Talking to terrorists: What drives young people to become foreign fighters for ISIS and other terrorist groups and what can be done in response

The draw for young people to join a terrorist group has never been as strong as it is today. I know because I have spent over a decade interviewing over four hundred terrorists around the world and, in the case of suicide bombers who are already dead, interviewing their family members, close associates and even the hostages they held. My questions always centered on what put these (mostly young) people on the terrorist trajectory. Could their movement along this trajectory have been prevented? Once on the trajectory, could they have been moved back off it by some sort of intervention?

From my research I learned firsthand what makes up the prime ingredients of the terrorist cocktail. First, there is a group with a political aim that has framed a problem and its solution in violent terms – a group that is willing to use terrorism. Second, the group’s ideology argues that the group’s political aim and purpose is so important to justify the use of terrorist violence – this is always argued wrongly because there is no cause ever that justifies intentionally attacking civilians. Third is some level of social support within the individual’s community for choosing this path. And fourth are the individual vulnerabilities and motivations exposed to the group, its ideology and its social support.

I found that in conflict zones individuals primarily resonate to terrorist ideologies out of revenge and trauma that arises out of violence they have endured or witnessed. There are numerous other motivators but trauma and revenge are primary. In non-conflict zones the motivators are more likely to include discrimination, marginalization, frustrated aspirations, a desire for adventure, romance, sex, purpose and personal significance, a desire to be heroic or even to live up to stereotypical gender roles.

Recruiters in non-conflict zones are also adept at bringing what is happening in the conflict zones into the discussion via raw video footage and images of violence. These can induce a secondary trauma if the individual relates to those in the conflict zones as “fictive kin” – that is like in the case of the Muslim ummah for instance where downtrodden Palestinians, Chechens, Kashmiris, Iraqis and Afghanis are referred to as one’s brothers and sisters.

Belonging is also a big part of it. Youth often follow their peers and some may simply want to be part of what is becoming known as “jihadi cool” or “gansta” jihad. Likewise when young girls demand that their men be willing to “martyr” themselves or join as mujahideen they may also sign up – not for the promises of the virgins in paradise but for sex right now.

The current militant jihadi actors – namely al Qaeda and now ISIS have also become extremely adept at using ideology to motivate individuals both within and outside of conflict zones to join their cause. Both groups have mastered social media and have hammered away on a now well-known and sadly well accepted (in some circles) narrative that the West is attacking and occupying Muslims, Islam itself and Islamic lands. Those who are facing perceived or real injustices and who are angered over foreign policy decisions that don’t sit well with them, not surprisingly, may resonate to this message.

ISIS has taken it a full step further in claiming a Caliphate in the Middle East and capitalizing on scriptures and beliefs about the end times. In their apocalyptic vision they claim that every Muslim has a duty to make “hijra” – that is moving to the place of jihad and fighting jihad. Anwar al-Awlaki, now killed by a U.S. drone strike in particular lives on and continues to convince youth that militant jihad and joining groups like al Qaeda or ISIS is their duty via his very charismatic sermons still circulating on the Internet – messages that keep him an active recruiter from beyond the grave.

ISIS is also peddling a vision of a utopian state in which Muslims of all nationalities, ethnicities and races are brought together to – according to their claim – live under Islamic ideals. While the reality is a far cry from that, young women are called to come and marry “real men” – mujahideen – who are fighting to bring about this utopian ideal and the men are called to be the fighters idealize this utopian vision and resonate to it. The women who go idealize their role to populate the new Islamic State and support their men, while the men resonate to the idea of being tough, strong and important. In both cases frustrated individuals are being fed the hope of escaping dull lives by stepping into an adventure where they are promised the possibility of living up to male and female ideals while living a pure and good Islamic existence. Of course, it never materializes, but the young star struck recruits taking off for Syria and Iraq can not know that – until he or she arrives.

The fight against today’s terrorist groups is necessarily multi-pronged and needs to be contextual, just as the call to terrorism is. What works well in one setting might not work in another. Firstly we must focus on prevention. The ISIS and al Qaeda narrative has been around for some years now and needs to be addressed head on because those concerned with injustice will resonate to it in varying degrees. One way to approach the narrative is to include it in middle school curriculums to teach youth how terrorist groups recruit and why intentionally attacking civilians is never a good answer. Nations may make mistakes and may cause collateral damage but a core value that can be taught to inoculate youth against the idea of terrorism is to teach that intentionally targeting civilians is always wrong and then provide case examples that show clear ways to solve problems that do not include violence and case examples of where terrorism failed terribly. Similarly, we can work with former extremists and terrorists to tell their stories in compelling ways so other can learn why they entered the terrorist trajectory and how it did not work out as they hoped. Disillusionment, deradicalization and disengagement in others can serve as a learning example of why not to engage. The more creative ways in which these stories are told – by video, via the Internet, in short but emotionally convincing ways, and so on – can make them more compelling and more likely to reach a wider audience with a profound teaching effect.

Since so much of today’s terrorism in non-conflict zones is motivated by a desire for significance, purpose, adventure, life meaning and to impress others it is also wise to find tools to survey vulnerable persons and what they are posting on social media. Most of today’s extremists who join ISIS cannot resist bragging about it on social media and many brag well before they buy a plane ticket to Syria. Jon Cole of Liverpool University developed the Inventory of Vulnerable Persons (IVP) a tool similar to what we used to access extremists when I designed the psychological component of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 detainees and 800 juveniles. This program consisted of the traditional Islamic challenge carried out by imams who were to gain rapport with detainees and then point out to them reliable scriptures that contradicted their militant jihadi views. Alongside of this we also added psychological interventions to address the trauma of living in a conflict zone, having been arrested and detained and responses of wanting to fight back, revenge, etc. This combination was aimed at taking apart the terrorist ideology as well as addressing the individual vulnerabilities that had made the ideology resonate for them. The IVP can be used as guidance to identify early on those who might be taking it all the way to terrorism and then intervention can occur before they do. Jeff Weyers, a doctoral student and policeman in Canada has already used it for exactly that purpose and found that it led to actionable evidence against would be and real terrorists in three hundred cases in various countries around the world. While tools of this sort are useful in monitoring the trajectory into terrorism we need also keep in mind that they are guidance for law enforcement and not scientific tools to categorize people and predict their behaviors with certainty.

There are so many good answers to terrorism and many of them involve fighting for social justice and dignity for all people. While that is a tall order we need to start somewhere.

The Author

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service. She is author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles. She also has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe. Her forthcoming book is Bride of ISIS.