MARCH 23, 2015 DR HELENE LAVOIX (Red Team Analysis)

After having pointed out the main risks entailed by the existence of foreign fighters within the ranks of the Islamic State and by their rising numbers, we shall now turn to the reasons that push individuals to join the Islamic State. Within the framework of existing findings resulting from current research, notably by the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation  and Political Violence (ICSR) and by the Sufan Group, we shall analyse the Islamic State psyops products and underline the specific points utilised in the recruitment effort. Indeed, the increase in foreign fighters mobilization as underlined previously would tend to imply that the Islamic State is relatively successful in recruiting, thus that it knows well enough what to trigger in foreigners to prompt them to join.

Its psyops products should, as a result, be a good proxy for understanding what motivates people in joining the Islamic State. This approach should allow us pointing out if the Islamic State psyops themes correspond, infirm, confirm or complement what had been so far understood of foreign fighters joining Jihadis groups through other means, notably interviews and observation of social media interactions, sometimes prior to the establishment of the Khilafah. We should also be able to identify if new themes appear, while continuing to understand better the Islamic State’s worldview.

Notably, by focusing on the various psyops products we should be able to move beyond a focus on fighters originating mainly from “Western countries” and instead take as basis a geographical segmentation, if any, as envisioned by the Islamic State. This should help us further understanding the world as viewed by the Islamic State.

Focusing on psyops should also be particularly useful from a counter-psyops perspective, if one wants to fully try to counter the existing mobilization effort by the Islamic State.

Here we shall first present the set of Islamic State psyops “recruitment” products used, before to turn to the framework for understanding established by existing research. We shall then focus upon two necessary elements that were identified as present in most or all fighters that were recruited, a quest for purpose and meaning, as well as a search for belonging. Those elements are at the core of a first complex around which messages and features favouring mobilization are organised and that we shall detail with the next post, which will also focus on the second complex, organised around the theme of authority, rules and exercise of liberty.

Psyops recruitment products

We shall here more specifically consider those Islamic States psyops products that are targeted at foreign fighters, as well as the video The Flames of War, as it is aimed at mobilising fighters in general.

Elements from other more general products, such as the magazine Dabiq, we have abundantly used in previous post, may also concern mobilization of foreign fighters, and shall be integrated if necessary. Similarly calls to battle and statements by the IS Spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani as-Shami (e.g. “So They Kill and Are Killed” 12 March 2015;  “Say, Die in your Rage” 26 January 2015; Pietervanostayen), as well as, potentially, the impacts of the more gruesome videos focalised on executions of enemies, usually produced by Al-Furqan media foundation (see A Framework) save for the execution of the Egyptian Christian Copts, should also not be neglected. Yet, as we saw for example with “The Making of the Crusaders” (22 Dec 2014), the primary aim of these products is not recruitment of foreign fighters.

The products that are most obviously targeting foreign fighters are usually produced by al-Hayat Media Center (see A framework). Since the proclamation of the Khilafah (Pietervanostaeyen29 June 2014), we could identify a series of nine videos built around a common pattern, published and spread between 12 July 2014 and 7 March 2015, to which we added the 19 September 2014 Flames of War.

Each video is focused on one foreign country (with two exceptions), and uses, as focal point one person or one person among a group coming from this country. The focal person speaks in his native language interspersed with words in Arabic when referring to sacred texts. Each video is subtitled in English and Arabic, with sometimes also translation or narration in English. if ever some featured person speaks Arabic, then the video is subtitled in native language and English.

The content of each video or the theme(s) that is addressed, however, varies, besides messages related to recruitment and mobilization. It may be related to events on the ground, to the perception the Islamic State has of them, and to the answer it seeks to provide, according to its strategy. This is very obvious, for example in a video we used to understand the Islamic State worldview, 6 January 2015 – A Message from Brother ‘Abd Allah Moldovi – Moldova (e.g. “The Islamic State Psyops – Worlds War“).

Sometimes the video is a testimony by some who have just been killed.

It is here crucial to emphasise the importance of aesthetics in most of the Islamic State Psyops products. We are beyond an essential technical professionalism for the videos that has been generally emphasised. There is also a research in terms of images, sound, 3D effects, and sometimes “theatrality” (including in horror, as noted by Matthew Barber, Syria Comments, 6 Feb 2015), which is willed to directly serve the specific theme(s) of each video, as well as the overall message of the Islamic State. More specific research on this topic would most probably be immensely useful in terms of counter-psyops operations.

A full list of the psyops products used will be given at the end of the next post.

Those products, the themes around which they are developed and the specific messages,  will be used to identify what, according to the Islamic State, draws foreign fighters – and which ones – to it, in the framework of existing research to which we shall now turn.


Moving beyond the unhelpful and reductionist approach according to which foreign fighters joining the Islamic State “are all unbalanced people”, current research has sought to categorise the types of people who may be drawn to the Islamic State and to Jihadis groups in general.

We find first the thorough analysis made by the ICSR, through interviews of mainly British foreign fighters and by following online exchanges. Maher (“From Portsmouth to Kobane: the British jihadis fighting for Isis“, New Statesman, 6 Nov 2014), thus, singles out three broad categories: the “missionary Jihadists”, who were and are motivated by the sufferings of those they see as they brethren, in Syria notably; the “martyrdom seekers”, who seek “a shortcut to paradise”; and finally the “long-standing radicals”, who seek to finally be able to fight.

Patrick Skinner, of the Sufan group, in an interview to The New Republic (Graeme Wood, “The Three Types of People Who Fight for ISIS“, 10 Sept 2014), points out, in an attempt to create a typology of all Islamic State fighters and not only foreign ones, that three types of fighters must be distinguished: “the Psychopaths”, where one notably finds foreigners who behave hyper-violently compared with local fighters; “the True Believers”, where one finds also many foreigners having moved with their family; and “the Sunni Pragmatists”, where one finds local tribes and population, thus a category that does not concern us here.

These taxonomies are an effort at synthesising those specific features that may be elements in convincing people to fight for the Islamic State, or more broadly Jihadis groups. However, because we are looking for themes that are used by the Islamic State psyops and could be countered through counter-psyops operations or other types of responses, let us now focus upon these more detailed elements.

If we look at all the themes and features that were identified  as operative, but not always present save for one, in favouring mobilization, we can see two nexuses or complexes, to use a Jungian psychoanalytical term, at work.*

The quest for purpose, meaning and belonging

The first complex gravitates around one element that has been widely identified as a necessary, initial condition, common to all those who join Jihadis in general, the Islamic State in particular: a feeling of disaffection, aimlessness and the lack of a sense of identity or belonging, as identified by the French government (Barrett, Foreign Fighters in Syria, June 2014 :18). The ICSR stresses the same condition, and points out that potential fighters must have a feeling of “profound detachment not just from the country in which they were born and educated but from their own families and communities, too” (Maher, ibid.).

The quest for purpose and meaning

This means that these people all have in common, first, to “seek a greater sense of purpose and meaning in their lives” (Barrett, Ibid).

This is indeed what is most obvious in the latest Islamic State psyops video of the “foreign recruitment” series, Stories of Life Abu Suhayb Al Faranci (7 March 2015)There, a middle-aged French man explains how, despite a life that would have appeared as satisfying to most (a career involving much traveling as well as a good pay and material life), he always felt the lack of something.

Dissatisfaction with a good material life is also emphasised in 12 July 2014 – Al-Ghuraba – The Chosen Few of Different Lands Abu Muslim from Canada.

As, time-wise, those two videos are the first and the last of our sample, then it implies that this feature is most likely to be a permanent theme. The continuous presence of this theme should however to be monitored.

From a different angle, the purpose and meaning foreign fighters may find and that is, according to the Islamic State psyops, given by fighting for the Khilafah, the quest for meaning and purpose is also a theme of the 19 September 2014 – Flames of War, aimed at all fighters. For example, the video frames fighting within a larger historical “mission”, where “they [the fighters coming from all over the world] began to record with their blood a new era of victory for the Ummah within the pages of history”. As another example, the video underlines that the fighters have found a purpose and a sense that is greater than themselves: “They act without the need to see the result of their actions, seeking Allah’s pleasure as they advance forward to kill and be killed”.

We should, however, also note that the 19 November 2014 – What are you waiting for (France) video, notably in its visual message, as far as the second speaker is concerned (see picture, blurring added), seems to carry within a type of “bling-bling” approach to recruitment, with a display of external signs of power and show off that would hardly be compatible with a spiritual quest for meaning, such as exemplified in most other videos. This video may have been meant to trigger other types of “attractive” elements. It reminds us of the diversity and complexity of human beings, that a “petty chief” behaviour can always creep in. It may also have been a psyops mistake, as the potential inconsistency between the two messages has not been lost, for example, on the U.S. counter-psyops programme, and they are using it (e.g. Paul Donoughue, “Twitter wars: How the US is fighting Islamic State propaganda through internet memes”, ABC News, 12 March 2015). Further detailed research should however be endeavoured to check that what may seem to us as incompatibility between show-off and quest for purpose is true everywhere and not declined according to specific factors and processes. .

Coming back to the apparent persistence of the theme of a quest for purpose and meaning, the psyops product confirm Barrett and Maher understanding, but question a later ICSR interpretation, according to which “they didn’t feel they had a stake in their societies. They sometimes felt that, because of who they are, how they look and where they come from, they weren’t part of us, that they’d never succeed” (Neumann, “Professor Neumann’s Remarks at White House Summit“, 20 Feb 2015). There, the second part of the paragraph may imply a rejection by the original home society. Yet, the problem, according to the psyops, would, first and foremost, be elsewhere: even success or at least a good material life – if this can be taken as a measurement of success – does not fulfil the type of needs that would be deeply felt by most of those who decided to join the Islamic State. We are most probably faced with two very different interpretations of what success truly means, which may allow us – with certainly some stretch of imagination – to include the “anomaly” identified above in What are you waiting for.

We have seen and experienced that the Islamic State is built upon pure tawhid…” 22 July 2014 – Join the ranks (Indonesia)

This search for meaning, however, would more particularly concern Western societies, as the videos involving Kazakhs and Indonesians, or a single Moldovan or Russian speaker, do not contain this element of emphasising the fundamental insufficiency of even a good material life. Yet, this does not mean that the importance of a sense of purpose, as we shall see with the next post is not stressed. What the psyops products tell us is that overcoming the importance of materialism and reminding or explaining to people who meaning and purpose are not found in material wealth is more particularly important for Western societies, and less so for others.

We are reminded here of the famous study by Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality (1954), on human beings’ hierarchy of psychological needs (physiological, safety, belonging, esteem, self-actualisation), where the latest and highest, self-actualisation then self-transcendence (1971) prime all others, including those related to material well-being (see also Koltko-Rivera, 2004 for the relationship between Maslow hierarchy of needs and the purpose of life). Most interestingly, what Maslow also points out is that human beings, when they need to reach a new level, tend to forget or take for granted previous levels (Maslow, 1954: 35-58, esp. p.52), which may make them fall down the hierarchy. This usual pattern is, however, not true starting for “higher values” thus corresponding with self-actualisation – and self transcendence – which allow people who are actualising facing very often extremely harsh conditions, if not death (Ibid: 53).

This is, of course, not to say that the way towards self-transcendence should be through the Islamic State (see also Koltko-Rivera, 2006 :311, about “the negative pole of self-transcendence”), far from it, nor that all who join the Islamic State are self-transcendent. Yet, we should consider that if such needs can also be fulfilled – or appear to be – or to the least evoked as an aim by the Islamic State, then we need, to counter the Islamic State’s influence, to offer something at least equivalent.

If we counter something that is of the “self-transcendence” domain, including quest for meaning and purpose, with material appeals, or attempts at frightening people because they may die (we shall come back on the Islamic State and its treatment of death with the next post), then we are most likely to fail. Meanwhile, not addressing at all this theme in counter-psyops operations would most likely be a mistake, because it would not address a core element of the Islamic State likely attraction and recruitment theme.

Belonging and the creation of an “imagined community”

The second feature that would be correlated to the quest for purpose and always present in Jihadis recruits, according to both the ICSR and Barrett )see above) is seeking a sense of belonging.**

In this light, if we look at the specific target audiences (Canada, France, Germany, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Russia, U.K.) of the nine videos published by al-Hayat media center since the creation of the Khilafah, it is most noteworthy that none of them aims at an Arab audience, even if around half of them focuses on people embedded into largely Muslim societies, as we shall see more in detail with the next post. Yet, as the ICSR figures show, more than half (11 000) of the identified foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq come from the Middle East and North Africa region (see “The Foreign Fighters’ Threat“).

First, this means that the Islamic State most probably (see bottom of the post for a reference on probabilities and likelihood) uses different tools to recruit Arab fighters.

Second, to fully understand the spread and country-target of the recruiting psyops videos, we suggest here that we must consider the search for belonging from the point of view of potential recruits and the specific answer given to this quest by the Islamic State.

We assume, as is most likely, that the choice of countries is not haphazard, nor only practical, i.e. we have these specific fighters at hand, but, on the contrary, seeks also to express something. We can then make as likely hypothesis that the Islamic State wishes to showcase it represents the entirety of the Ummah (the Muslim believers), whatever the geographical location and origin of each of them, and not only those from Arab countries. Meanwhile, with the geographical scope that is covered through the videos, the Islamic State also emphasises the spread of Islam throughout the globe, which reinforces and makes tangible its vision of a Khilafah covering the earth. Although it concerns only one person and this video is not exactly about recruiting, the fact that the 29 June 2014 The end of the Sykes-Picot line video features a Chilean fighter – when Latin American fighters must be few and far between – would indicate this will.

We here have a fascinating application, adapted to the present and future of Ben Anderson (Imagined Communities, 1991) understanding of the use of print capitalism to create the nation, seen as an “imagined community”.Moving with time and technology, it is not anymore print capitalism that allows for the type of consciousness necessary to see the emergence of an imagined community (Ibid.), but videos, spread through the world-wide web and social networks.

When the other necessary condition Anderson saw for the spread of nations was the happenstance of a homogenous empty time, by opposition to the meaningful time linked to sacredness and religion, here, in a reversal of history, we see the reemergence of a larger – indeed global – sacred (that one likes it or not) imagined community that breaks nations. We identified previously that our very notion of space was changed by the Islamic State worldview (“World Wars“). If we follow Anderson, our understanding of time is also most likely to become altered.

“I will write in Arabic and they will also write, keeping in mind that they do not know how to write in Arabic” from Race towards Good.

The cosmopolitan, by opposition to communitarian, character of the Khilafah, imagined through its psyops videos, is best exemplified in the 21 November 2014 – Race Towards Good (Kazakhstan) video, when children of different ethnic background are shown at school together, then training as fighters despite being very young, again together. Using the very specific theme of the education of children also carries within the idea of the future, something that is here to last.***

7 March 2015 – Stories of Life Abu Suhayb Al Faranci (France) (blurring of the face added)

Meanwhile and to also emphasise the sense of belongings the videos are replete with images of groups and camaraderie.

Thus, the two necessary conditions that were identified by both the ICSR and Barrett for the Sufan group as necessary for recruitment into jihadis groups are also present in the Islamic State Psyops studied. All elements in the Islamic State psyops that will give potential recruits this sense of purpose and counter their feeling of detachment and lack of belonging will help towards creating the motivation for joining the Khilafah. Meanwhile, the Islamic State is also able to create a sense of purpose and meaning as well as a feeling of belonging according to its own ideology and beliefs, as well as needs. From a counter-psyops perspective, a similar strategy can be adopted: providing potential recruits with answers to their quest, not only in term of communication but also in real life, but according to our own beliefs.

This leads us to the first type of features that gravitate around the quest for purpose and meaning: all elements that relate to religion, beliefs and spiritual life, and that we shall explore with the next post, before to turn to the second complex, around the theme of authority, rules and exercise of liberty.


* “A complex is a collection of images and ideas, clustered round a core derived from one or more archetypes, and characterized by a common emotional tone. When they come into play (become ’constellated’), complexes contribute to behavior and are marked by affect whether a person is conscious of them or not.” Andrew Samuels, Bani Shorter and Fred Plaut. A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis, Routledge: New York, 1986, pp. 33-35. See more details, for example, on the wesbite of the C.G. Jung Institute of Chicago.

** Note that, in the light of Maslow’s theory finding belonging and self-transcendence together would first, potentially plead for seeing belonging happening after esteem, as sometimes happens as suggested by Maslow himself (1954: 51). Second it also shows, that the type of belonging needed may evolve with self-actualisation and self-transcendence, as also pointed out by Maslow (Ibid: 37).

***Incidentally, this shows that masterful research and work in social sciences, such as done by Anderson and a few others, can be directly useful – and for long –  to state apparatuses and to rulers and policy-makers… should we want to apply it.


Barrett, Richard, Foreign Fighters in Syria, June 2014.

Barber, Matthew, “After Burning of Muaz al-Kasasbeh, Jordan & al-Azhar’s Gestures of Vengeance Will Not Heal”, Syria Comments, 6 Feb 2015.

Brezianu, Andrei, and Vlad Spânu, Historical Dictionary of Moldova, 2007: 6-7.

Ende,  Werner, and Udo Steinbach, ed., Islam in the World Today, 2005.

Koltko-Rivera, Mark E., “The psychology of worldviews”, Review of General Psychology, 2004, Vol. 8, 3–58.

Koltko-Rivera, Mark E., “Rediscovering the Later Version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Self-Transcendence and Opportunities for Theory, Research, and Unification”, Review of General Psychology, 2006, Vol. 10, No. 4, 302–317.

Maher, Shiraz, “From Portsmouth to Kobane: the British jihadis fighting for Isis”, New Statesman, 6 Nov 2014.

Maslow, Abraham, Motivation and personality, (New York, NY: Harper, 1954.

Maslow, Abraham, The farther reaches of human nature (New York: The Viking Press, 1971).

Neumann, Peter, “Professor Neumann’s Remarks at White House Summit”, ICSR Insight, 20/02/2015.