who sympathized with the radical parties in Syria started crossing the border to join ISIS, he continued.

“ISIS did something that no other radical Salafist jihadist organization managed to do: It established a state — it declared a state,” Taspinar said.

The idea of a caliphate with sovereign government and territory that came with the promise of a return to prophet-era morals and living (and in which Sunnis could return to a once-held state of glory) appealed to disenfranchised Sunnis and drove recruitment, he said.

“You have to understand that, for people in the Islamic world, especially the disenfranchised radicalized youth, there’s this strong sense of nostalgia for the golden age of Islam – the days when Islam was able to actually create a great civilization which surpassed the West in terms of its scientific, architectural, artistic, military achievements,” he said.

The idea of citizenship in such a state – as opposed to membership in a terrorist group like al-Qaeda had long promised – appealed to Muslims in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

Joining ISIS’ “Islamic utopia” was made even easier by geography, Taspinar explained, since all one had to do was cross the Syrian border to arrive.

Taspinar attributes the recent spark in the Islamic State’s recruitment of middle-class, educated individuals from Europe to “relative deprivation.”

He explained this concept as the process by youth become disheartened with the lack of employment avenues despite their education and a “sense of perceived racism” that makes them believe their upward socioeconomic mobility is limited by their Muslim identity. According to Taspinar, the dismal outlook breeds “frustrated achievers.”

In this sense, he explained, there’s more to the Islamic State recruitment than just religious ideology.

According to Taspinar, its early days, the Islamic State was largely unconcerned with the West, more focused on preserving the integrity of its self-declared state in terms of governmental and territorial control.

However, according to Taspinar, its dedication to maintaining caliphatic sovereignty meant that it felt compelled to respond to threats made upon it by outside forces – such as the United States government. This, in turn, sparked the group’s evolution into a more violent form that we, as Westerners, are more familiar with seeing stream across our TVs and occupy our headlines.

How Social Media Radicalizes

Richard B. Andres, who has 16 years of teaching experience and serves as the Energy and Environment Security Policy Chair at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, took a different approach to radicalization.

Rather than examining it in the context of geopolitics, he tackled it in the key of cyber, contextualizing the roots of social media’s capacity to radicalize its users and how that capacity has been used by the Islamic State.

“There’s two particular psychological things politically that social media takes advantage of,” Andres explained.

The first is that, since “human beings are attracted by sensation,” we are literally wired to fall for clickbait. The second is that people are psychologically more likely to click on things that backup our preexisting opinions.

“That’s why Republicans watch Fox News and Democrats watch MSNBC,” Andres explained.

According to Andres, social algorithms serve up social content that plays to preexisting biases, beginning with more mainstream, subtle pieces and eventually building up to obviously radical ones. That helps push people, especially young and impressionable males – toward radicalization, he said.

“Social media will inadvertently… push you more and more like a cult to the point where you’re isolating [sic] from friends, you’re isolating from ideas, all the way to the extreme,” he said.

However, he says traditional media is necessary to fuel the fire, since it supplies content to feed the effect. Content distributed through social channels needs to come from somewhere (since Facebook and Twitter aren’t news organizations), so, like it or not, the inherent biases present in news coverage contribute to the cult effect.

Levels of susceptibility differ, he said, but people who come from “autocratic” countries whose governments keep citizens distanced “from non-biased information” are more likely to fall for the effect, which Andres called “clickwashing.” He says that is because their experience with strongly biased media makes more moderate mainstream coverage seem less trustworthy.

But social media’s radicalizing tendencies don’t stop at creating lone wolves. In fact, Andres noted, its other radicalizing strength does quite the opposite.

“Social media allows people to coordinate their behavior,” he said. “The main defense that autocracies have against dissidents and rebels is they prevent people from coordinating.”

Andres said that the uniting nature of social media helps to counteract suspicions of surveillance that radicals might have, helps you find people who will – much like the aforementioned content – reinforce your extreme biases, and plan tangible gatherings.

ISIS has capitalized on these characteristics of social media to “groom” potential terrorists via clickbait, he said.

It accomplishes this in a five-step manner, Andres explained.

First, he said, ISIS makes “sensationalist images” of graphic violence and other click-inducing things. He noted that Islamic State social followers generally don’t stay engaged by this kind of content, but that it is effective in making first cyber contact via clicks.

Next, he said, they designed those images to link to actual news stories about ISIS’ impact around the world in order to make themselves appear more legitimate.

Third, he said, they “flood Twitter” with identical, radicalizing stories to the point where potential recruits have no choice but to be pulled in due to the psychological pull discussed earlier.

Fourth, he said, they reach out to potential recruits in covert ways, such as through the use of onion routing (such as Tor) to mentor them and to arrange fund transfers associated with joining up.

Finally, he explained, they use social as a way to arrange travel to an ISIS location.

From there, Andres said, the Islamic State uses “the wisdom of the Marine Corps” to pull people with privilege in.

“What the Marine Corps does, it says: ‘This is a cause that’s worth dying for; come fight with us. You’re gonna live in the mud, we’re gonna kick your butt and call you names. It’s gonna be really, really hard, but you’re gonna do something important. You’re gonna suffer and you’re gonna fight.’”

“That message resonates with young people very strongly,” he explained.

According to Andres, this is evidence that the Islamic State has figured out a key factor in the human psyche: People are also wired to want to make a difference in the world – “not just to live well.”

Understanding the Islamic State: A Medill NSJI Event

WASHINGTON – The Medill National Security Journalism Initiative will host “Understanding the Islamic State,” a lunch and panel discussion featuring National War College Professors of Strategy & Policy Dr. Omer Taspinar and Dr. Richard B. Andres, at the National Press Club on Monday, April 6 at 12:15 p.m.

The event is aimed at increasing the media’s knowledge of the Islamic State terrorist group. Taspinar is a leading expert on Islamic radicalization and the author of two books: “Political Islam and Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey” and “Fighting Radicalism with Human Development: Education, Employment, and Freedom in the Islamic World.” Andres is a former Defense Department official who specialized in defense planning, especially related to Iraq and Afghanistan. Dr. Andres is also a leading thinker on the role of cyber across the national security realm.

The February story of four teenage girls leaving Britain to join the Islamic State in Syria caught the world unaware but they were not unique. Young men and women have been joining ISIS, apparently after significant exposure to its message on social media. Andres and Taspinar are experts who will help the audience understand how this is developing. They will focus on how the Islamic radical movement in 2015 is using technology to appeal to youth to uproot themselves from relatively secure environments to join a radical movement in a distant land full of conflict.

Lunch will be served, but reservations are required.

The Medill National Security Journalism Initiative, begun in January 2009 with the support of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, offers a sequence of courses that equip graduate and
undergraduate journalism students with the knowledge and skills to report on national security issues, undertakes an annual student investigative project with a media partner and sponsors an annual conference for journalists featuring briefings on the most pressing national security issues. It also provides training and background materials on nationalsecurityzone.org as well as webinars for working reporters around the country.

The National War College, founded in 1946, educates future leaders of the armed forces, State Department and other civilian agencies for high-level policy, command and staff responsibilities. The national security policy curriculum emphasizes the joint, interagency, and the multinational perspectives. NWC is located on Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington.