Violent radicalisation suggests a linear process, a series of incremental steps through which a person eventually comes to accept violence as a political tactic. In reality, becoming involved in a terrorist group is way messier than that.
What makes an 18-year-old boy like Jake Bilardi go to Syria to fight to the death for Islamic State, or British teenage girls Kadiza, Shamima and Amira sacrifice themselves to a life of brutality? This has as much to do with appeal as it does with a process of radicalisation. And it’s about time we recognise this because IS certainly does.
IS is not succeeding in luring our young men and women to their cause because they are making an intellectual argument, but rather because their slick use of social media provides a seductive machinery that successfully taps into the complex and contradictory emotions of youth.
For teenagers such as Jake, the IS narrative makes sense out of a confusing world. Fighting and violence seamlessly merge with concepts of purpose and agency. Others join IS in search of excitement and adventure, or to escape from criminality and reinvent themselves as ‘somebody’ in a world that idolises fame.
British Jihadi John is the perfect example of a young man reinventing himself from a shady past in the UK by becoming one of the most violent popular icons of IS.
For those like the recent perpetrators of the Paris attacks who cannot make the trip to Syria or Iraq, violence turns against the home country in view of achieving a goal that is no longer perceived as virtual.
The appeal of IS lies in its innovative narrative that has eventuated in the physical establishment of a caliphate supported by force of arms and also in an extremely slick and savvy marketing campaign and clever packaging of its extremist narrative.
The marketing approach taken by IS has been efficient as it operates on multiple social platforms, injecting extremist views into mainstream social media. It has an official Twitter account, posts on YouTube and has individual sponsored Facebook accounts. Carefully packaged images and humorous videos promote the romanticism of war, the promise of an idyllic life in the Islamic State and a sentiment of brotherhood and sisterhood. Last year’s marketing campaign aimed at recruiting young Westerners depicted Nutella chocolate spread and cats.
Life with IS is portrayed as not so different to young people’s daily lives in the West. The use of cat memes on IS Twitter accounts banks on their cuteness to distant IS from a more violent image of warfare and to engage with a wider audience. In contrast, videos of fighters riding in the back of trucks with guns give ‘coolness’ to joining IS. The aim is to appeal to young Westerners to join IS ranks but also to normalise anti-social violent behaviour.
Social media offers teenagers both a private and communitarian space in which emotions thrive and where teenage vulnerabilities and behaviours are groomed by IS with their promise of a better place.
The caliphate is no longer a utopian mirage – it can be experienced and visited. The virtual world of the caliphate is now connected with the physical experience of IS. With the establishment of a caliphate, young men and women not only have a sensory experience but also the opportunity to be part of a common project that provides a sense of belonging, meaning and a purpose.
While teenagers used to run away from home as a form of rebellion, they now have the opportunity to embark on the rebellious and dangerous journey of IS.
Like any predator, IS knows its target. They tap into the vulnerabilities of youth in a game of seduction that has devastating effects not only to those targeted, but to their families, communities, and societies at large. Offering youth a non-violent way of meeting their need for belonging and identity, as well as for justice, purpose and action will be key in countering the power of IS. If we don’t address emotional needs we are missing the point.
Understanding this appeal is one of the pressing challenges for governments seeking to counter violent extremism. Understanding the vulnerabilities of those for whom this appeal resonates is the other.
Appeal and vulnerability are issues with a strong emotional component. Emotions are more than just individual reactions: they are an important component of understanding, constructing, and interpreting the world and one’s identity.
Emotions contribute to the development of beliefs and to deciding who or what is a source of credible information. They contribute to the construction of morality and therefore to decisions about what kind of behaviour is considered permissible or not.
Emotions also affect the judgments someone makes about the possibilities of a rewarding life or towards those they see as either facilitating or blocking their chances of achieving this. In short, we all live in complex emotional landscapes and no more so than our youth who are in the process of searching for meaning, purpose and belonging in their lives.
As Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has stated, the fight against IS “will take years, decades, potentially a generation to resolve”. To understand why a person is drawn to the IS project we must understand the interplay between the IS global narrative and locally specific vulnerabilities.
This means not only developing a more sophisticated understanding of the role of social media in seducing people into a life of violence, but also understanding why the message resonates with some young people. Emotions are part of the solution and need to be in the picture. When we attend to this we will be better positioned to debunk the romantic myth of the IS foreign fighter.
Dr Debra Smith is a lecturer in criminology at the Navitas College of Public Safety. Dr Virginie Andre is a research fellow at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University.