Authorities say three young American women were returned home after trying to join ISIS in Syria. The teenagers took a plane from Denver to Germany last weekend. Supposedly, their route would take them to Turkey and then to Syria where they would enlist with Islamic State forces. When their families realized they were gone they alerted officials who were able to stop them at the Frankfurt airport.
The three girls have been brought back to the United States and are being watched by the FBI. They apparently viewed videos the ISIS propaganda machine has produced in English specifically in order to lure western women to leave their homes and families and fight for the idealized Islamic caliphate. Pete Williams of NBC states that the American government is concerned about, “the radicalization of people in the U.S. via the internet.”According to NBC News, arrests of people trying to join or help terrorists are three times higher this year than last. Not only does the government need to combat jihadists abroad, it needs to vigilantly look for threats at home. These three teenagers are underage and are unlikely to be charged with a crime. They are very lucky that their families were able to stop them in Germany before they committed treason.
ISIS is known for using compelling, and usually false, propaganda videos on social media to recruit young westerners to their cause. They promise adventure, safety and an ideal Islamic state, which can appeal to young idealists.
Why would any person who grew up with all the freedoms and luxuries of nations such as the United States, France and the U.K. join a group like ISIS which is waging war on liberty? Young people tend to be more moralistic, seeing the world as black and white or right and wrong. Many grow out of this world view as the frontal lobe develops in the late teens and early twenties allowing them to see more nuance and think more critically. However, some young adults retain their strict sense of righteousness. It is easy to convince them that the world is being destroyed by immoral behavior and not living exactly as they have been taught that Islam mandates.
A second reason young westerners are lured to ISIS is a skepticism of official policy. Many people rant about the government and see every event as a vast government conspiracy. They foment a distrust of the government that can cause a young, poorly educated person to believe everything the government presents is a lie. These young adults prefer to believe the narratives of fringe elements and see themselves as smarter than the average person who falls for the government line.
Another pull factor that older adults underestimate is the thrill of adventure. Many young people are looking for excitement. They view the daily grind of life as boring and unfulfilling. They think their life will have more meaning if they fight for a cause. Becoming part of a group that presents a clear, moral purpose is appealing to a young person seeking significance for his or her life. The three American teens may have bought into the idea of committing to the quest for a moral life, but they have now been returned home after trying to join ISIS in Syria.
On the other hand, ISIS has a terrible track record with its treatment of women. Women are subjugated by misogynistic laws and ideology. Yazidi women are being held hostage, abused and used as sex slaves. Shia women in occupied areas are persecuted and often trapped in their homes. Why would any women participate in the oppression of her sisters? Why, when Islamic fundamentalism has so little respect for women, is ISIS actively recruiting them?
ISIS is carefully recruiting young women because they have found women fighters are useful for controlling other women. As ISIS takes over an area they institute harsh codes of behavior and dress for women. For example, ISIS requires women wear a full niqab veil to almost completely hide their faces and women are not allowed to walk outside without a male escort. Finding women who buy into the rules and are willing to police others is essential for repressing dissent. Of course, women are also being recruited to support and marry ISIS soldiers. Dr. Nimmi Gowrinathan, a UN researcher, explains that popular support from both genders is necessary for a successful insurgency. ISIS members are savvy military strategists who understand that women lend credence and authority to their control of civilian populations.
Dr. Erin Saltman researches radicalization and estimates that one tenth of foreign recruits for ISIS are women. Saltman theorizes that women are drawn to the image of a Muslim utopia, that they perceive a need to protect Islam from hostile global forces, and that they are caught up in the romance of a moral purpose and may see jihadists as heroes fighting for a good cause.
More than 100 Americans are assumed to be fighting with ISIS. Since last spring, the U.S. has stopped a number of young women from traveling to the Middle East, but others have likely made the trip. Shannon Conley, a 19 year old from Denver, is expected to plead guilty for aiding and abetting ISIS because she attempted to join them in Syria.
Young people want to believe in and fight for something. A few misguided teenagers in America believe that ISIS offers a moral purpose that would give meaning and excitement to their lives. ISIS has a targeted propaganda machine which uses social media to lure in young western recruits. Thankfully,these three young American women were returned home before they completed their mission of joining ISIS in Syria.
Opinion by Rebecca Savastio