American families are under assault from an Islamic extremist group that is quietly turning young minds against their parents, against their religious faith, and against their country.
The group, the self-proclaimed Islamic State in occupied sections of Syria and Iraq, is using social media and the worldwide reach of the Internet in a sophisticated recruitment campaign that is making some families feel helpless to stop a slow-motion kidnapping of their children.
So far this year, 58 Americans – more than half under 25 – have been arrested for attempting to travel to Syria or for plotting violence in the US. That is more than twice the number of similar arrests for the entire year in 2014, and more than twice the number for all of 2013, as well.
“It is psychological warfare,” says Daniel Koehler, director of the Berlin-based German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies (GIRDS).
“They work like headhunters,” he says of the recruiters. “They have studied everything we know in our Western research about the psychology of radicalization, or social isolation, or the development and influence of politics.”
He stresses: “They have studied us.”
To parents and observers, the group’s success is baffling, given its brutal tactics such as beheadings, sexual slavery of women and girls as young as 10, genocidal massacres, and crucifixions. Most Westerners see little appeal in a medieval group that is actively setting the stage for what it hopes will become an apocalyptic showdown in which its unyielding, puritanical version of Islam will emerge victorious.
What is perhaps most alarming about this escalating war of ideas is that the violent extremist group appears to be winning, or at least holding its own, with Western governments struggling to effectively counter the recruiting campaign.
“If you are seeing young, upwardly mobile Western citizens who are choosing to join a terrorist organization many miles away from home versus whatever options they feel they have at home – you are losing the battle of ideas,” says Erin Saltman, a radicalism expert at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in London.
Mr. Koehler and Dr. Saltman are among those who have studied the group’s methodical recruitment efforts. Over the next week, the Monitor will explore the Islamic State organization’s online strategies and potential solutions to countering its appeal.
There is nothing uniquely Islamic about the group’s recruitment approach. It is the same basic way that neo-Nazi skinheads, white supremacists, and violent environmental activists grow their memberships. But there is one substantial difference. The Islamic State group has assembled the most sophisticated recruitment effort ever seen on social media with the ability in an instant to reach from the darkest corners of the Middle East all the way to the bedroom of a 16-year-old girl checking her Facebook page in suburban America.
It is this aspect of the group, experts say, that makes it so potent, so resilient – and so dangerous to the West.
“I have been doing this for a long time, about 45 years. I’ve never seen a terrorist organization with the kind of public-relations savvy that I've seen with [IS] globally,” Francis Taylor, undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the Department of Homeland Security, told a congressional hearing in June.
The IS recruitment process is subtle and can take anywhere from several months to several years, experts say.
Once a recruiter identifies a candidate, he or she is drawn into daily conversations meant to probe individual grievances, insecurities, and vulnerabilities. After these are identified, the recruiter seeks to address those needs by offering the target an opportunity to participate in the Islamic State’s exciting and historic project of reestablishing the “true path of Allah.”
In short, they become the recruit’s new best friend, someone who likes them, respects them, and understands them. This grooming takes place during frequent discussions of shared grievances. There is plenty to talk about with ongoing atrocities against Muslim men, women, and children, objections to US intervention in the Mideast, and widespread discrimination against Muslims in the West.
At some point in the process when it is deemed appropriate, the conversation turns to jihad and the newly created caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
The vast majority of Islamic scholars and the vast majority of world’s Muslims reject the IS group as a false caliphate and they reject Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as making a false claim to leadership of the Muslim world.
But that hasn’t stopped Mr. Baghdadi and his organization from using its self-proclaimed status to issue a call to arms for all faithful Muslims to emigrate to Syria and join the fight to defend the caliphate and expand its borders.
It needs fighters. It needs skilled workers. It needs women willing to become wives to fighters and mothers to yet another generation of fighters.
Would-be recruits are promised a piece of utopia on earth, and that any struggle or debt incurred because of their faith will be repaid many fold by Allah.
Experts in the process of radicalization say there is no single approach that works in every case. But given the increasing number of Americans arrested for supporting the group, this recruitment process seems to be working.
“The common thread here is that recruits are led to believe that they achieve something far greater with their lives by being part of this project than by simply staying at home,” says John Horgan, a psychologist and radicalization expert at Georgia State University.
Professor Horgan says it is naive to assume that would-be recruits will be dissuaded from joining IS by government efforts to publicize the group’s shocking atrocities.
Experts say the opposite is the case. Beheadings communicate a form of validation to recruits, a demonstration of the unrivaled power of the new caliphate. In addition, some analysts see the group’s open trade in sexual slaves as a blatant and cynical recruitment tactic to increase the ranks of young male volunteers.
The open-ended recruitment technique favored by the Islamic State group marks a sharp departure from Al Qaeda’s tightly controlled process of careful vetting that rejected anyone suspected of divided loyalties or otherwise deemed unsuitable.
In contrast, Islamic State group recruiters appear to be open to anyone willing to listen. They are prepared to invest significant time and effort to reach out to teens and others and hook them by exploiting their personal problems.
Experts say that Al Qaeda recruits ranged generally from 25 to 35 years old. Islamic State organization recruits are younger – 17 to 25. And the trend is going even younger to 15- and 16-year-olds. Young women in this age group are particularly prized as potential brides.
Unlike many of their parents, virtually all of these would-be recruits are fluent on social media.
According to FBI Director James Comey, the IS organization has 21,000 English-language followers on Twitter.
“There’s a group of tweeters in Syria, and their message is two-pronged: Come to the so-called caliphate and live the life of some sort of glory or something; and if you can’t come, kill somebody where you are; kill somebody in uniform; kill anybody; if you can cut their head off, great; videotape it; do it, do it, do it,” Director Comey told members of Congress during a July briefing.
“They’re pushing this through Twitter,” Comey added. “So it’s no longer the case that someone who is troubled needs to go find this propaganda and his motivation. It buzzes in their pocket.”
It is unclear how many hardcore IS supporters there are in the US currently. The FBI acknowledges that it has active investigations of Islamic extremists under way in all 50 states.
But it is hard to know how many of those cases involve individuals who are flirting with extremist ideas rather than those who are willing and capable of turning their extremist beliefs into violent action.
Despite the FBI’s aggressive enforcement actions, not all plots this year have ended with an arrest.
• On July 16, a lone gunman, Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, killed four unarmed Marines and an unarmed sailor at a military training center in Chattanooga before he was killed by responding police officers. No motive has been established, but many security experts believe based on the shooter’s chosen targets that Mr. Abdulazeez was motivated at least in part by the Islamic State group’s violent ideology.
• On June 2, counter-terrorism agents in Boston intercepted a telephone call in which the speaker expressed a desire to kill and decapitate a police officer. When confronted by law enforcement officials on a city street later that morning, the man, Ussamah Rahim, displayed a large knife, allegedly lunged at the agents, and was shot dead.
• On May 3, two men from Arizona opened fire outside a contest in Garland, Texas, promoting satiric depictions of the prophet Muhammad. Many Muslims consider such depictions blasphemous and a few have vowed violent retribution. Both men were quickly killed by an armed security guard.
Immediately prior to the attack, one of the gunmen, Elton Simpson, used Twitter to declare his allegiance to Islamic State leader Baghdadi.
Mr. Simpson expressed the hope that he and his associate, Nadir Soofi, would be accepted as Islamic warriors.
The organization later endorsed the attack in social media posts, praising the two deceased gunmen as martyrs. It also warned that future attacks would be more severe.
At the same time, like-minded jihadists around the world turned to social media to discuss the attack, praising the gunmen and denouncing those who participated in the blasphemous cartoon-drawing event. In that way, even though the attack did not result in any deaths (other than of the attackers), it nonetheless gave rise to a worldwide forum to praise the shooters and to encourage others to carry out similar violent attacks.
The pioneer of ‘WWWJihad’
The use of social media as a tool to spread Islamic extremism is an important innovation, experts say. It was pioneered by Yemen-based Al-Qaeda recruiter and militant cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. He called it “WWWJihad.”
“The internet has become a great medium for spreading the call of Jihad and following the news of the mujahideen,” Awlaki wrote in his 2009 essay, “44 Ways to Support Jihad.”
The US-born cleric urged militant Muslims to establish online discussion forums, set up websites, and maintain email lists to help control the conversation and expand the community of jihadists.
Awlaki did more than just offer inspiration. US officials say he played a role in plotting terror attacks, including a failed 2009 plan by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to use a bomb concealed in his underwear to down a passenger jet over the US.
Awlaki was killed in Yemen in a 2011 US drone strike. But his sermons remain highly popular among English-speaking jihadis in Western countries and have been cited as a key source of inspiration by many US-based recruits.
IS recruiters have taken Awlaki’s approach to Internet-based jihad several steps further. The group has a network of active recruiters in Syria and elsewhere who troll Twitter, Facebook, Ask.fm, and other social media platforms to identify receptive individuals.
More than 25,000 foreign fighters from more than 100 countries have traveled to Syria in recent years to engage in some form of jihad. That includes an estimated 4,500 from Western countries.
It is a lethal migration that experts say far exceeds any flow of such fighters over the past 20 years to warzones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia.
According to the FBI, roughly 250 Americans have tried to travel to Syria, and several dozen are believed to have made it there. Most were headed to the IS group’s caliphate.
There are several other militant Islamic organizations operating in Syria that are also attracting Western recruits, including the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al-Nusrah.
But the Islamic State organization has become the dominant force among the Syria-based extremists. It has done so by winning significant victories on the battlefield, including against Al-Nusrah, and by using its prowess on social media to project an image of excitement and inevitable victory.
“One of the Islamic State’s major appeals is the fact that it is winning, the fact that it can go toe-to-toe with the most powerful countries in the world and it is still standing,” says Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counter-terrorism expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The Islamic State group presents a full range of strategic and tactical challenges for the coalition of 60-plus countries that are arrayed against it on battlefields in the Middle East, according to retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, President Obama’s envoy to that coalition.
But he acknowledges that perhaps the most fundamental challenge in fighting the IS group is the one faced daily by mothers and fathers.
“We must save our children,” General Allen declared in a speech this summer.
• Part 1, Monday: How doomsday Muslim cult is turning kids against parents
• Parts 2 & 3, Tuesday: One Virginia teen's journey from ISIS rock star to incarceration & Eight faces of ISIS in America
• Part 4, Wednesday: FBI tactics to unearth ISIS recruits: effective or entrapment?
• Part 5, Thursday: What draws women to ISIS
• Part 6, Friday: To turn tables on ISIS at home, start asking unsettling questions, expert says
• Part 7, Saturday: How to save kids from ISIS? Start with mom.