Originally commissioned October 2015
The spreading of the ISIS franchise and the potential for the brand to continue to incite violent acts even if the group in its current form disintegrates
> Executive Summary
ISIS will likely inevitably collapse as a territorial entity, its brutality making any long-term governance structures impossible. In a sense, the loss of territory would be the end of the group, given that its stated aim is to establish an Islamic State. However, this does not mean that the aspirations of the group and affiliates would come to an end.
The brand is being adopted by other groups across the world. ISIS is not the first violent brand to spread, but its ideology marks a step up from the Al-Qaeda brand in terms of its brutality. The ISIS narrative and the strength of its brand to incite individuals to violence is likely to continue into the future. The effects of regional instability will likely be felt for a long time to come, thus delegitimizing this brutal brand will remain crucial.
- The eventual destruction of ISIS as a territorial entity is unlikely to mean the end for the strength of the ISIS brand and its ability to incite individuals into engaging in acts of violence
- Indeed, the strength of the brand can be seen by its spread and adoption by other groups
- ISIS reportedly works to indoctrinate children in its territory and has introduced a new, pro-ISIS school curriculum, although the extent and reach of these are unknown
- Displaced Syrians represent an at-risk group, likely to worsen with time, as children who grow up without education become adults with few prospects
- Refugee camps on Syria’s borders, housing millions of people, will probably remain for a long time to come and themselves could be the staging sites of future insurgency activities
- Opportunistic individuals continually display a willingness and ability to use these ideologies for personal gain
- Groups like ISIS thrive in failed and failing states and whenever these situations exists there is the potential for their emergence and subsequent production of dangerous propaganda
> Violent groups’ brands spread beyond their active territory
Even while Al-Qaeda’s leadership was decimated in Northern Pakistan, independent franchises across the world took up the group’s brand. The brand was so strong that groups not affiliated adopted the name to attract new recruits. The brand is still alive, with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula seeing a revival this year in Yemen.
ISIS’ brand is spreading to other countries, in particular Libya. A number of groups have been switching allegiance from Al-Qaeda to ISIS. In Egypt for example last year, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis split from the main body of the Al-Qaeda-aligned Egpytian Jidahi movement, renamed itself Sinai Province, and pledged allegiance to ISIS. In Somalia, Al-Shabaab is also reportedly considering switching allegiance to ISIS. Groups in as many as 22 countries may have adopted the ISIS brand.
> Branding is generally a cosmetic change for recruitment purposes
The brand is clearly seen as a good recruitment tool. These allegiances are, however, themselves much more a question of prestige and come down to fairly cosmetic differences. ISIS is currently unable to offer much materially to or even communicate with its franchises. Sinai Province is believed to have no more than 1,500 members.
> Troublingly, ISIS displays even less concern with controlling its brand than Al-Qaeda
More concerning, in terms of the current potential for extra-territorial spread, is the case of ‘lone wolf’ attacks in Algeria, Tunisia, the UK and recently in Bangladesh, with the second targeted killing of a foreign coming at the beginning of October, amid fears of a pending escalation.
ISIS seems much less concerned than Al-Qaeda was in controlling its franchises outside of its territory. ISIS seems content to let its name be associated with any violent act, making it more dangerous than Al-Qaeda in its capacity for inducing ‘spin-off’ attacks. ISIS is also more prolific and better-equipped than Al-Qaeda in its production of content inciting violence.
> ISIS also seeks to indoctrinate those in its territory
ISIS produces, on average, 38.2 individual pieces a day propaganda in the territory under its control. A shift has been seen of late, with now over half of the propaganda produced depicting an idealized civilian life under the ‘caliphate’ and with very few direct depictions of the ultraviolence the group has been known for.
Moreover, the group has introduced its own pro-ISIS curriculum. Other indoctrination efforts reportedly include forcing children to take part in traumatic activities, such as beheadings, as part of a psychological strategy to bind them to ISIS.
One video recently circulated showed the young child of an ISIS fighter practicing beheading on stuffed animals. Careful deprogramming will be needed to counteract such indoctrination.
> Displaced Syrians may be vulnerable to radicalization
Huge numbers of Syrians have been displaced. A generation of young people will grow up without an education, seriously impacting their future employment opportunities and their ability to integrate into whatever society in which they find themselves. These young people could easily turn into adults at risk of radicalization.
Turkey, for example, has already two million documented Syrians and this number is only expected to increase, with many young people growing up unable to speak Turkish, working from an early age and without access to education. Of Istanbul’s 83,000 Syrian refugees of school-age, only a quarter receive education.
Large numbers of Syrians live in camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan on the border with Syria. These camps have previously reportedly been used as rallying points and staging points for attacks within Syria, and have potential as breeding grounds for radicalization and militant-ism.
> Opportunistic individuals will spread the brands for their own ends
Many who join ISIS are doing so out of material rather than ideological motivations. These engage in entrepreneurial warlord-ism, seeing opportunities for personal advancement. Defectors have claimed that some ISIS commanders were once drug dealers and joined the group for material gain alone.
That opportunistic individuals are willing and able to employ such ideologies demonstrates why nullifying the destructive and nihilistic ISIS narrative will continue to be crucial even after the group has been routed on the ground.
> When there is instability, violent brands may take hold
Extremist groups have structures and patterns of development sociologically similar to mafias, whereby they exploit gaps in existing service or communication networks. While this fact can be neatly employed in counter narratives, the implications are that while there is instability and gaps in service provision, such groups will thrive.
> Next steps/ Conclusion
As long as unstable environments remain, so too will ISIS’ or similar narratives. The prospect of saving all failing states remote, but we can delegitimize this narrative in order to mitigate its radicalizing effects. We must be aware of the long-lasting effects that this narrative might have on refugees, those living under ISIS’ control and disenfranchised minority groups elsewhere.
Naturally, it would be logical to combine these efforts with support for these at-risk populations. Maintaining an awareness of the potential for indoctrination among children in areas liberated from ISIS, as well as providing refugee children with a continuous and balanced education will be of importance.