Why the Surge in Islamic State Recruitment?

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, recruitment has soared within ISIS/IS since the US-led coalition began their bombing campaign in the region.

The coalition against the Islamic State includes France, the UK, UAE and several other Arab nations. Their methods, which include drone strikes and manned aircraft that target IS strongholds, have helped scatter the group. Yet it hasn’t hampered their ability to attract a constant stream of new recruits.

Although it seems incomprehensible to most as to why someone who was raised in the west would want to join the Islamic State, there is one thing they all seem to have in common.

Mary Ellen O’Toole, a FBI profiler, explained some of the commonalities in an interview with The Daily Beast, noting that most recruits were “in a similar age range of late teens to mid-20s and that is a problematic age group: It is the age group that we see most of the mass murderers in America coming from, it is the age group where we see the start of mental illness, particularly with males. If males are going to become criminal that is when you start seeing the early manifestations.”

She went on to say that, “Most people that young don’t think about consequences. They may never have been violent, although they may have talked a good game back at home. Once they are in Syria they are being exposed to violence that is off the charts and some of them will not be able to handle it.”

This trend has already been documented, with a number of former IS recruits wanting to return home to their western nations.

Yet the Islamic State has become experts at exploiting mental illness and feelings of isolation. They don’t begin by talking about the crucifixions of fellow Muslims, or the sexual slavery that awaits minority women who are captured by their militants. Instead they promote a righteous cause against the western imperialists. And for those that are lonely and have always harbored feelings of not fitting in, the Islamic State promises them love, brotherhood, inclusion and a feeling of home. For someone that has spent their entire life feeling like an outsider, being given a chance to feel like they’re part of a family can be dangerously alluring.

There are a couple stages to recruitment that have been tried and tested by Al Qaeda for years. They single out young and impressionable men, offer friendship and a feeling of acceptance, and once they are smuggled into the country, are treated harshly and told to commit to jihad. This often results in becoming a suicide bomber for the cause.

The Islamic State has taken these methods, amped them up with flashy music and friendly faces, and marketed themselves better than any other terrorist organization in history. They had a similar MO when they worked on recruitment within Syria and Iraq. They held carnivals full of food and face painting. They flashed money and worked to convince mothers that their sons would be safe in their hands. It wasn’t until later that the news of their brutality made its way across the region.

If we are going to stem the wave of recruitment to IS, there are a number of safeguards that could be put in place, with a focus on mental health. The US Deputy Coordinator for Homeland Security notes what stamping out western radicalism means:

“We need to look to the grievances and local factors that terrorist organizations exploit and the propaganda that is their key instrument in pushing vulnerable individuals down the path toward violence. More efforts are needed through words and deeds to undermine the insidious message of terrorist groups and to prevent vulnerable individuals from turning to violence.

To make progress on this front, we must resolve legitimate grievances peacefully and strive to foster good governance, reduce poverty and corruption, and improve education, health and basic services. In particular, we need to focus our efforts on locations where the risk for radicalization is exceptionally high.”

Anti-radicalization campaigns have had some success in talking down some of the more vulnerable members of the community. A handbook on how to combat recruitment, developed by Muslims in Canada, has noted that familial involvement and dismantling radical rationalizations are key. The handbook will be distributed across Canada. However, further efforts, in collaboration with local governments and mosques throughout Europe and North America, will be necessary to combat this issue on an international stage.