Apparently the coffee in Abu Bakr Al-Baghadi's terror fiefdom is "beyond wretched".
An Iraq/Syria-based adherent of the self-proclaimed "Islamic State In Iraq and Al-Sham" terrorist group has been caught out online complaining about 'missing Starbucks' coffee. While seemingly trivial, the complaint actually offers a remarkable and rare insight into the entitled, privileged, westernised and deeply selfish mindset of ISIS's followers.
Female ISIS-activist 'Green Bird Of Dabiq', possibly of British origin, wrote online this month "I know it may be shirk but sometimes I do miss Starbucks. The coffee here is beyond wretched." This is followed by a childish not-so-smiley face cartoon.
Given the anonymity preferred by ISIS's followers online, it is of course never possible to be entirely sure that accounts are genuine, rather than being parody or an attention-seeking fakes. A note at the end of this article explains why the tweet/account is nonetheless almost certain to be genuine. It also looks at the odd implication in the tweet that consuming Starbucks Coffee may be religiously impermissible shirk, the perceived extremely severe sin of worshipping deities other than Allah (god), or associating others with God's status.
But beyond the mere silliness of such a tweet, can such ramblings actually contribute to a serious understanding of the terrorist group, and its support base?
Much of the public debate around stopping ISIS recruitment in the west is based on unhelpful generalisations, and broad, emotive collective narratives. On the left, many are keen to portray those who chose to join ISIS as marginalised, racially and religiously excluded young people to whom the ultra-conservative theocratic and anti-modern utopia that ISIS supposedly billets itself has some misguided appeal, as it is seen as the polar opposite to western realities. On the moderate right there is the belief that ISIS recruitment is successful because the moderate majority of 'the Muslim community' is not doing enough to proactively challenge extremism. Then there is the deeply ugly, often unspoken narrative, popular with some sections of the public, and some on the American right, that ISIS behaviour and recruitment appeal can be ascribed to Islamic scripture, or something supposedly 'inherently violent' in Islam.
In this context, highly personal, non-propagandistic online outbursts from such as those by GreenbirdofDabiq offer an important reality check: A rare insight, valuable insight into what really drives ISIS extremists, at individual level.
GreenbirdofDabiq is clearly someone who can't help craving access to western creature comforts and a lifestyle far removed from the everyday hardship experienced by ordinary people in Northern Iraq/Eastern Syria. That is at odds with the image of someone driven by some ascetic, ideological desire for a life devoted only to a cause, and far removed from that experienced in the West.
This is neither all that unique nor exceptional. Reports have revealed the awkward, western diet enjoyed by ISIS combatants, and the plush, Holiday-guide style way the group has used to market itself. GreenBirdofDabiq herself seems to have enjoyed bus tours through ISIS occupied lands, scouting out the most appealing place to settle. In true tourist style, she even sampled the best local cuisine en route. All while ordinary Syrians and Iraqis displaced by her group's terror campaign are suffering of food shortages in desperate, make-shift refugee camps.
Contrary to popular belief, the promise of personal gain and twisted self-gratification for recruits is actually integral to ISIS recruitment strategy. And it is increasingly starting to pose a serious problem for the terrorist group.
ISIS's was among the first Jihadist groups to fully recognise the value of internet based "media Jihad". Even in 2007, long before its current infamy, its self-proclaimed "ministry of information" released a statement saying:
"how great are the fingers which sit behind the computer screens, day and night,... releasing a production for their mujahideen brothers in the forums".
Over time, ISIS developed a unique way of seamlessly merging the role of physical and virtual fighter: Centring its image around extreme violence, and conceptions of adventure linked to it, rather than any ideological message. ISIS terrorists commit brutal crimes on the battle field and then upload photos to their social media. They have a gruesome physical impact on the battlefield while simultaneously propagandising, corrupting the minds of people across the world with the images of that (as well as intimidating local enemies).
ISIS ruthlessly seeks to maximise the physiological, global impact of its terrorism; Carrying out headline-grabbing, symbolism-ladden, sensationally inhuman atrocities, knowing that it can use these to steer and control the Western media coverage it gets. One peer-reviewed academic study, published in the prestigious journal Studies in Conflict & Terrorism (Vol. 38.), comments "Terrorist-controlled social media now drive the "slow media" coverage". The study even notes that battle-themed messages (40.3%) outweigh religious themed messages (38.5%) emanating from sampled ISIS-member twitter accounts.
This gives ISIS media power that terrorist groups 20 years ago could only dream of. The other side of that, intended and unintended is that brutality comes a key, defining part of the group's recruitment programme in the societies it thus propagandises.
Individuals who are fascinated, perversely attracted by the limitless brutality on show will be drawn ever more towards ISIS. Others will be repelled, even if they might otherwise have sympathised with some of the ultra-theocratic, anti-western agenda ISIS claims to adhere to (even some Al-Qaeda terrorists think ISIS is too brutal).
The Studies in Conflict & Terrorism study also explains how such brutality can be a recruiting tool. War and brutality, it says:
"may even make it seem more desirable to be in war-torn Raqqa and Aleppo than comfortably, and boringly, in the family home: "It's actually quite fun. It's really really fun. It's better than that game Call of Duty. It's like that but it's in 3D where everything is happening in front of you," tweeted Abu Sumayyah Al-Britani, a British foreign fighter with ISIL."
If the personal appeal of brutality is key to recruitment, religious ideology or social grievance lose their purported importance as factors driving people to ISIS. In buying some twisted vision of a video-game style violent adventure in real life, recruits are giving into their basest, most perverted personal desires rather than intellect, religious tradition or political thought.
The premise behind that, the argument that ISIS terrorists are in it for their own gain, rather than for the sake of some wider social/political/religious agenda, is supported by recent research.
Another recent academic study, published just months ago in Terrorism and Political Violence (Vol. 27), found that even the most self-destructive form of Jihadism, suicide bombings, are driven more by a desire for personal gain and gratification than by ideological, 'altruistic' motivations:
"We demonstrate that even those who kill themselves in suicide attacks, which are seemingly examples of irrational or altruistic behavior, do so while considering future, self-gratifying benefits. Since this self-destructive behavior is mostly driven not by altruistic motivation but by the anticipation of costs and benefits, we find that there is no fundamental difference between the perpetrators' motivations and those of other criminals; both groups are committed to maximizing self-gratifying, beneficial behavior."
So jihadist suicide bombers are really not that different from other vile low-life violent criminals.
And that's starting to cause problems for ISIS; The egomaniac, in-it-for themselves brutes their violent adventure-based recruitment strategy has landed them with are unlikely to be the slavish, unquestioning devotees to ISIS wants. Fed-up, disenchanted ISIS members deserting the group and trying to return to their sheltered, privileged, comfortable lives in the UK are just one symptom of that.
ISIS is increasingly feeling the pinch, particularly in terms of female recruits. ISIS of course wants them to be complaint domestic servants and sex-slaves to please their male members, once they get there. But ISIS's own marriage and arrival guidelines suggest that recruits are not coming in pursuit of that life, but for adventure.
The officialesque guidelines, written by a British jihadi and posted online (not linking for legal reasons), show an concerted effort to dispel the image of gun-toting adventure: Even if it risks shattering some potential recruits fantasies about the realities on the ground, putting them off from joining. They state:
"Many sisters will feel the excitement when they're new to Sham and this excitement to marry a Mujaahid may blur ones mind and logic...On other occasions, I have noticed how some brothers praise how "we" attacked such and such village, how hard the battle was for "us", etc. yet they were not there... Just because someone is in Sham and has a gun, it does not mean they are a Mujaahid. So don't be hasty in accepting a proposal because he has a gun."
That is a note of warning clearly addressed to potential female recruits who are dreaming about trading in a dreary but comfortable uneventful life in a London semi for the supposed excitement of being the wife of an internationally-feared, gun-brandishing fighter.
Green Bird Of Dabiq is just one step along from that: An ISIS adherent for whom that initial all-encompasing excitement has faded, coming to terms with that a warzone lifestyle is far from the illusions seen on TV... That it isn't the luxurious, flawless adventure she seeks.
The only logic ISIS follows is that of increasing its own power, wealth and influence. Religion (let alone Islam) or political ideology are not what drives ISIS's crimes against humanity. Recognising that and admitting ISIS recruits are driven by low-life desires for individual self-gratification, just like any other bunch of violent gang criminals, inconveniently challenges lazy, assumed truths. But it is the first step towards rational, evidence based counter-terror policies.
ISIS propaganda thrives in a permissive European societal setting where violent criminality is fetishized and casualised: Grabbing media headlines, used to sell and spice up TV shows, film and video games. Where heart-bleeding moral empathy with violent criminals is promoted in the academic social sciences and the judicial system. It attracts those indoctrinated and seduced by that violent Western obsession.
Yet, rather than addressing this close-to-home issue, countries across Europe are abolishing basic civil liberties and due process in an ill-defined fight against 'extremist political ideas'. Under these emotive, fear-driven policies everyone is a suspect, a potential target for state snooping, often on a racialised basis. Those measures only add to and fuel the already immense and horrific structural racism against the vast majority of law-abiding, peaceful individuals of Arab, African, South Asian backgrounds and Muslim faith across Europe.
Meanwhile, across Europe vast resources are poured into attempting to 'deradicalise' and 'rehabilitate' a tiny number of people: returning ISIS fighters, who may even avoid prison under some shocking schemes.
Spending this money on undeserving, privileged, self-obsessed ISIS gang criminals, rather than genuinely needy, law-abiding marginalised communities sends out a devastating signal: That criminality is rewarded, while abiding by the law only draws shrugged shoulders and endless unjustified snooping from the state. Much tougher criminal laws to bring in mandatory life imprisonment for any terrorist returnee who found guilty of having fought with ISIS in Iraq and Syria might redress that imbalance. Given that ISIS recruits function according to the logic of personal gain, the prospect of spending decades behind bars may even act as a significant deterrent to recruitment.
Note on sources:
The @GreenBirdDabiq account features all the hallmarks of an authentic ISIS-aligned account run from Iraq/Syria: It is fairly recent (genuine ISIS activists frequently have their accounts deleted, parodies like @jihadistjoe remain online for years). It uses a unique profile picture that has not been found to have been used anywhere else. It is interacts with numerous other likely authentic ISIS accounts. The account has engaged in highly specific conversations about localities in ISIS occupied territory, including Green Bird's own apartment in Raqqa; local knowledge that would be hard if not impossible for outsiders to obtain and of no interest to satirists. The account uses phrasing popular among ISIS online, including the phrase "dawla islamiyah" to indicate living in ISIS-occupied territory. The term, Dabiq (meaning paradise) is used widely outside of ISIS circles, but crucially, is also the name of ISIS's offical western-audience targeted propaganda magazine.
The claim that the extremist 'knows' it may be impermissible to enjoy Starbucks coffee is likely a reference to the utterly false belief that every purchase at the well-known international coffee chain funds the State of Israel or the Israel Defence Forces, a conspiracy theory that enjoys widespread credibility in radical Islamist circles. While it is unclear how even that would equate to Shirk (the perceived extremely severe sin of worshipping deities other than Allah, or associating others with his status) ISIS extremists are well known for their spotty and deficient grasp of Islamic religious traditions and obligations. The term Shirk is frequently applied by them out of context.
Not the first time: An alleged 2013 image, widely shared on Arabic social media, shows clueless ISIS fighters praying in various directions. According to traditional Islamic practice, all those praying must face the Kaaba in Mecca. ISIS have denied the authenticity of the image. (Source: Reddit)