Why is ISIS so successful at luring Westerners?

Updated 12:14 AM EDT, Mon March 23, 2015
02:02 - Source: CNN
U.S. teen allegedly tries to join ISIS

Story highlights

ISIS has a penchant for producing slick videos that resemble trailers for Hollywood action movies

Analyst: Many recruits lack a sense of belonging; some want a lavish afterlife by dying as a "martyr"

In each of the recent videos of ISIS beheading Westerners, the man with the knife has a British accent

There are concerns about whether Westerners who join ISIS could return home to carry out attacks

CNN —  

A group of medical students – including an American, seven Britons and a Canadian – may be the latest Westerners to join ISIS.

The latest is an American teen from suburban Chicago who was allegedly on his way to join ISIS. Mohammed Hamzah Khan was stopped just before he was supposed to board a plane to Turkey, authorities said.

It’s become a familiar story: Young people give up their futures in Western democratic nations to join the terrorist network establishing a self-declared Islamic state in the Middle East.

Last month, U.S. authorities detailed their case against a New York food store owner accused of funding ISIS and plotting to gun down American troops who had served in Iraq.

And a French man told his mother that he and his half-brother were going on vacation – only to tell her later that they were fighting in Syria.

“Some of the foreign fighters may not return as terrorists to their respective countries, but all of them will have been exposed to an environment of sustained radicalization and violence with unknowable but worrying consequences,” Richard Barrett of The Soufan Group wrote in a report called “Foreign fighters in Syria” this summer.

Analysts and U.S. officials agree: ISIS is skilled at luring Westerners, attracting far greater numbers than al Qaeda. How is it doing this?

It preys on a recruit’s sense of identity

ISIS recruits are often young – sometimes disillusioned teenagers trying to find purpose and make their mark.

For many, it boils down to a lack of a sense of identity or belonging, Barrett said.

“The general picture provided by foreign fighters of their lives in Syria suggests camaraderie, good morale and purposeful activity, all mixed in with a sense of understated heroism, designed to attract their friends as well as to boost their own self-esteem,” counterterrorism expert Richard Barrett wrote last year in a report called “Foreign fighters in Syria.”

Some are lured by the possibility of dying as a martyr so they can enjoy a sumptuous afterlife.

Others may succumb to more tangible promises.

It appeals to their religious duty

Westerners waging jihad, fighting alongside ISIS and other terror groups, is not a new phenomenon. The FBI and the U.S. Justice Department have been trying to stay ahead of wannabe terrorists since the 9/11 terror attacks.

But what draws Americans to give up their comfortable lives in the United States and travel to war-torn countries to fight? An appeal to their sense of duty.

It’s a message frequently posted by ISIS on social media: “You have to join. It’s your relig