ISIS’ message might be failing with the people it most needs to attract

Arab youth survey

ISIS’ message might be failing where the group is pushing it most — the Middle East.

The terrorist group (which is also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh) is seeing an increase in opposition among young Arabs in 16 Middle Eastern countries, according to a new survey.

In a survey of 3,500 Arabs in the Middle East aged 18 to 24, the vast majority said they’re concerned about the rise of ISIS, do not support the group’s ideology, and think the group will ultimately fail.

That represents an increase compared to previous years’ surveys — while 19% of those surveyed in 2015 said they might support ISIS if the group wasn’t so violent, that figure dropped to 13% in 2016.

And a rising number of youth see ISIS as the biggest problem confronting the region. In 2015, 37% of those surveyed said ISIS was the biggest obstacle the region faced, compared with 50% in 2016.

The survey was conducted by the Middle Eastern public-relations firm ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller, which has been polling Arab youth on various subjects for eight years.

The report accompanying the survey noted that ISIS has “failed to win the support of those it hoped would gravitate towards the idea of Islamic State or caliphate.”

This seems to be an indication that ISIS’ propaganda — which is central to its strategy and message of “remaining and expanding” — might not be potent enough to build the popular support the group would likely need to sustain its self-declared “caliphate,” the swath of territory the group controls in Iraq and Syria.

The survey found that what motivates many young people to join terrorist groups like ISIS is financial opportunity — the group is known to pay its fighters higher salaries than many of them could earn elsewhere — rather than support for the group’s mission or an attraction to its extremist ideology.

When asked why some young people might be attracted to ISIS, the largest share of respondents said they had no idea. The next-largest group of respondents cited a lack of job opportunity:

Arab Youth Survey

Fewer than half of Arab youth feel confident in their job prospects, according to the report. This sense of hopelessness could sway young people to ISIS, which specifically targets disadvantaged youth and provides food and housing to the family members of fighters who come to the “caliphate.”

Recently, however, ISIS has reportedly run into money problems and has halved the salaries of its fighters, a development that has hurt morale within the rank and file.

ISIS likely knows that the money it offers is a major lure for disadvantaged people in the Middle East. The group is known to exploit existing tensions within the territory it controls in an effort to gain the support of the population.

Though religion remains a top reason why people join ISIS, the group might see a significant decline in support if it were to remove the economic incentives for joining.

These survey results come amid a rising chorus of voices exposing the realities of living under ISIS rule. Defectors from the group have spoken out about how the “caliphate” isn’t what it seems. Though ISIS pushes out propaganda that depicts harmony and prosperity within its territory, the situation on the ground is much different, according to defectors and those who have lived in areas under ISIS control.

One defector, whose nom de guerre is Abu Ali, recently told The Guardian that the corruption, torture, and brutality he witnesses while he was a member of the group was enough to make him decide to risk his life to flee.

Ali escaped ISIS territory with the help of smugglers and activists.

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