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How Young People Are Recruited by Terrorist Organizations

Fighter jet loaded with bombs

Fighter jet loaded with bombs

How Do Terrorists Turn Frustrated Youths Into Extremists?

When we look at countries such as Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, to name a few, we can see various terror organizations, most notably ISIL (ISIS, IS), who always have young, fresh recruits. Why is this? Why is it so easy for these young people to make the decision to join the terrorists?

According to the New York-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations, in 2016, the United States dropped 26,171 bombs on Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.1 That's an average of 72 bombs per day from the U.S. alone.

NBC states that the CFR warned their estimates were low, based on several factors, including the Pentagon's definition of "airstrike," which can involve multiple bombs in one strike. Of those targeted by the airstrikes, the number of civilians killed and injured varied. Aleppo, Syria, has been among the hardest hit. Numerous times, children have been injured or killed. Young kids are witnessing the deaths of mothers and fathers, siblings, and grandparents and are faced with being left alone, being injured themselves, or having to raise younger siblings while still a child themselves. It's a recipe for disaster.

War-torn Syria

War-torn Syria

Civilian Death Toll and American Involvement Alienates Civilians

American-led airstrikes against ISIS have caused a spike in civilian deaths. At least 210 civilian deaths have been reported due to coalition bombs in the battle for Manbij. It was the single deadliest air attack on civilians of the entire war.

Critics say the attacks are alienating Syrians on the ground and undermining the fight against extremists.

The U.S. says its bombs have caused 55 civilian deaths since the coalition air war against ISIS began. But campaign groups that keep a tally of the war's civilian toll—including Amnesty and Airwars—say the real totals are up to 10 times higher than the U.S. estimates.

Regardless of how we look at it, the numbers are staggeringly high.

Rescuing the injured after a bombing

Rescuing the injured after a bombing

Destruction and Extremism Can Result in Radicalization

With children and families destroyed by falling bombs and children orphaned and watching their loved ones die, left alone in a world full of destruction, is it any wonder that some of these kids, particularly young teen boys, eventually join up with these terror groups with offers of acceptance, a new type of family, and people who will sympathize with the child for their own benefit?

Watching your family die is reason enough for some of these emotionally wounded young people to seek out that revenge. Revenge on people of nations they hold responsible. Can we blame them for that? Is it not understandable why it happens?

It is not condoning the actions of anyone involved in a terrorist organization, but it does shed some light on the reason why. Outside of the religious extremism which many follow, it's the need to fit in somewhere, the need to exact the toll of revenge against those perceived as the enemy.

How We Can Reduce the Spread of Terrorism

Perhaps instead of bombing terrorism away, we should focus on other means. Education, kindness, empathy, and compassion all go a long way when you have young children who now struggle with being not only homeless but orphaned and a refugee, perhaps kindness and love instead of being turned away upon fleeing their own country.

Our country helps displace and orphan these children; we should at the least welcome the innocent. If we, along with many other nations bombing for various reasons, keep doing what we are doing, we will always be witness to the birth of a new terrorist.

Parliament Square sit-in against Syria airstrike

Parliament Square sit-in against Syria airstrike

The Grooming of Children Is Crucial to Extremist Strategy

Minors used in successful terror attacks are part of the Islamic State’s strategy to develop new believers to carry on its violent ideology.

John Horgan, a Georgia State University researcher, says, "The Islamic State is one of the few groups that is very proud to announce to the world that they are recruiting children and are proud of it. Not only are they doing it, but it is the future."

The United Nations have documented 362 children recruited to fight in Syria, 274 of them with IS.2

Armies have historically used children as drummer boys and standard-bearers. The militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip have taught kids to hate Israelis. Like other rebel and extremist groups, the children are used for various tasks within the group, such as spying and other endeavors.

How Children Are Groomed by Terrorist Organizations

In the initial seduction phase, IS comes into a village and will hold contests where children recite the Quran. They will even hand out candy and toys and expose children to the group. They’ve often been known to use ice cream. Schooling gives children exposure to the group while allowing "talent scouts" to identify possible recruits. To desensitize the kids to the violence, they are shown videos of beheadings and attend live beheadings themselves. The terrorist groups use the same tactics as pedophiles in the grooming of children for their own interests.

Selected children are moved from schooling to military training, complete with uniforms, marching, weapons training, and more indoctrination. After the seduction phase, they are moved into the subjugation phase, where kids are exposed to a brutal, violent, boot-camp-like experience. Those who have survived or run away tell tales of sleeping on flea-infested mattresses, being beaten, and being trained in live fire.

The last stage of their plan includes giving the child a station upon graduation. They do this to ensure the caliphate experiment moves forward. This isn’t saying that all children groomed by IS are turned into suicide bombers. There must be children to grow into future leadership positions to ensure the continuity of the organization.

Social media platforms used by extremist and terrorist organizations to recruit young people

Social media platforms used by extremist and terrorist organizations to recruit young people

Why ISIS Appeals to Young People

Looking back, we can recall the three British teenage girls who ran away to Syria to join with ISIS. Attention has refocused on IS’s appeal to young people.

Propaganda and Recruitment Across Varied Demographics

Kids are featured heavily in the terrorist organization’s propaganda, including videos that depict young men and boys in camouflage, along with ISIS bandanas, participating in hand-to-hand combat. They’ve been coined the "Cubs of the Caliphate."

While recruiting young men has always been an active practice, ISIS has heightened its efforts to encourage young women to join as brides for ISIS fighters in the locations under their control in Syria and Iraq.

The question still remains why the terrorist organization is so successful with its recruitment drive.

Social Media

Social media plays a major role in ISIS’s propaganda. From some 90,000 tweets per day to high-quality videos produced in a slow-motion effect of bombs exploding and flames surrounding American troops, typical of anything we would see used as a trailer for a new Hollywood blockbuster. Using all of the major platforms for social media, terrorists are reaching out to their target audiences the same way any business organization would, by using popular and trending hashtags to exploit young people and disseminate their message.

Escape and Adventure

ISIS appeals to the religious perfectionism of young people and a chance for them to escape what they see as life frustrations.

ISIS gives the young, delusion-filled young men and women an adventure. Rewarded for their allegiance, loyalists are given gifts from Allah, some of which include a home with free electricity and water and no rent, all from the Khilafah, which is the state or caliphate. They see it as a utopian world.

False Narratives and Assurances

Blog posts reassure women that they can find the necessities and personal hygiene products so they don’t have to live like they are roughing it. ISIS pushes a false narrative, giving these young people false hope about life within the organization.

Going back to the three teens from Britain, it took only a short amount of time for them to go from London to Turkey, and they probably found themselves in areas controlled by militant groups. Just like human trafficking, these groups have people who are groomed to recruit and groom others, kids such as themselves.

A case with three teen girls from Colorado who tried to join ISIS was studied to gather more information on how the militants recruit kids in the West. The FBI has examples of Westerners who were already caught up in ISIS, communicating through social media with possible new recruits.

With online recruiters believed to be in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, they provided guides for those in the West who might want to join in the ISIS fight. Even after identification, there was no clear way to make an arrest. Almost all are out of U.S. law enforcement jurisdiction. Social media might have been invented in the West, but ISIS has a firm grasp and working knowledge that exceeds that of governments in how to use the various platforms.

How ISIS Functions Online and How to Stop It

These five steps are often taken in the radicalization of youth or other recruits:3

  • Discovery: IS recruiters find possible recruits, or possible recruits find IS.
  • Create micro-community: Surround recruit with IS supporters.
  • Isolation: Encourage recruit to cut ties with family and friends.
  • Switch to private communications: Encourage recruit to take discussions about IS private.
  • Identify and encourage action: IS supporters figure out what recruit is likely to do.

While the internet has become a hotbed for extremist recruitment, it is far from the only means. It is a scenario painted with a broad brush, and it over-simplifies and generalizes recruitment methods. We need to speak to our children, and we need to take a more active role in our communities, offering outreach programs for these kids, the same as we do for gang-related activities here in the States.

In 100 ISIS-related legal cases, a vast majority were influenced by friends, family, or associates more often than by online sources. The U.S. has smaller numbers of extremist groups for those seeking out membership than other nations. Therefore, possible recruits here do search out others involved with organizations such as ISIS. It is important that we remain alert to activities around us, both online and offline, and that our law enforcement officials and community organizations rally around these youth who are seeking acceptance in a world they are viewing from a false perspective. We need more kindness, compassion, and tolerance in the world – not the birth or making of another possible terrorist.

References and Citations


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2017 Sherrie Weynand