Why Westerners Join ISIS

By Daria Berstell

        As the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) remains in the press for their barbaric and violent methods, Westerners continue to leave their lives behind in favor of joining the jihadist group. The US State Department estimates that over 12,000 foreigners have traveled to Syria to join ISIS, including about 100 Americans. ISIS has attracted more Westerners than any other similar type of militant group due to their effective recruitment strategies. The vast majority do not have any prior military or fighting experience; ISIS is their first foray into military or jihadist life.

        ISIS uses the internet and social media to prey on young people, usually between the ages of 18 and 29. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, or Whatsapp are used by current ISIS militants to reach out to individuals who show interest in their cause by writing blog (or other social media) posts. These platforms make it possible for recruiters and their targets to communicate informally and quickly, even in real time with instant messaging. This method of reaching out to those who might join their cause is effective because it is a very personal approach.

        Additionally, social media is useful in helping recruit people to ISIS, due to its efficiency in disseminating the propaganda the group creates. They use slick movie-style trailers to interest people with high quality depictions of “fun violence,” much like in action movies or video games. However, some extreme cases have turned potential members off. It is clear that those making the propaganda pay attention to its reception, since videos often stop short of showing the end result. For example, execution videos often end before showing the moment of death.

Additional effective adaptations include the rapid development of videos. Social media’s efficient circulation of them means these images remain in the news feeds of people who have liked relevant pages or are friends with supporters or members. These people are more likely to be influenced by this media as they have already expressed interest in ISIS and related organizations.

        The journey from average western teenager or young adult to ISIS member is a slow one for recruits; understandably so, since it involves radicalizing them to the point where they wish to move across the world to become militants. For some, the journey to ISIS begins with conversion to Islam. Others, however, come from Muslim homes. Despite growing up Muslim, most of these Muslim westerners were members of moderate households. Parents and other family members were appalled at their relative’s choice to join ISIS. In interviews about their children joining ISIS, many parents commented on their child’s drastic change in personality and hobbies before leaving home. As a result of embracing conservative Islamic teachings, many of these new jihadists also rejected music and pop culture, as well as old friends.

        In addition to catering to their newfound values and beliefs, for many of the young people sucked into jihad, ISIS seems like an adventure. ISIS promises excitement, and for its recruits the opportunity to do something meaningful. For those who have turned to conservative Islam, ISIS provides a way to embrace and practice their religion in a “utopian” environment, for ISIS is in many ways is like a utopian political project. For these conservative foreigners, living in Syria and fighting alongside ISIS is portrayed as the ultimate way to practice their faith. The promise of martyrdom, or favor in the afterlife also tempts radicalized young Muslims.

        Furthermore, ISIS promises its recruits some more tangible perks, such as houses with running water and electricity, that are free of rent because of their service to ISIS. Additionally, ISIS implies that they will provide a community filled with like minded individuals.  For many of the young people who feel like outsiders in their homes in the West, promises of fulfilling their religious obligations, finding a path to a better afterlife, and being a part of a community are very strong motivators.

        New recruits not only increases ISIS’ numbers, but helps future recruitment, as those who have left western countries for ISIS are in a good position to recruit others from home. They speak the language of those they will recruit, and they have intimate knowledge of the culture. In addition, they can target specific people. Friends from home, or friends of friends who they know to be sympathetic or easy to sway, provide even more fodder for recruitment. As a result of the wide-array of people involved, ISIS recruitment is very decentralized. The use of social media and the ever expanding number of recruiters leads to a very large web of people that are very good at providing personal attention to those that express interest in ISIS. The lack of centralization makes it much harder for those trying to combat ISIS’ recruitment, like the U.S. government. The many middlemen involved in the process make it self-sustaining and quite capable of surviving many attacks.

        As a result of these effective measures, the United States struggles to prevent U.S. citizens from joining ISIS. A six-month review by the House Homeland Security Committee has shown that the U.S. does not have the infrastructure in place to prevent citizens from joining jihadist groups due to the lack of strategy for dealing with the threat of social media. In addition, the lack of strong security measures overseas makes it very easy for people to travel to join ISIS; this also increases the overall threat and possibility of extremists travelling or returning to the U.S. and committing acts of terrorism. Unfortunately, ISIS has proven formidable in its capacity to bring in young adults from a variety of western countries and as of yet there seems to be very little capable of stemming the tide.

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