ISLAMIC STATE (IS) has now lost much of the territory they occupied, including the onetime (IS), Raqqa. Some Indonesians who had travelled to Syria to join IS managed to flee from Raqqa when the city was attacked by anti-IS militias.
In September, the Indonesian police said around 600 Indonesians have joined IS. What pulled them to uproot their lives and do so?
The stories of two Indonesian women, Leefa and Nur, who returned home after joining IS, can provide some clues.
Both said they flew to Raqqa after they saw IS’s photos and videos online. Leefa said that from the videos she imagined it to be a better place to live.
IS has been using fantastical propaganda on social media that describes itself as a land that is full of happiness to recruit supporters.
Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), in his report, Documenting the Virtual “Caliphate” (2015), wrote that IS has six instruments to improve its existence and strategic goals. One of them is Islamic utopia. The others are brutality, mercy, victimhood, war and belonging.
Islamic utopia is the basis of IS’s fantastical propaganda. According to Winter, this is IS’s most important instrument. They develop stories on how Muslims will live full of joy and happiness under the IS caliphate and Islamic law.
IS develops its fantasy from seven themes, namely religion, economic activity, governance, justice, social life, expansion, and nature and landscapes. Among those, governance, religion and economy are the top three themes.
IS builds narratives that its Islamic state is an effective governmental system equipped with good social facilities and a flourishing economy. It also claims that its “state” is the only implementer of true Islam. This narrative is depicted through videos showing people jointly practising religious activities, such as praying and breaking fast.
Aaron Zelin, a Richard Borow Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, looked at IS media releases between April 18 and April 24, 2015. He found 32 media releases that depict fantastical ideas around government, hisba (moral policing) and the promotion of the caliphate. In those releases, IS describes its Islamic state as a naturally beautiful caliphate with high-quality social services as well as respect for justice.
Fantasy, pleasant imagination that is not based on reality, is an important element of the human mind. As humans, we not only make sense of our world based on what we see and feel but also based on what we think or imagine. An individual or a group of people can create fantasies for political and strategic purposes.
Potential targets for IS recruitment are usually individuals who have a black-and-white view of the world. They tend to think in categorical terms, such as good and bad, or right and wrong. They also usually harbour feelings of being “inadequate, disrespected, full of unfulfilled ambitions, angry at real or perceived injustices, and who are blaming other people or institutions for their woes”.
Some others dream of having better religious experiences. By exploiting their grievances and black-white mentality, IS potentially transforms this kind of people into supporters.
To attract Indonesian audiences, IS released online videos of its members from Indonesia inviting Indonesians to join them.
Leefa said she later regretted joining IS. She explained she travelled to Raqqa because she imagined IS territory was a better place to live and to become a real Muslim. She had hoped to get good health services as well as to have surgery for her neck problem.
Leefa said she had talked to IS members before deciding to travel to Syria and to join the group. One-on-one chats with potential recruits are part of IS recruitment strategies because IS understands that personal or private messages are more effective in persuading people.
The members also hold religious meetings at mosques to spread their fantastical propaganda.
They promised everyone who travelled to Islamic State territory would have a better life and be provided with free public services, such as water, electricity and houses. They even promised all people would get monthly allowances as well as free food and health services.
However, the reality shows otherwise. Leefa and Nur acknowledged that once they arrived in IS territory, they discovered that the information, as well as the Islamic State they imagined, was completely different from the reality.
Leefa, Nur and other Indonesians only heard the stories from one side, the IS side. They lacked accurate information about IS for two reasons.
In the current post-truth era facts have become less important than personal beliefs. People tend only to want to hear information that is in line with their beliefs. To cherry-pick information and to selectively read media/news are common in this kind of society. Hence, people only get one side of the story.
The distance between Indonesia and IS territory in the Middle East also makes it difficult for Indonesians to acquire direct and accurate information about IS and the real situation in their controlled land.
IS may have lost most of their territory, but it’s important to be aware it can still utilise the Internet and social media to recruit people and to spread their fantastical propaganda.
This recruitment method has been proved effective to attract lots of people to join IS. So, this is the time for us to find ways to counter this kind of propaganda as well as to safeguard people from it.
By Lecturer in International Relations, Bina Nusantara University. Originally published on The Conversation.