Islamic State media agency Amaq News released a statement calling Ohio terrorist Abdul Razak Ali Artan a “soldier of God” acting “in response to appeals to target nationals of the international Coalition,” reported The New Yorker.
Law enforcement are combing through the cellphone and laptop of Artan in an attempt to find out what motivated him to carry out Monday’s car-ramming and stabbing attack at Ohio State University. They say they found no clear links between him and specific terrorist groups.
What they have found is lengthy diatribes on social media about the oppression of Muslims. On Facebook, Artan posted he had become “sick and tired” of the treatment of Muslims and reached a “boiling point.”
This is the purpose of ISIS propaganda: to provide a brand and a methodology to which to attach preexisting grievances, both perceived and real, about how badly Muslims are treated.
By nurturing these grievances and then providing a simple and cheap “action item” as a proposed solution, ISIS is able to motivate terrorist attacks remotely without any contact with the terrorists at all, beyond exposure to their narrative.
Like any form of advertising, it’s a numbers game. ISIS doesn’t need to radicalize everyone who sees their propaganda. They just need to show it to enough people that some of them believe it.
If enough young men come to believe the West is engaged in a war against Islam, of those a certain percentage will see a renewed caliphate (essentially a fascistic-revivalist concept) as a potential solution. Here the rhetoric of non-violent or semi-violent Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood or Hizb ut-Tahrir comes into play.
These groups want the same thing as ISIS but are willing to work within existing systems non-violently to get there.
In their propaganda, they contrast the idealized and romanticized vision of a caliphate as a pure Islamic state where Muslims are treated justly and are free to practice their religion against the secular, decadent and hypocritical West which oppresses Muslims (on the one hand) while pretending to give them rights (on the other).
Out of those, if enough see Islamic State propaganda telling them the only way to avenge one’s grievances against the West and to end the “suffering” is to take up weapons and begin attacking people, eventually someone is going to do it.
There is another factor: glory.
Islamism has the same utopian vision as fascism and communism, namely, there exists a perfect form of society and if we could just get there, everything, all of humanity’s basest impulses and urges, all the injustice, would simply melt away. It adds on an enemy — the bad people who are standing in the way of this glorious new world order — and declares that if they could only see the truth, there would be nothing stopping this utopian vision from becoming a reality.
Since these people will not see the truth, the only way to deal with them is with violence. Since the worldview that the person being radicalized wants to fight for is perfect, the ends therefore justify the means. This combination of the dehumanization of Westerners and the justification of collateral damage enables the psychological jump to violence against innocent civilians.
It legitimizes any and all actions in the service of the cause.
The idea of a legitimate cause as carte-blanche to perpetrate extreme violence has been a potent elixir for damaged young men for all time. We see constantly in our own popular culture; it’s the subject of every action movie and show from Die Hard to Independence Day to Game of Thrones.
It’s the same reason priests were murdered and churches burned by communists in the Spanish Civil War. It’s why Maximilien Robespierre, a leader of the French Revolution, sent thousands to the guillotine in just a few short months, including erstwhile political allies.
His words at the time could easily have been repeated by Castro or Franco or Pinochet or ISIS Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi:
“If the basis of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the basis of popular government during a revolution is both virtue and terror; virtue, without which terror is baneful; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing more than speedy, severe and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue; it is less a principle in itself, than a consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing needs of the patrie.”
In other words, the only things standing in our way are these people. To get what we want we need to kill them, collateral damage be damned.
As long as there are angry young men, that message will always be appealing to some and will be repackaged by extremist groups in every generation.
ISIS is packaging that message in the 21st century, empowered by a 24/7 news cycle and the world’s ultra-connectivity offered by social media.
Like any advertising campaign, it’s just a question of numbers.