Three sisters, nine children, one dangerous journey to the heart of ISIS. What is the lure of the caliphate?

Hassan Hassan writes: A year after the establishment of the so-called caliphate by Islamic State, western governments are struggling for strategies to challenge sympathy among their citizens towards the militants. Foreigners continue to migrate to the territory in spite of substantial military, security and PR efforts and after Isis’s widely publicised military defeats in recent months.

And last week the process took a sinister new turn: three British sisters from Bradford left their husbands and travelled to Syria, taking with them their nine children, to live under Isis. Seven hundred Britons are now estimated to have made the difficult, dangerous and, to many, incomprehensible journey. Such incidents are hard to anticipate and to deal with and they arguably help Isis to bolster its claims of legitimacy and relevance.

A British official with a senior position in the effort to challenge the appeal of Isis to British Muslims told me that lessons were being drawn from the previous successes of al-Qaida. But this attitude, which is widespread, is one of the biggest mistakes officials and specialists make about the appeal of Isis. To apply knowledge about al-Qaida to understanding Isis is to build on previous failures – not least because al-Qaida still exists, though it is overshadowed by a more successful organisation. But more significantly, Isis bears greater resemblance to populist Islamist movements than to al-Qaida, notwithstanding their ideological proximity. Whereas al-Qaida is elitist and detached from ordinary Muslims, Isis tends to be more vernacular in the way it addresses its audience and their grievances and aspirations. It also appeals to a far wider demographic than those willing to join or publicly support its cause. David Cameron said as much on Friday when he warned of the dangers posed by members of communities and families that “quietly condone” the ideology of Isis.

Since the group’s rise last year, I have talked to dozens of members in Syria and Iraq. What emerges strongly is the expressed belief of many that Isis can be persuasive, liberating and empowering. Some members I interviewed echoed recent statements by British Muslims who joined the group. One of those is Abdelaziz Kuwan, a Bahraini teenager who rose through the Isis ranks to become a security official in charge of three towns in eastern Syria. I spoke to him over many months before he was shot dead in October 2014. In one conversation, he said: “I walk in the streets [of Bahrain] and I feel imprisoned. I feel tied up … This world means nothing to me. I want to be free.” His statement is eerily reminiscent of what Mohammed Emwazi, the Kuwaiti-born British national better known as “Jihadi John”, once wrote in an email: “I feel like a prisoner, only not in a cage, in London.” [Continue reading…]

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