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opinion | Jessica Stern

How ISIS, other jihadist groups lure Westerners

“Jihadi John” has been identified by news organizations as Mohammed Emwazi, a British citzen from London.AP

As Congress considers President Obama’s request for authorization of military force in the war against ISIS, it needs to understand that fighting ISIS in its home territory is only part of the battle: Many of ISIS’s recruits are foreign fighters, willing to kill and die for ISIS’s cause. Some 22,000 foreign fighters from about 100 countries have gone to fight in Iraq and Syria, which have become a “veritable international finishing school for extremists,” according to a report submitted to the United Nations Security Council in late March. Intelligence and counterterrorism officials believe that at least 100 Americans are among the Western recruits. How are we to understand ISIS’s unprecedented ability to recruit foreign fighters, many of them over social media? And is there anything we can do to mitigate that appeal?

What most foreign fighters have in common is the desire to forge a new identity and to find a source of dignity. Many are drawn by the lure of avenging wrongs visited on the weak by the strong. But they are also seeking adventure and a more glamorous life, jihadis have admitted to me. A study of home-grown radicalization in five Western countries carried out by the UK-based nongovernmental organization Demos found that most of those who come to hold radical Muslim views had experienced some degree of marginalization in their societies, and disapproved of their nation’s foreign policies. What distinguished those who become terrorists from those who were nonviolent was that the terrorists had come to hate the West, the Demos study found. “Many British jihadis are narcissistic, self-obsessed thrill-seekers, not doctrinaire fundamentalists,” one of the authors of the study claims.


There is undeniable appeal to joining a group that is fired up with righteous indignation. Some people, moved to help others, join political parties, raise money for causes, or try to increase awareness of injustices around the world. Some risk their lives covering war zones as reporters or as physicians healing the sick. But some individuals are willing to kill civilians as part of their holy war against oppression, even though all mainstream religions forbid this. Some individuals, sadly, see jihad as a cool way of expressing dissatisfaction with a power elite, whether that elite is real or imagined, whether power is held by totalitarian monarchs or by liberal parliamentarians.

Anthony russo for the boston globe

Jihad has become a millenarian movement with mass appeal, similar, in some ways, to the peace movement of the 1960s and ’70s. But today’s radicals are expressing their dissatisfaction with the status quo by making war, not love. They are seduced by Thanatos rather than Eros. They “love death as much as you [in the West] love life,” in Osama bin Laden’s famous, and oft-repeated words. Newlywed pro-jihadi youths spend their wedding nights watching today’s ghoulish pornography: the beheadings of “kuffar.” Children film themselves reenacting these beheadings, seduced by a familiar drama of the good guys killing the bad guys in order to save the world. And for many, jihad is seen as a violent adventure. It’s addictive, a Pakistani jihadist once told me. “I’m as addicted to jihad as you are to writing,” he said.


In contemplating fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the United States should recall the warnings of Ambassador Ryan Crocker, based on his long-time experience in the Middle East: “Be very careful what you get into if you’re contemplating military intervention . . . Be very careful what you propose to get out of. Disengagement can have as severe consequences as that initial engagement.” Foreign governments’ military response to terrorism and insurgency is often a temporary fix, and almost invariably involves blowback. We need a multi-pronged response that will entail more focus from our intelligence agencies as well as sending our diplomats back to the region.

But there remains a largely neglected front in the fight against ISIS: the battle over norms and narratives among Westerners susceptible to the lure of jihad. The jihadis have developed an entirely new way of war. ISIS is spreading its vision, by using Twitter and other social media, far more effectively than we are responding. It promotes a vision of jihadi chic to Western audiences that is both seductive and effective, much more enticing than anything our government is putting out in response. With a major effort, it has been possible to alter narratives in respect to other dangerous activities. Consider the CDC anti-smoking campaign involving “tips from former smokers,” which reportedly led 100,000 individuals to give up smoking in its first three-month long effort. We need an analogous campaign, with tips from former jihadis, spread widely over the ever-changing social-media environment and beyond. Such a campaign, to be effective, will require money and effort. It will require not just governments, but nongovernment organizations to participate. Compared with the military response we seem to be gearing up toward, this kind of campaign is far less likely to involve additional loss of life, and far less likely to lead to blowback on American streets.


Jessica Stern is coauthor, with J.M. Berger, of the new book “ISIS: The State of Terror.’’