Islamic State's use of social media makes joining its ranks feel easy and fun
Where al-Qa'ida asked you to hide amongst your enemies, IS asks you to come and join your friends
Whichever wit was first to suggest that Twitter consists of nothing but people talking about what they had for breakfast had a point; but he may not have known that his observation would hold true for the murderous extremists in Islamic State (IS). There they are, rolling forward on a swell of violence, revelling in the world's horrified gaze, and what do they do? Post pictures of themselves posing with jars of Nutella. They note the passing of Robin Williams: "Shame. I like Jumanji."
Initially, the discussion of these preferences may seem baffling. They have been the subject of some amusement and fascination in the press. I suppose that's because we like to think that the evil is alien. In fact, of course, banality is universal, and a powerful recruiting tool for an organisation that goes out of its way to persuade prospective recruits that there is really nothing so strange about joining up.
The effect of the easygoing conversation about movies and marriage and language lessons is the same wherever it springs from. It creates a kind of continuum, a sickening false syllogism: I know decent people who eat Nutella, who like Robin Williams, and so these must be decent people, too. This is one critical distinction between IS and al-Qa'ida: where the latter asked you to hide amongst your enemies, the former asks you to come and join your friends. So far, more than 12,000 foreigners have heeded that call.
"People find the group attractive," said Richard Barrett, former head of the al-Qa'ida and Taliban Monitoring Team at the United Nations and author of an authoritative Soufan Group report on the flow of foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq. "They draw people in through social networks, through videos, and they think, yeah. Look at what fun they're having."
There are lots of pictures of fighters posing with kittens, punningly referred to as little mewjahideen. "And then, slowly, the bubble gets bigger, and they aren't really open to counter-messages any more."
That awful progression was given a frightening new shape last week, in the figure of the man who murdered the American journalist James Foley.
"Jihadi John," a few newspapers called him: a man with a London accent, and surely not chosen for his task by coincidence.
"That video was staged in every way," said Haras Rafiq of the anti-extremist lobby group Quilliam Foundation. "The orange jumpsuit for Guantanamo and the small knife to instil as much fear as possible. And his accent says to people over here on the verge: look, we're doing something. Come and join us."
Twitter users have taken to the social media site using the hashtag #AskIslamicState to poke fun at the terrorist organisation Twitter is suspending accounts which post the video of James Foley's death, and rightly so. But there are any number of other, less regulated venues. VKontakte, Europe's second biggest social network after Facebook; or Diaspora, a decentralised social network whose founders are powerless to stop anyone using it for any conversation they choose. The US news website Vocativ suggests that IS has urged the creation of LinkedIn profiles for its leaders.
This absurd LinkedIn story – there are no such profiles – is evidence of how precarious this all is as a line of inquiry: focusing on such fancy-thattery hauls the perpetrators of the most grotesque violence into the same sort of territory as the ice bucket challenge, making their crimes not news – real, dismaying news – but a mere input to the News Machine. Appropriate, then, that a great many of the social media accounts created by those who claim to be jihadis in Syria and Iraq may be the efforts of less ambitious fools: home-grown trolls, to be sure, but not terrorists.
I wondered how this played out for the ingénu mujahid, and so I did what I suppose a lost teenager might: I googled "How to join isis". Page after page of news stories turned up – an indication, perhaps, of the weight of the media's role in assuring IS's status as the most likely subject of a curious zealot's interest. The only interruptions were pages on an Oxfordshire dressage club and a Wikipedia entry for a "spiritual organisation devoted to promoting awareness of the Goddess".
Still, it isn't hard to find your way to more authentic temptations. Though many Twitter pages are suspended, new ones keep popping up; one leads me to ask.fm, a site popular with IS's propagandists, where prospective recruits can anonymously ask whatever they like about the life of a jihadi. One such user has answered more than 1,200 questions. Quite a lot of them have the ring of journalistic query, and it's hard to know how seriously to take it all. "I have seen pic of u in the news," one says. "You are very good looking. Did u have a girlfriend back home? Would u consider marriage to a sister in the West who has converted?" "Lol," our man replies. "In sha Allah."
In one answer, he lists his username for an anonymous mobile messaging app that appears to be popular with claimed members of IS. Using a bogus name I sign up, and send him a couple of questions. In the past, arriving fighters have come across the Turkish border quite easily; Richard Barrett tells the story of a Swedish couple that hitched a ride with a humanitarian convoy heading to Idlib, contacted a local battalion, and explained that they had "come for 'jihad'". The battalion handed them an AK47 and a pistol.
But analysts say it's much harder now. So I introduce myself to him as a hopeful admirer of his work, and ask: "How do I join u? Is the border still ok?" The messages go through to the server, but I never get the delivery report to confirm it has arrived. Perhaps his reception is patchy.
It's strange to think of that message in limbo between Britain and the Middle East, if that's really where he is. It's strange, too, to think of just how easy it is for a person to make the same uncertain journey. Even today, and even though it is out of date, most of the stories we tell ourselves about the cruelties of war – not least those of the First World War – are bound up in the paraphernalia of the establishment: great phalanxes of men, marching off together, assembling in neat lines and mowing each other down on command. Today, while it's harder than it was, it is possible to buy a plane ticket, meet someone sympathetic, hitch a lift, and find yourself close to atrocity. There is a reason those tweets resonate: Nutella and violence have never been so close together.
Radicalism, argues Haras Rafiq, springs up when the conditions are right – conditions that may have little to do with ideology. "People tend to have had some form of personal crisis," he said. "They could be searching for an identity, or a group, or they're facing racism, or they're rebelling, or they can't get a job. They're looking for solutions. And sometimes recruiters can exploit these opportunities." An imaginary answer, in other words, to real problems: the fantasy of those unwilling or unable to find the means for improving an ordinary life, searching instead for an extraordinary one.
I didn't hear back from my respondent, and so I sent similar messages to the instant messaging accounts of five other supposed British members of IS I found online. None received a reply, but one, so my phone told me, got through. Is he reading it, I wondered, in northern Iraq? Or is he here? There is no way to know. In a funny sort of way, it doesn't matter if that particular zealot was in his bedroom or in a faraway land. He is still imagining himself into being, still making it easier for others to do the same. It is awful to think that even "John the Jihadi" may have fancied himself the hero of a Hollywood movie. Not Jumanji, perhaps, but a fantasy all the same.
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