It is pure coincidence, but two disparate developments from France this week are a particularly acute reminder of the physical and psychological problems of fighting ISIL.
Foreign ministers from 22 countries – the core group of the 62-member US-led anti-ISIL coalition – met in Paris on Tuesday to discuss strategy.
And a female French journalist’s personal account of a romantic liaison via Skype with a senior ISIL fighter is published as an English paperback today.
Both the Paris conference and the paperback underline the inherent problems of fighting an extremist entity that defies definition and is so riddled with contradictions. It calls itself a “state” though it is but a group of murderous thugs that has taken over territory. It doesn’t recognise borders but fiercely controls the boundaries of the land it has seized. Its fighters conduct hostilities in the grotesque fashion of terrorists, yet it has trained itself to function somewhat like a conventional army, and its brutality doesn’t seem to be frightening off idealistic young people. In fact, its “bad boy” image appears to have a fatal fascination for westerners, particularly women.
This is dispiriting in the aftermath of ISIL’s takeover of Ramadi, capital of Iraq’s Anbar province, and its recent advances in Syria. Meanwhile, it continues to gain allies, however opportunistic, freelance or free-form, in Libya, Sinai and Nigeria. Most worrying of all, it continues to recruit foreign fighters and groupies.
How? Consider the account of Anna Erelle, the pseudonym of the French journalist who posed as Melodie, a wide-eyed, 20-year-old Toulouse girl who had supposedly converted to Islam and watched ISIL videos with curiosity.
Erelle’s book, In the Skin of a Jihadist, describes how easily the fictitious Melodie is preyed upon by Abou Bilel, a fighter close to ISIL leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. Bilel, who was in his late 30s, got in touch with a person he thought was nubile and impressionable within minutes of the spurious Melodie sharing his video on her social media feeds. In the video, incidentally, Bilel comes across as a man of many parts – showing off the contents of his SUV’s glove box (Syrian pounds, sweets, a knife), rakishly removing his sunglasses and urging viewers towards Hijrah or leaving the land of unbelievers for the Islamic “state”.
Erelle, who had previously written copiously on ISIL’s appeal for European youth, was disgusted. “Going after a girl like Mélodie was so easy: I’d met a thousand girls like her, with limited education and guidance. They were vulnerable.”
She suggests that ISIL’s use of social networking is so boastful about its badness that it is dangerously appealing to a generation “that feels lost, doesn’t see any future. They think in Syria, everything is possible”.
Many Melodies, in other words, are drawn to ISIL because like all young people, they are tricked into believing it is building a better world.
This might explain the conclusions of a recent British report, which said that western women were joining ISIL for all sorts of reasons, not just to become “jihadi brides”.
The report, by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London, said that ISIL attracts women suffering from a sense of isolation, a feeling that Muslims everywhere are under threat, and a promise of sisterhood, which is especially important for teenage girls.
It estimated that 550 western women are living in ISIL-controlled territory and recruitment is managed by adroit social media manipulators such as British teenagers Salma and Zahra Halane, who act like a sinister version of travel agents and encourage hijarah by providing answers to western women’s Frequently Asked Questions.
The report adds that taking on a jihadi husband is considered a form of female empowerment. And women such as the Malaysian doctor who calls herself “Shams”, use social media to encourage the wedding-upon-arrival philosophy. For instance, she posted a photo of her big day with the caption: “Marriage in the land of jihad: till martyrdom do us part.”
This is gritty stuff, but brave in the madcap, romantic and impractical way that ultimately defines youthful abandon. Any attempt to counter this must have the same youthful idealism. It is unlikely that any government, or what used to be called the “establishment” in an earlier rebellious time would ever have the “street cred”. Which helps explain why the principal US psychological counter to ISIL’s online war, the four-year-old Centre for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications has seemed so embarrassingly inept. The CSCC, which was meant to function like a high-tech war room, has attracted attention for all the wrong reasons – using overly grisly imagery to put out spoof ISIL propaganda; engaging in pointless tweet-by-tweet rebuttal that wins no hearts or minds and taunting ISIL in a way that actually leads the waverers to leap to the group’s defence.
Recognising its ineffectiveness, Barack Obama recently relaunched it under Rashad Hussain, his former envoy to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Mr Hussain has said the fight may be better waged by putting out “more factual and testimonial” messages that highlight ISIL’s hypocrisy, document its battlefield reverses and showcase accounts of the disillusioned defectors.
Perhaps. But this isn’t a battle that will be won by facts as much as by forging an emotional connection with disaffected youth. It’s doubtful a bureaucratic set-up can do this, or ever respond nimbly enough to deal with practised online shape-shifters like ISIL. They are good at masking their loathsome reptilian tendencies to ensnare and control by assuming disparate forms – and thousands of Twitter handles. To counter that we need a vast undercover internet coalition that defies definition, somewhat like ISIL itself.