Amarnath Amarasingam is a social scientist, and as such, he wants to study his subjects close up. But his subjects are ISIS terrorists recruited from Western countries to fight in Syria. That makes his job a bit tricky. Enter: online communication.
"What we noticed about the Syrian conflict from the very beginning was that a lot of these Western fighters were young kids so they had Twitter accounts. They had Facebook accounts. They had a variety of social media platforms and unlike previous conflicts," he says. And when these guys traveled over to Syria, they kept their Twitter and Facebook accounts active. "They were reporting in real time about what they were doing, how they were finding their life in Syria."
Amarasingam said back in 2013 and 2014, it was pretty easy to "just reach out to them as you would to any other person on Twitter and actually ask for interviews and see if you could get a conversation going." During that time, he was in touch with 10 or 15 foreign fighters.
But that scenario has changed in recent months. A lot of these fighters aren't online anymore.
"Many of them have vanished from the online community and others have died. It's been a bizarre research project," Amarasingam says. Currently, he is in touch with three ISIS foreign fighters from Britain, France and Canada, and a few more who belong to Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda-linked group in Syria.
There's no typical profile for the ISIS jihadis he's in touch with. "They come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, religious backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds," Amarasingam says. Some are converts and others are born into Islam but only start practicing it seriously later. "Some come from broken homes. Others are perfectly fine. Some are high school dropouts. Others have fairly high-level educations and were working in $100,000-paying jobs with a wife and a kid at the time that they left."
When Donald Trump was elected US president, Amarasingam was eager to get their reaction: "Initially they were kind of surprised at my question. They didn't seem to be paying too much attention, at least the ones I was speaking to. And they kind of argued that what's the big deal? It's just another American president. It's not like we fared any better under George W. Bush or Obama. We're still dealing with drones. It doesn't really mean a lot."
But as the weeks and months followed, the ISIS recruits starting to think of Trump as an asset to their cause.
"I think particularly after the so-called 'Muslim ban' and his ongoing use of the terms 'radical Islamic terrorism.' That's had interesting consequences, in that they see not what that effect has on them but what it might have for other members of the Muslim community in general and on recruitment," Amarasingam says.
He says the ISIS members he communicates with see Trump's rhetoric as doing their work for them: "They see him as speaking the truth and bringing to light what was always the hidden agenda in the US under Bush, Clinton and Obama."
Previous presidents always reassured American Muslims that the fight against extremism was not a war on Islam but a war on a very small subset of terrorist groups. "Trump kind of muddies that boundary and says Islam itself hates us," Amarasingam says. Some ISIS jihadis have told Amarasingam that they are hoping American Muslims will now realize that the earlier distinction between Islam and terrorism was fake, and will question their place in America.
Interestingly, according to Amarasingam, ISIS so far has not used Trump in any of their propaganda material. "You'd think Trump would be a perfect foil to throw into a propaganda video of some kind," he says, "but I think they're hoping that his rhetoric will spur on disaffected Muslim youth to take up their cause."
Amarasingam admits that his ISIS sample is small, but he thinks it still has value.
"A good chunk of what they say is of course propaganda that they've put out in their videos and it's not that different from what they tell you privately. But when you ask them about their parents, their siblings, their education, their life in the United States or the UK, you do get a more human picture of where they took the turns that eventually led them to their life in Syria and fighting for ISIS. If we're talking about prevention," he says. "If we're talking about spending all this money to prevent future kids from leaving, at a fundamental level we need to understand what led them there. And I think that's where the value comes in."