October 31, 2016    11 minute read

ISIS, Recruitment Strategies And Counter-measures

The HR Leader In Terrorism    October 31, 2016    11 minute read

ISIS, Recruitment Strategies And Counter-measures

Recruitment strategies in the current market scenario vary widely: internal searches, employee referrals and recommendations, advertisements, employment agencies, job fairs as well as online recruiting. Any single strategy of the above might lead to high recruiting costs. A successful recruiting strategy requires a cogent mixture of these strategies as well as various factors such as employer branding, internal organisational policies and recruiting costs. However, what do you call an organisation that transcends all these theoretical inclinations and has made its recruiting strategy one of the most efficient which will leave human resource management scholars puzzled? IS.

The IS Recruitment Handbook

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams has been on a lynching spree and attracted ‘talent’ to its ranks like never before. What defines its strategy? A well synthesised online propaganda combined with literally terrific ‘employer branding’. While it is true that atrocities have been committed in the Middle- East and just like Taliban, IS is a creation of the international politics as well, the relative violent nature of IS transcends all those barriers by creating a unifying stance, or a ‘pan-Muslim’ identity that transcends all national boundaries. This is how it creates its ‘brand image’, by instigating all Muslims around the world to perceive themselves as victims of a predominantly Western conspiracy.

Recruitment And Motivational Strategies Adopted By IS

IS has designed an innovative two-pronged strategy: online recruitment (this also includes secondary referrals as shall be discussed below) and a firepower brand image based on religious affiliation. Some nuances of its strategy are discussed below:

  1. Usage of English and other predominant languages in its videos.

This strategy combines the cheaper alternative of online recruitment with the potential of attracting Muslims who feel devoid of a healthy living in their current countries, mostly the Western world. IS is using the global appeal of English and combining it with the lure of a Pan-Islamic identity. These calls attract Muslims especially in countries like England, France and even the US where there is a sense of relative deprivation and discrimination among the Muslims. IS exploits this alienation to fill in the meaning of purpose and goal in the lives of its members. This is a classic case of theories from job satisfaction and job engagement in the human resources literature. The ‘employees’ in this case perceive themselves to be having some goal in life, rather than a monotonous work schedule. A larger sense of purpose acts as a reliable antecedent to engagement and satisfaction “on the job”.

  1. Altruism

It also tries to inculcate a sense of motivation among its current and former employees by instilling a sense of altruism among them. Altruism has proven time and again to be strong motivator among employees in an organisation, most notably in the case of companies such as South West Airlines. The call for ‘jihad’ and messages such as ‘respond to Allah and his messenger’ motivate the jihadists to fight for their people who they feel are oppressed. Through such a strategy, IS instil intrinsic motivation among its employees, which is a much more powerful motivational tool than extrinsic motivation as has been emphasised in psychology and organisational behaviour literature. The chants of “Allahu Akbar” before committing the carnages and massacres stand testimony to this culture of intrinsic motivation.

  1. Referrals

Through its foreign fighters, IS seeks to attract other Muslims around the globe by a strategy that can be termed ‘secondary or impersonal refunds’. IS fighters from countries like Britain and France continuously tweet about their ‘success’ and new found meaning in life thereby encouraging like-minded people to follow suit.

  1. Sense of Power

Another strategy that works in favour of IS is its videos, where it seeks to give the intended audience a feeling of power. The videos where it is shown to be killing people or beheading them act as a motivator for the prospective candidates. The potential candidate perceives a channel through which he can vent out his/her anger against their ‘suppressors’ and send a strong message through the display of supposed power and autonomy. Power and autonomy are important antecedents in various models of job satisfaction and job characteristics model, and therefore IS seem to be making the most out of this.

  1. Sexual Reasons

Another important factor that IS uses to recruit men, who constitute virtually its entire fighting workforce, is the lure of girls. IS attracts men through strategies like ‘beautiful virgin wife’ while serving with them. This explains one of the reasons why IS has been continuously targeting women in the areas it has taken over.

  1. Pay and other benefits

Compensation and benefits, like all firms and businesses, is another strategy used by IS to attract new recruits. A large number of people are joining IS because they are in need of money, as has been pointed out by many defectors from IS. IS provides access to food, free medical care and desirable housing, which seems a distant dream for many in the war-ravaged territories. IS pays its militants in US dollars rather than Syrian Liras and also owns and operates its currency exchanges. Apart from that, IS also provides other benefits and incentives. One defector from IS mentioned that the house and electricity were provided for free after he joined IS.

$35 How Much IS Pays Its Militants Per Child

The militants get additional $50 for their wife and $35 for each kid if they have any. Also if they have dependent parents, they get $50 for each parent. These benefits are not only limited to the fighters but extend to everybody on the payroll of IS, ranging from construction workers to doctors. Some workers have seen a seven-fold increase in their salary after joining IS, which leads to a Messiah-like image of IS in their minds.

  1. Employer Branding

Given the contribution of these strategies and methods, the single biggest strategy for IS is its equivalent of ‘employer branding’. IS is treated as a pariah and denigrated everywhere, but this eventually contributes to increasing its Messiah status akin to a group version of Robin Hood and his band of merry men.

IS Employer Branding: According To Winter

Winter (2015) breaks down the allure of the brand of IS into six different themes or reasons. They are

  • Brutality: Every brutal incident carried out by the IS is heralded by the Sunni Muslims in the sense of triumphalism over the Shiite- Zionist- West triangle. Brutal propaganda serves as a vehicle to convey both vengeance and supremacy.
  • Mercy: IS has also circulated videos that show that it is capable of mercy and will forgive anyone and everyone regardless of their past affiliations, provided that they guarantee their obedience to the caliphate. The trait of compassion combined with brutality reinforces the brand on the lines of Robin Hood’s characteristics.
  • Victimhood: IS regularly updates propagandist elements over the Internet such as videos that portray Sunni Muslims as the victim. There are videos of dead babies and women killed by ‘the enemy’ that seek to arouse sympathy for it. This justifies their act of retribution on the one hand and motivates Sunni Muslims for revenge, proving to be a double-edged sword.
  • War: Aimed at proving the point that IS is a real state and not just any terrorist organisation, which theoretically it is. The videos uploaded to this end show the discipline, the uniform, training camps, parades as well as videos showing frontline fighting, all to motivate young recruits.
  • The sense of belongingness: IS aims to send out the message to potential recruits that there is a brotherhood, sense of security and friendship within the caliphate, which seems missing, especially in the Western countries.
  • Utopianism: This sends out the message that IS will establish and implement an Islamic State which will be the saviour of all Muslims. This is probably the one major factor that gives IS a considerable edge over other terrorist and jihadist groups. This lures Muslims into the world that isn’t hateful to them anymore and where their rights shall not be violated as they are perceived now.

It needs to be understood that IS is not the garden variety terrorist organisation like Al- Qaeda or Taliban. It has a carefully manipulated media image and funding that dwarfs many of the biggest terrorist groups in the history of the modern world. Furthermore, it does not portray a dull image of itself like Al-Qaeda where the only call was to fight for the ummah or the unified Muslim Brotherhood with alcohol and women prohibited. IS goes beyond the only facet of spiritual calling and altruism and displays the ‘benefits’ that it provides apart from a road to martyrdom. There are women who volunteer for being sexual comforts for the men who are fighting; others are coerced into it.


It has time and again been reiterated that a lot of IS recruits join because of years of dissatisfaction and mistrust in their home countries. For instance, if the Pew Research Center Survey of 2013 is anything to go by Al-Qaeda had a 57% median disapproval among the 9000 Muslims surveyed from 11 countries. This means that 43% still supported Al-Qaeda, which is an alarming figure in itself.

57% Al-Qaeda’s Median Disapproval Rating

So to say that countries should start quelling this feeling of alienation seems very vague as this would require years if not decades of policy reforms. And with the rapid pace that IS is spreading its tentacles, any action needs to be taken in a much shorter duration. Furthermore, going by the same survey mentioned earlier, the disapproval rating for Al-Qaeda was 73% and 69% in Turkey and Egypt respectively. So if alienation and dissatisfaction form the core of a lot of Muslims having soft corners or even contemplating to join terrorist organisations, there is no logical basis for the 27% and 31% Muslims in Turkey and Egypt to have a favourable view of Al-Qaeda. Both are predominantly Sunni Muslim states, and Turkey is even an unlikely member of a financial block with relatively better levels of development. Egypt has also seen high levels of development compared with many countries in the region.

Therefore, a better long-term strategy will be an integration of Sunni Muslims against these atrocities perpetrated by the IS. There already has been a bevvy of Muslim leaders who have spoken out against the IS in their countries and have reiterated IS’s erroneous interpretation of the Holy Quran. However, nothing much has been done on a global level and steps need to be taken in that direction. Although disenchantment with policies of some of the nation-state also forms a minor part of IS’s attraction, it must be tackled with a significant concern by the respective nation states.

Viewing Secularism Differently

Another strategy that can work (and has been successful in some countries) is to exploit the differences for maintaining peace and harmony among different religious groups. Lebanon has made use of this confessionalism and has a set pattern of electing the “troika” of political posts: Under this arrangement, the President is a Maronite Christian, the Speaker of the Parliament is a Shi’a Muslim and The Prime Minister is a Sunni Muslim. While this may be an extreme way to accommodate the diversity, it has worked for Lebanon, and it is probably the most peaceful country in its entire disturbed region.

The other way to accommodate differences can be the use of Indian version of secularism, as coined by Rajeev Bhargava as opposed to the Western model of secularism. The Indian version, while granting everyone equal constitutional rights, differentiates by giving specific rights based on religion. This is done through Personal Laws for practically all the major religions. These are developed and extended to groups, keeping in mind that they do not violate the founding democratic principles of the Constitution. While they have not put religious conflicts to zero, they have made it arguably negligible considering the much higher level of diversity in India. Western secularism deals with diverse religions in a unilateral manner, which may be a significant cause of disenchantment of the minorities. The Indian Secularism’s idea of equity compared to Western Secularism’s equality can have a lasting impact on quelling disenchantment and the subsequent reactions.

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