ISIS

The ISIS Guide to Holy War, or Lonely Planet: Islamic State

By Cody M. Poplin, Sebastian Brady
Friday, March 27, 2015, 4:36 PM

“You can also bring cardigans.”  

This is sartorial advice from the hardened jihadist recruiter behind a new travel guide for the Islamic State.

Are you looking to fulfill your ambitions of touring the newest state in the world? Excited for the prospect of perpetual war against people of your own faith? Enticed by an apocalyptic promise of battle? Want a guide that is laden with gender specific travel options? Well, do we have the guide for you.

“Hijrah to the Islamic State: What to Packup, Who to Contact, Where to Go, Stories & More!” is an e-book published by an ISIS militant, offering tips on how to make the trip to Syria in order to commit jihad. Released in February, the book is remarkably detailed. As we discuss below, it gives aspiring jihadists advice on things like how to avoid suspicion when traveling, how to avoid government surveillance online, and even how to fill out tourist visas properly, even if illegally. The volume also---and quite importantly, given the legal and policy issues in play---touches on how to find ISIS contacts on Twitter if their accounts are deactivated.

A "Lonely Planet" for Jihadists

Though interesting, the how-to-ish details are not the most striking thing about "Hijrah to the Islamic State." What struck us most, instead, was the basic banality of the book. Filled with jokes and attempts at witty quips, the volume is basically an ISIS travel guide. In fact, it could have more appropriately been called, “Lonely Planet: Islamic State”.

Take the section on packing. A helpful itemized packing list is provided, and it includes the usual: handkerchiefs, tissue paper, band-aids (war is dangerous, after all), and wet wipes. Because there’s nothing worse than getting to the caliphate only to realize you left your wet wipes in Turkey, am I right? Even CamelBak gets a shout out.

And while travelers are encouraged to bring an MP3 player (“For lectures and Qur’an”), it’s really important to bring a solar charger. It turns out that electricity is a bit of an issue in the caliphate. Who knew? But, the solar charger apparently also serves another purpose. Not only is solar power the caliphate’s only reliable source of electricity, but it’s so much more friendly to the environment. “It doesn’t mean that because you’re making hijra, you can now start dirtying the Earth which belongs to Allah.” After all, it’s no good building a worldwide Islamic empire if climate change sinks your ambitions.

Once you’ve gotten your tissues and MP3 players packed, it’s time to pick out your clothes. The author, well-versed in gender stereotypes, gives a shout-out to the ladies struggling to consolidate their wardrobes. “Bring only the strict minimum (okay, so some sisters fainted after reading this bit, but continue reading, in shā Allah).” A true jihadi apparently only needs four pairs of clothes. Bring a sewing kit, though, because ISIS doesn’t operate any stores where you can replace the pants you ripped while out committing jihad.

Most importantly, while planning your trip, stay on your parents’ good side! If you get grounded, they might take your phone, and nothing throws a wrench in your hijrah like having your phone confiscated. As our trusty author says, “duh… Please don’t attempt to make hijra if your parents confiscated your phone.”

In order to avoid suspicion, make sure you buy a round trip ticket, even though you “plan on never using the return ticket.” The guide also recommends arriving in Spain or Greece and then traveling by ship or car to Turkey. But no matter where you land, make sure you brush up on the tourist attractions in Turkey itself. If stopped by a border agent and questioned, you’ll raise eyebrows if you don’t know where the Blue Mosque is located. On a more serious note, there’s even a link to a CIA manual leaked by wikileaks explaining how operatives get through airport security without blowing their cover.

The guide closes with a series of personal testimonials from those who have successfully crossed the Turkish border into Syria. One writer tells of being asked for bribes of $6,000 at the Turkish border. Later he says that a different Turkish guard at a separate border crossing asked only for his gloves. It also concludes with stories of easy escapes, even when under surveillance. There is no way to independently verify these stories, but that does not matter. The point is to convince those who want to come that they can do so if they only try.

None of this suggests a very fun trip. Our guide notes that you will be running often and that you should also bring knee-pads because “there is much crawling you will have to do here.” Remember, “here you might have to sleep in uncommon places at odd hours.” And, when on your way to al-Dawlah, “don’t get scared if you notice...the place seems kinda drab.” If you’re a “single sister” and you don’t want to get married, the author says, “I don’t think anyone can force you to.” (emphasis added).

The guide even projects an odd level of self-awareness. At one point the writer catches himself referring to “the numbers” repeatedly, and then clarifies that by “the numbers” he means the contacts and handlers in Syria, but “saying ‘the numbers’ is just more dramatic y’know!” In a photoshopped Turkish VISA application, the guide highlights the checkbox for “Tourism,” advising you to avoid checking the newly inserted box “Commit Jihad in Syria.”

To be sure, even though the e-book is at times comical, and its directions rather goofy, its implications are profoundly serious. Quoting Ibn Taymiyyah, one of the intellectual forefathers of Salifism, the book begins: “Islam in the end of times will be more manifest in Sham (Greater Syria). [...] So the best of the people on the earth in the end of times will be those who keep to the land of Ibrahim’s hijrah, which is Sham.” This message resonates with young recruits who are desperate to belong to something greater than themselves. And, what could be greater than the cosmic mission of fighting for God in the end times?

The Role of Twitter, and the Legal and Policy Response

Another important feature: Our little manual also makes clear the paramount role that Twitter plays in connecting would-be jihadists to the Islamic State.

Radicalizing often begins on the social media platform; 140-character encouragement likewise can sustain a newbie's momentum in journeying to link up with the like-minded. It also helps logistically: When a would-be foreign fighter arrives in Turkey, for example, he is instructed to get in touch with someone in Syria, something “often done by a known Twitter contact.” The guide's concluding part accordingly provides a long list of Twitter accounts to try. And while the latter move would seem to tip off authorities, ISIS already has a plan for that. They’ll just remake the same accounts, and simply add a higher number to it. So, @ISISFAN_2 becomes @ISISFAN_3, becomes @ISISFAN_4, ad infinitum.

While the role Twitter plays in ISIS’s recruiting is well-documented---see this survey conducted by J.M. Berger, for example---it’s unclear what to do about jihadists' extensive use of the technology. One possibility is to have Twitter itself crack down on online propaganda. Earlier this month, members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee sent a letter to Twitter’s CEO Dick Costolo, urging his company to be more aggressive in blocking content supporting terrorism. (The signatories acknowledged First Amendment concerns, but ultimately dismissed them: “When Twitter accounts are used to support terrorism, such content does not deserve protections.”) Meanwhile, Australia’s Attorney General recently met with officials from Facebook, Youtube, and Google to press the tech firms to crack down more on the spread of documents like this on their online platforms. The United Kingdom has taken an even more aggressive stance on such propaganda. There, a simple download could potentially land you 10 years in prison under Section 58 of the Terrorism Act of 2000.

So far, as Berger explains, social media platforms have  "tak[en] shelter" under laws devised to exempt telephone companies "from liability for illegal acts carried out using a phone"---like executing a drug deal or communicating threats or sending harassing messages. But, as he also points out, at moment social media harassment per se is not illegal. The current legal framework, in other words, seems to leave companies with far-reaching authority to police speech on Twitter and comparable platforms.

Such leeway might or might not last. While the State Department has attempted to counter violent extremism on Twitter with its Think Again Turn Away campaign, it is not immediately clear how effective a U.S. government agency can be at trolling ISIS fighters while attempting to also establish itself as an authority on Islam. It may only be a matter of time until Congress decides to act on its own, and to compel companies to more pro-actively police radical propaganda and extremist networks on their social media platforms.

That is a risky proposition---the risks comprising (among other things) possible impingement on First Amendment values as well as the frustration of technological growth and development. Still, as Berger has argued, there is also “a clear intelligence value to be extracted” from ISIS Twitter and other online activity. Berger thus describes the challenge as building a system to “sufficiently degrade the performance of the network to make a difference without driving the less visible and more valuable ISIS supporters out of the social network in large numbers.” It remains to be seen whether policymakers will seek to develop such a system, consistent with free speech principles.

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