Why ISIS hates the refugees

For a long time, the story of ISIS was the story of a unique propaganda success. The beheading of Western journalists, the long rows of Toyota pickups full of hooded fighters driving through the desert. These images went around the world and imprinted themselves on the collective subconscious.

But now the militia’s public machinery is facing problems - and the weakest actors in the Syrian war are responsible for this: the refugees. Because ISIS markets its territory as a kind of promised land for Muslims, every Muslim who prefers to flee to Europe is the living contradiction, the proof that the ISIS country is not as attractive as promised. And every good advertiser knows that you can promise things that are easily embellished in advertising and that a few sales-promoting things can simply be ignored. But what they are never allowed to do is lie. That is noticeable, that is unbelievable.

ISIS went from propaganda success to propaganda success

So far, ISIS has not had to lie. Almost everything has played into their hands in the past 18 months. With their meticulously orchestrated attack on the Iraqi metropolis of Mosul, the militia gave themselves a nimbus of military invincibility, which bad researchers like the widely read author Jürgen Todenhöfer and even reputable media carried on. Todenhöfer wrote, for example, that “400 ISIS fighters routed 25,000 Iraqi soldiers and militias with state-of-the-art equipment”. Mosul fell before a shot was fired. Because ISIS had allied itself with the local Sunni forces, infiltrated the city months beforehand and knew very well that the perhaps 10,000 security forces in the city were poorly equipped and demoralized. And ISIS did not attack with 400 men, rather with 2,500. A sensational propaganda success.

So far, the shock strategy of ISIS - and it was so successful that Friedemann Karig wanted to impose a new "ethics of sharing" on inexperienced social media users in the West. Because anyone who shares the cruel ISIS images is unintentionally helping the militia. ISIS was able to recruit thousands of fighters from abroad last year, including from Europe, France, Belgium and Germany. According to the US State Department, 12,000 foreigners have fought for ISIS since the war began. These recruits would not exist without propaganda.

ISIS can rely on thousands of accounts on the various social media platforms such as “Twitter” or the messenger “Telegram”. Every message spread by the leaders and preachers of the militia is amplified a thousand fold by their followers around the world. The militia approaches potential new members personally and with great patience.

“Dabiq”, the English-language magazine from ISIS, which appears every month, also plays a central role. In it, the editors give instructions on how an ISIS jihadist must behave towards his parents and, conversely, that parents should not prohibit their children from jihad. It also explains what to think of the other Islamist militias in Syria and marks the new frontier areas of the struggle. Twelve issues have appeared so far. The current number opens with a picture of the Paris attacks. The title "Righteous Terror". The anti-extremism organization Clarion Project archives the issues here.

All these parts, the videos, the magazine, the social media accounts, have been interlinked so far. Because the message from ISIS was simple and clear: We are going the only true path. The west is evil, Shiites are evil, unbelievers are evil. With this message, ISIS wants to abolish the gray area "in which Muslims and the West coexist peacefully," wrote Youssef Osman on Krautreporter on Monday.

ISIS does not have a uniform message to the refugees - that shows the uncertainty of the militia

But ISIS cannot formulate this uniform message for the refugees. This is shown by videos that are almost two months old. But the attacks in Paris served precisely to provoke an anti-Muslim reaction in Europe, against those Muslims who already live here and those who are just coming to Europe. That's why these videos are revealing. Aaron Y. Zelin made an overview on his blog Jihadology. Here are some selected key messages:

  • Muslims should live in a country where Sharia, Islamic law, is enforced. The "Jews and Christians" did not have the refugees' interests in mind. They would force them to convert if they wanted to stay in their countries. To prove this, ISIS cites the French ban on the face veil, for example.
  • In another video, the spokesman explains that religion is the only reason ISIS wages war against the “infidels”. Those who flee to non-Muslim countries fall away from the faith.
  • ISIS shows segments from news broadcasts that aim to prove that refugees are being treated very badly in Europe. And anyone who goes to Europe can no longer come to paradise, it says in the recording.
  • The next message alludes to the ethnic tensions in Syria: a preacher claims that Europe only accepts refugees because it wants to increase the proportion of non-Muslim people in Syria in order to defeat ISIS.
    Again and again in these videos ISIS shows the "normal people", people who express their incomprehension that other Muslims do not want to live in the "caliphate". In one of the recent messages, someone also makes the false claim that more people are fleeing to ISIS than to Europe.

But in none of these videos is ISIS as concrete as in its magazine “Dabiq”. The published an article in which it instrumentalized the death of the boy Aylan Kurdi. A photo of his body had moved the world. In an article titled "Why It Is Dangerous to Leave Islamic Countries," the editors claim that Muslims would commit a great, dangerous sin if they migrated to Europe.

Even more: “It is sad that some Syrians and Libyans are ready to endanger the lives and souls of those whom they should raise according to the laws of Sharia law.” In Western countries, Muslims are in constant danger from drugs and alcohol and exposed to sodomy. The flight leads “their own children and grandchildren to leave Islam for Christianity, atheism or liberalism”. While the right-wing populist movement Pegida warns that Europe will be Islamized, ISIS warns that the refugees will be Europeanized.

The refugee crisis is also an ISIS crisis

According to experts from the Soufan Group, the ISIS messages to the refugees show that the militia is unable to formulate a coherent strategy and message. The headlines of the news make this clearest: "Dear refugees, listen to us," is a very active, confident title. “To those who have been displaced” sounds almost caring. "Notes for the refugees who go to the countries of the unbelievers" could also come from an official announcement by an authority. “And He will replace you with other people,” is a threat, a rejection, and a demotion.

Anyone who wants to address people who have lost friends and relatives in the war, who are themselves traumatized, who can no longer buy bread because the queues in front of the bakers are pelted with barrel bombs - those who want to address these people should be sensitive to the nuances can pay attention. He has to be able to live in the gray area, in which everything is not clear, in which there are messages that contradict each other, in which one has to respect that the other has his own attitude, history and identity. But the jihadists don't want that. You want to brush over the gray tones. That is why the refugee crisis is also an ISIS crisis.

Lead picture: Refugees on the train at the Slovenian station Dobova in November 2015; Photo: Rico Grimm

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