Now that ISIS captured Mosul in Northern Iraq, there is a lot of speculation that the ‘Islamic State’, or Dawlah, is now a reality on the ground. It controls vast amounts of land, major cities such as Raqqah in Syria and Ramadi and Mosul in Iraq, and even oil fields. It operates Sharia courts and provides certain basic services to the population.
But moreover, it has a well-equipped army with an international alloy of fighters. And these fighters enjoy their new life-style: Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram is full of Jihadis bragging about their daily life and the advancement of ISIS on the battlefield. Us academics and journalists following the conflict in Syria (and Iraq) have now seen numerous of pictures of executed Syrian and Iraqi soldiers or beheaded rival rebels – to the extent that we become numb to the gulf of digital horror.
But beyond the question whether ISIS is now a state, or if we have become immune to violent images from the Middle East, one question is looming in the horizon: should analysts engage with ISIS fighters in the first place?
The mere facts that these foreign fighters are active on social media and are often tweeting in English are strong indicators that they seek recognition of their new identity as ‘holy warrior’ or ‘respected fighter’ by a global audience. And they seek recognition not just from the inhabitants of Raqqah and Mosul, who will have to live under their brutal rule, but from academics and journalists alike.
Social identity theory teaches us that individuals “strive for a positive self-concept” which explains why foreign fighters love social media. They choose a new identity and want the world to know about it – and moreover recognise their new position.
By following Jihadi’s on social media, retweeting their posts, and engaging with them in discussion are analysts reinforcing their identity as ISIS fighters? And are we inspiring other Muslim youngsters to follow in their footsteps?