The research question is, What are the differences between the ISIS approaches to men and women on the Internet? The question will be addressed through reviewing the literature on and topic and conducting research of the ISIS gender-specific propaganda strategies.
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The primary hypothesis of the research is that the approaches employed by the ISIS for online communication activities such as propaganda and recruiting are gender-specific, i.e. different for male and female targets. The hypothesis will be considered confirmed if particular online communication strategies are found that are targeted at women specifically. The second hypothesis is that ISIS’s online communication techniques aimed at women feature the themes of romanticizing, emancipation, and participating in a ‘holy war’ on the side of good. The third hypothesis is that the ISIS extensively uses misrepresentation as a tool of online communication, i.e. the way the role and position of women in the ISIS presented in the terrorists’ online communication are significantly different from the real situation. Proving or disproving the hypotheses will help understand how the ISIS gains supporters among women as well as radicalizes and recruits them.
Several studies over the last five years focused on the strategies that terrorist recruiters adopt to attract supporters, radicalize them, and persuade them to join terrorist groups. The ISIS and other militant extremist organizations recognize the Internet as a valuable platform for various types of activities, including not only recruiting but also training, sharing coded plans of actions and attacks, and engaging “lone wolves” into organized networks of cooperation (Theohary 2011).
However, the primary function of the cyberspace for terrorists is to be a propaganda machine, i.e. to be used to disseminate information, which is often false or distorted, and persuade targets to support or join. For example, Taliban and Al Qaeda used Facebook pages and YouTube channels to “radicalize Western-based sympathizers” (Theohary 2011, 2). The ISIS has employed similar strategies. Researchers have concluded that the work of the ISIS on the web has been successful, as a recent report by a United States anti-terrorist organization stated that the ISIS was winning the war in social networking services (Ali 2015). There are many ways to analyze the propagandistic content generated by terrorist groups. One of them is to consider the gender specificity.
ISIS Approach to Men: How the ISIS Appeals to Men
According to Arendt (2012), a world-renowned international relations theorist, totalitarianism is dependent on the effective spread of propaganda (Arendt 2012). She uses the example of Adolf Hitler and the rise of the Nazis. Hitler managed to radicalize the youth and normalize violent behaviors to the point that anti-Semitism became a norm, rather than an exception. The ISIS employs the same tactics on the Internet for gender-appealing purposes. The organization performs as a militant group that aims to establish a state with a brutal and violent agenda of expansion.
This would not have occurred without achieving their primary goal, which is increasing and reinforcing their army, and the cyberspace seems to fit very well as a recruitment medium for the terrorist group to mechanize. Therefore, they convey messages through the web to men, and the messages that Islamist terrorist organizations convey to male targets are based on the notions of jihad, i.e. holy war. One of the main arguments of the ISIS is that Muslims are oppressed and persecuted in the modern world. In this situation, what a true believer should do, according to the ISIS propaganda, is to take up arms and fight. The ideology underlying jihad is highly radicalized and extremist as it suggests violence against infidels and oppression of the disobedient (Beauchamp 2014).
The idea of the holy war is communicated online in an exaggerated and highly dramatic way. The military campaign conducted by the ISIS is presented to targets as “a cosmic battle” (Speckhard 2014, 26), where the duty of a true believer is to fight on the side of good. Psychologists claim that such messages activate the “end times mentality” (Speckhard 2014, 29), which facilitates the radicalization as it makes a regular person act extraordinarily and change his or her life and thinking dramatically. Terrorists recruit male supporters to turn them into fighters and bombers.
Other scholars suggest that terrorist organizations that approach young men effectively use the process of ‘identity searching” and manipulate their messages accordingly. As young men try to find their life paths and choose religious or philosophical beliefs, they can fall into the trap being attracted by radical but simple messages of the ISIS if they lack critical thinking abilities. The system of recruitment becomes more intense as the ISIS spreads its messages on websites and social networks. Recruiters communicating with young men analyze if a man is ready for action in propaganda or subversive activities (Koerner, 2016). The ISIS, like many other terrorist groups, proposes clear gender values: a real man is a warrior who fights evil, and this archetypical concept is still attractive for a lot of people. If men are willing to join the war, they buy a ticket to Jordan or Turkey, and then cross the border with Syria and infuse the ranks of terrorists.
According to Mullen (2015), the “ISIS provides these deluded young men…with an adventurous trip.” Furthermore, the ISIS uses its discourse based on familiar historical patterns. Uncompromising idealism draws radical Western men since the average age of volunteers is 17 to 25 years. They are mainly descendants of immigrants in the second or third generation who were educated but faced the problems of ambivalence in a family environment and school. At this critical level, the ISIS seizes this moment to offer a more “heroic” position and compensation of how to appeal to men on the Internet (Callimachi 2016). The idea of a utopian country where all injustice will be avenged and problems will be solved grows and develops on the basis of a powerful propaganda machine in social media. The ISIS gives men a lot of feelings that these men may lack living in the environment where they live: brotherhood, justice, and, what is more important, the feeling of great importance of one’s actions and the meaningless of life.
ISIS Approach to Women: How the ISIS Appeals to Women
Although the idea of the holy war is communicated by terrorists to female targets as well as to male ones, there are certain distinct characteristics of the approach to women. To understand them, the profiles of women who join the ISIS should be described, their motivation should be examined, and the ISIS’s methods of recruitment and language of communication should be analyzed.
First, it is important to consider the female recruitment rate and understand who the women joining the ISIS are. The academic community admits that there is not enough information on women who join the ISIS and declares the necessity for further research. According to Nacos (2015), experts on terrorism believe that there is an upward trend of joining the terrorist organization among women from all over the world. Particularly, some Western girls and women gave up their comfortable lives and left their families and friends to take part in the holy war. According to the data from counter-terrorist organizations, about 50 girls from the United Kingdom and at least 40 women from Germany had joined the terrorists by 2014 after being convinced online to come to the ISIS and marry a young fighter (Sherwood et al. 2014).
Some of them were 13-16 years old and escaped from their parents to travel to the Middle East. Others were up to 24 years old, some with careers and families. According to Perešin (2015), over 550 Muslim women from Western countries joined the ISIS and traveled to the territories controlled by it. The ISIS, therefore, has demonstrated the highest Western women recruitment rate among all known extremist groups (Perešin 2015). Although it was suggested by Speckhard (2014) that women and girls liable to terrorist propaganda are usually those who have been traumatized and experienced difficulties with their families and communities, actual data show that the profiles of female recruits are diverse, which complicates defining common factors.
Second, one of the main goals of the ISIS female recruitment studies is identifying the motivation of women and girls who join the terrorists. Besides the previously discussed romanticized idea of the holy war, three motivations specific to women were described in the academic literature: looking for romance, supporting the Islamic State in non-combatant roles, and emancipation. Young women who join the ISIS often do so to marry a fighter (Sherwood et al. 2014). They are attracted by the idea of adventure and meeting courageous warriors to become their brides (Dettmer 2014).
The power of the social networking services used by the ISIS to romanticize the images of jihadists is emphasized by Nacos (2015, 1) as she claims that social media are capable of “turning some impressionable girls and young women into fans of the Islamic State and its fighters, just as entertainment media turn some of their peers into passionate fans of pop music stars or movie celebrities.” After joining the ISIS, young women are promised the meaningful life of non-militant participation in the holy war by being wives and mothers of warriors (Perešin and Cervone. 2015). Finally, some women who participate in the terrorist group see it as emancipation. Kneip (2016, 88) argues that women who join the ISIS “are still acting within a strongly patriarchal system” which means that their participation cannot be regarded as emancipation from the Western point of view.
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However, it can be perceived as such by the victims of the terrorist propaganda. Particularly, what the ISIS provides is perceived by them as the emancipation from the Western society. Although some women joined the ISIS to combat infidels, violence and female jihad were not found to be major motivations (Pearson 2015). However, the exploration of these motivations is also deemed important. For instance, the case of Roshonara Choudhry, the first woman from the United Kingdom to be pronounced guilty of violent Islamist actions, is a major example of radicalization and female jihad. Pearson (2015) concludes that violent behavior was caused by the conflict of Choudhry’s online and offline identities. In turn, the reason for the conflict was the transgression of gender roles both in the mainstream society and the extremist radicalized online community.
Finally, the methods used by the ISIS to lure girls and women into joining them were widely discussed in the academic literature. Analysis of Dabiq, the propagandistic online magazine published by the ISIS, showed that the frequency of mentioning words related to “females concern” had been growing since the end of 2014 (Vergani and Bliuc 2015), which can signify an increasing interest of the terrorists in attracting and recruiting women. One of the techniques employed by them is befriending young women online and extensively exchanging messages with them. Binetti (2015) compares this online recruiting strategy to that used by pedophiles. Two main techniques are the alienation of parents and promoting the feeling of secrecy. The next step is convincing the victims that they are beautiful and special. Like the victims of child sexual exploitation, victims of extremist propaganda fail to recognize that they, in fact, are victims and are being used.
Another technique is creating a false image of the role of women in the ISIS. Beauchamp (2014, 3) states that the “ISIS is dedicated to oppressing women, and uses rape as a weapon to terrify the population into submission in territory it controls. Somehow, perversely, it has managed to enlist large numbers of women to help in that awful effort.” Terrorists declare that women are not mistreated in the ISIS and describe the “joys of sisterhood” (Binetti 2015, 2) among women in the Islamic State. However, when women are recruited and come to the ISIS, they may be forced to join female battalions, whose function is to force other women into obedience (Beauchamp 2014).
The technique of false representation is heavily used on all levels of the ISIS propaganda, including Dabiq magazine (Gambhir 2014). Such false representation is possible due to the two main aspects of communications performed by the ISIS: isolation and distortion (Ali 2015). First of all, the ISIS completely shuts down the territories under its control in terms of information flows. Journalists are not allowed to enter those territories, and if they do, they are running a risk of being kidnapped. Second, the ISIS has made a significant effort to set up its propaganda machine to distort the representation of the state and the ideology. The distorted concepts are further communicated to people all over the world through social networking services and other online channels. The purpose is to present an idealized image of the land of justice and to call upon supporters to fight.
According to the findings of previous studies, one of the main aspects of the ISIS’s communication to women and girls is conveying a romanticized image of what the group is and for what it fights. Gaining victims’ trust is based on the principles of secrecy and alienation of parents/circles, which often leads to a situation where a victim does not perceive herself as a victim and does not understand that she is being used. The injustice of the society in which a woman or a girl lives is also stressed by online recruiters to promote the idea that joining the ISIS will be liberating and emancipating. At the same time, the recruiters thoroughly hide or obscure the truth about what the role of women in the ISIS is and how women are treated there. Researchers agree that further efforts are needed to examine the ISIS recruiting strategy and find ways to combat them.
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