Saturday, July 18, 2015

Signing Up to ISIS––Young Men Taking "Hijra" and Young Women Becoming Brides of Isis.

Believe me when I say Anne is the real deal. An 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. Website:

Welcome, Anne. And thank you.  By the way, all the photos are copyrighted by Anne.

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 wrote about this in my first book Talking to Terrorists.

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. 

Mubin Shaikh, an extremist who later reformed and went undercover to catch the Toronto 18...

The subject of Undercover Jihadi--Inside the Toronto 18.

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, and not surprisingly, may resonate to this message.

Palestinian boys photographed by the author in Ramallah, West Bank, pretending to hold a checkpoint.
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, killed in 2011 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.  His messages keep him an active recruiter—from beyond the grave—and his instigation for militant jihadi terrorism been implicated in nearly every ISIS and al Qaeda major Western terror plot to date.

Appearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in July of 2015, FBI Director James Comey announced that ISIS is using Twitter and encryption to recruit thousands of English-language followers and send out orders. According to Comey, ISIS reaches 21,000 followers on Twitter, some that are then moved onto encrypted messaging platforms as they are pulled into the terrorist group. "Our job is to look at a haystack the size of this country to find needles that are increasingly invisible to us because of end-to-end encryption," Comey told the Senate committee. "This is an enormous problem ... we are stopping these things so far, but it is incredibly difficult." What started as small drips from many places has increased to a steady stream of young women disappearing from their homes and families to later show up as terrorist cadres. Of the foreign fighters currently in Syria and Iraq, there are estimated to be over five hundred female recruits, dozens of them from Western countries. Women and girls now make up nearly one-fifth of the twenty thousand foreign fighters now estimated to have gone to fight with ISIS and related groups. 

Indeed, young women are being actively lured into ISIS via websites specifically set up for that purpose; through social media and Internet seduction, through chat, text and Skype conversations carried out by a terrorist group that, more than any of its predecessors, is adept at using the plethora of Internet platforms available to reach digitally accessible audiences. 

All over the world young, Western women are slipping out of their bedrooms, giving silent farewells and leaving heart-rending notes to their families apologizing for their sudden disappearances.  Girls are leaving from Paris, London, Glasgow, Denver, Sydney and other cities all over the globe.  Their stories differ, yet they are the same in many respects.  The young girls are usually seduced over the Internet by older men already in ISIS. Taking flights to Turkey and creeping over borders, they surreptitiously make their way into Syria and Iraq—often leaving little trace. 

Photo of a shrine to Palestinian suicide bomber Darine Abu Aisha taken by the author in her home after the attack.
They leave home for multiple reasons—in a quest for romance, adventure, purity, seeking what they believe is the “true Islam”, reacting out of anger over geo-politics and disillusionment with the societies they live in, lured by promises of family, home, even riches they go to join ISIS—to take part in and build up what they believe will become a utopian society. And those that considered going, but decide not to, may instead opt to “stay and act in place”—plotting for, or actually carrying out lethal attacks in their own countries.  Both types are lethal ladies—brides and servants of ISIS, whose roles are yet expanding and what they are capable of we still don’t fully understand.

These are the things that I wrote about in my latest book, Bride of ISIS describing a Colorado Fusion Center’s staff—U.S. Homeland Security analysts and FBI agents and analysts working side by side—as they really do, sorting through braggarts on the Internet and chasing terrorists, as they struggle and race to sort through, and determine who is signaling serious intent to move into violent extremism. The book which is based on a composite of actual cases and inspired by the true story of Shannon Conley—an American teen from Denver, Colorado who converted to Islam, took the niqab, and who ultimately ended up in the clutches of ISIS, Bride of ISIS follows the fictional character of Sophie Lindsayanother “girl next-door” as she is seduced into ISIS, over the Internet. It wrestles with the questions of why a “normal” American teen would convert to Islam and then try to join a terrorist organization and how terrorists seduce women over the Internet and lure them into traveling thousands of miles to become their wives. It is the question for our times—and one that we need to find better answers to.

Anne for Jeff—Saturday


  1. This is so chilling, Anne. I am grateful that you have the courage to study it so deeply. The skill of these predators in manipulating the romantic longings of immature young people into serving their lust for power--I cannot image anything more evil. And so much of the time, they murder other Muslims. Not that "Christians" haven't done the same throughout history. So scary.

  2. Thanks for writing, Anne! Your books sound fascinating (although sobering and sad...)