The clash of civilisations: Is the ISIS promoting Islamophobia in Europe?
Europe fears that Islamophobes might act up against Muslims making Europe a hostile place to live, even for moderates.
The Islamic State or IS (formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS) was born during the turmoil of Iraq – which was a melting pot of jihadist movements – in 2003 after the American invasion. However, it was only in June when the world really took notice of this eccentric organisation after militants with black flags took the strategically important city of Mosul and claimed it to be a part of their ‘caliphate’, defeating the Iraqi Army almost at will.
According to conservative figures, the current number of IS fighters is estimated to be somewhere around 20,000 to 50,000 while the Iraqi government, which is facing most of the heat, maintains that the figures are much higher, around 100,000.
Judging by its overall success and efficiency, seeing that the IS took control of Mosul with no more than just 800 men and now controls a territory roughly the size of Jordan or Belgium, and the overall revenue that it generates (around $1 million/day), one can say that the IS is not an irrational and insane militant group with apocalyptic beliefs; it is a systematic organisation that uses a perfect balance of warfare and propaganda to amplify its image and terrorise the enemy. It is there usage of the latter that truly makes them unique as the recent beheading of James Foley (filled with symbolism such as the orange Guantanamo style jump suit) illustrates.
While the war wages on in the Middle East, Europe has become a key target for ISIS to recruit a few, albeit important fighters primarily to score propaganda points. European nations such as the UK, Spain, Italy, Germany, Netherlands and France, all the way to the Balkans where Bosnia has become an almost regional hub for IS to recruit young white males and send them to fight under the black flag in Iraq and Syria. Even countries such as Austria are not immune to the activities of IS, where just recently the Austrian authorities concluded that around 130 Austrians are currently fighting for IS in Syria.
Furthermore, nine Chechens, who were residing as refugees in Austria, intended to leave for Syria and join the IS but they were recently arrested. Four suspects were arrested in Vienna, while the other five were intercepted in Klagenfurt. There was a trial held and the Viennese court withdrew their refugee status while the same is expected from Klagenfurt.
However, the recruitment of Europeans is not a novel concept, since long before the IS, the ‘first of its kind’ jihadi recruitment drive, in modern times, in Europe was done during the Bosnian war facilitated by both Iran, Saudi Arabia and nominally Pakistan, and the diversity of the recruits are alarming for many European governments, specially in the Balkans.
The war in Bosnia ended but there were no shortage of recruits in this relatively peaceful region, albeit being poverty stricken with the worst unemployment rate in the whole of Europe. This was quickly exploited by terror organisations such as the IS, who found young and white European men willing to join the IS and who were offered with bright prospects both in monetary compensation and in the spiritual realm. Today, Bilal Bosnic stands on the pulpit and asks young Bosnians to join the ranks of IS, while hundreds of Albanians, Kosovars, and Macedonians are reported to have gone to join the IS, thereby signalling a strong presence from the Balkans in the IS ranks.
The Balkans might have a long history of instability, which the IS must have exploited to lure in recruits, but this thesis becomes quite inadequate in explaining why so many British (nick named ‘The Beatles’ by the IS) are converging to Iraq and Syria to fight for the IS. According to a recent report, they make a quarter of the total number of Europeans, 2000 approximately, fighting for the IS. Furthermore, the revelation that James Foley was actually beheaded by a British citizen further stressed how the IS values its European recruits by giving them limelight, whenever possible, to score propaganda points. This prompted the intelligence agencies back in Britain to crack down on suspected ISIS sympathisers and to identify the 250 British citizens, out of 500, who fought for the ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and are now back.
Meanwhile, the dozens of arrests of alleged IS recruits in Italy (50 Italians are fighting for the IS) and Spain (eight alleged IS recruiters were arrested) has made the IS a phenomenon that is not a continent apart from Europe.
The most troublesome European country, facing acute difficulties in containing the growing number of citizens going abroad to fight in Syria and Iraq, after Britain, is France. A recent survey conducted, by a news agency called the ICM, revealed that around 16% of French citizens support the ISIS. A majority of French recruits come from immigrant backgrounds, originally from North African countries and are either unemployed or socially isolated. In terms of ranking then, it is Britain, France and surprisingly Belgium, contributing to the most number of fighters to the IS European wing.
So how does the IS recruit from Europe?
Though the ways through which the IS might be recruiting can never be known in explicit terms, judging by their propaganda and following historical precedence, we can safely point out four different channels.
Firstly, and perhaps their primary tool, are religious clerics on the IS payroll. Salafist religious schools are abundant in Europe, especially in the relatively lax and multi-ethnic environment of Britain and France where these clerics openly preach hatred towards the West and readily serve as an IS mouth piece.
Secondly, the IS has mastered the art of using social networking sites, Twitter in particular, where they brainwash young minds.
Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, is the usage of agents or handlers who serve as transporters cum recruiters for the IS.
Lastly, it is a known fact that many of the IS fighters from Europe serve tenures after which they are sent back with clear instructions to re-integrate within the European society and serve as their new agents and find possible recruits with radical tendencies.
What are the authorities in Europe doing about this?
Authorities throughout Europe are actively profiling suspects, using at times measures that are questionable, while tightening immigration laws to stop or at least limit the influx of immigrants into Europe. In addition, any citizens travelling to ‘terror hotspots’, such as Chechnya, Kosovo, Bosnia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon etcetera, are now being monitored more closely.
One of the key obstacles that law makers in Europe are now facing is that most European nations have relatively lax laws that permit the right of peaceful protest, which has prompted many of the IS sympathisers to use their rights and take part in pro-IS marches. The law enforcing authorities are now looking towards European law makers to provide legal support to their crack downs on such protests which are only increasing in number.
Though the majority of the recruits still come from the Middle East, the influx of European jihadists in the IS has given this one time Syria centric organisation (funded by the GCC and armed by NATO) a truly transnational appearance so much so that its recent advancements made Chuck Hagel, the US Secretary of Defense, to remark,
“This is beyond anything that we’ve seen. So we must prepare for everything.”
What Europe now fears is a tension between the ethnic groups which has now become a matter of “when” rather than “if” when this tension will reach boiling point. This of course is exactly what Europe fears for, as adventurous and popular the IS becomes in the West, the Islamophobes will have a field day and their activities might not be just limited to Quran burning, but might result in an ‘Anders Behring Breivik type shoot out’ targeted towards Muslims, which will further aggravate the situation, proving Samuel P Huntington’s famous The Clash of Civilisations and making Europe a hostile place to live, even for the moderates.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated Francis Fukuyama as the author of The Clash of Civilisations. The mistake has now been rectified and the error is regretted.