Chapter 10 - The foreign fighters problem: Why do youth join ISIL?

Young people join ISIL for an extraordinary variety of reasons. Some feel a religious mission; others seek adventure. Many are attracted by the ideal of a caliphate. ISIL has a strong appeal in Europe among marginalised youth, but has had relatively less recruitment success in the United States, where Muslims citizens are well integrated in society. Research emphasises the importance of social bonds and family engagement in preventing recruitment, and the high correlation between time spent on the Internet and support for violent extremism. The return of fighters with stories of abuse and brutality gives governments and media companies the opportunity to feature negative testimony about life in ISIL territory. Countries need to mobilise an ‘army of volunteers’ to persuade young people one-on-one to resist ISIL recruitment messages.

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is simultaneously a criminal organisation, a proto-state and an apocalyptic cult with global terrorist ambitions. Volunteers are coming to ISIL by the tens of thousands, enticed by the chance to live in the only “place on the face of the Earth where the Sharia of Allah is implemented and the rule is entirely for Allah”, as well as the promise of sex, violence and money. Some imagine they are joining a humanitarian mission, helping disenfranchised Sunnis. Many of these foreign volunteers will end up serving as cannon fodder.

Why do they join?

Terrorist leaders encourage participation by offering two broad types of incentives to individual members: material incentives in the form of physical protection, housing, food and cash; and non-material incentives in the form of spiritual and emotional rewards. ISIL has advertised these positive incentives to potential fighters, boasting about a “five-star jihad”, that includes free housing, “healthcare in the Khilafah”, schooling for fighters’ children, taking care of orphans and the opportunity for individuals who cannot afford a wife to acquire sexual slaves or concubines. For example, two German recruits who escaped from ISIL and were then tried upon their return said that they had been recruited in Germany by a “false preacher” who emphasised religion more than the requirement to join in the fighting. He promised that they “would drive the most expensive sports cars and have many wives” and that they could leave whenever they wished. Neither of these claims was true, the German recruits would find out.

From reading ISIL’s literature, watching its propaganda and following its supporters on social media, it is possible to get a sense of what additional factors might attract foreign youth. In a May 2015 statement encouraging Muslims around the world to make hijrah (migration) to the ‘Islamic State’, Baghdadi claimed that Muslims living outside of ISIL-held territory were “homeless” and “humiliated”, while assuring that inhabitants of the so‑called Caliphate lived “with might and honour, secure by God’s bounty alone”. ISIL offers youth a chance to remake society and reinvent themselves. It offers a sense of purpose and a chance to be a hero. But jihadists have indicated they were also seeking adventure and a more glamorous life. Ignorance about Islam appears to make youth more vulnerable.

There is undeniable appeal to joining a group that is fired up with righteous indignation. Some people, moved to help others, join political parties, raise money for causes or try to increase awareness of injustices around the world. Some risk their lives covering war zones as reporters or as physicians healing the sick. But some individuals are willing to kill civilians as part of their holy war against perceived oppression, even though all mainstream religions forbid this. Some individuals, sadly, see jihad as a cool way of expressing dissatisfaction with a power elite, whether that elite is real or imagined; whether power is held by totalitarian monarchs or by democratically elected leaders. Many seek redemption from a sense of deep humiliation; while still others may believe they are participating in the lead-up to the End of Times. Because there is such a wide variety of “wants” satisfied by jihadist organisations, prevention and counter-radicalisation programs need to be tailored to individual needs.

ISIL is primarily a threat to neighbouring states, as well as weak states throughout the Middle East and Africa. But ISIL will undoubtedly continue to attempt attacks in the West. There are three broad categories of likely perpetrators outside of Syria and Iraq (not only in the West, but around the world):

  • foreign recruits who return from the battlefields to bring their holy war back home;
  • home-grown or self-recruited actors, inspired by ISIL and its ideology, perhaps over social networks, or commissioned by its money; and
  • trained terrorists emanating from its strongholds to lead an ISIL attack.

Western recruits represent the principal threat to North America, at least for now. ISIL would very much like to turn Western Muslims against their homelands and, for now, this has proven more easily accomplished in Europe than in the United States. One primary explanation may be that the pool of disenfranchised Muslim youth is larger in Europe. European Muslim youth describe themselves, often accurately, as victims of prejudice in the workplace and in society more generally. In the most recent European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey, one in three Muslim respondents reported experiencing discrimination, with the effect greatest among Muslims aged sixteen to twenty-four (overall discrimination rates decline with age). Muslims in Europe are far more likely to be unemployed and to receive lower pay for the same work than ‘native’ Europeans. Consequently, Muslim immigrants in Europe are disproportionately impoverished. While 10 per cent of native Belgians live below the poverty line, that number is 59 per cent for Turks and 56 per cent for Moroccans in Belgium. There are 4.7 million Muslims living in France, many of whom in poverty. An estimated 1,550 French citizens have left for Syria or Iraq; some 11,400 citizens have been identified as radical Islamists in French surveillance dataFootnote 113 .

By contrast, a majority of American Muslims are deeply integrated into American society. A 2011 Pew poll found that Muslim Americans feel happier with their lives than does the general population in the United States. That sentiment could change, however, with growing talk of imposing laws and requiring Muslims to register with the US government, a type of political speech that could actually facilitate ISIL’s goals of alienating American Muslims. But even without the assistance of such speech, ISIL is working hard to attract North Americans.

A major project at Children’s Hospital in Boston is presently being conducted where researchers are able to administer questionnaires to some 400 Somali refugee youth in Toronto, Boston, Minneapolis and two towns in Maine. The research on refugee youth suggests that there is a correlation between, on the one hand, delinquency, including support for violent extremism, and on the other, trauma exposure, social marginalisation and mental health issues. They have also found that strong social bonds are protectiveFootnote 114 . Somali-refugee youth workers have observed that parents imagine that their children are safe when they are inside the home, on the Internet. As is the case for some of the children of guest workers in European cities, the generation gap is especially profound when parents do not speak the local language and their children do, or when parents are ignorant about online recruiting. The team at Children’s Hospital also found a correlation between time on the Internet and support for violent extremism. The youth workers also observed that many of their clients believe that ISIL is a CIA-run organisation. It is important to point out, however, the limitations of this research. While there may be similar risk factors operating elsewhere among poorly integrated immigrant Muslims, this project has only focused on Somali refugee youth in North America. Due to limitations imposed by the ethics board, the researchers cannot ask direct questions about youths’ attraction to ISIL. Finally, although the researchers may be able to identify some risk factors among refugee youth, it is impossible to develop a profile of the prototypical recruit. A recent study by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism of all those arrested in the United States in connection with ISIL crimes revealed an extraordinary variety of recruits, approximately 40 per cent of whom were converts to IslamFootnote 115 .

Some individuals … see jihad as a cool way of expressing dissatisfaction with a power elite, whether that elite is real or imagined…

There are significant vulnerabilities in ISIL’s continuing ability to lure Western recruits. One is that it is losing territory to local ground forces and Western bombing raids. Another is that its ability to pay fighters has been diminished. Yet another is that foreign volunteers are coming back with harrowing stories about what life with ISIL is really like. Some volunteers have said that they assumed that the stories they heard in the Western media about ISIL’s brutality were not true. For example, AAibrah52 wrote in response to an articleFootnote 116 , which described ISIL’s practice of rape from the perspective of the victims, “What an ugly lie. You kuffar are sex obsessed”. Another wrote, “Media getting desperate”. When her parents revealed to the media that US government officials had discovered that ISIL’s leader, Abu Bakr al‑Baghdadi, had kept the US hostage Kayla Mueller as a sex slave, some ISIL fan boys expressed doubts about the veracity of the report, claiming that it was impossible to believe that al‑Baghdadi would have sex with a white girl.

Terrorists who have left their profession often say that seeds of doubt about their leaders’ integrity or true purpose led them to defect. Thus, evidence of ISIL’s practice of paedophilia and sexual enslavement must be widely shared, not just to Western media, but to potential supporters of ISIL. The group flaunts its massacres of Shia, but not its murder of Sunnis. This, too, represents an opportunity to introduce doubt regarding the true nature of ISIL’s practices.

During World War II, people expected to sacrifice themselves to help achieve the war aims. During the continuing war on jihadist terrorism, only a relatively small number of people have volunteered to serve. Containing ISIL requires a national and international effort, and must involve public-private partnerships. Entertainment, Internet and media companies that know how to appeal to millennial audiences can play a much larger role in crafting and disseminating compelling counter-narratives, bringing to bear their considerable expertise in market research and messaging. What is required is an army of individual volunteers who are willing and able to speak, credibly and persuasively, one-on-one, with youth who are attracted to ‘jihad-chic’, long before they are drawn to violate the law.

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