The Islamic State has become a de facto nation without borders, able to direct people in foreign countries to do its bidding even as the United States is leading a global coalition to combat its army in Iraq and Syria.
Recent beheadings in Algeria and Oklahoma suggest that followers are answering the terrorist network’s call to attack Westerners whenever and wherever they can, analysts say, attributing their response in large part to the battlefield success and social media outreach of the terrorists.
“Both their ability to leverage the chaos in Syria, as well as their on-the-ground success in Iraq, have in many ways created the perception that they’re successful, that they have battlefield success and they’re winners,” says Todd Helmus, a behavioral scientist at the RAND Corp. who specializes in radicalization and recruitment issues.
U.S. authorities are investigating a fired food worker in Moore, Oklahoma, who is suspected of beheading one woman and attacking another last week following an audio recording by the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL, urging attacks on Westerners in revenge for U.S.-led airstrikes against it.
Police on Monday said murder charges were expected to be filed against Alton Nolen, 30. He is suspected of beheading Colleen Hufford, 54, and stabbing Traci Johnson, 43, after being fired Thursday from the Vaughan Foods distribution center.
According to a report by Breitbart News, Mr. Nolen has been associated with Suhaib Webb, an imam with ties to the late al Qaeda propaganda chief Anwar al-Awlaki.
On Sept. 21 a group of Islamic extremists in Algeria kidnapped Herve Gourdel, a 55-year-old French mountaineering guide, and threatened to kill him if France did not end its airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq. Three days later, the group calling itself Jund al-Khilafah beheaded Mr. Gourdel and posted a video of the murder online.
Both beheadings were carried out after the Islamic State’s spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, issued a 42-minute audio recording in mid-September urging Muslims everywhere to kill citizens of any nation participating in the U.S.-led coalition against it.
“If you can kill a disbelieving American or European — especially the spiteful and filthy French — or an Australian, or a Canadian or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that joined a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be,” al-Adnani said in the widely posted recording.
The Islamic State’s aggressive social media recruiting tactics, coupled with its battlefield successes, have altered the formula for marketing extremist propaganda, Mr. Helmus says.
“I do think this will be a game changer for how militant groups recruit and propagandize in the future,” he says. “I’m sure they are taking note of what ISIS is doing and thinking of how they can do the same.”
Over the past several months, the Islamic State has captured Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq; seized dozens of lucrative Syrian oil refineries; and commandeered heavy weaponry from the security forces of both countries. In recent weeks its members have begun taunting the West by beheading two American journalists and a British aid worker — an overt threat to the United States and its allies.
The terrorist network has showcased its violence-laden achievements via pictures and videos on social media websites, which have proven to be a valuable tool for the group.
That message of violence has been especially attractive to young foreign fighters, says Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“If you look at the videos that are coming out of the Islamic State and the way that they’re marketing themselves, they’re saying, ‘Come build this project this Islamic glory that existed in the past. You should be part of the enterprise, and we will value you,” Mr. May says. “And we have to say, to a certain extent, they are succeeding. We are seeing thousands of young Muslims from dozens of countries giving up their lives and their families and going there to fight.”
The lure of excitement on the battlefield, combined with the call to religious duty, is what draws “young, alienated Muslims” to the Islamic State’s brutal campaign, according to Mr. Helmus.
The danger associated with that attraction is that young Muslims who hail from Western countries could travel overseas to fight side by side with the group, only to return from that battle and launch attacks on their home countries, says Mr. May.
People who are easily brainwashed by the Islamic State’s ideologies are also a prime target for the group, says Michael Kugelman, a senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Wilson Center.
“I think that there’s an element, which is not just restricted to Islamic militants, but there’s an element of disaffected individuals seeking meaning, and for some of them the meaning is getting a thrill out of something,” Mr. Kugelman says.
To protect itself from potential foreign fighter threats, Canada has said that it will invalidate the passports of citizens who join the extremist group.
Britain considered providing temporary powers to seize the passports of those nationals who joined the group and then tried to return to the country, but British Prime Minister David Cameron later acknowledged that plan would likely fail due to legal issues and political opposition, according to The Guardian.
The United States would face a similar problem.
The Immigration and Nationality Act allows for U.S. officials to revoke the passports of those citizens who take up arms alongside the military of a nation that is hostile toward the United States. But the Islamic State does not qualify as a nation.
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for information on its policy on foreign fighters.
U.S. intelligence agencies have said that about 100 U.S. citizens are suspected of joining the Islamic State’s jihadi war in Iraq and Syria. But that number fluctuates from agency to agency, according to a senior U.S. official.
As few as 100 U.S. citizens are allegedly supporting the terrorist network in its violent campaign, the official said. But other intelligence indicates that as many as 300 U.S. citizens may be fighting side by side with the extremist group, according to the official.
The Islamic State will continue to attract foreign fighters to its cause as long as it is able to hold down the majority of the terrain it has captured and publicize its executions of Westerners, Mr. Helmus says.
One way to negate the group’s progressive recruiting campaign is by forcing it to undergo major battlefield losses in Iraq and Syria, he says.
Until that happens, the “potent” impact that the campaign is having on impressionable Muslims is unlikely to change, Mr. Helmus says.
“Success begets success,” he says. “And right now they have success.”