ISIS is trying to build an Islamic caliphate in in Iraq and Syria, but it is also luring Westerners, including American teenagers, to its cause. The terrorist group has attracted many through use of social media and predatory online techniques.
UN estimates reported by The Guardian indicated 15,000 foreign fighters have joined ISIS and other extreme Islamist groups in Iraq and Syria. The UN said those people came from 80 countries. Europeans, Americans, and Australians have joined ISIS (also called ISIL) in Syria or been detained en route.
Recently, several Australian recruits died fighting there. Australian Attorney General George Brandis said the terror group was tricking young people. Australia responded by criminalizing travel to the Raqqa province of Syria.
“Australian youths, and many young men and women from Western countries, are being lured by the falsehood of a noble battle against an oppressive enemy,” Brandis said. “In reality, they are merely taking part in acts of thoughtless violence—in many cases against innocent civilians—on behalf of ISIL, which is intent on recklessly enslaving, raping, and murdering those with a contrary view to their own.”
In October, three teenage siblings from the Chicago suburbs planned to join ISIS, but the FBI stopped them at O’Hare International Airport, according to The Washington Post. The oldest, 19-year-old Mohammed Hamzah Khan, faces criminal charges. His brother’s and sister’s names have not been made public since they were minors, but they are under investigation and could also face charges.
Their mother, Zarine Khan, told the Post she was stunned to learn her children wanted to join ISIS. She also said she thinks her children were “completely brainwashed” by what they read online.
That shock was felt in the Denver area after three teenage girls ran away to join the radical Islamists in October. They made it to Germany before being stopped and returned to their parents, NBC reported. According to NPR, the two sisters of Somali descent and one Sudanese girl exchanged 9,000 messages online with ISIS members in six months.
In those cases and others, ISIS used social media including Twitter and Ask.fm to target and recruit youth. Denver crime and forensics teacher Stacey Hervey told NPR it sounded like ISIS was using the same tactics as online predators.
“Every teenager can have a bad day,” Hervey said. “And these groups are looking for that opportune moment to kind of weasel their way into their lives. And at that point, they’ve made that connection. They’re going to keep trying to navigate through that world to find that kid’s weaknesses or what they need for validation.”
In a recent forum on terrorism, FBI director James B. Comey agreed, saying, “Their propaganda is unusually slick. They are broadcasting their poison in something like 23 languages.”
That poison is also being spread by Westerners, according to former Taliban recruiter Mubin Shaikh, who works as a national security operative in Canada.
“Westerners are involved, especially in the recruitment and social media dissemination of the whole ISIS brand,” Shaikh told International Business Times. “Look at the videos they’re making. You think those people were trained in Syria and Iraq? Those people were trained in the West.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.