Jihadists Step Up Recruitment Drive
Sunni Insurgents Use Victories in Iraq, Syria, as Calling Card on Social Media to Help Forge Islamic State
June 25, 2014 7:42 p.m. ET
ISIS launched a campaign aimed at recruiting followers in the West, seeking to capitalize on its successful military offensive in Iraq. Now, the pitch is falling on receptive ears. Maria abi-Habib joins Simon Constable on the News Hub to discuss. Photo: ISIS Recruitment Video
BAGHDAD—A Sunni jihadist group that has seized vast territories in Iraq and Syria is parlaying its battlefield successes into a recruitment drive that is attracting more foreign fighters, say Western and Arab officials.
The message from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS: Join us in forming a Sunni-led religious state spanning from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf.
One recruitment video, released on Friday, shows gun-toting militants, speaking with British and Australian accents, extolling the virtues of jihad and inviting viewers to join their battle in Syria and Iraq.
It isn't the first time ISIS has tried to recruit Islamists while carefully crafting its image on social media to raise its appeal among jihadists.
But the video, disseminated last week on ISIS's first non-Arabic Twitter TWTR +1.00% accounts in English, German and Russian, is the group's first English-language drive for foot soldiers, and reflects its attempt to burnish its jihadist credentials farther afield.
Western and Arab officials say the effort is resonating among recruits due to the group's success in quickly extending its control over Iraqi territory in the north and west and along the country's border with Syria.
Syrian warplanes struck targets in the western Iraqi province of Anbar on Tuesday, killing at least 50 people, as Assad lends his support to Baghdad's Shiite-dominated government to shore up the crumbling Iraqi army. Washington Institute Senior Fellow Andrew Tabler joins Simon Constable on The News Hub to discuss. Photo: AP
Islamist extremists ISIS released a video on Friday targeting Western Muslims, encouraging them to give up their Western lives and join the jihadi struggle. Via The Foreign Bureau, WSJ's global news update.
"The recent developments have raised hopes of jihadists all over the world to establish the state they've aspired to create for a long time," said an Egyptian diplomat. "We worry that more Egyptians are going to Syria and Iraq now, particularly from Sinai."
Logistically, the fighters are able to join the fight by flying to the south of Turkey, which is one of the region's few countries not to require a visa from other Muslim countries. From there, they typically slip across the border into Raqqa, in northern Syria, and then can traverse hundreds of miles of ISIS-held territory along western Iraq down to the border with Jordan.
"It's an open border between Syria and Iraq," said a senior Obama administration official. "There's nothing stopping them moving into both fights."
A doctor in Iraq's second-biggest city of Mosul, which ISIS fighters overtook earlier in June, said the group's Islamist ranks now include Europeans and people across the Middle East. He said he sees them shopping in its stores, recalling a blue-eyed, sunburned German militant he met who spoke in broken Arabic.
ISIS has also recruited members through its raids of prisons, releasing hundreds of inmates who it has integrated into its ranks, Iraqi officials say.
The insurgent group's seizure of $450 million from Mosul's central bank and caches of weapons seized from Iraqi troops who fled upon their arrival are also drawing rival jihadist groups in Syria to ISIS, Western and Arab officials say. Last week, four commanders from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army joined ISIS, Syrian activists said.
And this week, ISIS touted on ISIS-affiliated Twitter accounts a pledge by a senior al Qaeda operatives, Anas Ali al-Nashwan, to join the insurgents in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia issued international arrest warrant in 2011 and sought help from Interpol to arrest the Saudi national, who Riyadh says fought jihad in Afghanistan.
"The third most wanted man [in Saudi Arabia] has arrived on the ground to the Levant and pledged allegiance to the Islamic state," read a tweet, linking to an image showing Mr. Nashwan with the black ISIS flag in the background.
ISIS split from al Qaeda this year and has battled its arm in Syria, al Nusra Front. ISIS leaders contend that al Qaeda has grown too soft in its approach to religious minorities and too lax on socially taboo behavior such as smoking or listening to music.
For many rival Islamists, ISIS's draw is its sheer military might—displays of power such as a military parade in Mosul this week—that it displays on YouTube or Twitter. Those social-media tools are essential for ISIS to draw new recruits and funding, and it diligently documents its war gains online to rally supporters, the Western and Arab officials say.
ISIS asks followers on Twitter and Facebook for private donations, but has received the bulk of its funding from extortion rackets and kidnapping, Western officials say.
"For all of those who aren't joining jihad yet, you can perform jihad with your money. We want to buy 100 grad missiles to shell Qardaha," a Syrian town held by the government, read a recent tweet by an ISIS supporter Abdullah Mohisine that was retweeted over 900 times, attaching a Turkish phone number to call.
The group's success in Iraq and Syria has given it newfound confidence, Syrians living in ISIS-held territory say.
In Raqqa city, which officials believe is ISIS's operational nerve center, foreign fighters from Asia and North Africa are arriving, residents say. The new arrivals are confident ISIS will successfully resurrect an Islamic caliphate, or religious state.
"New foreign fighters are coming in and some of them are bringing their families with them. They occupied all the hotels in Raqqa and they inhabit al-Thukna, the most beautiful neighborhood in the city," said a Raqqa resident. "ISIS is calling on Raqqa's people to open their empty houses for the immigrants."
European governments estimate that at least 1,400 of their citizens are fighting in Syria, most with ISIS, and pose a threat upon their return, more radicalized and with combat and explosives training.
But the true numbers may be higher—one British parliamentarian said this week that as many as 1,500 Britons have fought in Syria, compared to an official estimate of 500.
The recruitment has continued despite new legislation since late last year in places like the U.K., which has stripped at least 20 Britons of their citizenship for fighting in Syria.
One European diplomat said the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are drawing an unprecedented number of jihadists from his country.
"There were a noticeable number of school seats empty after the winter break, kids going off to war. Social workers have not seen this before" with any other Middle Eastern conflict, said a European diplomat. "We've also seen an increasing number of European suicide bombers."
—Mohammed Nour Alakraa in Beirut, Jay Solomon in Washington and Laith al-Haydair in Baghdad contributed to this article.
Write to Maria Abi-Habib at firstname.lastname@example.org