Pioneers, pilgrims and propaganda: the family appeal of IS

Pioneers, pilgrims and propaganda: the family appeal of IS
Analysis: Three Bradford sisters and their children are thought to have travelled to Syria and settled in Islamic State group territory. Many are asking how this could happen.
5 min read
16 June, 2015
Many of Bradford's Muslims are coming to terms with the Dawood sisters' disapearance [Getty]

As millions of flee their homes in Syria, thousands of foreigners are going to other way and joining extremist groups there.

The ranks of the Islamic State group have been filled with an assortment of extremists, brigands and down-on-their-luck youths from around the world. 

As its territory swelled it also become a home for Muslim families and young women from the West. In February, three British teenagers left their home in the UK and entered Syria. They were believed to have been groomed online by IS members and become "jihadi brides".

On Monday, police said that they believed three women from Bradford - Zohra, Khadiga and Bibi Dawood - and their nine children had joined their brother who is thought to be fighting for an extremist group, likely IS, in Syria. Their pilgrimage to Medina appears to have been a distraction for their real "hijra" to the "caliphate".

While IS has built up a reputation for cruelty, sadism and terror, many in the UK have wondered how and why any mother could take their families to a "state" made famous for murdering women and children.

On 1 June 2014, Abubakr al-Baghdadi, the hitherto unseen leader of IS, climbed the pulpit of Mosul's grand mosque and announced the establishment of his "caliphate".

His call to the world's Muslims to emigrate to the fledgling "Islamic state" was not a request but a demand. It was the responsibility of all the faithful - man, woman and child - to come. It was meant to echo the path of the first believers who followed the Prophet Muhammad to Medina and established the first Muslim community.

     Mosul, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zoor have been shown as safe havens amid the destruction and chaos of war in Syria and Iraq.

The vast majority of Muslims have dismissed Baghdadi's message, but for some it has been an inspiration and a source of pride.

An idea that the founding of Baghdadi's "caliphate" marks a new chapter in what will lead to the "end of days" has also been on played heavily in extremist websites.

IS supporters say that the current stalemate in Syria will reach a crescendo in the IS-controlled city of Dabiq, where the "armies of Rome" will be annihilated by the Mahdi, Jesus and their faithful companions.

Alongside videos of beheadings, fighting and sex slaves - which have undoubtedly attracted many angry young men - there is also a gentler portrayal of the "caliphate" by IS propagandists.

Mosul, Raqqa and Deir az-Zoor have been shown as safe havens amid the destruction and chaos of war in Syria and Iraq. IS says it has formed a functioning state, with welfare programmes including a health service, to take care of its people.

Raqqa has been portrayed as a new Medina, where racism, materialism and inequality are banished and all Muslims are treated equally. Even its grizzled fighters have been seen in interviews gushing over Nutella and playing with kittens.

A video shot at a fairground north of Mosul showed the territory as a place for fighters and their families. Grinning children speak about their "happiness" and "ease" now they are under the guardianship of Baghdadi.

Many men and women have brought their families with them to Syria, wanting establish homes in the "caliphate" during its first days, which they believe marks a "return to Islam" and rejection of capitalism, liberalism and materialism.

Nation building

Saleha Jaffer is director of Fast in the UK, a group which offers support to the families of those British citizens who have been seduced by this message and travelled to Syria to fight or settle.

She says the IS has portrayed its "caliphate" as a safe haven for westerners to practice Islam with a bounty of opportunities for young Muslims.

     The appeal among certain sections of the Muslim community is much like that of the Jews during the founding of Israel.
Abdel Azim-Ahmed, academic

It is little surprise that many of those who have settled in IS territory come from some of the most destitute and racially segregated parts of the UK.

"The appeal in the propaganda is that they say they are helping the umma [Muslim community], and have created a place with a positive Islamic life. For them it gives them a sense of belonging and value," she says.

Police say that at least 700 British Muslims have joined extremist groups in Syria and Iraq. This week, it was reported that Talha Asmal, a 17-year-old from Dewsbury became the youngest British suicide bomber, after he detonated an explosive-rigged vehicle during an IS assault in Iraq.

Abdul Azim-Ahmed is a writer and academic who has investigated the appeal of extremist Muslim groups in the UK. He says that many young Muslims have become encapsulated by the idea that IS is building a nation and calling on young Muslims to be its pioneers.

"I can imagine the appeal among certain sections of the Muslim community is much like that of the Jews during the founding of Israel," he says. "It is pushing a message to the diaspora that there is a place where you can be free from abuse and discrimination and I think that is troubling."

Media reports of the barbarism and cruelty of the Islamic State group fighters have been dismissed by some British Muslims as untrue, and instead they have a romantacised image of what is going on there, he said.

The daily scenes of death and destruction in Syria inflicted by regime bombing has had a radicalising effect on many Muslims across the world. The resistance to the regime has taken a distinctly Islamic flavour, and it has provided a call to arms for Muslims across the world just as the US-UK invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq did a decade ago.

The West's impotence at stopping the slaughter, they say, is proof that they are on the side of Bashar al-Assad and "at war with Muslims".

Although there are many ways that parents and community leaders among the UK's Muslims can help prevent radicalisation, it is also a human responsibility to stop the killings, which since day one has been the biggest and most effective propoganda tool for the IS group.