London, United Kingdom – For most people in the UK and elsewhere, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is nothing short of pure evil – severing heads and stealing women – a menace to the world that must be eliminated.
But for others, untangling the complex web in Syria and Iraq and separating fact from fiction is an increasingly difficult but important task. They argue that various factors – including the myriad of warring factions in the region, government involvement, interest groups, and less-than-objective sections of the media – influence how ISIL is perceived.
While most of the public relies on the media to get a grip on what’s going on, supporters of ISIL warn against this.
“Meet me, I have some valuable information to tell you,” wrote Mohammed, 21, from London. “I can’t tell you by phone, Skype or email. It’s not safe. Meet me at the location below, tomorrow at midday.”
Mohammed, who like others quoted here asked only to be identified by one name, is a university student and has friends who have gone to fight with ISIL in the Middle East.
“I had to tell you this in person because the authorities are watching,” he told Al Jazeera. “I have friends who are fighting for ISIL right now and I have no reason to disbelieve what they tell me. What we are currently seeing are mass lies and propaganda.”
Mohammed hasn’t made his mind up on whether he supports ISIL completely, but he indicated some backing. “I’m in contact with my friends on the ground and the story they are telling me is really different from the one we hear in the news,” he said. “Of course, there are some members of ISIL who have made mistakes, they’ve done terrible things, but to label the whole group under one category is wrong.”
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For the majority of British Muslims, the actions of ISIL – including beheadings, taking slaves, the killing of those who oppose them, and sanctimonious claims as the only true proponents of Islam – are morally repugnant.
But a feeling among large sections of the Muslim community that most news they see has an Islamophobic agenda is fuelling support for ISIL.
In a recent interview on MTV, a Lebanese news channel, Vice journalist Medyan Dairieh said he spent weeks with ISIL earlier this year. “There is media exaggeration about ISIL, its members and actions.”
Mizanur Rahman, a British Islamic preacher is a popular figure among many ISIL supporters in the UK and across the world.
“The accusations of rape, mass murder and torture are false. Anyone who rapes a woman within ISIL will be punished. Yes, Islam allows Muslims to capture slave women, but they must be treated well and they cannot be forced to have sex,” Rahman said. “Look at the testimonies of those who live within the Islamic State, they’ve never had so much justice in their lives.”
You'd be surprised by the level of support and good will. It's just people don't talk about it, they're too scared to speak out, the media will demonise them.
Rahman harbours ambitions to one day live in the territory controlled by ISIL, but the government confiscated his passport and told him he can’t leave the country. He said support for ISIL in the UK is much higher than most people think.
“You’d be surprised by the level of support and good will. It’s just that people don’t talk about it, they’re too scared to speak out, the media will demonise them.”
Amir Khan, 26, who comes from an upper-middle class family and has a degree in engineering, now lives within the territory under ISIL’s control.
“It’s all Western media lies because they fear the return of the caliphate,” he told Al Jazeera.
This message is echoed by ISIL sympathisers outside of the UK. Fahad, 30, is from a middle class family in Pakistan.
“Nobody is verifying the information they hear on the news. History shows that when Western governments unite to fight Muslims, it is against those who are following the true Islam.”
Social media support
Motivations behind support for ISIL vary, but one of the constants is distrust of the media. Social media is awash with support for ISIL.
A cursory glance on Facebook reveals a network of supporters ranging in the thousands extending right across the world. They have formed transatlantic and international alliances and spur each other on, “Liking” and sharing posts.
It seems many have fallen for the allure of the long-awaited, self-appointed caliphate with promises of a new Islamic dynasty. They seem obsessed with violent images: Pictures of guns, ISIL flags, and images of war flood their pages.
Deeply motivated by the deaths of fellow Muslims in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan post 9/11, their social media profiles display pictures of dead babies and children, for which they blame American and British troops.
“Joining ISIL is an easy option for these guys to let out all their built up anger of Western foreign policy,” said one young Muslim who refused to give his name and claimed to know 50 British fighters who’ve gone to fight with ISIL.
“They can release it by fighting the Iraqi and Syrian regimes. They also see ISIL as a thorn in the side of the US. They’re all ignorant kids.”
Many ISIL supporters draw inspiration from figures such as Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki and the British preacher Anjem Choudary, while others proudly post pictures of their new caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Social media is “motivating and inspiring potential recruits”, said Shiraz Maher, a researcher of radicalism at Kings College in London. “Foreign fighters from across the world have harnessed the power of platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Ask.fm to propagate their message.”
Khalid, 20, who agreed to speak on Skype but wouldn’t say in which country he lived, said he is angered by the US drones that kill innocent children in Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. “When I next return to the West, know that it won’t be for family reunions, but to create chaos and destruction. The only way they will learn is when their buildings go up in smoke.”
He supports ISIL because he likes “anyone who wages war on the UK and US. Nobody wants to fight, but what other alternative do we have? I’m sure the majority of people fighting for ISIL would prefer to be in the comforts of their home. Oh, by the way, anyone who was beheaded by ISIL was found guilty of a crime, or fought our soldiers,” said Khalid.
Not just for men
It would be wrong to assume that only young Muslim men are enticed by ISIL – there are many young women, too, who are attracted to the group’s mission.
Aisha Aabidah, 23, from Birmingham, is a convert to Islam from an atheist background. Her house was recently raided under the UK’s anti-terrorism law.
The Counter Terrorism Unit suspected that she was in contact with Brustchom Ziamani, who was arrested in August for planning to kill a member of the government. Aabidah denies any wrongdoing.
“Our governments do nothing but injustice to other people. They’ve been killing Muslims for too long and now that ISIL has come to put a stop to that, they don’t like it,” she told Al Jazeera.
“When Muslims die they don’t care, but when their own citizens die, that’s when they go crazy. The beheadings are a reaction to our government’s attacking them. ISIL isn’t perfect, but they just want to be left alone.”