Using Hollywood’s methods to make young Westerners think they’re starring in a ‘Hero’s Journey.’
Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people in Orlando, Fla., and praised Islamic State.PHOTO: REUTERS
June 27, 2016 7:12 p.m. ET
The transcript of Omar Mateen’s call to 911 during the Orlando nightclub shooting paints a man on an unshakable mission of terror in the name of Islamic State, or ISIS. While the call is a chilling reminder of Mateen’s horrible act, it is not the only window we have into the killer’s mind. Equally disconcerting are the selfies that have emerged showing Mateen in poses more common to a narcissistic teen than an ISIS operative.
How do we process seeing the perpetrator of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history preening in an NYPD T-shirt, or smiling up at the camera, shirtless? Which is the true image of Mateen, the image-obsessed gym rat or dead-eyed killer?
The answer is both, and together they solve a puzzle that perplexes terror experts: Why is ISIS so successful at recruiting Westerners?
The terror group has moved away from the old recruiting tactics of groups such as al Qaeda, which sought to connect with deeply observant Muslims. Instead, ISIS is looking for a new type of recruit, one who spends as much time in the multiplex as in the mosque.
A recent study by one of the authors here, Robert Pape, and Dana Rovang of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) shows that at the core of ISIS’s strategy is an appeal to the individual’s sense of self—not his duty to community. ISIS tells its recruits that they will be recognized in ways they never were before. Their special talents will finally be noticed, and fighting and dying for ISIS will make them heroes. The approach lets angry men with oversize egos identify with the group, and eventually use the tool kit of ISIS to carry out their own violent agendas.
Mateen was a perfect fit. He was a man in his late 20s with a connection to the Middle East but not necessarily Syria or Iraq where ISIS is strongest; a practicing Muslim, who was not always particularly devout. These characteristics don’t make Mateen an outlier, they make him the norm.
An examination by CPOST of Americans indicted for ISIS-related crimes from March 2014 to December 2015 reveals almost a quarter of those charged were recent converts to Islam. A further 23% did not identify as particularly religious, while at least 70% had no personal association with Iraq or Syria.
How are these recruits being made to feel they belong with ISIS? The answer lies in the group’s complex and prolific video operation.
While many ISIS videos don’t rise above simple battlefield films, the highest-end productions, made by the group’s al-Hayat Media Center, are glossy, carefully scripted and designed to recruit Westerners. One of the most prominent videos—“Al-Ghuraba (The Stranger): The Chosen Few of Different Lands”—follows a popular 12-step screenwriting technique called the “Hero’s Journey,” first formulated by a Disney executive and familiar to any “Star Wars” fan. After the film’s protagonist, Andre Poulin, decides to give up an idyllic life in Canada to follow the call of adventure, the video tracks his journey as he arrives in Syria, takes the name of Abu Muslim, joins ISIS, and dies fighting for the group.
The video ends with a softly focused shot of Poulin talking, as if from beyond the grave. He’s calm, confident and satisfied with his choice, urging others to heed the call.
Propaganda like this is a far cry from the martyr videos produced by terrorist groups in the past. Al Qaeda’s videos, best known for featuring Osama bin Laden or Ayman al Zawahiri standing in front of a static backdrop and staring directly into the camera, used an explicitly Islamic framework to attract recruits.
A massive gulf separates ISIS’s video recruitment efforts from this old style, but Western techniques for combating them have not caught up. In a highly publicized campaign, the State Department produced a series of videos and social-media messages titled “Think Again Turn Away.” The campaign, which sought to paint ISIS as un-Islamic, was phenomenally unsuccessful. Widely derided for inadvertently giving ISIS a bigger platform, its reliance on al Qaeda’s logic of messaging was behind the times.
To catch up, the U.S. and its allies have to fight ISIS on its own terms. That means exposing ISIS’s techniques and revealing that Western ISIS fighters are not liberators but foreign occupiers and murderers. We need to hit ISIS where it hurts—its carefully curated identity. To pierce that mystique, we should tell the back stories of its lauded foreign fighters. We should publicize, in English, French, Arabic and other languages, that ISIS’s Western “heroes” were petty criminals in their home countries and went to Syria and Iraq as thrill seekers for their own benefit.
Those, like Omar Mateen, who kill innocents in their home country, should be portrayed as disturbed outsiders fueled by a twisted creed. Mateen’s posting selfies, or checking to see if his rampage was trending on Facebook, reveals the ISIS recruit’s “journey” for what it was: a narcissistic, demented quest. As long as ISIS can convince recruits their deaths will lead to individual glory, others will travel the same path.
Mr. Pape is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and the founding director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, where Mr. Gunning is the executive director.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."