Over the past two years, the world has watched the shockingly violent rise of ISIS. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria manifests a brand of Islamic jihad more extreme and sophisticated than that of Al Qaeda. Part of what sets ISIS apart is its vision: the establishment of an Islamic empire engulfing the Middle East and eventually the world. It’s a utopian vision just as appealing and fevered as the communism of the 20th century. And like communism, it has a knack for infecting and seizing young minds. But what’s truly frightening is ISIS’ ability to attract recruits from the civilized West — often white, secular teens from Europe and the United States.
Writing at The Atlantic, Jessica Stern ad J.M. Berger pick apart some of The Islamic State’s slickly produced propaganda videos for clues to why they’ve drawn so many Westerners into jihad.
A 2014 ISIS video released just after the Muslim holy season of Ramadan shows a brigade of 17 foreign Islamic fighters, many white-skinned with blond hair and blue eyes — marching Syrian prisoners into position. A British Islamist known as “Jihadi John” — the butcher behind journalist James Foley’s beheading — was the only man in the video wearing a mask. Every other fighter shows his face to the camera before hacking through the necks of the prisoners. Each pauses for a close-up in the bloody aftermath, just to get the point across: They want the world to know who they are.
It didn’t take intelligence agencies long to oblige. Most of the men were quickly identified as French, German, British, Danish, and Australian citizens.
Another 20-minute video features foreign converts fighting alongside Arabic jihadists, and calls Muslims around the world to join ISIS’ fight to establish an Islamic theocracy.
A Finnish fighter of Somali descent narrates the summons:
“I’m calling on all the Muslims living in the West, America, Europe, and everywhere else to come, to make hijra [emigration to the Muslim ‘promised land’] with your families to the land of Khilafah [the caliphate].”
“ISIS propaganda and messaging is disproportionately slanted toward foreign fighters, both in its content and its target audience,” explain Stern and Berger. “Important ISIS messages are commonly released simultaneously in English, French, and German, then later translated into other languages such as Russian, Indonesian, and Urdu.”
The foreign fighters joining ISIS’ campaign aren’t doing so halfheartedly. In fact, says Thomas Hegghammer, a leading scholar of jihadist history, they’re among the most bloodthirsty and least inhibited in the Islamist ranks:
“Foreign fighters are overrepresented, it seems, among the perpetrators of the Islamic State’s worst acts,” he said. “So they help kind of radicalize the conflict — make it more brutal. They probably also make the conflict more intractable, because the people who come as foreign fighters are, on average, more ideological than the typical Syrian rebel.”
But just how many Westerners are defecting to ISIS?
Stern and Berger estimate a minimum of 40 American citizens have joined the cause. But America isn’t ISIS’ most productive Western recruiting ground — not by a long shot. By last August, the United Kingdom estimated that at least 500 of its citizens had joined the jihadist organization, though many now suspect that estimate was dishonestly conservative. A minimum of 550 have signed up from Germany, and over 1,000 have left France to fight for the Islamic State.
But ISIS isn’t only drawing restless young men from the West. Young women, too, have given up lives of ease in Europe and North America to become fighters and brides in the ongoing revolution. Some of them, like Scottish teen Aqsa Mahmood, have become vocal supporters of the cause on social media. And who can forget Samra Kesinovic and Sabina Selimovic, the 17- and 15-year-old Austrian girls who joined ISIS last year and are now reported to have borne children to their Muslim husbands?
In 2014, ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, called Muslims and non-Muslims everywhere to emigrate to “the land of Islam.” And a shocking number are answering that call.
Speculating about what causes secular young adults to join one of the most vicious terrorist organizations in history, Stern and Berger suggest the “feeling of belonging” radical Islam offers, the “escape to a new identity, adventure, or money.” Anthropologist Scott Atran points to a feeling of being “born again” that many converts to jihadist Islam experience.
Last year, John Stonestreet, Stephen Meyer, Dennis Prager, and Hugh Hewitt offered a different take. The answer, they propose, lies not with ISIS on the battlefronts of Syria and Iraq, but here in the West itself.
“Secular society produces a lot of bored people,” said Prager. “[It’s] a curse because ultimately life is meaningless if there’s no God.”
BreakPoint’s John Stonestreet added that when many young people “see the meaninglessness of secular salvation … they become bored; others become angry, even murderous. … This sort of empty pop-nihilism,” he explained, “makes even the evil radicalism of extremist Islam look attractive.”
The aimlessness and hedonism of secular life simply can’t compete with the vigor, vision, and idealist appeal of radical Islam. Watching young Americans and Europeans streaming to the Middle-East to fight against everything their civilizations represent brings to mind Proverbs 29:18: “Where there is no prophetic vision, the people cast off restraint.”
And the scene bears an eerie similarity to the curse God prescribed in Deuteronomy 28:32 for failing to keep His covenant: “Your sons and your daughters shall be given to another people, while your eyes look on and fail with longing for them all day long, but you shall be helpless.”
Young men and women thirst for spiritual vision, and they will often drink it from wherever they can — even from the bloodiest streams. But jihad can’t quench that thirst. Only Christ — the Living Water — can. It’s our responsibility to offer them that water before they go chasing murderous mirages in the desert.