Beyond Appearances: Part 3 - Countering-terrorist recruitment: why the terrorists' strategic centre of gravity hinges on recruitment


3.1.      The No. 1 priority in any asymmetric conflict is almost always psychological: to destroy the perception of legitimacy, credibility, momentum, will and morale of your enemy. In many ways, destroying terrorist recruitment requires us to do the same thing. Recruitment isthe IS strategic centre of gravity - the sine qua nonfor its continued ability to function and project its threat – it’s its raison d’etre. It’s also what gives it its perceived legitimacy, credibility and momentum. And if it can’t recruit, it will collapse sooner rather than later.

3.1.1.   Given its strategic choice to fight a psychological war, IS, for the most part, measures its effectiveness in terms of being a recruitment machine - its continuing ability to inspire attacks -- and the media and political attention it receives in the West. Like any club or organization IS seeks increased membership and support for its cause and needs to sustain recruitment momentum and threat narratives. The more we attack it directly - (and create/feed its "unofficial brand" (more later)) the more it becomes a beacon for counter-cultural revolt. Just saying it lacks legitimacy and credibility doesn’t inflict any harm – we’re just talking to ourselves: in fact it is almost certainly counter-productive in that it makes it more alluring to potential recruits. This is something the West has yet to learn about its counter-narrative approach (which it needs to stop immediately) and forms a key part of the terrorists’ psychological strategy. 

Press reporting also plays a large part in public perception - and that rubs off onto potential terrorist recruits. See: "Press coverage of lone-actor terrorism in the UK and Denmark: shaping the reactions of the public, affected communities and copycat attackers." It includes the conclusion:…..”that Islamist lone-actors are often represented as distinct from far-right lone-actors; and that some reporting, despite relatively limited amplification of specific terrorist messages, potentially aids lone-actors by detailing state vulnerabilities to attacks”. This is what we mean by the west helping to create an "unofficial brand" for the terrorists. Link below:

3.1.2.   IS uses its expert production values and strategic communications to weaponize its brand. Its success can be gauged by the fact that practically everyone today knows what IS isdoes and stands for – it’s positioning, values and purpose. The issue of religious/theological legitimacy – despite the misinformation and distraction it provides -  is practically irrelevant to recruiting volunteers (another big lesson the West’s counter-radicalisation industry has to learn). 

3.2.      Clearly, military force cannot destroy the idea of IS.

Experience from Information Operations in war zones teaches us that the most effective way to destroy IS or al Qaeda is to collapse the organization from within - an implosion of morale, will, purpose and legitimacy. There are various ways to achieve this, but the most effective is to focus on preventing recruitment. When recruitment begins the dry-up, self-doubt starts to grip the organisation. Suddenly they’re no longer “cool” -- and sense it. This quickly evolves into a fall in morale, a questioning of the leadership and strategy, leading to in-fighting, a reluctance to fight for the cause and then to defections. At this point there’s nothing to hold the organisation together. For this reason, we need to understand that IS will do anything it can to keep the flow of actionable recruits or volunteers - and terrorist events -- coming - no matter how variously this can be achieved.

3.3.      Post-Caliphate this is especially the case since the geo-political “entity” – the Caliphate as  a narrative of success  -- has been cauterised. Since IS can no longer advertise for or attract recruits to “travel and train” (and the offer of a second life) it has been forced to seek out and inspire “volunteers” or “affiliates” (in ones, twos and threes) -- at a distance -- who are prepared to move into self-initiated and undirected terrorist “missions” of their choice. The “inspiration” to do this is more focused on the advantages of buying into the complete “brand” package than with the largely irrelevant ideology. It's about how we in the West view them now - they want our horrified attention. In this sense, self-selection is closely related to an act of (extreme) consumerism.

This new generation (often, of suicide attackers) are not “second-lifers” (see “The Caliphate’s Global Workforce” (link below) from the Countering Terrorism Centre at West Point: where they “burned their bridges” and passports….“find a new name, new state, new wife, new job, new purpose, new brothers”) but more likely to be one-off low-tech, low-budget, opportunistic attention-seekers and suicide-killers. If we can prevent these volunteers, the brand (as an effective threat and as “an object of desire”) will start to shrivel.

3.3.1.   We need to focus our efforts to counter-recruitment in such a way that we do not stimulate attention and interest in the terrorist cause (through our creation of the "unofficial brand"). This is the own-goal many counter-radicalisation efforts have scored in the past and we need to be much smarter than we have been. Above all, countering recruitment is not about winning an argument (of which more below at sections 11 and 12) - especially when we understand the psychopathology of its most likely recruits.

3.4.      Most European jihadists have very different recruitment drivers to jihadists from the MENA region (although similar states of mind) (more later)The “push” forces and dynamic that help drive European suicide-killing volunteers (or affiliates) are usually very different to the MENA region (although their underlying psychological structures may be quite similar). There is no such thing as a “generic Islamist terrorist”. Who they are depends on which country they are from, and when (even the year) they enlisted and the media-driven “conflict-theatre” that was playing in the background when they signed-up. But why some, and not others from almost identical backgrounds, sign up to become suicide-killers is almost always a matter of subjective psychology rather than shared ideological beliefs (see below).

3.4.1.   There is strong empirical evidence to show that the experience of anti-Muslim sentiment is strongly correlated with Internet searches for pro-IS-related propaganda and recruitment material. A June 2018 study in Science Advances Magazine of Internet searches combining anti-Muslim experience and pro-ISIS searches across more than 3,000 counties in the US demonstrates a strong link. This is further empirical evidence that the West’s media and politicians are players in the war on terror – and have an important role in supporting the IS strategy of trying to provoke polarisation and break social cohesion…. in order to stimulate terrorist recruitment. When will they ever learn? Even more pertinent, do they want to learn or are they doing it deliberately?  

3.5.      So, European macro-drivers of terrorist recruitment include reactions to Islamophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment, increasing social polarisation and a host of Western cultural and social issues around identity and exclusion that are entirely missing from the drivers of MENA region recruits. Of course MENA recruits across the region also vary enormously from each other but some key generic differences between Europeans and MENA include: 

i.              The complete absence of an undercurrent of cultural Islamophobia in MENA region countries (they are mono-cultural) whereas, in Europe, this experience helps drive much of the identity and exclusion issues which feed the grievances that contribute to the “push” factor.

ii.            The geo-political awareness and participation in the (mostly Gulf) region between Sunni -- anti-Shi’ia sectarianism (about which Europeans are largely ignorant and care even less)

iii.          Tribal affiliations and loyalty to Sunni sheiks - especially in Iraq, Yemen and Syria and, for different reasons, in parts of E and N Africa

iv.           Local anti-government political power-plays– eg: Libya, Mali, Somalia, Kenya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Yemen - where survival can also depend on the protection of being “in-group” against the oppression of the State forces

v.             Financial incentives for joining etc. (well documented for example in Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria etc.)

vi.           Most European recruits have been born, raised and educated in European languages and do not - for the most part - read or speak Arabic. Most cannot therefore study or learn the Koran. 

vii.         Knowledge of and the desire to live under Shari’a law (often Saudis and some Gulf Arabs and Egyptians). Europeans are generally not familiar with Islamic culture or principles and their knowledge of Sharia law is practically zero.

3.6.      As a post-script to this section we need to scan the horizon for where the next generation of terrorists may come from. Post-Caliphate the changed and changing picture of recruitment means that we could be looking at a very different kind of situation in 3-4 years time. Much of this also depends on the disruptive, polarising impact of domestic European populism. If populism does begin to bite more severely, there may well be a switch away from using the cover and conduit of radical Islam towards more politically radicalised Muslims adopting radicalised identity politicsto demand legitimate democratic rights and values - in particular -- social justice, equality of opportunity and human rights. 

3.6.1.   Every form of identity politics is capable of being hijacked by an extremist (even violent extremist) wing - from animal rights groups, separatist ethnic or nationalist groups (eg: ETA and IRA) through to LGBT to Black Lives Matter. This potential switch from using the cover of radical religious Islam to community-based socio-political radicalisation of young disaffected and disenfranchised Muslims could mark a radical departure from the concept of jihadism we have today -- but one which also presents an opportunity for violent extremists to achieve something they have craved but so far failed miserably to achieve - namely the mass mobilisation of Muslims in the West (of which more later).