Most people in the world will, by now, have heard of ISIS. Why am I wasting time and oxygen talking about a grotesque and barbaric group of extremists? Because we need to take them seriously. Very, very seriously. And, it would be a serious mistake not to.
ISIS is wealthier than a small country. They have $2billion in cash and even more in captured assets. With Syria a basket case, ISIS took control of oil fields, electricity plants, and dams as part of its strategy to control key infrastructure. It even continued to collect taxes to fund its invasion of Iraq. Other money making enterprises like ransom payments for hostages have earned millions.
It is better financed than all of the other radical Middle Eastern groups like Hezbollah, the Taliban, Farc and Al Shabaab. ISIS can even pay its fighters a salary.
Right at this moment they are the most dangerous and powerful group of extremists in the world. They have a PR machine, that some observers claim, can rival the slickest Hollywood agency. They have sophisticated strategies and very structured social media tactics and they are growing stronger every day. ISIS produces merchandise including branded T-shirts. Its followers post to Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. They even produce a glossy magazine that’s posted online and the Islamic State publishes an annual report complete with infographics detailing its operations.
And like any ambitious corporation hoping to get bigger, ISIS possesses a very clear business and marketing plan. Their stated aim is to create an Islamic state in the Middle East and to recruit fighters from all over the world. ISIS has clearly identified its target audience as young Muslims aged between 20 and 30. They are people who feel alienated and frustrated by the society they are currently living in. What ISIS offers is proving to be a very attractive commodity.
ISIS sees itself as an alternative to Western and Middle Eastern governments around the world. Particularly western Governments that have failed to engage with young Muslims. And ISIS has the runs on the board. Potential recruits see it fighting against the leadership in Iraq and Syria with great success.
One academic who specializes in radicalization, criminal behavior and gangs blames Governments in the United States, Australia and the UK for not reaching out to their young Muslim population. He says that failure has led to the group becoming radicalized. ISIS gives these young Muslims the feeling that they belong to something especially if they are socially disadvantaged, isolated and alienated from wider society.
Most disturbingly, they’ve been flocking to radical movements like ISIS by the thousands. The stats speak for themselves. Three years ago, ISIS had only 1000 members. Now it has an estimated 80 thousand fighters from around the world. Its influence is outstripping other terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, which has been forced willingly or not to take a back seat to ISIS in power, size and influence
Who would ever have thought that al-Qaeda could be considered moderate in comparison to ISIS with Bin Laden’s successor labeling the Islamic group too extreme.
But clearly extremism does not put people off from joining. In fact the graphic YouTube beheadings designed to goad countries like the United States into sending ground forces has helped ISIS to recruit more fighters.
Counter terrorism laws are great at helping people feel more secure but they are not going to do the job on their own. If ISIS is, as one diplomat put it, the most capable military power in the Middle East outside of Israel, then Governments are going to have to come up with some better solutions and fast.