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Opinion: The Extremist Recruitment Riddle - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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There is horror and fear in the eyes of ordinary people previously unaware of extremism and terrorism. This is down to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the very model of an extremist–revolutionary organization, astute enough to establish a new state while fully appreciating the regional balance of power. Its methods contrast with those of its predecessors, whose worldly dreams did not go beyond threatening their enemies, seeking martyrdom or hoping to meet virgins in heaven.

To its recruits, ISIS promises everything from the abolition of regional borders and divisions, to a rapid climb up the organization’s hierarchy, to the establishment of a new state where life is lived according to the popular image of early societies in Islamic history. This is marketed in such a way as to attract those who are taken in by dreams of a caliphate, dreams that have taken over the imagination of some members of the younger generation, who are otherwise indistinguishable from their contemporaries.

The young members of ISIS did not descend from heaven. They are stern and technologically adept, fickle and easily influenced—and their system of values is rather unstable. The values of bravery, volatility and self-assertion appeal to those with a troubled psychology, offering some meaning to a young generation known for its violent games and bad behavior.

It is true there is great awareness of the danger, in the form of anxieties and fears of extremism and terrorism, but this fear is only one of the consequences of all the suicide attacks and bombings. This awareness is pointless because it deals with the end results of the process, when it is already too late.

It is important to talk about the need for creating “social immunity” to violent terrorist ideologies, not only by targeting the bombings and suicide attacks, but also by creating immunity against extremism in all its forms, which start with social isolation and exclusion, and religious discrimination, and extend to the ideological, Takfirist–extremist currents, which include a circle much wider than just ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

We are now living with Osama Bin Laden’s dual conditions: either you are with the idea of citizenship, the protection of borders and the belief in the modern state, love for life and respect for culture, or you believe that the world as a whole is one of infidelity and misguided societies that need to return to their senses. This outlook is shared by groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

These extremist organizations, however, aim to recruit as many people as quickly as possible via their media operations and social networks, and rely on the state of chaos in Sunni Islam’s lack of critical scholarship regarding its relationship between different Islamic sects and other religions. (I have written in previous articles about the idea of a single root for fundamentalist Islamism.)

There is, however, a missing link in the understanding of terrorism, which usually comes too late only after the involvement of violent groups. It has not touched on the moment of transformation, or the absence of the family’s role.

Recruitment has also moved on from the Internet, which terrorism experts talked about in the early days, to more individual methods of recruitment, where it is not possible to join these extremist groups in an organized, structured manner. Therefore, identifying these groups’ recruits is difficult due to the absence of detail, and due to their eagerness to keep their operations secret. These young recruits usually have no ties, and are eager to travel to Iraq, Yemen or Syria as quickly as possible, through middlemen in neighboring countries. Some extremist groups try to recruit these types because they are easily influenced and can be persuaded to carry out suicide missions without a thought for the consequences.

One man, Abu-Shahd, one of those detained after his return from fighting alongside a jihadist group abroad, discussed the issues faced by terrorist organizations in a series of confessions that were broadcast a few years ago on Saudi television. He spoke about the link between some intelligence agencies from countries neighboring the conflict zone and the laying of traps for youth coming from the Kingdom. He detailed how these youths, including himself, had to pay large sums of money to persuade middlemen they were there to fight and were not members of the security services.

Then, the journey to Iraq began, via men who specialized in moving people from the border to the warzone. Before that, each young man is stripped of his personal belongings and cut off from all methods of communication, so they will not think about returning or change their minds, as well as for security reasons due to the difference in appearance between these youths—those from outside Iraq, and young Iraqis themselves.

The recruits are transferred by trucks and dropped off at the border to continue their journey on the slippery road to extremism on foot. When they arrive in Iraq, they take out forged documents that “verify” they are Iraqis. However, the difference in accents, language and appearance, and even the lack of knowledge of the area, easily lead to trouble, and many are arrested before arriving at their desired destinations.

In order to avoid drawing attention to their hideouts, the youths are separated for a few months, perhaps up to a year, which causes boredom and negatively affects their psychological state. They are then persuaded to carry out a suicide mission, and are told that the security forces are about to storm their hideout, and that it is better in the circumstances to launch an attack before falling into the hands of the security forces. The individual is made to imagine that the escape to the virgins in paradise is better than ending up in a notorious intelligence prison.

The issue, then, is more serious than merely criticizing the stances of ISIS and Al-Qaeda. We need to ask serious questions to get to the answers of how, where and why this happens.

This needs to happen on a fundamental level, not just in the form of subjective discussions between intellectuals. Major changes in society and culture and the collective mind are needed to address the issues that have formed in the many years since the split between fundamentalist and religious reform movements. Long-term strategies are needed, in which governments, official institutions and national bodies participate, with the help of specialists in the study of the impact of ideological phenomena on society.