How Does ISIS Recruit Westerners Online? Sexual Predators Use Strikingly Similar Tactics

Rather than lure young people to a street corner where they may be abducted, these online predators are suggesting different meet-up locations: Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Terrorism experts liken the recruitment tactics used by the Islamic State to sexual predators who prey on their victims through online communication.

“There is a lot of speculation that the numbers are higher than we know, because there is so much that we don’t know about the deciding moment [when a person leaves],” says James Forest, a professor at the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. “There are so many ways people can cross borders now. It’s logistically very easy to do.”

In February, London teenagers Kadiza Sultana, 16, Shamima Begum, 15, and Amira Abase, 15, told their parents they would be out for the day and boarded flights from the U.K. to Turkey. The Metropolitan Police has said the girls have arrived in Syria, and they're believed to have joined the Islamic State — the terrorist group also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Police told the New York Times that Begum sent Twitter messages to Aqsa Mahmood, reportedly one of the most active ISIS recruiters of young British women, days before she left the U.K.

Mia Bloom, a professor at the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, says ISIS recruiters communicate to develop trust and foster a rapport — similar to the way a predator tries to bond with a potential victim. Bloom adds that the ISIS member communicating with women varies, depending on the budding recruit’s age.

“Instead of a 40-year-old guy emailing a 15-year-old girl, the 15-year-old is talking with a 19-year-old girl,” says Bloom. “It’s far less creepy that way.”

Younger women mostly chat with female recruiters, like Mahmood. But for older women, communicators create a “love match,” a romantic connection with a male member of ISIS already abroad.

“It’s almost like, for the older girls, it’s a romance thing and with the younger girls, they are being pursued and told to do it for their people,” says Bloom. “It’s seen as an altruistic mechanism.”

Bloom finds similarities in the way ISIS enlists high-achieving young women to the methods used by the African-based terrorist group al-Shabab in a Somali-American community in Minneapolis. Between 2006 and 2011, approximately 27 Somali-Americans were convinced to fly to Africa and fight in the civil war, according to NPR. Bloom believes guilt trips are a major factor in persuading people to leave their homes and fight abroad – comparing a potential recruit’s life in America to life to someone’s in a war-torn country.

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The People Who May Gravitate Towards ISIS

So who might be more vulnerable to sign up? “They are individuals who are seeking something in their lives that they haven’t found yet,” says Forest. “They are seeking a purpose, a reason to get up in the morning, something to be excited about.”

Bloom also calls them "seekers," and added that some of the women can often be new converts to Islam or individuals with a history of abuse. She added that this type of recruit has a very different profile than the younger girls.

The number of people who have traveled abroad to join ISIS is unknown, but NPR reports roughly 150 Americans have left for Syria or Iraq. Part of the reason that figure is unknown, Forest says, is because families sometimes report their children missing instead of telling authorities they believe them to have joined the Islamic State.

What Are The Warning Signs?

Sickeningly, the signs that a young person may have been targeted by ISIS are similar to the signs that the person has been targeted by a sexual predator. According to Forest, the person may be in frequent communication with an individual they don’t want to identify; the person may create fictitious stories about who they are talking to online. Forest added this is what they are told to do as part of their “grooming,” a tactic also used by sexual predators.

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The time of day when the possible recruit is online — geared towards speaking with someone in another timezone — could also be an indicator. It’s a fine line to walk, but experts advise that if someone is being evasive or unwilling to elaborate, it would raise more concerns.

And What If They Get There, And Want To Leave?

If someone does make it to Syria or Iraq, getting back to their home country becomes immediately difficult. Depending on where the individual hails from, they could face jail time for joining the Islamic State.

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Bloom says the moments after someone goes missing are crucial. If authorities know there's a clear connection to ISIS, they can stop a person from entering Syria or Iraq and the individual will be allowed to return home. But many families fear that their child will be criminalized rather than interrupted.

Instead, Forest suggests these people should be allowed to come home. Often, the strategic motivations of the individuals who join had not been based on grievances, but different reasons like self-fulfillment. “Let them come home and put them on T.V. and tell how horrific the reality was,” says Forest, adding that those testimonies would be defeat the myths the Islamic State is trying to propagate. “Those messages from those individuals have much more importance than government spokespersons.”

Images: Metropolitan Police, Getty Images (3)