Jihad In The Age Of Twitter
A savvy global social media campaign by the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is targeting increasingly younger recruits. Of the 58 Americans arrested so far this year for either plotting violence or trying to join the ranks of the militant group, more than half are under 25. Warren Richey, a staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor, explored this sophisticated recruitment machine in a recent seven-part series called “ISIS In America.” Moment speaks with Richey about how ISIS reels in Western teens and what can be done.—Anna Isaacs
How do ISIS’s target recruits differ from those of al-Qaeda?
ISIS is more of an equal-opportunity militant group. Al-Qaeda tended to recruit older people [ages 25 to 35] and very specific kinds of individuals—people with advanced degrees and people who had a very clear set of loyalties. ISIS recruiters throw out an invitation and basically say: Here is the caliphate, it’s established; you now have an obligation to come join, build and fight for this new Islamic State. Their primary recruits are now 25 and younger. And they’re particularly interested in teens, and in teenage girls ages 15 and 16. They want women for brides who will raise the next generation of fighters.
Why has ISIS recruitment gained more of a foothold in Europe than in the United States?
Immigrants who come to the United States generally want to become “American.” And so in the U.S., we have a Muslim-American community, whereas in Europe, Muslim communities tend to be much more separate. But American recruits aren’t coming from first-generation immigrants or refugees. The recruits are coming from their kids who grew up here, who may have been born here. They’re Muslims who know American culture very well and, to a large extent, reject it. That really has officials concerned. When you have a social media campaign that has the ability to reach out into every corner of the United States and is populated by young people who are savvy not only in social media but in American culture, then you potentially have a real problem. They can be very good at appealing to young people.
How does ISIS use social media to recruit?
Social media is part of the innovation that makes this group dangerous. Social media allows the organization to engage in conversations. A recruiter can ask a question: “Well, what do you think about the situation in Syria?” And the potential recruit says, “Well, I think Assad is awful and he needs to be removed.” And then they say, “Well, how do you think he should be removed?” They draw out and identify potential recruits who are ideologically disposed to them and then strike up a friendship. The process never starts with “Let me talk about jihad.” It starts by establishing friendships.
Many of the recruits going to ISIS have significant gaps in their lives. They feel disconnected from American culture. They feel that they’re second-class citizens. So there are discussions about all of that. Eventually the discussion turns to what’s going on, how Muslims are being treated elsewhere. At some point, they’re directed to an online conversation where they talk with like-minded people and are encouraged to express their views. Others online express their admiration for their views, providing affirmation intended to build up self-esteem.
At the very end of this process, this person on the other end of the line is pretty much your best friend. So after a few months of talking, the person can say, “We have a setback on the battlefield and we really, really need your help. Could you come help us?” It’s not some shadowy person asking you to come. It’s your best friend. It’s the person you’ve talked to every single day.
How do recruiters circumvent parents? They have to drive a wedge between the kids and their parents. In Islam, it’s really important to honor your parents and to be obedient to your parents. It’s so important that it’s a requirement to ask permission to participate in jihad. And that’s sort of an Achilles heel for ISIS. You can imagine what it’s like to emigrate from the Middle East to the United States. And these parents have managed to do it, and they’re raising their children in America, and their kids want to go to a war zone.
So ISIS came out with a religious ruling that the jihad that they’re fighting in Syria is an obligatory jihad. They basically said, “Well, since this situation is so dire, you don’t really need your parents’ permission.” But there’s another aspect. During the recruitment process, the recruiter will tell you to recruit your parents, too. Once the parents reject this, then that’s the wedge right there. Essentially what ISIS says is, “Your parents are now enemies of God. And you don’t have to pay any attention to them.” It’s kind of a slow-motion kidnapping. And it’s happening right in people’s own houses, day after day.
How does the recruitment process prey on typical young-person insecurity and vulnerability? You’re a young kid, and you’re wondering what your next step will be. You see tremendous human rights violations taking place and tens of thousands of Muslims being killed. You hear the cries for help. We don’t hear them, but young Muslims who are plugged in on social media hear them every day. And they see photographs of little children. That sets the stage right there.
One way to look at it is: Why would a young person join the U.S. Marines? Some people join the Marines because they want to be part of something that’s bigger than them. It’s the same thing with ISIS. ISIS has, through these very glitzy videos—including those beheading videos—portrayed itself as the protector and the savior of Islam. They project themselves as warriors.
This is a group that cuts Western journalists’ heads off. They make a big show of this. They are very violent. They enslaved Yazidi women and continue to trade Yazidi women as sexual slaves. When I started this research, I thought, if people just knew in detail what was going on, that would undercut the recruitment. But that’s absolutely wrong. It’s the opposite of that. They publicize these beheadings because it draws people to them.
It’s the same process, I am told, that the Nazis used. They convinced teenagers, young adults and much of society that it was us vs. them, and by doing that, they justified all kinds of horrible things. It was the same thing in Rwanda with the genocide there. It’s always us vs. them—we’re right; they are something less than human; therefore, we can do whatever we deem necessary to preserve ourselves.
You discuss the draw of so-called “jihadi girl power”—a kind of devout brand of feminism attracting young Muslim women from the West. What is it about ISIS that appeals to young women? And what happens to them when they arrive?
Some young women feel like second-class citizens in the West. You wear the hijab and people make fun of you, and you’re different, and every time you turn on the TV there’s someone in a bikini, and the whole culture in the United States is sexualized. It’s not what we in the West think of as feminism, but it is an empowerment, and the empowerment is this: You’re going to go to a place where you will be in the majority, where everybody will dress like you, where everybody will be living under the same cultural restrictions.
ISIS forbids women to participate in combat because they want women to have a lot of children. They say that is the most God-exalted thing that you can do for the Islamic State right now. When an unmarried woman goes to Syria, the expectation is she’ll be married within three to four months, and that if or when her husband is martyred, she will be remarried within four months. One of the reasons women from the West are prized is because ISIS has young men from the West who need wives.
People have told me that when women go, their travel documents are confiscated. And in the ISIS-occupied areas of Syria, they aren’t allowed to walk on the street without an escort. So it is pretty difficult, particularly for a woman with children, to make it from some interior place to the border and get across the border if she decides she wants to leave.
ISIS recruitment is a slow-motion kidnapping. And it’s happening right in people’s own houses, day after day.
What role does U.S. policy play?
U.S. policy is certainly one of the factors that puts some people on the path to radicalization. People are upset about drones, that the United States supports certain governments and leaders, and that the United States was in Iraq and is still in Iraq. They’re upset that the United States is in any Muslim country. These grievances help create an atmosphere in which somebody can be cultivated into militancy.
That’s not to say that the only way to counter this is for the United States to conduct its foreign policy in a way that isn’t offensive to anybody. But it’s important to recognize that this viewpoint exists. There’s a difference between American Muslims expressing opposition to certain aspects of U.S. foreign policy and people who are prepared and willing to engage in militant activity. But since the 9/11 attacks, I’m not sure that this difference is fully appreciated. And that’s a problem.
You point out that, since 9/11, imams in American mosques have effectively been banned from discussing certain political issues. Are we ceding these conversations to radicals?
It’s not so much that they’ve been banned, because the government doesn’t have that power. It’s significantly more insidious than that. These folks have censored themselves because of their own fear. The worst thing is for people to be so afraid that they won’t speak up. This is happening all over the country. It’s going to be an extraordinarily brave imam that’s going to stand up and say, “You know what, you’re right about drones. I don’t think it’s right that all of these people have been killed by drones and there’s no discussion of it.” Nobody wants to get investigated for being a potential terrorist. So in the Muslim community, they want federal prosecutors and agents to acknowledge that they need space to engage in a healing dialogue with young Muslims. Unless they get that space, these guys are going to go where they can talk to people about these issues. They won’t hear the other side. We’ve basically surrendered this whole territory to the radicals.
What is the U.S. doing to stop recruits?
In general, the U.S. strategy has been to use law enforcement to arrest and imprison would-be recruits. I think the strategy, to a large extent, has worked, because you can see the relatively small number of people—that we know of. That’s the big caveat. We don’t know exactly how many there are. But I would raise a second question and ask if parts of that strategy aren’t counterproductive. Is there a way we can continue to be effective but also do it in a smarter, more efficient way that doesn’t automatically send everybody to prison?
You write about the fine line between successful counterterrorism and entrapment when an FBI operative impersonates a recruiter. It seems there’s no consensus on whether those techniques, when used on young people, are predatory or effective. What is your impression?
Well, they’re effective. If your goal is to get somebody off the street, then that’s a way to do it. But the question is: What are you doing in the process? You’re essentially finishing the job of the recruiter. You’re pushing that person to do the radical act that would ultimately be required at some point in the radicalization process. And who is it that’s doing that? It’s the FBI undercover operative. He’s finishing the radicalization process. That’s ironic. I’m not critical of the use of undercover operations or sting operations. I think that they’re appropriate in some cases, particularly when the individual is so radicalized that there’s no bringing them back. But I suspect that there are some who would be better served by a different kind of intervention. There has to be an option other than encouraging somebody to engage in what would be an illegal act and then arresting them and putting them in prison for 20 or 30 years. This would also free up law enforcement resources to focus on the most dangerous individuals.
How does this strategy differ from strategies in other countries?
In Europe, they have a full range of options. Germany, for example, has a complete family intervention program. Here’s the difference: My kid is radicalizing, and I suspect that he’s thinking about going to Syria. In the United States, my options are I either keep quiet and run the risk that he’s going to run off to Syria and fight or die; or I call the FBI, and they come in and he is convicted of plotting to provide material support and goes to prison for 20 years. In Germany, my options are: I keep quiet and my son or daughter goes off to Syria; I can call the federal authorities and they can come in and prosecute, or I can call for an intervention. A specialist—from a government agency run with the help of NGOs—will come to the family and will establish a strategy to help pull that individual back from radicalization.
Those intervention programs—sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, but they are always helpful to the family members. When you have that third option, that person who’s intervening with the family gets to know the family, and that person also has contacts with the police if it’s necessary at some point to bring in the police. You don’t get a knock on the door at three in the morning. Everybody’s on board, and what that does is build trust between the family and the police, and trust between the community and the police. In the United States, there are only a few examples of programs like these. But I think that’s going to change, hopefully within the next year.
Should Israel consider ISIS a threat on par with Iran?
ISIS is a terrible threat to Israel. Israel is in all of their statements. They talk about the West, they talk about the United States, but there’s always something about Israel. And the difficulty here is that ISIS, as part of its ideology, believes that the Shia Muslims aren’t real Muslims. And so in Iraq you’ve seen horrible massacres of Shia Muslims by ISIS fighters. Hopefully, this nuclear agreement will hold and there won’t be any nuclear arming. But in the event that there is, if you can imagine Iran with a nuclear weapon, and ISIS with a focus on Israel—this is the one thing that those two players could agree on. It’s terribly important that the nuclear agreement be effective. ISIS is so close to Israel and it is such a threat to the region itself. And in my view, it’s already become a threat to Israel, because this tactic of individuals using knives—this, to me, is an ISIS tactic: Do what you can where you are. Look around and find somebody and kill them. And if you can cut their head off, cut their head off. If you don’t have a gun, use a knife. If you don’t have a knife, use a hatchet. If you don’t have that, use a car. Wherever you are, find somebody, kill them. This is what’s going on. It’s a different kind of terrorism, but it’s still terrorism.