Politics & Policy

ISIS’s Recruiting Strategy: Use Technology to Turn Losers into Terrorists

ISIS looks to isolated, lonely Westerners to carry on its jihad.

Omar Mateen, the Orlando shooter, and many of his terrorist colleagues are not simply moral cretins: They are losers. Often feeling their life has been a failure, these terrorists choose to pursue a stolen destiny rather than introspection. Where most of us endeavor to improve our state of being, the terrorists see terrorism as a chance to “make things right.” It is cowardice cloaked in false courage.

Martyrdom videos (“why I did it” recordings made prior to an attack) exemplify this dynamic. Alongside the wild gesticulation, glaring threats, and occasional utterances in Arabic, such recordings tend to show the terrorist smiling proudly. Consider, for example, the video that Daesh — the terror group also known as ISIS — recorded prior to last November’s Paris attacks, in which gleeful members of the Paris cell play with decapitated heads. Or contemplate the many British terrorists who have been convicted in court after having been recorded using British slang to excitedly joke about waging war on unbelievers. The same is true of many Americans who have pledged themselves to Daesh’s banner. Regardless, the playacting at (pathetic) happiness reveals the powerful terrorist myth of existential purpose. These losers see terrorism as offering the rightful — and long overdue — fulfillment of their unique potential.

Daesh is exceptionally skilled at taking advantage of such losers. As I noted two years ago when Daesh began churning out videos for broader audiences, the group’s propaganda teams have long sought two key objectives: 1) scaring Daesh’s enemies, and 2) recruiting new followers. Daesh’s recording of the murder — he was burned alive — of Jordanian Air Force Lieutenant Moaz al-Kasasbeh exemplifies this dual strategy in its mix of subjugation and brutalization. But there is also a sexual-domination component to Daesh propaganda, which is designed to attract young men of poor character.

Much attention is rightly being paid to the fact that Omar Mateen beat his ex-wife, but countless Yazidi women (and others) can attest to Daesh’s defining misogyny. Put simply, by offering losers a supposedly divine justification and purpose for taking sex slaves and murdering innocents, Daesh attracts flawed individuals who accept its sick offer of holy war.

As long as its brand survives our war against it, Daesh’s claims of holy purpose will continue to retain credibility and appeal.

As it looks westward into our own societies, Daesh knows that most of us are revolted by its blood-drenched products. Yet it also knows that by overlaying its videos with soundtracks of jihadist music, it offers losers a pretense of moral purpose. These videos are the first job interview between Daesh recruiters and losers in the West. That’s why Daesh’s flag-waving in Iraq, Syria, and beyond is so important: As long as its brand survives our war against it, Daesh’s claims of holy purpose will continue to retain credibility and appeal. I believe we must urgently turn Daesh’s flag into a symbol for imminent and pointless death.

Still, this is only one side of the homegrown-terrorism coin. Daesh’s success in appealing to Mateen & Co. would be impossible without Western communications technology. As a first step, Daesh will often engage in slow-rolling recruitment of Western sympathizers via Daesh officers and affiliates on Twitter. What’s notable here is that for such a foul organization, Daesh has shown remarkable skill at building personal relationships with lonely losers. It then uses new companionship — or the pretense thereof — as the foundation to build a new terrorist. As things progress, Daesh relies heavily on encrypted communication platforms such as the messaging app Telegram. That step in the relationship makes it much harder for intelligence services to detect and defeat plots. This is especially true for U.S. intelligence services, which have far less domestic surveillance latitude than their counterparts in Europe.

But even absent direct communication with homegrown terrorists, Daesh’s constant propaganda means that becoming a homegrown terrorist is often an entrepreneurial affair. Every time Twitter shuts down a Daesh or Daesh-sympathizing account, another one pops up. The Internet’s freedom of information means that terrorist training camps now exist in cyberspace.

Of course, at the grand-strategic level, whether directed or inspired, Daesh’s loser ranks are waging war on Western civil society. We need a new strategy to confront Daesh — because absent a change in course, for all the exceptional work of our military, intelligence, and law-enforcement professionals, more American blood is likely to be spilled.

Tom Rogan is a panelist on The McLaughlin Group and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute.

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at TRogan@McLaughlin.com


The Latest