Since 2013, the Islamic State has demonstrated to the world its capacity to recruit foreign volunteers to fight for its cause, either by going to fight Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, or commit terror attacks on its enemies at home. Recently, ISIS began publishing propaganda in Chinese to target Asian Muslims, published in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Xinjiang. Xinjiang is the homeland of the Uighers, an Islamicized ethnic group in Northwestern China that have been the target of religious persecution by the Communist Party of China. Many have started going to Syria or Iraq, or plotting at home in homegrown bomb factories to attack Chinese cities and institutions. The Uighers join a long line of national groups where individuals have joined, or in the process of joining, ISIS in its war against the West. As intense political and ideological feelings lay underneath the violence and tension in Xinjiang, Muslim communities have been radicalized by ISIS to join in the fight, becoming volunteer fighters in Syria or abroad.
Conflicts of intense ideological conflict have a greater likelihood of attracting foreign volunteers in far off wars, even if it has no material benefit to them or their country. The media has highlighted the impact foreign volunteers have made on the course of the war, from a Dutch biker gang who fought alongside the Kurds in Syria, to British-born “Jihadi John” who participated in ISIS’ deadly and graphic online executions of spies, civilians, and enemy combatants. The symbolism generated by the struggle, largely from ISIS’ media propaganda, but also western media, has created a picture of struggle between a western-imposed political system, and the Islamic community whose relations are governed by faith, economic insecurity, and emerging nationalist identity through ties between the group and local communities.
The Islamic World Order, ISIS Edition
ISIS’ long held objective, past its short-term one of extracting itself from stalemate by overthrowing the Assad regime, is to claim legitimacy as the sole representative of Islamic World. Legitimacy means something different in the Islamic world order than in the West. Rather than taking political legitimacy from nation-state recognition, ISIS draws upon recognition of how representative of the world community of Muslims, no matter national or ethnic background. Arguing for leadership of the Umma, ISIS arguments are both religious and economic, promising a place and future where Muslims can feel secure and accepted, appealing to human security connected to Islamic identity.
The Islamic Community or Umma is misunderstood by observers who claim that groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS are representative of their feelings towards the West, or their vision of the Islamic World Order. In his book World Order, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger described the “Islamic World Order” as lacking of the concept of nation-state, but instead a global community bound by religious ties rather than ethnic ties. By transcending Arab, Turk, Malayan, or African identities, the Islamic umma is bound by a nationalism that is distinctly religious and spread across the Islamic World in the wake of the Arab Spring. Islamic Nationalism, distinct from the pan-Arabism of Nasser and the westernized Islamic nation states like Iraq and Syria, rolls back the clock on western colonization after World War, and restores the world of the Ottoman Empire, the Persian Empire, or the tribal system of Arabian tribes and Emirs who ruled fiefdoms without reference to nation-states, or national identity along the western model. ISIS however, expands this vision to creating a global bloc, where Islamic fiefdoms rule under their auspices, and influenced by their message. So far, Boko Haram’s pledge of loyalty is the highest profile instance of this taking place.
A principle reason for the Islamic State’s success in gaining strong followings among Muslims worldwide is the intricate network of clerics in Mosques, intellectual circles, and other elites within the faith and political institutions who urge and assist volunteers to fight in the region. Yusuf Al-Qaradawi is a mainstream cleric and highly published religious authority on Jihad. In 2014, he made a very public call in Doha, Qatar for all able-bodied muslim men to fight in Syria. Higher than Al-Qaradawi, the Saudis and highly influential members of the gulf emirates contributed and encouraged the growth of conservative to radical Islam, through the vehicle of Wahhabism, world-wide, building mosques and madrassas in the Middle East, Pakistan, and Europe. Steve Coll in Ghost Wars attributes this global infrastructure for financing volunteer recruitment for holy wars to these policies implemented in the Soviet-Afghan War, the first where volunteer fighters came in their hundreds to fight a non-Islamic power.
Abroad, ISIS mobilizes volunteers along faith driven lines, inspiring them to commit terror on behalf of the Umma Unlike Al Qaeda, which rooted its propaganda in fighting for God, ISIS approaches recruitment in practical, human terms. The most vulnerable group is young people who are impoverished and unable to find upward mobility in the societies they live in. In Central Asia and Xinjiang, the Uighers live in relative poverty to the rest of China, and are ultimately alienated from the central government in Beijing, who does not represent them ethnically or religiously. This lack of trust between groups to the central government are prime targets for IS, who have formed relationships with the Islamist party and claimed Xinjiang as a province of the group. The lack of counterterrorism coordination is the byproduct of weak government-to-government relationships, but only manage, not address, the root causes of a muslim community’s chance of being radicalized.
Illustrating how economic circumstances contribute to susceptible radicalization and nationalization is the experience of Somali refugees in the west. After the United States brought over 50,000 Somali refugees once civil war broke out in 1992, resettled across the states with the largest in Wisconsin. Plucked from country nearly a century behind the world in industrial and infrastructural development, most did not assimilate into American society. Deeply impoverished, unable to get jobs and integrate into western social structures, they could not climb the socioeconomic ladder, with many of the younger Somalis joining street gangs and contributing to the growth of crime in American cities. ISIS has targeted this group with promises of glory and valor in the service of Allah, through English propaganda films designed to attract, taunt, and ultimately recruit them to their cause. These audiences will be radicalized and brought over as volunteer soldiers in Syria, or terrorists like Tashfeen Malik or Syed Farook.
What Happens Afterwards
With a goal of empire as a substitute for individual states, a sophisticated statebuilding apparatus, and communication system that can reach any community worldwide, the Islamic State is demonstrating global aspirations as the leader of the Islamic community. All the major powers have arrayed against the them, aiming to preserve the current Middle Eastern order, while hedging on where the new balance of power will lie at the end. But as more foreign fighters flood into the country, filling the ranks of ISIS and even the armies of Assad, Hezbollah, the Kurds, and even the Syrian Democratic Front. The Syrian war (and that of Iraq) have become increasingly internationalized, as the apparatus of nation-state breaks down, loyalty breaks down along Sunni and Shiite lines, and ethnic identity transcend national borders, all that is left after the war is faith and religious roots.