The Islamic State’s propaganda machine is incredibly effective. Unlike al-Qaeda, which has always emphasised religious purity through sermons and articles, the Islamic State (IS) is all about redemption and acceptance. It doesn’t matter what “sins” you have had in your past (drug addiction, prostitution, or even another faith), you are taken in and promised to be washed clean by their community, thereby making you worthy of heaven. For a teen looking for a place to belong, the IS entices by promoting glamour, love, immediate importance, and more important, instantaneous acceptance – the intensive religious indoctrination comes after this.
From big-budget, blockbuster-style studio productions to the do-it-yourself selfie, the sheer amount of information pumped out by the Islamic State is impressive. It all contributes to a carefully-crafted image: no press release, video or photo goes out without an ulterior motive. The Islamic State only allows the public to view what they want to be seen.
The Islamic State’s campaign to portray ‘A Perfect Caliphate’ is designed to showcase life inside Islamic State-controlled territory as an idyllic world in which everyone is well fed, healthy, and most of all extremely happy. These images – of white burqa weddings to sunsets over newly-planted parks to brand new dealerships and five-star hotels – have been somewhat present in past publicity, but over the last three months the IS propaganda machine has been ramping up the message.
The propaganda works. Thousands of foreign fighters have already joined up, with more expected to make the journey. At the same time, a shift in the tone of IS propaganda is designed to encourage other sympathisers to support partner organisations on home soil, wherever it may be.
It is teenagers that are generally most susceptible to the message. While it can be difficult for parents to know for sure if their child is being radicalised, there are a few things to watch out for. No one item can confirm your fears – but if you see a combination of the following traits, your concerns may be valid.
Early detection is key. Radicalisation doesn’t happen overnight. It’s usually a long, drawn-out process, and as such provides many opportunities for concerned parents to intervene and stop the process. As such, it’s important to be in regular contact with other important figures in your children’s lives, especially teachers, friends and religious leaders.
If parents do suspect that their teenager is harbouring Islamic State sympathies, their initial reaction is important. It’s natural to feel shock and guilt, but dangerous to let these feelings turn to anger and confrontation. Attempts to forbid, isolate or ring-fence teenagers from social networks – the main means by which Islamic State propaganda is received and networks created – often have the opposite effect, making teenagers more determined.
Angrily confronting the teenager is also dangerous, potentially leading to the parents being themselves condemned as takfiris, or apostates.
Parents need to create a safe, confidential environment in which to discuss these issues with their teenager in a respectful manner. Banning IS propaganda does not work. Instead, parents need to bring this material into the house, to make it part of the dinner table conversations. This will allow them to debunk the myths of glamour and romance that underpin the Islamic State’s appeal. Talking these issues through in a calm, logical manner – allowing the teenager to contribute and ask questions and argue – is the best way to illustrate just how superficial the propaganda really is. This cannot be a once-off discussion. If radicalisation is a drawn-out process, so too is deradicalisation.
In this respect, the media has an important role to play in portraying the harsh reality of life in the Caliphate. So too do the increasing numbers of foreign fighters, including from South Africa, who have now left the Caliphate because the reality there did not live up to their expectations.
The Islamic State’s propaganda may be potent. But it’s not perfect. With proper discussion and communication – rather than anger and isolation – parents can show vulnerable teenagers that there is a better way. Overall, remind your child that they are a part of your family; loved, wanted and needed, and Islamic State’s seemingly perfect family is wrought with dysfunction. DM
Jasmine Opperman is the Africa director of the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium. Opperman has interviewed and advised parents of dozens children who are sympathetic to or have expressed an intention to join the Islamic State. Opperman specialises in Islamic Terrorist groups in Africa and Middle East.
Photo: Two Austrian teens, Samra Kesinovic, 17, (left) and Sabina Selimovic, 16, (right) departed some time in 2015 to join Islamic State (picture taken from an Islamic State-affiliated social media account).
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