By Hisham Melhem
18 October 2014
On October 4, a 19-year-old American citizen named Mohammed Hamzah Khan was arrested at the international terminal at Chicago O’Hare airport before he boarded a plane to Turkey via Austria, to reportedly volunteer his services to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
Khan was charged with “knowingly attempting to provide material support and resources, namely, personnel, to a foreign terrorist organization…” according to the official Criminal Complaint. The investigators found a letter written by Khan to his parents and left in his bedroom in which he explains the reasons for his political and spiritual “migration” to the new proclaimed Caliphate in Syria and Iraq. The letter signed “your loving son” says “my dear parents; there are a number of reasons I will be going to the blessed land of Shaam, and leaving my home.” Khan saw an obligation to “migrate” to the Islamic State, now that it has “been established.” Khan was angry because as an adult citizen he was obligated to pay taxes to a government that would use them to kill his “Muslim brothers and sisters” in the Levant. Not surprisingly, the letter echoes the sentiments of Muslims who feel alienated politically, culturally and spiritually in western secular societies. He observes the decline of western societies; “we are all witness that the western societies are getting more immoral day by day. I do not want my kids being exposed to filth like this…” Khan then adds “I extend an invitation, to my family, to join me in the Islamic State.”
The Allure of the Caliphate
Indeed ISIS is a terrorist nihilistic cult, but much more can be said about it. For the first time we see a non-state actor born out of the bloody U.S. occupation of Iraq, the long harsh decades of repression visited upon the Iraqi and Syrian peoples by the Baath party, the Arab state system that emerged after WWII which failed in protecting the state, or in establishing good governance and achieving economic prosperity. Add to that a new cruel strain of sectarianism resulting from decades of crude puritan Sunni interpretation of Islam, (various forms of Salafism) and an assertive, even belligerent interventionist Iranian policy in the Arab world relying on Shiite Arabs, with Hezbollah being the best example.
But unlike al-Qaeda, in its various branches which would occupy small tracks of land, preferably mountainous, to hide and plot their schemes, ISIS wants to rule over a large community of believers. The allure of the Caliphate – to live in a puritan Islamic utopia – is an important aspect of ISIS’s recruitment techniques. That is one of the reasons why some jihadists bring with them to Bilad al-Shaam (greater Syria) their wives and even their small children, to avoid the “filth” that Mohammed Hamzah Khan was warning about. We know for sure, that since the ”declaration” of the Caliphate, and more importantly since its recent swift military “successes” in both Iraq and Syria, the number of would-be jihadists, including western recruits, has surged.
All ISIS’s military leaders and most of its fighters are Arabs, with the core of the political leadership made up of Iraqis and Syrians. ISIS’s military advances are in part due to the professional skills of former Baathi officers and soldiers of the disbanded Iraqi army following the U.S. invasion. But ISIS, unlike other Islamist terror groups has been actively luring Muslims from all over the Muslim world, not only to join the fight against the common enemies, but to build the Caliphate, hence ISIS’ recent call on Muslim engineers, doctors, and professionals with useful skills to come to the Caliphate.
Of Lies, Money, YouTube and Social Media
Islamists have a good track record of using communication technology and media to mobilize and preach. From the lowly cassette tape employed by Ayatollah Khomeini to spread his sermons and diatribes against the Shah of Iran, the video tape and the occasional interview by Osama Bin Laden, to ISIS’s very sleek promotional and recruitment videos and smart use of social media.
These tools are effective in drawing the young and the restless (and senseless), who are promised lives of excitement and comradery, and a good salary. The demented among them, are also drawn by the horrible tales of enjoying women and young girls as spoils of war. The recent Human Rights Watch report on the plight of the Yazidi women captured by ISIS is a terrible chronicle of sorrow and despair. ISIS’ propagandists ought to know that recent converts make for ideal zealots. Many people converting to a new religion or ideology tend to go to extreme lengths to justify the conversion. That may be one of the reasons ISIS is interested in attracting new converts, particularly from the West.
The savvy media campaign by ISIS to recruit would be Jihadists, coupled with the barbaric videos of beheading westerners, and the sight of U.S. and European leaders struggling without success to stop these ritualistic killings, has enhanced the image that ISIS’ propaganda wanted to foster in the minds of potential recruits, that it is almost invincible. The fact that the Western-Arab air campaign against ISIS has yet to change the strategic reality in Iraq and Syria, has enhanced ISIS’ standing in the eyes of its supporters and would be jihadists because it succeeded, for the time being at least, in exposing the limits of U.S. deterrence.
Cutthroats and Idealists
To understand the phenomenon of the Western would be jihadists, the newly converts willing to kill and be killed and why young Muslims would leave their comfortable lives and lead a rough and dangerous existence, we have to say that ISIS’s foreign legionnaires, includes adventures, misfits, cutthroats and people with vacant lives looking for the thrill of a lifetime. But we have to also accept that some of those who answer the appeal of ISIS’s slick propaganda are idealists outraged by the brutality that their co-religionists are suffering from in Syria and Iraq. These men are not driven by hatred of the West necessarily, but by a sense of moral duty to help the oppressed. Yes, many of them are naïve and delusional, and they maybe leading lives of quiet desperation, that make them susceptible to the cunning manipulation of ISIS’ recruiters, but they are not in it for the thrill of the kill. Journalist and author Michael Muhammad Knight who called himself “the jihadi who never was” explained recently that as a young man his moral outrage at the repression of the Chechen people by Russia almost led him “to pick up a gun and fight for Chechen freedom.” The young Knight, who converted to Islam in the mid-1990s, says he was not moved to want to fight by anything he read in the Quran, but by American values. In an op-ed he published in the Washington Post last September he writes “I grew up in a country that glorifies military sacrifice and feels entitled to rebuild other societies according to its own vision. I internalized these values before ever thinking about religion.”
According to anecdotal evidence, while some foreign volunteers and recruits have no idea about the complexities of Syria and Iraq, others are nominal Muslims or disaffected youths with uncertain or bleak future, and others have criminal records. But if they are willing to be good soldiers, their past is forgotten, the way the French foreign legion used to treat the checkered and unsavory past of its recruits. In fact most of the history of the French foreign legion is instructive here, such organizations attract adventures, thrill seekers and zealots willing to cut throats with abandon as we have seen in recent ISIS videos.
Fighting Other People’s Wars
From time, immemorial young men have been driven by the spirit of adventurism, material gain, delusions of grandeur or the need to settle perceived grievances be they political, religious or ethnic as well as idealism to travel afar to do battle in somebody else’s war. In recent history, the war in Bosnia and Kosovo drew few thousand volunteers, the majority of them Muslims from the Arab world and beyond, who were motivated mainly by a sense of solidarity with their fellow Muslims, particularly after right-wing Serb militias committed the worst atrocities against civilians on European soil since the Second World War. In the 1980s, Afghanistan was the magnet for Muslim Mujahedeen who trekked to the rugged country to repel the evil Soviet occupiers, and they have done so with the blessing and material support of the United States and its allies in this epic war by proxy during the Cold War; Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Of course the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) was, as Lionel Trilling said “one of the decisive events of our epoch.” That most passionate of civil wars in the twentieth century drew 50,000 volunteers from 54 countries to fight on the Republican (leftist) side including 3000 Americans who went to Spain clandestinely defying the U.S. government’s ban on travel to that country and organized themselves under the banner of the famed Abraham Lincoln Brigade which became the first racially integrated military unit in American history. These young American volunteers (average age was 23) were idealists, who suffered the economic deprivation of the 1930’s, were driven by Marxian ideology to fight “the good fight” to defend socialism and defeat fascism. Half of them died and were buried in Spain. The surviving half “left our hearts there” as on observer spoke for a generation. These volunteers either did not know, or did not want to admit that the monstrosity named the Soviet Union was fighting on their side too, given that Stalin sent few thousand “advisors” and a large number of tanks and planes. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy sent tens of thousands of soldiers and airmen whose military contribution and brutality against civilians (German warplanes destroyed the town of Guernica, immortalized by Picasso’s haunting painting of the same name), was one of the reasons that the fascist rebellion won.
Adventurists and idealists will always be drawn to other people’s wars. Lord Byron, the romantic poet, is not only known for his poetry, and scandalous private life but also for his devotion for Greek independence a cause for which he volunteered to join the fight to free Greece from Ottoman occupation. There were so many literary figures and artists involved in the Spanish Civil war on the side of the loyalists, such as George Orwell, Andre Marlow, Stephen Spender and Ernest Hemingway to the point that led one volunteer to quip “Everybody was there but Shakespeare.”
Most of the volunteers, who will be drawn to ISIS, will not be idealists, but those who seek the thrill to kill. However, there will be few idealists and misguided souls who will find their way to the Caliphate, before the atrocities repel them or consume them. Such is the nature of the beast.
Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya.