- Despite being rejected by the overwhelming majority of Muslims, the resurrection of even a notional caliphate — proclaimed by ISIS in June 2014 — has nevertheless appealed to a very small minority of young men and women in the West.
- The allure of jihadist groups — ISIS in particular — rests in part with a remarkably simple, two-part narrative. One strand of this narrative, which originates with al-Qaeda, compels Muslim audiences to view all current conflicts through the prism of historical attacks against Islam by a “Zionist-Crusader alliance.” The second strand is the appeal of a re-established caliphate, restoring glory and honor to Muslims. This is an objective that al-Qaeda promised, in an abstract and notional way, and that ISIS has worked to accomplish — heightening the group’s appeal to a new generation of disaffected Muslims. The ISIS propaganda machine has orchestrated a savvy and highly sophisticated media campaign, producing material that shrewdly seeks to exploit these tensions through appeals on social media and by invoking pop culture.
- In addition to issues of belonging, jihadists offer the image of the chivalrous warrior — a means by which underachieving young men might be recast in their own eyes as the community’s champion through what is perceived as heroic sacrifice. In this way, the jihadist recruit discerns a mechanism to reclaim agency, purpose, self-esteem and manhood.
- The jihadist narratives provide a “pull” toward ISIS, but the circumstances and background of a potential recruit also are crucial, providing the “push.” A toxic mix of increasing xenophobia and Islamophobia, alienation and cultural dislocation, socio-economic marginalization and political disenfranchisement that many young Muslims experience leads them to take solace in faux-religious identities proffered by welcoming jihadists. Extremist narratives are almost irrelevant unless they find fertile ground to take root. Jihadist narratives only possess efficacy when they intersect with individuals on a personal level, resonating with the very particular context and circumstances that some young Muslims in the West find themselves in today.
- Western media focuses almost exclusively on ISIS’s violent media output, which targets Western audiences and sensibilities. However, the over-whelming majority of ISIS media content depicts blissful civilian life in the “utopian” caliphate — therefore offering an additional compelling narrative and call to action. This is the narrative so important to ISIS’s success: of belonging and sanctuary; of new beginnings and state-building; of escaping religious persecution; of helping defend the burgeoning
state and community.
- Counterterrorism and countering violent extremism campaigns, which attempt to counter the content of the jihadists’ message, or even the medium through which it is disseminated, and try to contest the narrative, without addressing the real-world issues that allow it to resonate in the first place,
are likely to fail.