The attacks on Paris brought Islamic State’s brutality home to the Western world. Before last week, reports of the group’s atrocities were shocking but easier to dismiss, happening far beyond European borders. The world expressed outrage but largely stood by as the group pushed out recruitment propaganda depicting sex slavery and the brutal torture and murder of its captives. These incidents are horrific, but they overshadow a more insidious, long-term threat: Islamic State’s kinder, gentler side.
Thousands of peace-loving people live in Islamic State-occupied areas and are fed a steady stream of positive propaganda: Islamic State members feeding the poor, and hosting ice cream socials, carnivals, and tug-of-war contests. Islamic State is trying — and in some areas, succeeding — in winning hearts and minds. Left unchecked, its public support will grow, making the group more difficult to defeat in the long run and giving it the space it needs to conduct future attacks like those in Paris and Beirut.
Charlie Winter, of the counter-extremism think tank Quilliam, performed a month-long study of Islamic State propaganda. Winter discovered that — contrary to what we see in Western media — over half of Islamic State propaganda shows people going about everyday activities in a peaceful and normal manner.
In many ways, the group serves as a functioning government in the areas it controls, offering services once provided by the Syrian and Iraqi regimes. It collects taxes, picks up trash, runs schools, issues marriage licenses, provides security, and even employs former government bureaucrats to make sure everything runs smoothly. In Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province, Islamic State has issued regulations to protect natural resources and the environment, suggesting that the group is settled in for the long run. Some Syrian citizens under Islamic State control claim that the group’s efforts have helped return some sense of normalcy to their lives, a welcome reprieve from the grueling civil war.
One resident of an Islamic State-controlled city told Time magazine that he originally opposed Islamic State, but changed his mind after it paid for his brother’s wedding, provided him with fuel, and helped fix his neighbour’s house. Islamic State also carefully controls what those under its control can read and hear: outside media and anti-Islamic State messages are forbidden. This is terrifying. Given enough time, this captive audience could eventually determine that Islamic State’s harsh system of rule is worth the veneer of peace and normality, and grow to support the group. This is classic Stockholm Syndrome, but on a much wider and far more devastating scale.
There is precedent for such a transformation. In the 1990s, the Taliban gained considerable public support by establishing law and order in a chaotic Afghanistan. Groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah used charitable acts and social welfare programs to transform themselves from violent fringe groups into political entities with support from wide swaths of the population. Both groups have devoted significant time and resources to social welfare wings, which support schools, libraries, medical clinics, orphanages, food aid, and sports leagues. By 2006, Hamas had enough support to win a decisive victory in Palestine’s parliamentary election. By 2008, Hezbollah had gained control of over a third of Lebanon’s cabinet seats.
It is frightening to imagine that Islamic State could eventually follow this trajectory. Although Islamic State rejects democracy, if it continues to rally public support through works of charity and governance, it could become entrenched in society and be that much harder to defeat. Even the group’s draconian treatment of women may not be enough to stymie public support. For example, women in Afghanistan once enjoyed considerably more freedom than they do today — they wore modern clothes, attended university, and worked in professional settings. The Taliban put a stop to this, but much of the public was willing to see women’s rights decreased in exchange for less violence. History is poised to repeat itself in Syria.
The international coalition against Islamic State invests significant resources to counter the group’s negative propaganda, but not enough attention is paid to debunking the group’s positive messages. Now is the time to address this problem. In just a couple of years, it may be too late.