WASHINGTON – Tightening borders will have little impact in deterring ISIS-linked terror attacks like the recent atrocity in Barcelona because the Islamic State is winning the propaganda war through social media, a George Washington University scholar said Thursday.
Younes Abouyaaqoub, who allegedly drove a van through Barcelona’s famed Las Ramblas pedestrian mall earlier this month, killing 13 and injuring at least 120 others, was born in Morocco but had lived in Spain since he was a toddler. Abouyaaqoub, who held Spanish residency, was later shot dead by police.
“Even if you close all the borders, it wouldn’t stop many of the terrorist attacks we’ve seen in Europe, in other countries, in the last month because they are people with the passports,” Javier Lesaca, a researcher at George Washington University, said at the Hudson Institute on Thursday.
Research published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in May showed how ISIS is successfully recruiting and radicalizing culturally isolated Muslims in homogenous countries. The research paper – “What Explains the Flow of Foreign Fighters to ISIS?” – suggests that recruitment has little to do economic or political conditions but rather alienation of the radicalized.
The NBER compiled a list of countries with the highest ISIS recruitment rates, while weighing the Muslim population versus the number of ISIS fighters in each country. Topping the list were Finland, Belgium, Ireland, Sweden, Maldives, Trinidad and Tobago, Austria, Tunisia, Norway and Denmark.
Separate research in America shows that about 80 percent of ISIS-linked perpetrators in the U.S. were born here or are naturalized citizens. Published in February by the Chicago Project on Security and Threats at the University of Chicago and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Counter-Terrorism Policy Center, the report analyzed more than 100 individuals indicted by the Department of Justice for ISIS-related offenses between 2014 and 2016. Of the 112 people studied, only three held refugee status.
Researchers found that about 60 percent of the perpetrators were born in the U.S. while another 20 percent were naturalized citizens. Similar to the NBER research, the study found that those recruited were not unemployed or disenfranchised. More than 40 percent of the individuals were in a relationship, a third married and about two-thirds had been to college, according to the study.
Researchers also found that propaganda videos were instrumental in the radicalization of the individuals, with 83 percent reportedly “having watched them, including execution videos and lectures by terrorist leaders.”
Lesaca on Thursday detailed how ISIS is appealing to young people through social media, using propaganda that mirrors mainstream culture. Since 2014, ISIS has distributed more than 1,300 videos on social media, and the individuals leading the videos are often those who appeal to young people, wearing mainstream clothes and exploiting cultural symbols.
Battle scenes shown in propaganda material, Lesaca said, usually mirror video games like “Call of Duty,” with first-person vantage points for individuals holding rifles. Lesaca noted that ISIS also copies other popular video games like Mortal Kombat, which often depicts executions, or “fatalities,” and “Grand Theft Auto,” as well as movies like “The Matrix” and “V for Vendetta.” Based on his research, more than 50 percent of the some 1,300 videos copied scenes from mainstream entertainment.
Lesaca also discussed the various propaganda videos that feature western products like Pepsi drinks, Ford pickup trucks and Apple computers. Then there are individuals like Australian surfer Tareq Kamleh, who named himself Abu Yusuf in a video depicting him taking care of young children in hospitals. Lesaca said that ISIS, in some instances, tries to present itself like a compassionate NGO.
“Realities don’t matter in this war, only perceptions,” Lesaca said, calling ISIS’ campaign the largest “seduction on the planet.”
According to UN statistics, ISIS has recruited about 35,000 people from more than 100 countries since it rose to prominence in 2014.