Welcome back, dear readers, to The Kerfuffler, where every other week we take a look at the culture wars raging online. This week we’re looking at the debate surrounding the nature and aims of one of the first ‘internet generation’ terrorist groups, Islamic State.
As western governments grow increasingly invested in anti-IS efforts, the foreign policy blogosphere has become obsessed with questions of what exactly IS is, and what they’re after. Graeme Wood’s Atlantic cover story “What ISIS Really Wants,” which essentially claims that IS is best understood in a religious framework, has been particularly influential in this debate. The article went viral online, and remained one of the Atlantic’s most-viewed stories for weeks afterward.
There are a number of problems with Wood’s analysis. For starters he claims that IS is benefitting from an influx of jihadis “from around the world,” which is “unprecedented in its pace and volume, and is continuing.” This is part of a popular media narrative wherein, activated by a vaguely-described process of “online recruitment,” legions of heretofore-dormant young Muslim men IN OUR OWN BACKYARDS are flocking from Boise and Birmingham to join IS. Even more nefariously, we’re told, IS is recruiting young Muslim women using kittens and Nutella.
The problem with this narrative, dear reader, is that there is little hard evidence that this sort of thing is actually happening in anything like the numbers Wood and others cite. Even the arch-scaremongers of the CIA only put the number of Westerners in IS’s ranks at a couple of thousand. Meanwhile, in the Arab world, social media is more likely to be used to mock IS than to mobilize for them.