Lately the news has been flooded with horror stories of the ISIS-led attacks occurring around the world. After hearing about these, it’s easy to wonder: how in the world can any sane individual partake in such brutalities?
How is an organization that is so extreme and so violent able to get bright, young people, including an increasing number of Western foreigners, to drop their normal lives and risk it all for a terrible cause?
To answer these questions, let’s take a look at how ISIS convinces young individuals to join their efforts.
The internet is the perfect place for ISIS recruiters to find and target future members. Online, it is easy to remain anonymous and to keep recruitment a secret process. Identities are easily masked, and information is easily transmitted.
ISIS recruiters are motivated to convert others to jihadists not only to propagate the values they believe in, but also to make a significant amount of money. ISIS pays its supporters up to $10,000 for every person they recruit. The price paid depends on who is recruited--if the people are well educated, such as computer specialists or doctors, they are worth more.
A wide variety of online platforms are used to find potential recruits, including Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube. Then recruiters spend thousands of hours engaging with these individuals, keeping in regular touch and slowly ushering them towards the theological concepts ISIS is built on.
Recruiters often use techniques mentioned in a manual written by the Islamic State called “A Course in the Art of Recruiting.” This pamphlet advises recruiters to “share [their] joys and sadness” in order to draw closer to targets and to focus on the basics of Islam without mentioning jihad. The goal is to establish close relationships with the potential recruits and make them feel they have made new friends.
One of the most important parts of ISIS conversion is isolation. According to Mubin Shaikh, a former member and recruiter for an extremist Islamic group, recruits “look for people who are isolated and if they are not isolated already, then [they] isolate them.”
Often the easiest people to target are teenagers. Many teens feel they don’t fit in and that they want to participate in something larger. This makes it easier for ISIS to recruit them; they are able to exploit the fact that teenagers are still trying to figure out their place in the world.
Recruits isolate individuals by getting them to spend more and more time online and away from reality. They also warn recruits that sharing their conversion to Islam with others may lead them to danger. Progressively, recruits begin to feel more connected to their new online “brothers and sisters” rather than to their families and friends.
Of course, no American or European teen believes they are being converted to migrate to a warzone and join a remorselessly murderous and radical group. The ideas that recruiters plant into their heads are fantasy. Two young American women, for example, were lured to Syria on the pretext of providing humanitarian aid. After a new “friend” helped them enter the nation, they were taken to an ISIS compound and ended up serving as sex slaves for ISIS fighters.
Other recruits are lured by the promise of joining a sort of utopian movement and participating in something bigger than themselves, or simply for the sake of adventure. Many are told that ISIS’s goal is to build a homeland in Syria and Iraq where the holy could live according to God’s law.
Another frequently targeted group of individuals are young Muslims, who are often faced with an identity crisis. According to Farah Pandith, this “struggle for identity means there is an opening for extremists--to give them purpose, to give them a sense of belonging.” A new report by Congress says that over 250 Americans have attempted to join ISIS, and that many of these are former refugees.
18-year-old Dahir Ali, for example, explains that many people come up to him and tell him he is a terrorist since he is Muslim. Terrorist groups like ISIS are looking to recruit exactly such people--those who feel like outsiders. Ali’s community in Minneapolis has the largest population of Somali in the country, many of who came as refugees in the 1990s. Since 2007, two dozen have left to join extremist groups.
As we can see, the recruitment process is a crucial part of converting people into ISIS extremists. Unfortunately, it is incredibly difficult to prevent this process from occurring due to the nature of the internet. Understanding the logistics of recruitment can, however, help us understand the role that manipulation and lies play in fueling extremist movements.