Thoughts On the ‘Normalcy’ of ISIS Fighters

For several months now, I’ve seen and at times have very much so been a part of the cyclical outrage that gossips boastfully on social media when it comes to ISIS’ media production and use. Whether Instagram photos of kitties and guns, well produced videos of battles and beheadings, a trailer for a Grand Theft Auto-like video game or balaclava-faced young men with familiar accents, we cannot help but comment on just how ‘tech-savvy those jihadis are’. Their use of the omnipresent, readily and easily available technology just boggles us, amazes us and entraps us into the narrative of the savage using our tools against us. Why is it surprising, after all, that those who fight with ISIS, especially, use the very same technologies and media that were created with the intent of a global reach? To expand global reach?

If you can Instagram your lunch, why can’t you Instagram your war?

I, as mentioned, am guilty of falling into this hole of what I would call misplaced horror. There is a morbid fascination with which I explore ISIS supporters and purported fighters on social media; it is the same fascination that becomes anger that sometimes – not often – makes me take the bait and respond to the buffoonery I see in the name of my faith and in the name of, sometimes, the same struggle. They’re so normal, I often think. They celebrate violence; use fatal religious terminology without much thought of the consequences of language and ideology (or maybe selective thought) and boast of the spoils of war in a way I’ve read mostly about in books because, as privileged citizenries, we’re kept distant from war and military.

But despite those glaring and uneasy particularities, there’s a normalcy to so many of these young men and women who claim to be in Iraq and Syria, having allegedly travelled from the US, Canada and Western Europe. I see myself in their tweets — the ubiquitous ‘myself’ and not specifically just myself, although that’s sometimes there too.

It’s a normalcy that I, amongst countless others, just find so weird. We don’t get it. How can you tweet about missing your mom and Cocoa Puffs for breakfast and then, in the same feed, tweet about the Kuffar, about almost getting killed and your ‘new kicks for Jihad’?

None of this should actually be “weird” for us. People live in apparent contradictions on a daily basis; for so many of us, our lives are defined by the very contradictions we juggle. But we don’t think twice about those because those are our lived realities and so that’s what we know, what we see as ‘normal’.

We ignore how so many of these young men and women grew up in the same world as us, sometimes in the same societies as us. We created and promote citizen journalism as an important way to offer counter-narratives to mainstream narratives but cringe when those who bear arms follow the most popular and growing trends for information dissemination and awareness. Most of those who are in ISIS and who support ISIS believe they are upholding a truth (or several) — so why wouldn’t they want to share their lives and their experiences, with all the contradictions we pick apart, with everyone else and especially if they can reach those who may feel and empathize similarly?

The only reason we find the sense of normalcy amongst these individuals so weird is for no other reason than our human propensity to dehumanize whoever disgusts us; whoever threatens us.

People can disgust us, threaten us and even hurt us – but even then they remain and must remain human so we, too, do not repeat the same crimes and the same injustices.

9 thoughts on “Thoughts On the ‘Normalcy’ of ISIS Fighters

  1. There’s extreme groups for everything, especially religion. I feel that it’s OK to have these views as long as you’re not imposing them on others or threatening lives. I agree, that it’s hypocritical to be shocked at ISIS’s use of social media, but they want their message spread loud and clear, and it’s a cheap and very effective way of doing that! It just goes to show the absolutely power behind technology and the media, something we must be aware of and critically engage in.

  2. Hi Sana, can you please clarify do you mean isis fighters or jihadi fighters? there are many who joined non isis groups such as the FSA, ahrar al sham, the Islamic Front and even al nusra- all of which have been at war with ISIS since January 2014 when the West was ignoring Syria. Many left in 2012 and 2013 with altruistic intentions, and when the West recognized Assad for the mass murderer he was. There seems to be a conflation in the media between joining ISIS and pledging allegiance to their so called Caliph and any Muslim who goes to fight against a dictator responsible for the deaths of 200,000 (a number ISIS cant even dream of) in the many other syrian rebel groups (almost all of which at war with ISIS as well). The same media that vilifies this supports Westerners going to fight with Kurdish communist forces like the PKK which are designated terrorists and their allies the YPG, or in the IDF which we see commit war crimes year after year. This is dishonest and fear mongering as well as counterproductive. I have seen many so called journalists not even check the basic account information blurb of accounts which clearly indicate non-ISIS affiliation and then report them as being ISIS which is nonsense. We have seen many fear mongering headlines that have done this tactic. The media is allowed to libel people as terrorists because it knows no one is going to take them to court for it.

    ISIS are terrible and need to be finished but people forget their number one victims are Syrian Sunnis. not the Kurds, not the Yezidis, not the Christians. They came like parasites in 2013 and focused on killing Syrian rebels and taking already liberated territory with the excuse of implementing the Sharia while giving lip service to fighting Assad. Their worst massacre not even reported in the media was of a Syrian sunni tribe in Deir ez Zour the Sheitat which committed a failed uprising after the capture of Mosul. ISIS reportedly beheaded 600 men and boys and footage of this massacre was published on Youtube but un-reported on. ISIS consolidated their power massacring Syrian Muslims, splitting the rebellion by forcing it to fight on two fronts, all of which allowed Assad to regroup with Iranian and Russian support, as well as blatantly selling oil to the regime. The media had its head in the sand because of as you said Muslims are dehumanized and its there is a clear “Who cares they are all savages” mentality. After all of that, ISIS then felt comfortable enough to attack minorities which have suddenly seen the heart strings of the West pulled in a terrific example of selective humanity.

    You cant lump all Sunni/ Muslim groups fighting assad as ISIS. Unfortunately many of your colleagues perpetuate this dishonesty. There are many young men fighting in groups opposed to ISIS and Assad but being honest about that wouldn’t be as effective in selling fear.

  3. Where am I lumping them all together? I’m speaking specifically and only about ISIS fighters/supporters online. Please read more carefully next time.

  4. I recognize that. Its just your points would be equally relevant towards non ISIS fighters as well, and many Americans in this time of fear and misreporting would claim they don’t see a difference. That’s the reason I left my comment because I thought it prudent to clarify. Fighters on social media tend to act similar, tweeting pictures of their lives using religious language as well as slang, and acting as you said ‘normal and we are conditioned to not recognize it. If you follow soldiers of various forces who use social media you will see equally banal realities and unsettling attitudes (though to my knowledge US active duty are banned from such for operational security reasons).

  5. Entirely agreed — but the obsession with ISIS and social media, “normalcy” is not the same as non-ISIS fighters and social media and normalcy.

    The takeaway from this piece is about how anyone’s “normalcy” even in the face of the gross abnormalities shouldn’t be viewed and dissected as though people cannot live in a constant state of incommensurability — or contradiction.

    Apparent contradiction, rather.

  6. I entirely agree with your last point. Do you think this media obsession with the “slickness” and “normalcy” of ISIS fighters falls into the cliched Western narrative repeated every 6 months that Islamist are products of modernity and committed consumers of it yet fight against it? (I don’t know any Islamist that actually hated modernity, except maybe the Taliban)

  7. Thank you for replying by the way, not often that happens, I was wrong to rush to judgment. My last question is above should you choose to answer it.

  8. I think a lot of these people are just brainwashed. They join thinking they’ll fight dictatorship but then just spreading death and terror. But by that point they’re already so ‘invested’ (so to speak) in their movement that they’re blind to the atrocities.

  9. Other Syrian rebel groups were engaged in infighting, profiteering, extortion, and lack of any real unity before the emergence of the Islamic State. There is a propagandistic and heavily romanticized self-image of some opposition groups. The fact is, many of the young men who eventually joined the IS were also driven initially by altruistic and emotional impulses. Ideology came later. And many members of other allegedly “better” or “good” rebel groups have also committed atrocities and crimes, including beheadings, torture, and summary executions and massacres. The Syrian government, of course, is ahead of them all. It is easy to caricature a group like the Islamic State while also offering apologia for other groups who may be less distasteful.

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