It’s no longer shocking to hear that young men and women raised in the West have left the comforts of home for the turmoil of Iraq and Syria, eager to fight on behalf of Islamic State. But still we can’t understand why they do it, much less figure out how to dissuade them.
Ask any expert in the field, and you’re likely to get a long disquisition on the various profiles of foreign fighters. Some are from poor suburbs; some are from middle-class families. Some are converts; some were born into Muslim homes. Some come from broken homes; some come from intact families.
Some are loners who struggle at school; some are popular overachievers. Some were radicalized online, others by someone they met in person. Some, often boys, are running from their problems; others, often girls, are running from the strictures of a conservative home.
There is, however, one thing that most of these foreign recruits have in common: They are very young. A recent Danish intelligence report noted that the typical age range of foreigners joining the fight in Syria was 16 to 25. That makes them younger than the foreign fighters who streamed into previous jihadist struggles in Afghanistan, Iraq and Bosnia, who were 25 to 30. The process of radicalization begins even earlier, from ages 12 to 16.
In other words, when we talk about the fearsome foreign fighters of Islamic State, we are, to a large extent, talking about children. And these children’s families are just as bewildered as everyone else.
Recently I interviewed six women from five Western countries whose children had joined Islamic State. One of them, Christianne Boudreau of Calgary, Canada, recalled that her son, Damian, wouldn’t introduce her to his friends, wouldn’t sit at the dinner table if she served wine and would talk about “justified” killing. But she didn’t recognize what was happening.
She thought, “Here’s a teenager going through another phase.”
That’s more or less how all the mothers I spoke to experienced their children’s radicalization: just another, perhaps more angry, phase of adolescence. But neither Damian nor the other children had the chance to outgrow that phase. All but two died in Syria. The mothers of the two teenagers who are still alive expect the bad news any day.
Many believe that Islamic State attracts a younger set than al-Qaida did because it emphasizes excitement. Islamic State “paints a heroic picture,” says Farhad Khosrokhovar, a French Iranian terrorism expert. Al-Qaida’s strategy, on the other hand, is “boring,” he says. “It’s just imams talking. (Islamic State) doesn’t do that at all. It shows images of young men and girls who are fighting and living an adventurous life.”
Islamic State also gives recruits the impression that they’re fighting at a particularly important time, in an epic, millenarian standoff between cultures. Magnus Ranstrop, co-chairman of the Radicalization Awareness Network, a European Union working group, told me, “It’s like being given a chance to play in the Super Bowl.”
Islamic State’s sophistication doesn’t mean we should pity the young foreign recruits who heed the call. But it does suggest that we need to improve our counter-programming and develop a prevention strategy, even as we struggle to come up with a satisfying explanation for why Westerners join at all.
Today, most Western governments focus on punishment. In August, a Virginia teenager was sentenced to 11 years in prison for tweeting about how Islamic State could use bitcoin and for helping his friend travel to Syria. Those who return from the battlefield have faced criminal charges. What governments don’t provide is tangible assistance, or even much advice, for the first responders in this crisis: families.
That’s in part because there’s no working model for effective intervention. “It’s new, it hasn’t been done before, and often we don’t know how to do it,” says Jessica Stern, co-author of “ISIS: The State of Terror.”
Still, the mothers I interviewed believe they could have done more to keep their sons and daughters from leaving. One Dane said she should have taken a more active role in her son’s newfound Muslim faith, to make sure he didn’t end up going to a radical mosque. She wishes she had helped her son gather aid for Syrian refugees from their home in Copenhagen so that he didn’t feel compelled to go to Syria.
Daniel Koehler, a radicalization expert in Berlin, thinks active involvement is indeed crucial, and believes that joining Islamic State is not all that different from joining a cult or a gang, or falling down the rabbit hole of drug addiction. There is value in this point of view. As imperfectly as we’ve learned to deal with cults and gangs and addiction as a society, we find these problems less mystifying than religious radicalization.
In Norway, an organization called Just Unity has had success bringing young radicals back from the brink. It’s found that some devotees of Profetens Ummah, the main Norwegian radical group, are former gang members. And the same strategies that work on gang members also seem to work on radicals. A safe exit, a sense of community belonging and a job are all that some young men and women need to rejoin the mainstream.
Julia Ioffe is a contributing writer at New York Times Magazine and a columnist at Foreign Policy. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.