ISIS using European faces to advertise global Jihad
LONDON - At least 20,000 foreigners have headed to Syria or Iraq to fight for the Islamic State (ISIS) or Jabhat al-Nusra, the local al-Qaeda affiliate, dwarfing the numbers seen in previous conflicts, a recent UN report estimates.
The majority of the foreigners join ISIS, which is using the number of Europeans who are willing to die for the creation of its self-proclaimed caliphate as advertisements not only of the terror group’s global appeal, but also to support its claims that it is the only truly Islamic group fighting in Syria and Iraq.
The latest issue of ISIS’s English-language magazine Dabiq carries a startling photo of twin blond-haired, blue-eyed Germans who it claims took part in a suicide operation for the group.
Identified by noms de guerre, the article claims one of the twins, Aby Mus’ab al-Almani, played a crucial role in an assault on the Iraqi Army’s 4th Regiment base north of Baghdad by “driving an explosives-laden armoured vehicle carrying 7 tons of highly explosive substances” into the base and blowing up its command centre.
German newspaper Bild said the brothers shown in the image are called Kevin and Mark from North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany. They were recent converts to Islam who are believed to have travelled to Syria from Turkey in 2014. Both are dead, according to Dabiq.
Mark, an alleged participant during the assault on the 4th Regiment base, is reported by both Dabiq and Bild as having served in the German army, where he was deployed to Afghanistan.
“Come to the caliphate and die” may not seem to be the most attractive message to advertise the group but it is proving successful, said Richard Barrett, senior vice-president at the Soufan Group and a former director of Global Counter Terrorism Operations for Britain’s external intelligence service, MI6.
“I think it’s a curious thing that those stories of foreigners committing suicide or dying for the cause are inspiring for other people to follow their example. You would have thought that was slightly counter-intuitive. Maybe it is counter-intuitive for the people that they don’t want to come but for those they do want to come it may be inspiring.”
Having faces from all over the world is a striking feature of ISIS strategy which places a much heavier emphasis on foreign recruitment compared to its main Islamist rival, Jabhat al-Nusra. The Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra is both harder to join and almost exclusively Syrian. The make-up of ISIS makes the group adept at targeting propaganda towards diverse audiences in their own languages.
The media output of ISIS is prodigious, averaging about one production a day — more than 360 videos in the past year. While the majority of the output is in Arabic and aimed at regional recruitment, content can also be found aimed at English, French, German or even Azeri-speaking audiences.
Whatever the language, however, the message is essentially the same: Whoever you are, belong to something bigger than yourself and be somebody. It is a message aided by the diversity ISIS is so keen to put on display, said Barrett.
“The whole idea of the Islamic State of course is that it’s a state and that it’s Islamic. It’s not just a state for Syrians and Iraqis. It’s a state for all Muslims. That’s the message they want to put out so when they show French and Germans and others it emphasises a point that this is a place for everybody.”
It is a point clear to anyone following ISIS’s prodigious media output. Take a recent French-language a capella music-video release, called Extend Your Hand to Pledge Allegiance.
The video shows somebody packing their bags and leaving a European-looking setting to arrive in Syria, with a backing of French lyrics exhorting people to join the caliphate. The video shows combat and fighters of various ethnicities: French, Chechen, Arab, Central Asian. The video ends with an elderly Frenchman proclaiming: “God is Great! This is the Land of Life!”
One of the fighters in the video is Kevin Chassin, a French convert to Islam from Toulouse who killed himself in an attack in Iraq in May. Chassin is reported to have spent ten days with his wife in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces in Mosul before the attack.
That Chassin, as a convert, went on to join ISIS is not unusual, said Barrett.
“There is absolutely no doubt in the Islamic State about religion … the Islamic State has a very, very clear identity and I think a lot of people who convert or are seeking some sort of truth or some sort of identity are very attracted by that.”