ISIS is one of 27 Islamic terrorist groups officially recognized by the U.S. State Department. Like most of their counterparts, ISIS leverages extreme violence to legitimize itself as a threat to outsiders. What makes ISIS unique is that in June of 2014 it declared itself a Worldwide Caliphate, meaning it claimed religious, political, and military authority over all muslims worldwide under a “Caliph” known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The Caliph is a rough Islamic equivalent to the 2nd coming of Christ, and ISIS is using this as the basis for the pursuit of global Islamic jurisdiction.
In light of its grandiose ambitions, recruiting is at the heart of ISIS’ strategy. It needs both soldiers on the ground to support its territorial expansion, as well as muslims within its territory claims to live as citizens of the Caliphate. So, how is ISIS recruiting these people and how are they doing it?
ISIS is known to use social media to promote its message and motivate younger muslims to sign up. It was recently reported that ISIS is prolific on Twitter, posting up to 90,000 tweets a day featuring various pieces of content from videos of beheadings to anti-western propaganda. Twitter is of course a powerful means of spreading messages, and in the case of ISIS most likely serves to rally those who are already invested in the cause (whether or not they are currently with ISIS). That said, I find it hard to believe that Twitter is motivating significant numbers of previously non-invested people to travel to Syria and Iraq. ISIS, however, has proven itself adept in finding and exploiting the motivations of certain muslims, such as the many westernized muslim girls who have been convinced to travel to Syria to be a bride to a military officer in the caliphate.
Rather than through social media, I believe that ISIS’ strength in numbers is a bi-product of the ongoing conflict in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. These happen to be the three countries where ISIS controls territory, and one cannot control territory in the midst of a war without defeating opposing military forces. It is thought that many of ISIS’ current soldiers were previously members of rebel forces fighting both Assad in Syria and Gaddafi in Lybia. Still others traveled to Syria from neighboring countries in Africa and the middle east. The fact that ISIS has retained as many soldiers from defeated armies as it has can be partially credited to the reputation it has established via social media.
So, while ISIS likely uses social media to promote its message better than any other rebel extremist group, that social media use is still aimed at the traditional propagandist motives that have come to embody such groups. Most of its recruiting seems to be achieved through force, not through persuasion on social media. Continued use of social media will undoubtedly strengthen its core base, which may further isolate this group from outside networks and thus do more harm than good to recruiting goals.