Syrian recruitment: The battle for hearts and minds {Part 1}


Syrian Dr Robyn Torok

The battle for hearts and minds is a very important battle, because we are not only fighting in the battlefield, we are also fighting in the realm of ideas.

– Anwar al-alwaki

The internal conflict in Syria has continued to draw world-wide media attention as well as international criticism, especially for the resulting humanitarian crisis. Compounding the crisis is the complex political and religious landscape of the rebel movement that composes more than 1,000 groups. These groups have a variety of ideological views, as well as differing perspectives on the future of Syria. Such differences have caused conflict between rebel groups.

The legacy of Anwar al-Awlaki continues to exert strong influence in jihad circles, particularly the importance of the internet as a tool for fighting in the realm of ideas which al-Awlaki regarded as just as important as the physical battlefield. In fact, it is widely stated that half of jihad is to occur in the media. This article focuses on the key ideas found to be circulating on social media platforms in relation to encouraging Westerners, including Australians, to participate in the Syrian conflict. It is also important to note that it is the jihadi terrorist groups such as al-Nusra and ISIS, that are key propagators and beneficiaries of these ideas in terms of gaining foreign fighters.

Propaganda of the Syrian resistance forms an important foundation for the way jihadists attempt to battle for hearts and minds in relation to recruiting. Nevertheless, systems of ideas needed to motivate people for action, especially in terms of risking their own life in a foreign country need to be much more extensive and impacting. People need to be fully encased in a system of ideas that are continually reinforced from multiple sources and elements toward not only fighting in jihad, but being a martyr.

Foundational propaganda used by resistance groups focuses on the atrocities committed against the Syrian people coupled with the perceived inaction of both Middle Eastern and Western Governments. Firsthand experience with such atrocities is sufficient motivation for much of the local Syrian resistance and forms an important starting point for recruiting foreign fighters. However, Westerners – Australians, are taken through a journey of ideas and concepts aimed at engendering their commitment to not only a focus on fighting, but more importantly, martyrdom and seeking the highest places (Al-firdaus Al-ala ) in Jannah (Paradise).

Targeting the Western Muslim identity

Sharp distinctions are made between the Muslim lifestyle in which jihad is central and the decadent Western lifestyle in which a person’s very Muslim identity is challenged. Outlining the duties and obligations of a ‘true believer’ was a critical aspect in reaching out to Western Muslims. In fact, Western Muslims are encouraged to return from their state of ‘jahl’ (ignorance). Failure to do so is threated with poverty, displeasing Allah and even hellfire. As Abu Bakr stated; “If people do not practice jihad, Allah will inflict them with poverty.” Further, to not practice jihad is to be in danger of hellfire itself. Recruits are also instructed that he Mujahideen and the Qaideen (those sitting at home) are not equal in the eyes of Allah, and that no action is equivalent to that of jihad in the path of Allah. A direct call goes out to the recruits:

‘My dear brothers in Islam, the fields of jihad are in need of you, and the military training camps are searching for you, so where are you when it comes to aiding the weak and oppressed one’s in the world? Redeem yourself from this ignorance that enslaves you and return to ‘true Islam’.’

Ignorance that recruits are needed redemption from include sitting at home and not engaging in jihad and following ‘true Islam’, being critical of the mujahideen and not supporting them. Also, the ideals of the family unit are challenged, ie, that people who allow their children to watch Dora the Explorer, Sesame Street, and Sponge Bob Sqaure Pants are allowing their children to become homosexuals, lesbians and drug dealers later in life. Instead, children should be trained with guns and in the path of jihad. Recruits are told to come out of their ignorance and:

‘let your houses be places for lions not chicken farms in which your sons will be fed then slaughtered by tyrants, like sheep. Instil in the hearts of your sons/children the love for jihad and the love of battlefields. Share the problems of Muslim Ummah. Live one day a week as refugees and how the Mujahideen live. They live on dry bread and tea.’

Sheikh Abdullah Azzam

It is further made vitally clear to Westerners, that the only way to redeem yourself from a state of ‘jahl’ (ignorance) is to action oneself in jihad; even better, to be a martyr in the cause of Allah. Redemption from ignorance involves no longer living for self but living for Allah through the path of jihad. Essentially, it means turning from your past and following ‘true Islam’ and becoming a martyr. Redemption from Allah is instructed to be in the act of martyrdom itself not just fighting in jihad, although recruitment to jihad is the first stage of that redemption process. ‘The path of jihad and martyrdom is the best and fastest way to change and make up for what you did in the past and please Allah and win back his favour’.

Jihadi scholars such as Abdullah Azzam are quoted, especially regarding the defence of Muslim lands as the first obligation of Muslims after Iman (belief/faith in Allah). Essentially, Western Muslims are encouraged to reorient their journey to make jihad central. This migration (Hijra) to jihad is viewed as both a journey and as evidence of ‘true belief’. Furthermore, the mujahideen who participate in jihad are presented as much more favoured in the eyes of Allah than those who don’t participate. More than this, jihad is presented as a path not only to success but also to enter paradise.

Centrality of martyrdom

Jihad may be a journey, but martyrdom is the destination – the ultimate goal of a mujahideen. Those travelling to Syria are not only told to be prepared for martyrdom but to actively seek it. Having a love for martyrdom is an essential part of the preparation. Narratives of past martyrs are continually circulated and brought to the fore as these individuals are elevated in the same way that Australians respect those who have given their lives in service for our country. Not only are the martyrs themselves elevated but their words are given a special authority and quoted as almost a sacred form of text. These ‘shahada’ (martyrs) are the role models for those joining the conflict or as it is put ‘the caravan of martyr’.

Martyrs are offered a list of rewards, some of which are well known such as the 72 virgins. However, there are also other important rewards promised such as redemption and forgiveness. This ties in with the redemption from ‘jahl’ (ignorance) when one follows the path of jihad in the cause of Allah. Martyrdom also promises freedom from the agony of death and this is supported by widespread narratives and photographs of martyrs who die with a smile on their face. Additionally, jihad promises redemption for family members. Some jihad texts promote a substitution system where for each unbeliever that one kills, they gain one redemption promoting mass casualty operations. Creating a system of ideas with enough influence to encourage a person to seek martyrdom involves not only presenting a list of rewards but more importantly, powerful imagery.

Two powerful images are presented in relation to martyrdom and were common on social media pages relating to Syria. First is the concept of being ‘in the heart of green birds’. This image captures the soul of the martyr being free and flying in the heart of a green bird in paradise. Western recruits are targeted by comparing this concept to that of superman. Recruiters aim to capture the childhood dreams of being free to fly like superman as the experience of a martyr being in the heart of a green bird. The second form of imagery is ‘in the shadow of swords’ which captures the pathway or gateway into the afterlife. Simply put, this concept presents the fact that the gates of heaven are opened during battle so that when a Muslim in engaged in jihad the gates of heaven are open and ready to receive the martyr. Together, these ideas present a martyr having a ‘beautiful death’ followed by a ‘beautiful paradise’.

These two images are reinforced by the concept of Al-firdaus Al-ala (the highest place in paradise) where martyrs are given the best mansions, take the highest places – given that they are in the heart of green birds, and are the most favoured of Allah.

Social media evidence suggests that these discourses are well presented in relation to the Syrian conflict and are targeted toward the Australian audience. Of concern is the coherence and detail of these ideas that are aimed at fully encapsulating those online in a battle for hearts and minds. Evidence also suggests that those going to Syria are not only going with this jihad mindset but also a martyrdom mindset.

One online text aimed at Westerners, more so, Australians encouraging them to commit acts of terror in their own countries ends with a powerful quote: ‘Kuffur [unbeliever], wait for the lone lion’ (the formal black suit jihad), a reference to the damage that can be done by one individual which is especially concerning in an age of lone wolf terrorism. More importantly, it is made very clear that the attack on home soil from ‘the formal black suit jihad’ should come by a jihadi who has won the trust of the kuffur. The attack should not only come from one that is ‘trusted’, but the ‘trusted’ one (jihadi) should also fit into the work place or social scene just like any Australian and be completely undetected and off the radar of surveillance. The jihadi is instructed that nothing drives more fear into the West than an operation of martyrdom on their own soil.

As Sheikh Yusuf ibn Salih-Al-Uyayira said; “There is no other technique or means which strikes as much terror (like 9/11) into their hearts and which shatters their spirit as much as martyrdom operations. And because of these operations, the disbelievers cowardly refrain from mixing with the population. And whoever penetrates into the enemy for the sake of Allah and to gain his pleasure, he is a shaheed (martyr) who has entered the highest of paradise.”

Part 2 will feature in our next issue Jun/Jul 2014. It will include the risk that fighters pose upon their return to Australia, the types of martyrs as well as ‘the formal black suit jihad’ including proposed targets and training for lone wolf operations.

About the Author

Dr Robyn Torok is undertaking a second PhD in Security Science at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia. Torok’s research focuses on the role of the internet (social media) in recruitment of terrorists to jihad, in particular, to martyrdom operations. Torok specialises in home-grown terrorism and the threat lone-wolf terrorism poses to Western nations, including Australia’s, and how this threat will impact the country’s national security. Torok’s research is leading the way to enable better understanding of how the internet is used to influence, steer, guide and change a person from moderate views of Islam to more extreme views leading to terrorist recruitment.

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