American families are under assault from an Islamic extremist group that is quietly turning young minds against their parents, against their religious faith, and against their country.
The group, the self-proclaimed Islamic State in occupied sections of Syria and Iraq, is using social media and the worldwide reach of the Internet in a sophisticated recruitment campaign that is making some families feel helpless to stop a slow-motion kidnapping of their children.
So far this year, 58 Americans – more than half under 25 – have been arrested for attempting to travel to Syria or for plotting violence in the US. That is more than twice the number of similar arrests for the entire year in 2014, and more than twice the number for all of 2013, as well.
“It is psychological warfare,” says Daniel Koehler, director of the Berlin-based German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies (GIRDS). – “They work like headhunters,” he says of the recruiters. “They have studied everything we know in our Western research about the psychology of radicalization, or social isolation, or the development and influence of politics.” – He stresses: “They have studied us.”
To parents and observers, the group’s success is baffling, given its brutal tactics such as beheadings, sexual slavery of women and girls as young as 10, genocidal massacres, and crucifixions. Most Westerners see little appeal in a medieval group that is actively setting the stage for what it hopes will become an apocalyptic showdown in which its unyielding, puritanical version of Islam will emerge victorious.
What is perhaps most alarming about this escalating war of ideas is that the violent extremist group appears to be winning, or at least holding its own, with Western governments struggling to effectively counter the recruiting campaign.
“If you are seeing young, upwardly mobile Western citizens who are choosing to join a terrorist organization many miles away from home versus whatever options they feel they have at home – you are losing the battle of ideas,” says Erin Saltman, a radicalism expert at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in London.
Mr. Koehler and Dr. Saltman are among those who have studied the group’s methodical recruitment efforts. Over the next week, the Monitor will explore the Islamic State organization’s online strategies and potential solutions to countering its appeal.
There is nothing uniquely Islamic about the group’s recruitment approach. It is the same basic way that neo-Nazi skinheads, white supremacists, and violent environmental activists grow their memberships. But there is one substantial difference. The Islamic State group has assembled the most sophisticated recruitment effort ever seen on social media with the ability in an instant to reach from the darkest corners of the Middle East all the way to the bedroom of a 16-year-old girl checking her Facebook page in suburban America.
It is this aspect of the group, experts say, that makes it so potent, so resilient – and so dangerous to the West.
“I have been doing this for a long time, about 45 years. I’ve never seen a terrorist organization with the kind of public-relations savvy that I've seen with [IS] globally,” Francis Taylor, undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the Department of Homeland Security, told a congressional hearing in June.