We are all to blame for the foreign fighters phenomenon

On Wednesday morning, I woke up to an email from an ABC producer asking me to write an article about Reece Harding, a 23-year-old Australian killed in Syria on Tuesday. Reece, who I’d never met before, died after stepping on a landmine while fighting with the Kurds. The basic news was this – last week Reece Harding was alive. Now he is dead. And now, a newscaster was asking me to write about it and get a piece out there while his death was still topical.

It wasn’t a random coincidence that I was being asked to chime in on Reece’s death. In February, an obituary I’d written for a friend of mine killed in similar circumstances in Syria had been met with an overwhelming audience response and now the newscaster was coming back for more. This time I was being asked to focus on the role which social media plays in recruiting young Australians to fight in Syria, focusing in particular on the Lions of Rojava Facebook page which is targeting young Australian males to go and fight with the Kurds. I had been given a headline and a deadline and was being asked to contribute to the media cycle as it grinds the blood and bones of a horrible reality into info-bites for people to digest.

Even though writing this piece about “the latest Australian to die in Syria” seemed to take the “human” out of human interest story, I agreed to it. But as I sat in the warmth of the early morning sunlight thinking about why a living breathing young Australian had gone to Syria to fight with a Kurdish militia in the fight against ISIS, I realized that in contributing to the global media obsession with Syria, ISIS and “the foreign fighter phenomenon” it was quite possible that I was part of the problem. Why did Reece go, I asked myself? There were plenty of brutal conflicts in the world where innocent people were suffering. Why were foreign fighters flocking to Syria and not the Central African Republic (CAR), for example?

In January, on a bus transiting from Northern Mali into Mauritania I sat next to a refugee from CAR who had seen members of his own family raped and cannibalized by militants. His sister-in-law literally had her heart ripped out and eaten by them. So why had atrocities faced by civilians in CAR failed to generate an influx of foreign fighters? Where were the internet jihadists defending CARs oppressed Muslims? Where were the Westerners to fight the jihadists? The reason why there aren’t any foreign fighters in CAR is because CAR doesn’t receive the media coverage that Syria does and so the conflict remains a local one. A forgotten conflict.

As such, the reason that foreign fighters are flocking to Syria in unprecedented numbers is because the media, mirroring a trend in the public’s thinking, has developed an obsession with Syria – in particular ISIS’ activities in Syria. Manipulating the media and hijacking the global information-space to generate attention is a core part of the strategy of groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Indeed, if we look at jihadist primary sources like “The Management of Savagery”, a strategy document published online in 2004, a major theme of jihadist violence is to leverage the brutality of the action (be it a terrorist attack or a live beheading on video) for propaganda value in order to lure enemies like the United States into long, drawn-out wars which will ultimately generate backlash from the global Muslim population. You can’t claim that “Crusaders” are attacking Muslims in Iraq and Syria unless they actually are, follows the logic. As far as ISIS is concerned, the reason they create slick, English-language execution videos featuring the live immolation of prisoners of war is because they want to create clickbait for their activities which feeds their recruitment.

ISIS is manipulating us and the global information-space for actual realtime gain on the battlefield, and as such the global media is no longer “just” an observer of human conflict – it is an active participant in human conflict. Like the bratty toddler showing his mother the china teapot he just broke, the Islamic State desperately wants the media to pay attention every time it locks people in cages and drowns them in a swimming pool.

Similarly, Kurdish militia groups, in their search for volunteers are now taking to the internet. The “Lions of Rojava” Facebook page is one of these online recruiting groups, actively manipulating young Australian men into leaving their homes to travel to a place they really know nothing about other than what they’ve seen on the news.

It would be easy for me to spend 2000 words hating on The Lions of Rojava Facebook page for encouraging a friend of mine to fight and die, for possibly no reason, in a foreign country. But blaming the Lions of Rojava Facebook page for the foreign fighter phenomenon is kind of like saying that people only join the Australian military because of what they read on the Defence Force Recruiting website.

The truth is social media like the broader process of globalization of which it is a part, is neither a good nor a bad thing. It simply is. That is to say, the existence of social media is now a fact. As such it is also a fact that in the Information Age we are going to hear about atrocities in places like Syria and CAR almost in realtime. Some atrocities will generate attention. Some atrocities won’t. And it’s also a fact that young men will respond to those atrocities that do manage to generate attention. These responses will be quick and sudden, seemingly random – the quickening of young men to arms.

Without the constant media attention surrounding ISIS’ atrocities in Syria, Reece Harding and Ash Johnston would never have even known about the Lions of Rojava Facebook page. So how can we possibly lay all the blame on one recruiting tool when in some ways all newscasters are equally responsible for constantly reminding young Australians what ISIS is doing. Similarly, it’s unfair and too easy to attack “the media” for doing its job. The job of those in the media is to report the news. We need the media to cover wartime atrocities like those being committed by ISIS. And it’s also difficult to suggest that these atrocities should be ignored or downplayed.

But instead of being simply a passive broadcasting platform maybe our public conversation needs to put context to ISIS’ atrocities – explaining why ISIS filmed James Foley’s execution rather than just focusing on the headlines. Why did ISIS film it? Because they want to manipulate us into watching it.

Last month in the New York Times, Rukmini Callimachi, one of the best reporters covering the global spread of militant jihadism, published a piece about how a female American Sunday school teacher became a convert to the ISIS cult over Twitter. Before James Foley’s videotaped execution this woman had never heard of ISIS, much as many have never even heard of the war in the Central African Republic. But after the initial shock of the media reports, she developed a strange curiosity with ISIS. Who were this group? Why were they doing this? This led her to Twitter and to long conversations with internet jihadists who, after months of continued online manipulation managed to convince her to become an “ISIS bride” in Syria.

It is of course easy to blame the online jihadists for manipulating this woman. These are not only intellectually-lacking but also dangerous people. But what drove the Sunday school teacher to Tweet the #ISfanboys in the first place? The explosion of everything ISIS into the global public conversation, that’s what.

No one is suggesting we return to a state of ignorance as a now globally-informed public. More than one hundred years after the Armenian Genocide occurred, the mass slaughter of the Armenian community in Anatolia is barely recognised. Atrocities need to be known about and talked about – if only to prevent a repeat of history.

But instead of giving ISIS a platform every time they do something evil, and instead of letting events without context flood the minds of our youth perhaps our public conversation should focus not so much on the latest thing that ISIS has done (that is, headline journalism) but instead be an exchange of ideas about what we are going to do about ISIS. Indeed, what are we going to do about ISIS? Because evidently, young people like Ash Johnston and Reece Harding weren’t happy with what was being done and instead made a mistake that cost them their lives.

We need to reclaim control of the conversation about Syria, if only to prevent our young people from travelling there to join the fight – on either side. For my part in preventing young people from travelling to a foreign warzone to die for no reason, I’ll share the story of the small box of possessions which the mother of my great-grand-uncle received after he died in World War One. In the box was a small bible, a few hand-written letters and a type set letter from the Canadian army saying that he was killed by a grenade. That is all that remains in this world of my father’s grandfather’s brother. If you ask most people today what World War One was all about (apart from vague aspersions about empire and arms races) they probably can’t tell you much except for that a lot of people died.

At an impressionable age, my Dad considered travelling to Nicaragua and joining the Sandanistas as a foreign fighter. Driven by the “idiocy of youth” as he described it to me. He’s sure that if he went he wouldn’t have survived. But in and amongst this planned adventure in militarism, it was the image of that box of my great-grand-uncle’s possessions that stopped him from becoming one of Lenin’s “useful idiots”. Instead, he decided to unplug from that horrible theoretical world of Nicaragua of which he really knew nothing and travelled to Greece where he met my mother.

The political argument against individuals going to Syria to fight ISIS on their own terms, regardless of the Australian government’s current policy to arm and train the Kurds, is obvious. An individual taking up arms in a foreign war zone undermines the state’s ability to maintain a monopoly over the legitimate use of force – a principle upon which our society is built and a part of the social contract which is signed by every Australian everytime we go to the polls to decide on a new government. We give the government of the day the right to declare war on our behalf. And that is how it should be. It’s also worth mentioning that the latest Facebook campaign on the Lions of Rojava page is strongly anti-Turkey, a country which Australia has good diplomatic relations with.

So what could I add about Reece that I didn’t already cover with Ash or that hasn’t already been covered by countless other news corporations hungrily throwing baited headlines into the online pond as they fish for clicks? We have a rough idea from the comments made by Reece and his family what seemed to drive him – an abhorrence for ISIS’ garish sadism and a desire to do something about it. But the way he responded to ISIS’ horror was probably an emotional and perhaps not a logical response.

Many young men of my generation have a lot of soul-searching, and perhaps rethinking to do and, if you ask me, media broadcasters need to consider whether the future of “news” should be about headline creation and raptorial marketing in tragedy or whether it should be about providing meaningful context to global events – not just observation but explanation.

From what I can see, the current understanding of the Syrian conflict has been hijacked by ISIS’s corpse-spattered message – and we have given fools like Jihadi John exactly what they have been crying out for – attention.

I don’t know how to stop foreign fighters going to Syria apart from simply highlighting to would-be foreign fighters that by going there you are becoming one of those “useful idiots” – for either side. I don’t have all the answers. All I can think about is how sad it is that I only know Reece Harding’s name because of the way in which he died.

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5 thoughts on “We are all to blame for the foreign fighters phenomenon

  1. Brilliant article chris – gives us lots to think about

    Sent from Samsung Mobile

    Dispatches from the Periphery wrote:

  2. aaahh!!! the so called “Armenian Genocide”

    For many years, Turkish academics, historians and lawyers have been saying this: We want ALL archives of The United States of America, Russia, France, England and Armenia to be opened and available for the investigation and collection of documents related to this ‘case’ and put on the table in front of a panel of International Judges. The present Turkish archives included. After all, the OCCUPATION of the capital of Ottoman Empire, the detainment and imprisonment of more than a hundred Turkish officials (from the government & army) who were suspected of committing genocide, and the subsequent investigation of ALL Ottoman archives in the hope of finding an incriminating evidence pointing to any of these officials, were carried out for FIVE YEARS by the British & French powers after the end of WW1. They received a great deal of help from non-Turkish government officials in Istanbul during their investigations. They did not find a SINGLE document to prove that there was “an INTENT” to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such. Consequently ALL detained officials were released. ALL of them.

    So, if Armenians don’t have credible and irrefutable evidence, and offer manufactured lies and forgeries only, then they don’t have a leg to stand on in front of a judge.

    This is the reason why Armenians don’t want to come to the table.

    And, why didn’t you mention the mass slaughter of the Turkish community in Anatolia and in Azerbaijan (recently in the 1990s) by Armenians? Why are you biased? Do you have a grudge against Turks?….is it historical?

    Or better still, why don’t you write about Aboriginal Genocide or Native American Genocide in North America? You are THE Master of Anthropology.. are you not?

    • I’ve mentioned the Aboriginal Genocide in Australia in other academic writing elsewhere. Do your reading. There are plenty of historical atrocities I could have mentioned but why are we splitting hairs over which were and weren’t mentioned when the focus of this article is Syria and not whether or not such and such atrocity happened. You seem to be missing the point of this piece.

  3. Reblogged this on My Blog and commented:
    Narcissism and a sense of entitlement seems to be a commonality.
    The writer opines it is fed by media.
    I would add also popular films such as Rambo (2008), and media campaigns by the protagonists themselves, but does this explain everything?
    IMO, no, there needs to be an enabler, like the ability to have dual nationality as I discussed in this blog on 31/7/14, money and other material support.
    IE Those who are Aiding and Abetting these people to pursue their nefarious activities.

    • Is Rambo (2008) not a part of “the media”. Of course, my point is that we are all to blame – the media is only one of the culprits. The general public is included in the rogue’s gallery here.

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