As we trudged through a deserted city park north of Copenhagen, Shiraz Tariq was trying to make it clear to me that he was no fan of sheer violence.
“No sane man kills for fun. Not even his enemies,” he said. “But implementing an Islamic State takes sacrifices. It is our duty to fight the infidels and take back what it was they took away from us. It is our duty to implement the caliphate.”
For almost a decade, 33-year-old Tariq had been the leading figure among militant Islamists in Denmark, having ties to several convicted terrorists and actively recruiting foreign fighters to war in Syria. A few months after our meeting, in late 2012, the Danish-Pakistani salafist left himself, ending up joining the extremist group that would later be known to the world as Islamic State.
When I wrote to Tariq the following summer, he seemed happy with his decision: “Islam is superior and will never be beaten,” he replied to me, adding a smiley.
However, it was the other, less jolly, parts of Tariq’s message to me that came into mind recently when watching the events unfold in France.
Not only did Tariq sound like a revanchist; he felt he was taking part in a story of legitimate state-building and revival of Islamic pride.
“The goal of the Muslims is also to restore the power we had in the past (we are very close),” Tariq wrote. “My goal is to fight the infidels until the state is implemented.”
Indeed, that’s how IS and its sympathisers see themselves. As the holy and devout Dawlat al-Islamiya, the Islamic State. Supporters of the group – from foot soldiers on the frontline to fanboys in France – simply call it Dawla, the state.
It’s anything but a coincidence. And it says a lot about the group whose appeal we must understand if we want to unmount it. If we are to comprehend the rationale of European jihadists for joining IS, we ought to ask the jihadists themselves.
What I learned from interviewing more than a dozen foreign fighters is that no matter how the West is combating IS military, it may not make any difference.
Bombing IS may contain, or even defeat, the group’s presence in Syria and Iraq, but it won’t eradicate the tale of construction, pride and long-sought revenge that it offers to its fans.
IS may never succeed in creating a sustainable state – the group lacks support from the Muslim Arab masses and though its appeal transcends ethnic and geographical borders, it will never see the popularity of other revolutionary states like Russia, Cuba and Iran – but it doesn’t change the minds of radicalised young Westerners who are drawn to what they think of as a legitimate revolution.
For all its faults, IS has embarked on a sincere mission to restore Muslim pride. And though other push-pull factors also play a part, we need to understand how crucial this is.
* * *
Early evening on Friday 13 November, I boarded a flight to Madrid to speak at an annual conference where leading terrorism researchers in Europe meet to share thoughts and perspectives. Based on research for my recent book on Danish jihadists, I had prepared a speech about what the fighters’ self-perception tells us about the threat from militant Islamists against Europe.
When I arrived in Spain, the reality had flown ahead of me: While I was soaring over Paris, perpetrators down in the streets were transforming the French capital into the scene of IS’s first large-scale attack against Europe. A strike manifesting the threat posed by spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani in his 42-minute speech from September 2014, in which he urged sympathisers and returnees alike to attack their respective native countries. And an attack that – apart from French-Algerian Mehdi Nemmouche’s attack against a Jewish museum in Brussels in May last year –seems to be the first one in Europe carried out by fighters that have had previous training from IS in Syria, raising concerns in intelligence agencies across the continent.
Whether the Paris attack heralds a new agenda of global ambitions for the extremist group or is merely an isolated show of force, the core question remains the same for European policymakers: Why on earth would thousands of Western Muslims, born and raised in safe democratic societies, turn their backs on their native countries, enter a dangerous civil war to which they often have no ethnic relation, and join the so-called Islamic State?
When talking to IS recruits and sympathisers, an under-discussed – yet crucial in terms of pinning down IS’s appeal – narrative recurs. This narrative could see IS gain power in future years if it is not addressed and countered. Despite what we might believe in the West, IS is generally considered by its sympathisers as a constructive protect, focused mainly on state-building and restoring Islamic pride rather than raging war in Europe or causing death to its opponents.
While al-Qaeda early on defined “the far enemy” (the US and Europe) as its main target, IS has so far narrowed its primary focus to the fight against “the near enemy”, ie. neighboring Muslim countries and rival groups.
While al-Qaeda has been determined to fly planes into American skyscrapers almost regardless of the presence of Western military in the Middle East, IS has been preoccupied with local conquest, limiting its rhetoric to a kind of we-bomb-you-if-you-bomb-us narrative.
While al-Qaeda has proven to be a destructive movement, aimed at tearing something down, IS has been focused on building something up right from its first organisational charts.
As a 21-year-old Danish-Lebanese militant Islamist and outspoken IS sympathiser told me in April when we met at a coffee shop north of Copenhagen: “Do you honestly think Dawla is more interested in destroying a random subway station than creating a caliphate?”
Later I replied to him that IS had burned a Jordanian air force pilot alive, and the lengthy covert negotiations with Jordan prior to the gruesome execution suggests IS has ambitions extending beyond regional borders.
“It’s quite simple,” the extremist told me in our interview. “It’s a message to the kuffar [a derogatory term for non-Muslims] telling them to stay away and mind their own business. We are building a state and that is not a project that concerns the imperialists. It concerns the Muslims and it is for the sake of the Muslims that we are establishing this. We are creating a building [place] where Muslim brothers and sisters can live peacefully together in the same society.”
The noticeable focus on state-building suggests IS no longer appeals merely to young men. Dozens of women from the US, UK and the vast majority of Western European countries are now travelling to the caliphate where several are working as school teachers near Hasakah, daycare helpers in Mosul, and sick children’s nurses at the hospital in Raqqa; important functions in IS’s endeavours to maintain a complete and valid state.
Moreover, the women are also bringing along another important resource: the ability to give birth. Married couples eventually become families and families are what gives a state legitimacy.
* * *
However, while this utopian tale of the future is shaping the minds of radicalised youngsters, the past is also alluring.
Sit down and talk to IS soldiers and would-be jihadists alike and you will repeatedly hear them describe IS as the closest they have ever come to the vision of restoring the most holy and pure caliphate in history: the one that existed in the time of the prophet and has ever since been a guiding star for salafist communities.
Ultra conservative customs have been revived. So has the jizya, a tax levied by IS on non-Muslims, as well as the gold dinar, which was introduced though a high resolution propaganda video released by the group’s media department earlier this year. All this serves to declare the summoning of a new Islamic golden age.
As the self-proclaimed caliph of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, said while declaring the caliphate in his infamous speech during the Friday prayers at Mosul’s Great Mosque in July 2014: under his direction and leadership, the Islamic world would be returned to “dignity, might, rights and leadership”.
Likewise, it was hardly a coincidence when the group in those weeks released a video showing a Chilean IS fighter guiding the audience through a demolished border post separating Syria from Iraq.
What seemed like piles of rubble to outsiders represented a deeply symbolic victory to IS and its sympathisers: for the first time, a group had the power and political influence to eradicate national borders in the Middle East drawn with a ruler as a result of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. In the video, titled The End of the Sykes-Picot, they claimed to be redrawing the map, creating a proud and almost cosmopolitan society for Muslims of all kinds.
It worked. Foreign fighters from the US and Europe flocked to the new utopia, to Bilad al-Sham, the place that had served as a province in recent caliphates and, according to the holy texts, will be the scene of a final apocalyptic battle between Muslims and non-Muslims in the town of Dabiq.
In other words, foreign fighters are not merely travelling to an eschatological group with the ability to redraw the world map. They are travelling to a perceived hub of the universe from where Islamic self-confidence shall blossom.
It’s about pride. Muslim countries have suffered from colonisation, they account for a severely limited percentage of the world’s economic output, and the number of new book titles published every year in Arabic, the language spoken by 360m, equals those published in Romanian.
Any oppressed group of people needs a saviour. As novelist Mohammed Hanif put it when explaining the results of the elections in Pakistan: “Poor people, who couldn’t afford a bicycle at the time of the elections, like to be promised an airport.”
Husain Haqqani, senior fellow at the Hudsom Institute, made a similar point in The American Interest recently: “Muslim leaders and intellectuals have created a narrative of victimhood to explain Muslim debility, which in turn enables extremist groups to offer extreme strategies to change the circumstances.”
From this perspective, IS has successfully rewritten the tale of intellectual defeat suffered by Muslim countries in the last century.
* * *
When I listen to jihadists, I find that pride plays an important role in their thinking. They talk about “the state” as if the group represents a kind of modern Islamic revanchism. They talk about taking part in building up a historic caliphate that could be the home of their family and future generations. They talk about regenerating Muslim self-confidence.
It may sound bizarre to Western ears – even more so in light of the deadly Paris attacks that, according to some scholars, could indicate IS’s ambitious global strategy. Nevertheless, it is through this prism that the group’s sympathisers see the attacks in Beirut, Sinai, and Paris.
The question is, then, what to do. We tend to point towards outer conditions when trying to explain radicalisation: rhetoric, integration, ghettos, Islamophobia. But take a look at Europe and you will discover comparable numbers of foreign fighters in France and Britain, two countries pursuing completely different policies on integration.
Italy has massive social problems but has produced only 83 foreign fighters out of a Muslim population of at least 1.5m people, according to Italian intelligence statistics.
Denmark has been tough on immigration, Sweden the opposite. Adjusted for population size, the number of Danish and Swedish IS fighters are almost identical.
Outer conditions are definitely not unimportant in the creation of a fertile soil from which militant Islamist groups to recruit. But when it comes to explaining the appeal of IS, they are inadequate at best.
Numerous conversations with IS fighters and sympathisers have convinced me that the “inner tale” of the jihadists cannot be emphasised enough. IS has mutated into an ideology that transcends national borders and continents. An idea, vision, and narrative about revenge, pride, and success – as opposed to the life in Europe that for many radicalised individuals is associated with social marginalisation and exclusion.
To a large extent, this narrative is what mobilises fighter after fighter from Western countries. And it is a narrative that is to be defeated by counter-narratives, not bombs.
As long as Western policymakers fail to understand this, Western foreign fighters will keep flocking to the “caliphate”.
Jakob Sheikh is an award-winning investigative reporter with the Danish daily Politiken, specialising in radicalisation and foreign fighters. In October, he released his bestselling book about Danish Islamic State fighters, drawing on radical Islamist groups, and foreign Islamic State fighters, as well as key sources in the militant Islamist environment in Scandinavia.