Manufacturing Monsters: Irresponsible Media & the Children of ISIS

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“Is a Child of ISIS a Just a Child? Or a Time Bomb?” A horrifying set of assumptions underpin this headline: assumptions that, ultimately, exemplify both the strategic aims of so-called “Islamic State,” but also the group’s gut-wrenchingly effective propaganda — yes, even on “us,” an audience that regularly reads and relies upon the “paper of record.”

Vivian Yee’s New York Times piece recounts the numerous thorny issues and feverish debates surrounding the question of repatriation for children born to ISIS parents (often orphaned and undoubtedly traumatized), who currently reside in the limbo of refugee camps. Approximately 2500 children of numerous nationalities remain trapped abroad in the aftermath of the so-called Caliphate’s fall, many as young as seven. Questions raised in Yee’s article are worthwhile, timely, urgent, and necessary — but with one fell swoop, the headline decimates any benefits derived from the piece’s contents.

The headline “Is a Child of ISIS a Just a Child? Or a Time Bomb?” proves the efficacy of ISIS propaganda through the simple fact that such a question is possible to pose at all. To consider, even in a passing headline, that all children born to members and sympathizers of a hateful, terrorist organization are inherently suspect (at best) is to accept the tacit assumption that certain groups are so monstrous their offspring’s blood alone makes them irredeemable.

In short, the sins of the fathers make automatic monsters of the children—a line of reasoning that isn’t simply preposterous; it is deeply unsettling, and profoundly dangerous. It also reveals a glaring double standard, and one on which ISIS relies to further spread the group’s ideological message and outsized image of threat projection. And “we” continue to fall for it… Hook. Line. Sinker.

Certainly, indoctrination of underage children is part of the ISIS long-term strategy. After all, in our fixation with the first half of the organization’s name (“Islamic”), we all too often forget the equally critical component “State.” The survival of a state relies not on institutions or a governmental apparatus alone, but on a population rooted in territory, spanning across time, and sustaining itself throughout the generations — cradle to grave. ISIS aims to eradicate what the group terms the “grayzone” — any spaces of coexistence between Muslim and non-Muslim, a goal aimed at the creation of a para-state political entity to whom allegiance is obligatory, superseding that of the contemporary nation-state.

For this reason, upon arrival to ISIS-held territory, recruits engage in what I term a “civic ritual of ISIS citizenship.” With unmasked faces, new members burn passports in videos then released and disseminated — quite deliberately — in wide circulation. The impact of such video documentation is, of course, severs the possibility of return — not simply for adults who actively chose to make the journey, but also for the children forced to participate in this perverse ritual of ISIS citizenship.

Cubs of the Caliphate, ISIS’ “youth group,” deliberately traumatizes children young enough to ensure that psychological scars make reentry into their home society virtually impossible. ISIS “cubs” graduate in a ceremony that forces children to murder. Child soldiers in Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire were used in much the same manner.

Once children have been forced to witness, or worse, participate in morally injurious acts like murder — deep psychological scarring sets in. The profound guilt and self-hatred can prove irreversible without considerable assistance — one reason, among others, that reintegration of child soldiers presents an extreme challenge throughout global conflict zones. Worse, these underage returnees are well aware of the stigma: society views them as monsters — damaged beyond recognition. There is no going back. “Home” no longer exists.

And what of the far more numerous orphans of the so-called Caliphate, never undertaking violent actions? What message do they receive from European nations’ refusal to accept them back, based on the sins of their fathers? Stated simply: they are bombs, not children. Danger, not humans. Monstrous.

Consider the objectives of the Ku Klux Klan: preservation of the United States as “pure” nation. In a profile of the KKK’s youth organization, Erin Blakemore characterizes the hate group as a “fraternal organization [that] invited, and encouraged, the involvement of women and children as part of its attempt to create a core of true believers who would ensure the supposed purity of the white race.” The ideological program parallels that of so-called Islamic State: an emphasis on “the whole family” as the fundamental avenue for social change, which according to both organizations, demanded violence for the strategic goal fulfillment. Yet the language of Blakemore’s KKK profile appears surreally quaint for descriptions of a violent, supremacist organization responsible for countless acts of terror:

“in many ways, life as a child of the Klan followed the social norms of middle-class white society of the time. Children marched in parades, went to picnics and summer camps, and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. But the context in which they played and celebrated was sinister — overtly committed to white supremacy and underlined by the Klan’s violent attempts to bend society to its racist ideals.”

In media coverage of other terrorist and hate groups intent on youth’s ideological socialization, journalists and editors utilize the rhetoric of pity, concern, and sympathy for the plight of youth raised at the hands of parents who actively perpetuate the abusive system of hate’s indoctrination. 2019’s documentary Kleine Germanen (“Little Germans”) explores the methods used by neo-Nazi parents inculcate their own children with far-right ideological programs; filmmakers Frank Geiger and Mohammed Farokhmanesh took great care to avoid labels like “’those are the bad guys,’ [because it] doesn’t lead to anything else but polarization and exclusion.”

Nearly a decade ago, Heath Campbell’s decision to name his children after iconic Nazis, such as Heinrich Himmler and Adolph Hitler, prompted public outrage across the Internet, and — to quote the New York Times — “prompted a debate over whether provocative names alone should be considered child abuse.” Stated bluntly, media profiles afford children born into programmatic indoctrination by neo-Nazis alternating degrees of sympathy, concern, worry, anxiety, and even compassion. No such humanity extends to the children of ISIS, monstrous from conception. Irredeemable since birth.

And herein lies the fundamental, and extremely uncomfortable, problem — such a view of ISIS offspring is the intentional result of the group’s deliberate strategic calculus, and the success of a stunningly effective propaganda campaign.

The quickest way to lose a war is to underestimate your opponent — deeming them wholly irrational and incapable of strategy. Rather, you must first understand the enemy.

Critical here is an overlooked feature of ISIS propaganda—the organization tailors messaging with particular audience demographics in mind. “We” in the (presumed) non- Muslim West see monsters incarnate, or what I term Evil™—the brand identity designed for “our” market. ISIS type-casts themselves in performances meant for us—as incapable of rationality, utterly monstrous. Sheer evil, beyond comprehension.

Their propaganda effectively sells a vision we are entirely too happy to purchase, and in buying ISIS’ Evil™ at face-value, we lose sight of the cost. ISIS weaponizes bigotry against us, such insidious fear-fueled bigotry that it renders children automatically suspect, inherent threats—not as victims in need of intervention, rehabilitation, and salvation from the abusers of their indoctrination.

I do not call for “kumbaya” empathy, but precisely the opposite: cold, hard, logic makes for successful policy and responsible media interventions. ISIS propaganda succeeds through cunning manipulation of emotion, through projecting an outsized threat as the bogeyman around every corner, the potential “fifth column” of “moderate Muslims in the West”—so would Islamophobes, xenophobic immigration opponents, and ISIS themselves have us believe.

Evil™ is cunning, indeed. For an imagined “us,” ISIS type-casts themselves as horrifying villain incarnate, far beyond redemption or even understanding: the ultimate, and permanent, outcasts—so monstrous that such sheer evil must reside in the blood that runs through the veins of orphaned children stranded in the squalor of refugee camps.

Fear-inducing propaganda works very, very well—at least, for a while.

But the ultimate question is—for whom does this propaganda, and the reactions it produces, most benefit? Finally, consider: was the apocalyptic cost of Evil™’s designer price truly worth that impulse buy?

[[update: I’ll post the sequel as soon as I finish the write-up, but for now, you can see my thoughts over on Twitter in this thread.

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