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Despite losing its territory, a decade after the Islamic State was declared the allure of the hyper-violent terror group rises again in a fractured world.

Islamic State flag graffiti on a wall. : Levi Clancy, via Wikimedia Commons CC0 Islamic State flag graffiti on a wall. : Levi Clancy, via Wikimedia Commons CC0

Despite losing its territory, a decade after the Islamic State was declared the allure of the hyper-violent terror group rises again in a fractured world.

A decade on from the Islamic State terror group’s declaration of the Kingdom of God on Earth, and five years on from its physical defeat, it is once again on the rise.

Across Africa, and from Afghanistan to South and Central Asia, the group which once held violent sway over northern Iraq and Syria and exported terror around the world is showing signs of re-emerging.

To dismiss the appeal of this brand of terror is to repeat the mistake of a decade ago.

The callous and incompetent response of Israel in Gaza following the outrageous provocation of Hamas’ brutal terrorist attack has further fuelled an already febrile atmosphere across the Muslim world, benefitting IS recruiters.

Just as ISIS emerged from the ashes of what appeared to be a totally defeated al-Qaeda in Iraq, so too it is growing again, and we risk dismissing both its resilience and its enduring appeal at our peril.

Lessons from history

When the declaration of the ISIS caliphate came a decade ago, it shocked the world.

The rapid advance of ISIS forces across northeastern Syria and through Iraq had hardly taken place in secret, but few had been ready to believe that a so-called Islamic state was being established across an area the size of Great Britain, home to an estimated 12 million people.

Just weeks earlier US president Barack Obama had dismissed ISIS as being a second-tier organisation that posed no great threat. 

Using a sporting analogy, he said: “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”

With the fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, he was forced to acknowledge his mistake.

Obama’s mistake

Obama spoke for virtually all democratic states and open societies when he reflected the almost wishful and delusional thinking about a resurrected terrorist group that appeared to be all spin and no substance.

But for those who had been paying attention to the thousands streaming into Syria to support the crusading ISIS, both from surrounding nations,Europe and virtually every corner of the globe, including Australia, this break-away from al-Qaeda was putting words into practice.

This was a large part of the appeal of ISIS.

Over the next three yearsmore than 40,000 foreigners joined to fight with, and support, the utopian project of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth. 

As the reality rapidly set in that the caliphate had not only been declared but had actually been established, Australian authorities came to realise that many dozens of citizens had already quietly slipped away to support itt.

Thje government scrambled to shut the door and prevent hundreds more from travelling to support the religious state. Countless numbers of Australian families realised in horror that their children were in danger of leaving everything to join. Community groups and security authorities rushed to work together to stop young Australians from answering the siren call of joining an apocalyptic army.

But what was the appeal? Why rush off to leave everything to join what the then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, not without reason, called a death cult?

To the extent that we had been paying attention to the rise of ISIS was it not clear but this was a murderous, unimaginably cruel and barbaric terrorist group that was hypocritically acting in the name of God to destroy everyone that would not join them?

Why would young Muslims, and many who had grown up in other traditions, be so drawn to such a violent movement that declared all but their own to be hypocrites and enemies of God deserving of death?

Why ISIS was so attractive to so many

The appeal of the ISIS narrative acted on different people in different ways, but each strand was woven into a cohesive, powerful, revolutionary message.

For many the principal attraction was the mistaken belief that they could contribute to a utopian project that would realise religious purity and social justice in concrete form.

Indeed, the bulk of the messaging of ISIS through sophisticated media products such as it’s glossy eMagazine Dabiq, translated into multiple languages, was that ‘a new age of dignity was coming to Muslims’ in the achievements of a truly Islamic state.

The call to join was couched in largely positive terms and targeted directly at individuals wrestling with life’s injustices and disappointments, including their own failures. ISIS preached a redemptive narrative.

It tempted potential recruits with messages such as “Take the airline ticket that is offered to you”, and “follow in the footsteps of Abraham and all the prophets up until Mohammad”.

 “Make hijra, leave behind your past life full of sin, failure and disappointment, turn your back on shame and humiliation, and join God’s people in the land where the Black Banner fly flies. Come to where you will find acceptance, forgiveness, redemption and purpose. Join the revolution and go from zero to hero. Become part of God’s purpose and join the right side of history.”

Like all violent extremist groups, ISIS rejected the label of terrorism and instead presented itself as a movement fighting for freedom, justice, and revolutionary change so wonderful that the ends would justify the means.

Star Wars and the ‘good guys’

The call to join ISIS was the call to join the good guys fighting the evil system.

It echoed the vibe of the Star Wars prequel, Rogue One, that hit cinemas at the height of the caliphate in 2015.

The appeal of ISIS felt by many was to join a noble struggle and a band of brothers fighting evil. It was the appeal of turning your back on cowardly self-interest, and a life of comfort, to join a heroic greater cause.

However, despite the piety and utopian ideals of some, many others were attracted to the ultraviolet fantasy of being licensed to kill everyone who they disagreed with.

Indeed, it was the pornography of violence, the countless beheading videos and bloody montages of a conquering army that first piqued the interest of thousands of young men. 

This led many into conversations that became relationships with people that they thought respected them and were their new friends, little realising they were being groomed online to become cannon fodder.

Through all of this was the appeal of joining something powerful, of being welcomed into a movement that turned words into deeds and was doing something that no other group had ever done before.

The awful achievements of ISIS were part of its appeal as it promised to turn individual failure and disappointment into triumph and redemption.

The fact that its self-righteous ultraviolence is so clearly wrong does not abrogate the appeal of its claim to be leading a revolutionary struggle for good.

What it offers in terms of belonging and purpose, in as much as it appeals to basic, legitimate human needs, requires from us a readiness to offer something better in its place.

Professor Greg Barton is Chair of Global Islamic Politics at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI). He is an internationally renowned expert on terrorism, extremism, and political history. The article reflects insights gained over the past two decades by ongoing research on violent extremism, radicalisation and terrorism, that has been funded by a series of ARC grants.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

Editors Note: In the story “A decade of ISIS” sent at: 01/07/2024 13:34.

This is a corrected repeat.

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