ISIS recruiting is a “war of ideas”

This image was posted on Collin Gordon's Facebook page on April 12. (Facebook)

This image was posted on Collin Gordon’s Facebook page on April 12. (Facebook)

Forum held to discuss terror group’s recruitment after former TRU student joins ISIS

After a CBC article uncovered that a former TRU student had apparently gone to fight with terror group ISIS, a TRU professor is asking why it happened and what can be done to stop it from happening again.

In his search for answers and in an attempt to start a dialogue, TRU political science professor Derek Cook held a forum on ISIS recruiting in the West on Thursday, Sept. 4. Cook is also the chair of the TRU Faculty Association’s human rights committee.

Collin Gordon, a TRU student up until 2009 and former member of the WolfPack men’s volleyball team, recently made headlines for joining ISIS alongside brother Gregory.

It was suggested to Cook by the university that his forum not focus on Gordon, citing privacy concerns.

ISIS has been justifying violence and mass murders as part of a religious ideology, when really, Cook said, it’s a political ideology.

Before opening the room to feedback and questions from attending students, faculty and public, Cook aimed to disillusion the extremist group’s use of religion in order to gain followers.

“The main thing I’d like to emphasize is that the story they’re being given – the inducements for joining – it’s a con. It’s a phony story. It’s not as advertised and people need to know that and this group needs to be confronted for what it is,” Cook said.

“So how is it that so many Western young people are joining them? Someone suggested that Western culture advocates violence; we see violence all around us. These people are simply reflecting our culture back at us.”

ISIS has used online propaganda on social media as a way to recruit. The access to that information may be doing more than just informing young people, which is a concern to Annie St. John-Stark, chair of the philosophy, history and politics department.

“The Internet and social media make it very clear to us when we wouldn’t have had it clear to us 30 or 40 years ago on what is going on. I think that, in a sense, encourages the attractiveness,” St. John-Stark said. “I think that that type of access may be in general principal a good thing that we can look at all of that. I’m not sure if there’s a way to stop that connectivity.”

“If we tried to persuade him to come back, what would happen? He’d be killed. Unfortunately, he’s lost.”

Derek Cook, TRU professor, political science

“The question is if we can get into the dialogue and see if we can steer people susceptible to ISIS propaganda in a different direction, to show them that they are being conned,” Cook responded.

Gordon’s Twitter account shares a glimpse into the extremist culture in 140 characters or less. A tweet dating back to October 27, 2011 said “Am doing color commentary for the @TRUWOLFPACK Kamloops Volleyball Home Opener this Friday Nation wide broadcast on canadawest.tv!”

In April 2012 he began to quote the Quran, the religious text of Islam. On August 21, 2014 he tweeted “10/10. The video of James Foley losing his neck is the perfection of “Terrorism”. #IS #JamesFoley #Caliphate #Iraq #Sham #Gaza #FreeGaza,” referring to the Aug. 19 murder of U.S. journalist James Foley.

The content on Gordon's Twitter account has shifted towards extremism and proselytism, illustrated here with one tweet from 2011 and one from 2014. (Twitter)

The content on Gordon’s Twitter account has shifted towards extremism and proselytism, illustrated here with one tweet from 2011 and one from 2014. (Twitter)

The person using Gordon’s Twitter account has responded to those who tweet to him, and follows six other active accounts consistently tweeting similar radical messages.

In an interview with CBC, Cook said that those attempting to communicate with Gordon over social media should be aware, as it may not be him.

“If we tried to persuade him to come back, what would happen? He’d be killed,” Cook said. “Unfortunately, he’s lost.”

Whether the account remains Gordon’s personal account or is being used by ISIS, his story has created recent media waves. Does this coverage combat ISIS recruitment propaganda, or encourage it?

TRU journalism professor Alan Bass believes that the line between reporting and aiding the spread of propaganda can be a difficult one to find.

“Where that line is drawn often depends on the gravity of the news event itself. However, I suspect mainstream media has virtually no impact on whether or not a young person (and let’s keep in mind we’re talking about a very small number of people) decides to travel halfway around the world to become a fundamentalist killer,” Bass said via email.

Greater influences might be targeted messages being delivered through fundamentalist-controlled social media and Internet recruiting sites, he added.

The forum ended with a message from Cook in reflection of our own political system.

“It has to be more than a military response. It has to be a fight of belief systems. It has to be showing young people who want to do something about injustice that their concerns are recognized,” Cook said.

“This is a war of ideas. And it needs to be taken on by those who engage in ideas, like universities and colleges, so that we can stop the tide of young people who are headed towards ISIS,” Cook said. “Once they get under ISIS, they do what they’re told or they get killed.”