ISIS, perhaps more than any other multinational terrorist group, has become known for its ability to attract Westerners away from their comfortable lives in prosperous countries and into the dangerous world of violent jihad.
Peter Bergen, who was the first journalist to interview Osama bin Laden on television and has written five books on terrorism, explored what attracts Americans to radical Islam in his new book, “The United States of Jihad.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all explanation for why Westerners join foreign terrorist organisation, nor is there one common profile for an American jihadist.
“Each case is a little bit different, and in the same way, if you looked at anybody who murdered somebody, I think you’d find that each case, the more you know about it, the more particular it becomes, and in some ways the more inexplicable it becomes,” Bergen told Business Insider. “
Evil acts are usually pointless and inexplicable.”
Bergen described several common factors that might motivate Americans to join a terrorist group: “militant Islamic theology that they’re attracted to, desire to belong to something bigger than themselves, objections to American foreign policy, and for some people, it’s actually just sort of fun to be part of a jihadi group and that’s exciting.”
And the attraction to groups like ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh) or Al Qaeda aren’t always specific to religion or Islam.
“In the 1970s, people attracted to this ideology might have joined the Weather Underground or the Black Panthers, or some other revolutionary ideological group that was using violence to achieve its ends,” Bergen said.
“It’s exciting to join these organisations, you can be part of something that’s bigger than yourself, and we’re seeing some of that in these jihadi terrorist groups.”
Community could be a big part of the attraction for people who feel lost and are looking for a place to belong and a purpose in life. ISIS can provide a sort of online community for vulnerable people who are interested in its message.
The New York Times described how one young woman in Seattle became radicalized after she came into contact with ISIS recruiters online — they spent hours talking to her online and sent her books, gifts, and cards.
Americans are an important part of ISIS’ global strategy — the US is a prime target for the terrorist group, but geography and border controls makes it difficult for the group to get its operatives into the country.
So it hopes to inspire so-called “lone wolf” terrorists who might become indoctrinated by viewing ISIS propaganda online and then plan their own attacks.
Christopher Swift, an adjunct professor of national-security studies at Georgetown University and international lawyer at Foley & Lardner who testified in front of the US House Subcommittee on Terrorism earlier this month, explained ISIS’ lone-wolf strategy.
“How do you get the biggest bang for the proverbial buck? The way to do it is you try to recruit a lot of people at a low level,” Swift told Business Insider. “You see what sticks and then you try to organise small-to-medium attacks rather than the big catastrophic. Because that will have the same effect in terms of the political discourse in the US.”
But finding people who have been radicalized online and have no formal connections to terror groups can be difficult.
“What we don’t know how to do is identify the people in our communities who are vulnerable to this kind of indoctrination, radicalization and mobilization,” Swift said. “We focus on the problem that’s easiest to solve, which is identifying people on their nationality and religion instead of their psychological vulnerability.”