It shares many of its objectives with the al Qaeda global terror network, but ISIS understands the value of going viral in a whole new way.
ROME — For the 13 years since the 9/11 attacks, as we've focused on things like the attendance in mosques and sermons of Imams, we have missed the even more fervent roots of Islamic hatred.
The British accent of "Jihadi John," heard in the beheading video of U.S. journalist James Foley, was the latest reminder. He claimed that more than 3,000 jihadists — a fifth of the Caliph's foreign legion — had arrived from Europe. With the same ease that these jihadists enrolled with the ISIS terror group, they will return to complete their missions in Belgium, France, Sweden, the UK, Germany and Italy.
How did these commuters in the holy war's highway multiply under our noses?
According to noted French expert on Islam, Gilles Kepel, the United Kingdom is a huge center for European radicalism, but it is not alone. "The hotbed communities are in Birmingham, Bedford and east London," he says. "Then there's Belgium, where the highest percentage of Salafists in Europe are. In France, Marseille and Roubaix are real jihadist nests."
Mehdi Nemmouche, the alleged killer in the attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, came from Roubaix and was arrested in Marseille. He was later identified by former French hostage Nicolas Hénin as the ISIS torturer of Westerners abducted in Syria.
"The extremism of the so-called Islamic State is no longer growing inside mosques, which are now incredibly well-monitored," Kepel says. "And although Salafist environments have played a part in the violence, it is largely propagated through Twitter and other social networks."
Among the "heroes" on Twitter are religious activists such as Saudi Mohamad al-Arefe, who has been banned by Switzerland for religious extremism, yet has 9.4 million Twitter followers, notes Ed Husain, a former Islamic fundamentalist from London. Today, he's an Islamic scholar who sits on the Council on Foreign Relations, as well as Tony Blair's Faith foundation.
"The mosques are now the most-monitored places in Europe," says Italian sociologist Stefano Allievi, who has studied native and converted Muslims for years. "Those who want to do something bad don't make their contacts there, but they can connect and make other contacts online easily. Within a week, they can cross the Turkish border. Within three, they'll be signed up and salaried."
Even Italy is a springboard for the return of fanatics, according to Italian intelligence sources, which have so far counted 40 jihadist volunteers from this country. But, according to Allievi, this is the fluid nature of the latest generation of jihadists who want to render geography and borders insignificant. "I could say that there is a certain concentration in the northeast and north-central areas of Italy, but it's a question of statistics. In these regions there's simply more work, so there are more immigrants."
The point is not where, but who is leaving for Iraq and Syria. Their profiles are very different from Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda recruits of the past. Today's jihadists are younger, and there's a new generation of converts just out of adolescence with very little knowledge of the Koran — to the point that some have gotten informed with an online Islam for Dummies-type manual.
ISIS recruits based on personalities rather than those with deep faith. Sharia is for them what socialism was for the Marxists in the 1970s, and, most importantly, they're able to enroll without the complications, labyrinths and secret structures that al-Qaeda has.
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Inside Mosques, like this one in London, is not the engine of radicalism. Photo: Bangali71
In Kepel's book The Rise and Decline of Jihad, he looks at the genetic makeup of Osama bin-Laden"s heirs, which Kepel began to investigate with his essay Beyond Terror and Martyrdom. The al-Qaeda model was "pyramidal," compared to ISIS's more "lattice-shaped," Kepel says.
ISIS has a seductive element of easy heroism. Its brand of anti-Westernism has sold well, and there's a physical battlefield, a bit like Spain in 1936, where they can physically go and pick up guns to fight. Michael Muhammad Knight, an American writer who converted to Islam years ago, says that when he was just a step away from enrolling in the holy war it wasn't in the verses of the Koran where he found inspiration, "but in the libertarian values of the United States."
The West's Muslim communities have realized that ambiguity produces monsters. Some 120 international Muslim groups have denounced ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, sure to call his organization by its Arabic name, Daesh, to avoid any association with the word Islam.
"The rich Muslim countries should support the emergence of Islamic theological schools in Europe to fill the intellectual leadership gap for European Muslims," says Felice Dassetto, a professor at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, and head of the Center of Modern Islamic Studies.
In Dassetto's adopted country, 400 ISIS jihadists (18% of them women) have gone off to fight, and a quarter of these have already returned home from Syria. The radical group "Sharia4Belgium" is largely responsible for their recruitment.
"One day, Europe will wake up in a nightmare," liberal Egyptian activist Alfred Raouf says. "The problem isn't Daesh in the Middle East, but Daesh at home."
French President François Hollande's government has instructed sociologist Dunia Bouzar to train officers to expose the perpetrators' methods, recently reported. A French convert who enlisted in ISIS and then regretted it told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle that the Internet is the central tool for those like recruiter Omar Omsen, who boasts to have reportedly sent almost 700 French fighters to Syria.
Says Kepel, "More than the mosques, you have to look at the social environments."