The jihadist terror group Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), now rebranded as the Islamic State, have been described as some of the savviest recruiters in the global network of jihadists. A New York Times report seems to confirm this, as their popularity skyrockets in areas where ISIS has no presence whatsoever.
In places like Jordan, Yemen, Lebanon, and Egypt, residents of poor Muslim areas appear to be warming up to the message of ISIS, according to The New York Times‘ Ben Hubbard. Hubbard visited the town of Ma’an, Jordan–a poor town where residents feel alienated from the government and report many instances of abuse. Some of those residents fly the ISIS flag as a way to antagonize the police. One father of a resident accidentally slain by the police explains that he does so to mourn his son.
Others fly the flag to celebrate Sunni Islam in general. The town hosted a small parade last month to celebrate the announcement of ISIS’s takeover of northern Iraq, something one resident described as being “like raising the flag of Barcelona or Argentina after they win a soccer match.” The Sunni residents of Ma’an were “happy” for the Sunni jihadists of ISIS, despite the fact that no official member of ISIS has ever stepped in the town.
The town’s mayor, Majid Sharari, appeared concerned. He told the Times, “There is no ISIS here, but there could be because there is oppression, frustration, high prices and unemployment. … All that could lead to chaos.”
ISIS and its supporters online appear to be acutely aware of the image that is developing of them–images of helping poor Muslims where others have abandoned them. In one widely distributed Twitter image, supporters of ISIS claim that jihadists are distributing meat to poor children in areas where they have full control:
— Hazimie Nasser (@HazimieNasser) July 8, 2014
The group also uses its multimedia outlet, Al Hayat Media, to parade its most exotic members as proof of its international appeal. Among its most prominent hosts is a man named Bastián Vásquez, a Chilean who converted to Islam and now hosts videos for Al Hayat. Omar al-Shishani, the most prominent military strategist for ISIS, is a Georgian Chechen.
ISIS also distributes images of alleged marches in support of the group internationally. Most prominently, images have surfaced that are believed to be of a pro-ISIS march in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, though the belief is that it does not have an especially significant ISIS presence:
— ?? ???? #????? (@al_ghumaisha2) June 7, 2014
— Allyn (@Allyn3237) June 21, 2014
The expansion of ISIS could in large part depend on the recruitment of poorer Muslims; Hubbard notes that many who have positive words for ISIS in Ma’an, Jordan, are young unemployed men who see little probability that they will find steady employment. They hear of locals leaving for Syria and fighting jihad, and they watch ISIS videos promising that jihad will bring meaning to their lives. Without a full-scale effort to combat ISIS’s propaganda, intelligently designed to recruit desperate young men, the potential for a much larger problem for the international community is present.