While many lone-wolf terrorists and supporters of the Islamic State are depicted as isolated loners, the terror group has been stunningly efficient at radicalizing seemingly smart and well-adjusted young people online.
Two recent articles in The New York Times highlight how successful the Islamic State’s (also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh) strategy of luring young people to the Middle East through social media and online radicalization has been.
People who knew a young Mississippi couple were shocked when the two students were arrested for planning to travel to Syria to join ISIS.
Jaelyn Young, 19, was a cheerleader and honour student who was studying to become a doctor, and Muhammad Dakhlalla, 22, was a psychology student and the son of a popular Muslim figure in town. They both attended Mississippi State University.
They are now in federal custody after allegedly planning ot travel to Syria to join ISIS.
Elizabeth Treloar, an 18-year-old friend of Young’s, told the Times: “Something must have happened to her. She’s too levelheaded, too smart to do this.”
Not only was Young intelligent and studious, but she was also popular and seemed to fit in with other typical American teenagers.
The Times notes that Young was a member of her high school homecoming court, and her Twitter feed (which was last active in 2013) is full of references to patriotism, Christianity, and hip-hop.
Young’s father was reportedly a police officer who previously served in the US military:
She was raised Christian and went to church:
And tweeted often about how much she loved music:
Young changed dramatically in the years since she sent those tweets. She shed her Christian beliefs after she met college friends who introduced her to Islam and eventually started plotting to leave the US to go live in ISIS territory, according to the Times.
It’s unlikely that her love for hip-hop artists carried over — ISIS militants ban music, claiming that it is sinful.
Dakhlalla came from a Muslim background, but his family was known for being examples of tolerance and peace, sources told the Times.
Students called Dakhlalla’s father Oda “Yoda” because he was seen as a “miracle-working” maths tutor, and his mother, Lisa, was known as “the hummus lady” because she sold the snack at a local farmers’ market. The family ran a Middle Eastern cafe, and they often gave out food to people in the community for free.
Young and Dakhlalla’s specific path to radicalization is unclear, but authorities caught onto their plans once undercover FBI agents posing as ISIS supporters started talking to them online.
Another story in the Times, about three girls from London who travelled to Syria to join ISIS, shows how the same phenomenon is hitting Europe.
Experts identified the trend to the Times as “a jihadi, girl-power subculture” that has lured upwards of 550 women and girls to ISIS-held territory in the Middle East.
Parents and teachers have misinterpreted warning signs of radicalization — like changing behaviour and deteriorating grades — as signs of typical teenage difficulties.
“They were smart, popular girls from a world in which teenage rebellion is expressed through a radical religiosity that questions everything around them,” Katrin Bennhold wrote for the Times. “In this world, the counterculture is conservative. Islam is punk rock. The head scarf is liberating. Beards are sexy.”
Social media and smartphone apps make it even easier for ISIS recruiters to reach girls living far away from ISIS territory. Part of what makes ISIS’ recruiting strategy so effective is the fact that some of the recruiters are very similar to the young women they seek to reel in — Westerners who became radicalized online.
A 20-year-old from Scotland has become one of ISIS’ biggest recruiters of young British women. Aqsa Mahmood is thought to have had contact with at least one of the London girls the Times story focuses on.
Mahmood fits the same profile as the other girls — her family has characterised her as a bright, popular girl who typical teenage girl stuff, including Harry Potter and Coldplay.
At some point, she start wearing a hijab and vocalizing her anger about what was happening in Syria, the Times notes.
Still, her family didn’t see it as anything that was extremely out of the ordinary. This matches what sources told the Times about Young, the teenager from Mississippi; her friend, Treloar, said Young expressed views that ISIS was unfairly depicted in the West.
And like Young, Mahmood once wanted to be a doctor or a pharmacist. Mahmood is now married to a radical and acts as the “den mother” of those who seek to leave their home countries to join ISIS, according to the Times.
Mahmood was likely herself radicalized online. Authorities told CNN that she watched sermons online and communicated with people who convinced her to join the extremists in Syria.
She now her own Tumblr blog and writes under a Muslim pseudonym. Western women can find the blogs and Twitter accounts run by these ISIS recruiters and then reach out to them on apps like WhatsApp and Kik to inquire about travelling to Syria, where ISIS has its de-facto capital.
Young people are important to ISIS’ long-term strategy. The young men are needed to fight, and the young women are needed to give birth to the next generation of jihadists, who are indoctrinated from a young age in ISIS territory.
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