Despite reports of a decrease in the number of ISIS recruits, new Arabs and foreigners continue to join the extremist organization’s ranks.
Recruitment through brainwashing is perhaps the clearest example of the group’s desperation to exploit all financial and human resources in its bid to attract as many followers as possible.
In this respect, ISIS is not dissimilar to other dictatorships and totalitarian regimes which recruit through forms of brainwashing, but what distinguishes ISIS from the rest is its deep-seated religious foundations.
The organization took advantage of their uniquely clear, yet objective, slogan “lasting and spreading”, which was temporarily successful. However, the group found themselves obliged to utilize extreme methods to engage a wide spectrum of supporters willing to sacrifice themselves for the preservation the expansion of its state.
Before alluring Syrian revolutionaries to its ranks, ISIS' indoctrination of potential recruits was relatively ineffective, as they attempted to avoid antagonizing the public. ISIS control had not yet spread to mosques or podiums, which required the organization to gain people’s permission to preach in places of worship. Once obtaining a foothold inside the mosques, ISIS' attractiveness grew among the young, who often lacked a solid religious grounding as protection from radical ideology.
Sheikh Yassien, from Aleppo’s Eastern countryside told Al-Souria: “ISIS took advantage of Baathist policies, which pushed the people away from their moderate religion. In fact, the regime paved the way for ISIS when it encouraged the Iranian sectarian penetration of Syria. As a result of the absence of a sound religious approach, ISIS claimed it was the legitimate representative of the Sunnis”.
ISIS rhetoric began with accusations of the regime and Iran’s religious apostasy, with the group labeling much of the Syrian political spectrum as “infidels” and many religious clergymen of being “heretics”, accompanied by a witch-hunt campaign against those who the group considers corrupted by the revolution. By utilizing the widespread chaos and anti-Assad sentiments, ISIS managed to recruit scores of supporters, legitimizing itself in the process.
Former member of Ahrar al-Sham, Abu Amr, told Al-Souria: “ISIS attracted many young people who were dissatisfied with this chaos, the predominance of Assad and the complicity of the international community”, at a time when the group was making significant military gains against the regime.
As ISIS expanded their control over large areas of Syria and Iraq, the organization’s influence extended to places of worship, assigning religious leaders who successfully preached their fundamentalist brand of Islam. The group’s focus also shifted to religious education for children and youths, attracting the young through activities and the distribution of gifts.
Public religion classes were a significant step in the brainwashing of susceptible societies to embrace a radical Islamic ideology. All members of society attend these compulsory sessions, from doctors and pharmacists to workers and shopkeepers. Those who violate ISIS' instructions must also take extra religious classes as rehabilitation.
Hussam, a university student from Menbij, told Al-Souria: “ISIS forced all kinds of people to undertake religious courses that focus on showing that ISIS’ practices represent the righteous Islam – no one dares to say otherwise”.
Religious classes are also supported by daily ISIS media reports of ISIS military victories. Feeding off the disenfranchised, ISIS closed schools in areas it controlled in order to establish the perfect recruitment environment for its ideology, with the organization establishing new schools to spread its radical vision.
Indoctrination begins with lessons on loyalty towards God, with those who oppose ISIS accused of infidelity. Their members are convinced they are the protectors of Islam, while preaching the Quran and Hadith gives them the impression that their intentions are sincere. All recruits must participate in three months of religious and military training before being sent to fight on the frontline.
Sheikh “Abu Abdullah” from Aleppo’s Eastern countryside pointed out that “ISIS' ideology is based on explicit and clear scripts that cannot be denied. Only, it manipulates them in a way that serves its political interests. For example, all brigades believe in the rule of God, so ISIS has lied to its members and convinced them that the revolutionary forces are Western infiltrators seeking to establish an infidel atheist regime. ISIS has also convinced its members that dealing with the West would convert them into their followers, making them infidels”.
Through its teachings, ISIS makes sure it provides a new positive environment unfamiliar to its members, which is effective in attracting recruits who lack religious or educational grounding. The ISIS brand gathers locals and emigrants together, giving the impression they are ‘one’ in the name of Islam.
ISIS disregards all physical differences, with no distinction between the organization’s Emirs and members; they eat, drink and play sports together, enabling members to feel inseparable from the wider group. All the mechanisms of their subconscious minds work to validate ISIS’ actions and justify all that is committed in the name of god.
ISIS thrives off its hostility towards the West while capitalizing on the crisis in Syria and Iraq. Its brainwashing will continue as long as there is a fertile ground for radicalization in the absence of proper Islamic awareness and a fair political solution.