can’t get you out of my head: did the foreign fighter frame shift?

There’s a dark secret in me/Don’t leave me locked in your heart/Set me free/Feel the need in me/Set me free/Stay forever and ever and ever and ever

There has been an interesting, if somewhat humorous debate, in France about the relationship between Assassins Creed, jihadist propaganda and the foreign fighter mobilization. The various positions, comments and counter-comments can be read here in French. An element of the debate is what could possibly be responsible for the prolonged surge in travellers – particularly those that are not ‘military age males’ – to Syria for jihad in the absence of prolonged radicalization processes; is it the click of a button, the flick of a switch, Assassins Creed played backwards with a satanic sound-track that is bewitching young minds?

The role of ideology, propaganda, and ways of disseminating and diffusing messages to enable collective action, has long been part of the social movement agenda which has argued for the importance of ‘frames’. They have been ‘defined as schemata of interpretation that enable individuals “to locate, perceive, identify and label occurrences within their life space and the world at large”’. These frames contain three elements – recognition of a problem (diagnosis), possible strategies to resolve the problem (prognosis) and motivations for acting on these – linking the collective to the individual(motivational).

The emerging consensus in the literature on foreign fighters is that frames play a role mobilising volunteers. Malet in his cross-campaign analysis, points to an ‘existential threat to a community’ frame, that resonates within the larger transnational community, whether it be the Spanish civil war, the Israeli war of Independence or jihadists in Afghanistan or Iraq. In each case this broad frame needs to be aligned to specific context of each of these communities – it needs a cultural context to take root and resonate.

Hegghammer suggests that the foreign fighter frame in the Sunni community emerged from elite competition in the Saudi Hijaz in the 1970s that then produced a ‘violent offshoot in the 1980s’. This frame was first deployed to mobilize for the conflict in Afghanistan through appeals to solidarity. The development of the foreign fighter frame in the Sunni community should not be seen as a one-off occurrence, that is the frame emerges, is diffused, resonates, and then becomes static. One of the aspects of frames is their interpretative nature, their ability to remain within a broader master frame but take on elements that resonate with the contemporary context.

Broadly speaking the Sunni foreign fighter frame has then three elements – Muslims and/or Muslim lands are under attack by external forces, (diagnosis), the solution is jihad (prognosis), and it is an individual obligation (motivation) – the connector from the collective nature of the problem to the individual stake in the solution. Originally, this frame was diffused in books, cassettes, magazines and speaking tours.

One of the puzzles of the Syria conflict has been not only the size of the mobilisation but also fighters from countries that have almost never previously mobilised – Tajikistan – or that have not mobilised since the original Afghanistan conflict – Indonesia – while explanations have tended to suggest, in the case of Europe, ease of travel and proximity and/or the impact of propaganda, particularly social media, there is, perhaps, a need to reconsider the framing of foreign fighting in the Sunni community.

Mobilising frames may change over the course of a conflict. The first Iraq war saw the Hussein regime, initiate the first solidarity appeals, these appeals saw a first wave of Iraqi-regime sponsored fighters. Following the 2004 U.S. offensive against Fallujah and the Abu Ghraib images, the frame incorporated new elements, not just foreign aggression through the invasion, but also repression of innocent populations, and degrading and humiliating treatment of prisoners. This was diffused via the internet but also satellite television reaching, a wider and perhaps, new audience.

However, as it became clear that the Sunni insurgency could not militarily defeat the U.S., the diagnosis shifted and with it the prognosis, if previously, the prognosis was insurgent warfare, it moved towards terrorism and a need to provoke the Shia community against the wider Sunni population, causing them to rise-up to shift the balance of power. The change in diagnosis and alternate prognosis caused problems for Zarqawi with al-Qaeda core, perhaps playing a part in the eventual Sunni tribal rebellion, and may also have led to the eventual down-turn in volunteers. The frame shift should not be overemphasised and was not the only reason for a reduction in fighters, U.S. counter-terrorist efforts and partnerships played a role in degrading the foreign fighter mobilisation.

If, historically, the frame was the defence of a Muslim land or Muslim community under attack from external forces (Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Iraq, or Somalia when Ethiopia invaded), the Syrian conflict, at the outset, was not about an invasion by an external entity, it was civil protests that when repressed turned to violence and then to a sectarian conflict, which eventually drew in external entities. It was not at the beginning, a classic foreign fighter case.

Similar to Iraq where the frame shifted over time, there have been shifts in Syria, initially, the foreign fighter mobilisation, particularly the Tunisians and Libyans seems to have been linked to the impetus of the Arab spring. While there were possibly former jihadists in the ranks of the initial foreign fighters, there seems to have been a stronger ‘nationalist’ dimension and less of an AQ-related jihadist element. This changed over time as the conflict developed and transnational appeals for solidarity emerged appealing for a defensive jihad – part of the success at the beginning seems to have been the ability to motivate fighters – to connect them personally to the frame – this is where social media seems to have played a role. The various platforms facilitated an almost personalised appeal to possible volunteers. At the same time these appeals were enabled by the relatively continual presence of cellphone coverage and thus bandwidth to diffuse the propaganda. Social media has been effective, in so far, as the message has been able to physically leave Syria.

This can be compared to the diffusion of the frame previous to the emergence of social media platforms. The ability to render the message personalised so that it resonates and is seen as something accessible and meaningful to the potential volunteer is difficult. Malika el-Aroud’s, Soliders of Light, is a good example of the foreign fighter/jihadist narrative in a form that is understandable as well as close to the lived experience of the reader. The book circulated widely in the francophone jihadist environment, at first in hard copy and later in pdf format through the net. Despite, the book making the frame personalised, it still has to be accessible, initially, it was available through the now defunct Minbar-SOS website but it required the potential reader to make contact, pay for the book and wait to receive it in the post. In a sense, this medium did not have immediacy, nor was it particularly interactive. Social media with the interaction between its different formats – Twitter, Facebook, Ask.fm, Instagram, pastebin etc – and the immediacy and proximity engendered by “following” or “friending” allows would-be volunteers to ‘experience’ the frame in ways not previously possible or that were difficult if the individual was not already inside the wider radical environment.

However, social media – the diffusion factor – does not fully explain what appears to have occurred in the course of the Syria context. It is probable that ISIS/ISIL/IS rewrote the framing of the conflict in Syria. Their diagnosis was not that Syrians were under threat due to external forces, but that Muslims were under threat due to the absence of a Caliphate. The prognosis, was a Caliphate needs to be established to provide a place of safety for Muslims to live their faith in accordance with Islam. The motivational connector to individuals was to say, come and live in accordance with Islam, you will be safe, and contribute to (re)building the Caliphate. Similar to the medium employed by some al-Nusra propaganda efforts but in a manner that acquired more resonance and, perhaps, more fidelity to would-be traveler’s experience, this was diffused through social media platforms. The change in frame may have in part led to the surge in travellers to Syria and Iraq. The conflict has moved from the conventional or historic foreign fighter frame to one of state-building, as Zelin has suggested, the IS project is also about ‘foreign bureaucrats’ not just foreign fighters.

Admittedly, the frame shift does not completely explain, the puzzle of why more people, from more diverse backgrounds have mobilised to travel to Syria and Iraq; there are other factors including how states have sought to act in relation to the original and continuing conflict. There is a dynamic interaction between the frames and the responses or non-responses of states to the collective mobilisation to the frames.