When I Got a Friend Request from “Islamic State”


When I Got a Friend Request from “Islamic State”

Illustration: Namaah/Arré

Last month, I received a Facebook friend request from a “Mohammad Azmi”. The name was unfamiliar to me, so I went to his page. In his profile picture, he was standing in what looked like a desert, his head and face covered with a scarf. In his hand was a scary, long rifle. On his wall, a few nondescript English phrases, photographs of other rifle-toting men, and some Arabic posts.

A quick Google translate partially confirmed my suspicion – Azmi was claiming to be a soldier of the “caliphate”. I ignored the requests, but got at least five more from other rifle-carrying men over the next few days. Bearded men with Shah in their name for some reason seemed to be hot on the caliphate recruitment list.

Then, just like that, the requests disappeared, as did the accounts. Facebook had taken them down.

But Islamic State’s desperate attempts to woo Indian Muslims continue. In a video released on Thursday, the IS says its fighters are planning to avenge the deaths of Muslims killed during the 2002 Gujarat riots. It also mocks Muslims living in harmony with Hindus and appeals them to join the caliphate.

The internet has been the nerve-centre of the group’s efforts to go global – whether it’s spreading its ideology through heaps of propaganda (1,100 in July and August 2015 alone), or spamming Twitter (the Islamic State and its supporters produce as many as 90,000 tweets in one day). Brutal beheadings are only the beginning. A whole wave of seriously slick propaganda follows at its heels to ensure that kids get the complete picture – magazines, movies, the works.

From May 24 to June 6, the Dabiq was being sold on Amazon for $22. The quarterly, published by the Islamic State, is available online (not on Amazon anymore) in English, French, and German for anyone looking for “photo reports, current events, and informative articles on the Islamic State”. Named after an area in northern Syria that is expected to host “one of the greatest battles between the Muslims and the crusaders”, Dabiq is published whenever the IS feels like it.

Dabiq has the mandate to detail what life is like inside the caliphate: “wheat production”, “charitable works”, and other such social causes often find their way within these pages, alongside articles that encourage enslaving non-believers and taking women as concubines as tenets of Sharia.

From the “revival of slavery” to invective on the “crusader NATO army”, Dabiq discusses the word “terrorism” liberally, not with a view to itself but to describe the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), that’s been waging war on the IS from the Turkish border.

But this is not what draws in the youngsters. Prospective recruits are more likely to be drawn to the photos of the Humvees ferrying gun-toting, flag-waving jihadists, says Lapido Media, a centre for religious literacy. To them, descriptions of battles won and jurisdictions established are way cooler than the “polemics on political ideology”.

You have to look no further than Flames of War, released in September 2014, to know how keen the IS is to prop up its “life of adventure” image. With a runtime of 55 minutes, Flames of War could easily be mistaken for a Die Hard franchise, complete with car stunts and images of stuff blowing up in slow motion. Narrated in English, it appears to be a calculated attempt at soliciting recruits in the West.

Mainstream media might feed us images of harsh landscapes, scary men, and herds of goats, but the IS is keen to showcase the caliphate as a regular place, where you pay your taxes, buy your milk, and water your plants.

Lapido Media says young people who have lost loved ones to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, kids eager for a life of adventure, and adults seeking significance in a world which seems to offer little of either one, are most susceptible to this propaganda. To them the idea of a “crusade” sounds sexy, offering those looking for it some solace and comfort. And nothing pulls in bigger crowds than religion.

Except maybe an alternative lifestyle. Mainstream media might feed us images of harsh landscapes, scary men, and herds of goats, but the IS is keen to showcase the caliphate as a regular place, where you pay your taxes, buy your milk, and water your plants. The hope is to entice not just desperate young men, but also men with families to come live within the “caliphate”, and completely ignore all the wars and other gruesome stuff.

It purports the IS life as completely normal, putting emphasis on day-to-day activities and offering listicles on how to be the perfect jihadi, all the while emphasising that Western states and militaries do a poor job of protecting and providing for their citizens. The magazine has photos of modern medical facilities and services, and says people who live outside of IS’s purview are slaves to work hours and wages.

An interesting take on why the propaganda, especially that within the magazine, is so effective, appears in a Bloomberg column. “Some young people,” its author says, “particularly those born far away from the conflict in the Middle East and North Africa – are just bored.” The columnist argues that no amount of small-business loans or education scholarships can compete with the “toxic temptation of being a part of a movement that claims to be changing history”.

Boredom. There once was a time anger changed the course of history, inequality played a role, injustices launched revolutions, but now we have boredom. Dabiq with its glossy pictures of adventure and excitement that makes jihad sounds like a jello shot spiked with vodka, promises to alleviate just that. Dabiq exists so that the next time the caliphate pokes a bored, bearded Shah on Facebook, the bearded Shah will accept with alacrity.