September 21, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Fleeing the Islamic State

• The images of Syrian refugees fleeing the savagery of war—escaping both Assad’s brutality and that of groups such as the Islamic State—is a reality the Islamic State cannot effectively counter in its propaganda

• The refugee crisis is also a crisis for the Islamic State; more people are visibly fleeing the group and the areas it controls than are flocking to join it

• The group has put out ten messages denouncing refugees, emphasizing imagined horrors in Europe, and trying to entice those fleeing and others to come to its self-proclaimed caliphate

•The group is trying to highlight isolated incidents of refugee mistreatment and the dangers of sea-crossing in a futile attempt to dissuade people from fleeing;  a massive European backlash against the refugees would play into the group’s efforts.


The so-called Islamic State is confronting a reality that even its much-hyped propaganda cannot effectively counter: tens of thousands of Syrians are fleeing their homes and seeking protection not of the group that claims to be their protector, but of the West. The vast majority of Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe are fleeing the Assad regime, and yet they are not seeking refuge in the territories of the Islamic State. This rejection by people desperate for options is a tremendous blow to the terrorist group that prides itself on its ability to draw people into its orbit.

In an attempt to change the minds of people who would rather risk drowning than live in the Islamic State, the group has ramped up its propaganda efforts, a tactic that has succeeded in the past in attracting recruits, but one that will likely fail in keeping people from fleeing. The scatter-shot nature of the Islamic State’s recent messages—at times angry and denouncing refugees, at other times proclaiming the wisdom of staying in what the group sees as an Earthly paradise—shows the desperation of a group that resembles a pyramid scheme more than a government. The flow of people traveling to join the Islamic State continues, but is likely nowhere close to what it was last year. The outflow from Syria is now a flood that has washed away the illusion the group has worked so hard to perpetuate: that it is a safe and proper home for Sunni Muslims.

In the last several weeks the Islamic State has, through various Syrian and Iraqi wilayat (provinces), produced ten videos focused entirely on the refugee issue. The videos’ titles reflect the group’s confusion as to how to exploit the issue to its benefit, or at least limit the damage to its image:


Asylum of the Muslims to the abode of infidels and residing there;

Dear refugees, hear it from us;

To those who are displaced;

And he will replace you with other people;

Advice to the refugees going to the countries of disbelief;

Would you exchange what is better for what is less;

Alert for the unsuspecting from the immigrants to the houses of the unbelievers;

Warning to the refugees of the deceptions of the crusaders


Some of the videos feature lectures on the refugees’ religious duty to stay in the lands of the Islamic State, where they will be treated with dignity, unlike what awaits them in the West. Some videos splice in news coverage of refugees and police clashing in European countries to drive home the point that the ‘unbelievers' in Europe will not protect, but rather persecute the refugees who arrive on their borders. Others use the drowning of young Aylan Kurdi as proof that the trip is too dangerous and that Europe does not care if Syrians drown on its shores. Like the best propaganda, these videos try to take a real occurrence and make it a universal truth, and seek to widen mistrust between the refugees and the societies trying to deal with the crisis. The group will seize on any and every incident of mistreatment or misery as proof that 'the house of the unbelievers,' or Europe, is a deceptive prison.

These appeals will likely fail in dissuading people who can flee Syria from doing so; there is no propaganda on Earth that will work on someone who has witnessed Assad’s barrel bombs or the Islamic State’s beheadings. The group has finally met a reality that cannot be spun away; the most vulnerable people in Syria see the group as no better than Assad, and would rather flee to Europe than to Raqqa. There are tens of thousands of people who serve as daily evidence of that reality.


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