The US and other western countries have been alarmed at how the Islamic State terror group has been able to lure teenagers and young people to the Middle East to join their ranks.
Rukmini Callimachi of The New York Times recently wrote about a 23-year-old American woman from Washington state who has been communicating with Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh) recruiters online.
The woman, “Alex,” showed Callimachi the messages and reading materials these recruiters had sent her, and their approach to grooming her seems textbook.
The Times notes that the tactics are similar to those laid out in an Al Qaeda manual called “A Course in the Art of Recruiting.” Although ISIS and Al Qaeda are now two separate organisations, ISIS recruiters seem to follow many of the same basic guidelines for luring people in and indoctrinating them. And with the rise of social media, reaching these recruits across the globe has become even easier.
The ISIS recruiters Alex connected with through social media built their relationships with her slowly. They started off by talking to her about Islam and gradually indoctrinated her to believe that the Western media had exaggerated ISIS atrocities.
While Al Qaeda seemed more cautious about who they recruited, ISIS is more open. They communicate with people online, many of whom have never been to Muslim countries, and also target women, whom they marry to ISIS fighters in Syria and elsewhere.
Here’s a look at what the Al Qaeda training manual says about recruiting:
Extremists seek out non-religious people.
From the manual: “You should take precautions against the religious people whom you invite, because maybe they will reject the da’wa (invitation) and end up being the reason for our defeat.”
ISIS looks to manipulate those who are vulnerable and searching for meaning in their lives. Those who don’t know much about Islam can be easier to indoctrinate and less likely to push back on what they’re told.
The manual says that non-religious Muslim youths are preferred: “This is because you will be the one to guide him (i.e. this nonreligious Muslim) to the right path; and you can choose who you want to be with you in your brigade, God willing. This sector (contains candidates) without limit, especially the youths, who are the safest people (for recruitment), and all praise be to Allah. However, we must be careful, too.”
They also seek out students and people who are isolated, living away from big cities.
Jihadists go after people in isolated areas because they “have a natural disposition for the religion and it is easy to convince them and to shape them,” according to the manual.
High school and college students are also prime targets. From the manual:
“The university is like a place of isolation for a period of four, five, or six years and is full of youths (full of zeal, vigour, and anti-government sentiments). However, you should be careful because it is also full of spies.
“[High school students] are young but tomorrow they will be adults, so if you don’t give them da’wa some one else will (but it will be for materialistic goals). However, don’t be in a hurry because haste in this matter might destroy the da’wa. The merits of this sector: 1. Often they have pure minds; 2. It is very safe to deal with them because they are not likely to be spies, especially after they pass the stage of individual da’wa.”
The recruitment starts subtly as to not scare the person away.
“Be careful of talking about the problems of the Muslims from the beginning (of the relationship) so as not to make the relationship appear as your recruiting him,” the manual says. “He will say to himself, ‘you are doing all of this with me, just to recruit me, etc.’ Also, don’t rush anything because there will be a proper time for everything.
“Be careful not to talk about Al Qaida, Salafi Jihadis, or any specific jihadi group in the first stages, but the da’ee (preacher) should speak about the mujahideen and the resistance fighters in general, because maybe this candidate loves the mujahideen but the media has distorted their image, especially Al Qaida.”
They ply recruits with jihadist propaganda.
“You should also make a schedule for him to listen to at least one lecture daily,” the manual says. “These lectures, books, and pamphlets must become his best friends.”
The manual also advises sending Islamic books and lectures on CDs. There’s a list of recommended reading, but the manual says recruiters shouldn’t show candidates any jihadi videos “except when his iman (faith) is at a high level, and when he is in a state of tranquility in order to have the best effect on him and on his heart.”
They exploit tragedies.
The manual tells recruiters to “use current events and/or horrible occasions (i.e. the siege of Gaza) to comment and explain the situation of the Muslims (according to the Islamic perspective).”
“Make most of your speech about Palestine,” the manual instructs. “This is because there is no disagreement (amongst the scholars and Muslims) about it, and it is dear to the Islamic nation. Also the rest of the arenas of Jihad have been distorted and misrepresented by the media in different percentages (i.e. the Jihad in Islamic Morocco has been greatly distorted, but the Jihad in Chechnya has been partially distorted).”
They become close to the recruits and strike up a friendship with them.
The manual advises: “Help to fulfil his needs. Be good with him even if he does something to harm/offend you, because everybody likes the person who does something good for them. Listen to him to get to know more about his personality. Take part with him in his good and bad times.”
Recruiters also stay in close contact — the manual instructs them to make sure they don’t go more than one week without reaching out to their recruit.
They reinforce the person’s good qualities and remind them of Islamic “paradise.”
From the manual: “Get to know his good morals and manners and praise them in front of him; also, tie these good morals and manners to Islam (i.e. make sure you explain to the candidate that his good morals and manners are found and promoted in Islam).
“Focus on At-Targheeb (teachings of the desiring for Paradise), but don’t completely leave At-Tarheeb (teachings of the terrifying punishments of the Hellfire). (You should spend more time reminding the candidate of Paradise and how to get there, than about Hellfire.)”
Once the recruiter has established a relationship with the recruit, they start talking about jihad.
“The candidate should get to know most of the ahadith of Jihad and Martyrdom by any means, until he desires and hopes for this,” the manual says. “This usually happens to the one who fears the punishments in the Hereafter. And when he knows that Jihad will rescue him from the horror of the Day of Judgment, the result will be that he desires and hopes for Jihad.”
During this stage, they also make sure the recruit adheres to prayer times and reads the Quran.
They control the message.
Recruiters make sure not to veer off-message. They want to avoid creating doubt in the recruit.
The manual says an entrance could be made “through Current affairs; who knows, maybe a big operation will be performed in the near future.”
“A lot of Mujahideen brothers have had dreams about big operations. Also maybe more defamation against the Messenger (sws) will occur (so you can take advantage of this situation to speak about Jihad to the candidate). Or the candidate might see a meeting of the Mujahideen on any T.V. station, so you can let him hear this meeting which might cause him to love the Mujahideen.
“Or you can let him watch a Jihad documentary on any TV Station (i.e. al Jazeera), such as documentaries on the Jihad in Iraq. Or you can let him watch documentaries on the lives of Mujahideen leaders, etc. All of this must bring about a benefit in the da’wa (calling) him to Jihad. And do your best to deter him from the TV channels of the hypocrites, like Al I’briya and others, as well as from any other media distortions (about Jihad).”
ISIS is steadily attempting to build a “caliphate,” an Islamic empire that aims to unite the world’s Muslims under a single religious and political entity, in the Middle East, and the group has already seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria.
ISIS governs its territory according to a strict interpretation of Sharia law and convinces its recruits that they must move to the caliphate if they are able, lest they live among the “infidels” who persecute them in the West.
Westerners who convert to Islam to join ISIS are particularly valuable to the group because of the worldwide headlines they garner in the media.
ISIS plays the propaganda game well and sees recruitment as essential to the long-term survival of the group.
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