Mohammad Hamzah Khan grew up in a suburban Chicago home watching Dragon Tales and Batman, earning a Presidential Physical Fitness Award, and playing basketball in his backyard. He represented Argentina in the National Model United Nations and studied engineering and computer science at Benedictine University, a Roman Catholic School. Yet, despite this all-American upbringing, Khan faces 15 years in prison for attempting to join ISIS, the terrorist organization responsible for multiple bombings, beheadings, and rapes throughout the Middle East. Khan, like other young American adults, was recruited and radicalized via social media (Sullivan 2014).
Described by his neighbors as nice and polite, Khan fits the target audience for the slick propaganda of ISIS and other extremist Islamic groups. Radical organizations aggressively pursue disenfranchised youth and second-and-third generation Muslims, often using an ideology of salvation while also capitalizing on “religious duty”. Particularly by creating Twitter accounts, recruiters offer captivating messages in 140 characters or less, in as many as 23 languages, while also creating hashtags to track information in an easily searchable forum. ISIS has even resorted to posting pictures with kittens on the Twitter account “Islamic State of Cat,” an emotional lure for niches of young people. This attempt to normalize radicalization establishes a new facet of recruitment that seems to be overlooked by the American media that is more focused on stereotypes of brute force terrorists wielding guns, rather than using a computer or smartphone as their weapons.
Khan’s parents regularly monitored internet and television access, intending to protect him from the dangers of American culture. The Washington Post calls this process “cocooning,” shielding American Muslim children from contemporary culture (Sullivan 2014). Yet the messaging reached him in spite of his parents’ supervision. Omer Mozaffar, a Muslim community leader and theology professor at Loyola University in Chicago, says that sheltering children from contemporary culture is not necessarily protecting them. “They think ‘American’ equals ‘immoral,’” he says, “and there’s a common belief that if it’s more strict, it’s more pious. This is something I have to preach against all the time” (Sullivan 2014). In other words, if children are too sheltered they can end up adopting black and white, good vs. evil attitudes that cause them to respond to mainstream culture in extreme ways. American Muslim children can feel caught between two worlds: a devotion to both their religion and the contemporary society in which they live. ISIS preys on this dual identity, idealizing jihad and violence in Syria to solve the dilemma of two worlds by choosing the glorified heroism of religious duty and salvation.
Social media networks, like Facebook, Twitter, Kik, Instagram and others, are the most direct and efficient systems of communication society has ever known. At times, this seems to practically plague millennials with a yearning for constant communication. Radical terrorist groups exploit social media’s directness and efficiency, as well as this millennial mindset, to contact youth and spread their message without being detected on a large scale. Their objective is to create a “borderless” landscape of terrorism making otherwise “sleepy” regions like Cincinnati, Minneapolis, and Denver hotbeds of radicalization. However, while many terrorist groups traditionally recruited young males, ISIS is keen on targeting young women as fighters.
CNN recently claimed that women join ISIS because of slick propaganda schemes complete with “kittens and Nutella”, but women also typically share the political culture of male recruits and are deliberately recruited by ISIS for the same reasons as men. First, this betrays an underlying patronization of women in Western media, obstructing the realistic understanding of how jihadist networks weave women into their fabric. The reality is extreme Islamists recruit young women with equally strong messages about theology and politics that they use with their male counterparts, while Western media focuses on the anecdotal appearances of kittens. Ironically, it juxtaposes American misogyny with that for which ISIS is demonized. In fact, according to Nimmi Gowrinathan, a UN researcher primarily focused on women’s involvement in conflict and rebel movements, women are critical to generating popular support and engaging other women, necessary for any successful insurgency. She notes, “The fight for ISIS is a fight for a caliphate. It is a political fight, which goes a bit deeper than social media” (Taub 2015).
Dr. Erin Saltman, who researches processes of political radicalization, emphasizes that ISIS’s central tenets of recruitment rely on three narratives: adventure, humanitarian appeal, and romance (Taub 2015). While the first two are gender neutral, the third gives insight into the recruitment of western woman as spouses, despite appalling reports of rape, abuse, and enslavement. The most prominent examples of female recruits have occurred in Denver, Colorado. In September, Shannon Conley pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization after attempting to travel to Syria and marry a suitor she had met online. Just a month later, three Denver school-girls were arrested in Germany on their way to Syria to allegedly join Islamic militants. These girls are a by-product of what Mia Bloom, a professor of security studies at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, describes as a Disney-like recruitment process filled with Twitter and Instagram promises of dream homes and happy endings: a revolution that will welcome them into the battle (Taub 2015).
For over a decade American cultural leaders have overlooked the significant role that technological innovation plays in terrorism, and while the government scrambles to identify the reasons seemingly unassociated youths are being radicalized, they are neglecting the opportunity to engage recruits in the difficult dialogue of deradicalization. This is a conversation that Humera Khan, executive director of anti-terrorism think tank Muflehun, insists involves social media (Khan 2014). ISIS and other extremist groups take advantage of social networks in the U.S. as a tool to disseminate their ideology at an exponential rate, however, this influx of recruitment in the country mirrors the same development in Britain in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The British Jihadi Network generated the largest radicalization of pro-Al Qaeda zealots in the West and set the groundwork for the powerful propaganda that ISIS and other terrorist groups now use to attract new members. The U.S. media and governmental agencies need to examine the response to the extreme recruitment efforts of the British Jihadi Network for strategies to combat the recent developments in this country. For example, Denmark, which according to Jon Henley, a Guardian feature writer, has produced more jihadists per capita than any other western European country bar Belgium, has engaged an “exit” program known as Aarhus that focuses on assimilation back into “everyday life and society”, often using former extremists as mentors (Henley 2014). While it does not come without controversy, it is critical that the U.S. offers radicalized youth a viable alternative to life outside of jihad with the help of the most effective and efficient channels of communication the world has ever seen: social media.
Henley, Jon. “How do you Deradicalise Returning ISIS Fighters?.” The Guardian. November 12, 2014. Accessed March 30, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/12/deradicalise-isis-fighters-jihadists-denmark-syria.
Khan, Humera. “Using Social Media to Counter Violent Extremism.” Muflehun. November 1, 2014. Accessed March 20, 2015. http://muflehun.org/using-social-media-to-counter-violent-extremism/.
Sullivan, Kevin. “Three American Teens, Recruited Online, are Caught Trying to Join the Islamic State.” Washington Post. December 8, 2014. Accessed March 9, 2015. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/three-american-teens-recruited-online-are-caught-trying-to-join-the-islamic-state/2014/12/08/8022e6c4-7afb-11e4-84d4-7c896b90abdc_story.html.
Taub, Amanda. “No, CNN, Women Are Not Joining ISIS Because of ‘kittens and Nutella’.” Vox. February 18, 2015. Accessed March 9, 2015. http://www.vox.com/2014/10/20/6987673/isis-women.