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In Recruitment Efforts, ISIS Seeks To Evoke Deep Sympathies From Muslims


In spite of the brutality on display in the videos from ISIS, the terrorists are not having trouble attracting fighters to their cause. Shadi Hamid is a fellow at the Brookings Institution Center for Middle East Policy. He's been studying how the so-called Islamic State differs from past Islamist groups. Earlier this week, he told me that one of the secrets to their success is a cunning use of language designed to evoke deep sympathies from Muslims, like their distinctive use of the term caliphate.

SHADI HAMID: So if we look at other extremist groups, including al-Qaida, they would talk about the caliphate in theory, as an aspiration. And that's where ISIS is so revolutionary - is they said, we're actually going to establish a real caliphate on actual territory. So from now on, any time there's an ungoverned or ungovernable space, an extremist group might ask itself, why not establish our own mini caliphate in this piece of territory? And that's why even if ISIS was defeated entirely tomorrow morning, they would've still succeeded in this way and many other ways because they've set a different precedent for extremist groups going forward.

RATH: And ISIS has been very good at recruiting soldiers, even from across borders. Can you talk about the religious language they use - the particular language they use and how that helps them with recruitment?

HAMID: So in this sense, ISIS has a built-in advantage because their fighters are willing to die, and they believe that they will be granted direct entry into heaven. So that kind of ideological power gives ISIS internal cohesion. It gives it moral. And that's very useful when they're fighting against, say, the Iraqi army, which totally lacks moral. And that's why we had a situation in June where ISIS was able to overtake Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, with about 800 fighters at first. And the Iraqi army and police forces had about 30,000. So in this sense, the power of ideology and religious inspiration is a force-multiplier.

RATH: You write that ISIS' rise has something to do with Islam, but you struggle with what something is. How is ISIS different from other groups that seek to establish a state governed by Islamic law?

HAMID: So with the Arab Spring, we had mainstream Islamist groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, who tried to work within the democratic process to promote their vision of a more Islamic state, but in a gradual, slow, plodding way. So what - ISIS is coming in, and they're saying that the Muslim Brotherhood model of working within the political process is an utter failure and that the only way to achieve an Islamic State is by imposing through brute force. And this, I think, draws on one of the unfortunate lessons of the post-Arab Spring period - is that violence actually does work sometimes, whether it's from autocratic regimes or extremist groups, like ISIS. And ISIS is also distinct that - in that, unlike al-Qaida, they take governance more seriously. They're able to run local administrations, provide for some degree of law and order, provide social services. And that's really appealing in the Iraqi and Syrian contexts, where there's really a power vacuum and there's lack of legitimate government.

RATH: Shadi Hamid is a fellow at the Brookings Institution Center for Middle East Policy. His new book is "Temptations Of Power: Islamists And The Liberal Democracy In A New Middle East." Shadi, thanks very much.

HAMID: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.