“The Radical Recruitment Phenomenon”–Andrew Needham

First Place, Non-Fiction

Hasna Aït Boulahcen was a typical Parisian girl. The daughter of Moroccan immigrants, Hasna was “a model kid” despite a sad childhood, according to friends who spoke with the BBC. She earned good grades in school and took dance lessons (BBC Europe). According to the Guardian, Hasna’s parents separated and she was placed in foster care at the age of 8. At 15 she left the foster family and struck out on her own. Khemissa, a close friend, described her as a “crazy girl…who smoked dope and danced all night on the street.” Other friends said, “She had lots of boyfriends, but nothing serious. She had no real friends, just people she hung out with.” “She wasn’t religious at all” (Willsher).


However, in mid-2015, something changed. She exchanged her jeans and sunglasses for a jilbab and niqab, her brash bantering turned into devout Muslim mantras, and Facebook posts began to be laced with references to jihad. A few months later, she moved with her cousin, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the leader of an Islamic State associated cell (Willsher). On November 13, 2015, the group killed 130 Parisians in a terror spree that shocked the world. Two days later, French Police raided the apartment where Hasna and Abdelhamid were staying.

What would make a girl, albeit a troubled one, abandon a life a carousing for a life of jihad? How does a hard partier become a hardliner? According to the Guardian, when questioned by police, Hasna’s mother claimed that her daughter had undergone a “metamorphosis … a brainwashing” (Willsher). This phenomenon is not isolated to Hasna; it is the story of thousands of people, some of them our friends and neighbors. In order to better understand Hasna’s transformation, we will first examine who and what the Islamic State is.

On June 29, 2014, the leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) declared a Caliphate, a very significant religious term meaning a state governed by a rightful successor of the prophet Mohamed (Wood). Citizens of the Islamic State believe that they are to live in complete compliance with the literal, unadulterated writings of the Koran as set forward by Mohammed (Wood). According to ISIS supporters interviewed by Graeme Wood in a March 2015 article for the Atlantic, until the founding of the khilafa in 2014, 85% of Sharia was “in abeyance” (unenforceable). Now, with the Islamic state established, the entirety of the Sharia Canon comes to life. All “true Muslims” are adjured to leave their homes and journey to the caliphate so that they may live under the only legitimate authority, that of Allah. Under Sharia, any variation in word or deed from the direction of the canon, regardless of the degree of breach, is considered apostasy. If the individual is unrepentant after having been informed of his error, the compulsory punishment is death. Thus, if a citizen of IS shaves his beard, wears western clothing, or participates in any democratic process, they are executed (Wood).

One of the most troubling aspects of ISIS’ activities, however, has been the recruits that it has been able to procure from every corner of the globe. Ray Sanchez in a June 2015 article for CNN writes that, “ISIS has the most sophisticated propaganda machine of any terrorist organization, a global communications strategy that has stumped counterterrorism officials while making significant inroads among U.S. sympathizers.” According to John Carlin, of the U.S. Department of Justice national-security division, “There are thousands of messages being put out into the ethersphere and they’re just hoping that they land on an individual who’s susceptible to that type of terrorist propaganda” (Sanchez).

The Sofran Group has estimated that anywhere from 25,000 to 31,000 individuals from 81 countries have left their homes to become citizens of, and fighters for, the Islamic State (Barret). The New York Times states that these individuals “defy any single profile… [they] range from hardened militants to teenage girls, petty criminals and college students” (Schmitt). When questioned regarding the number of people in the United States who were followers of ISIS, Michael Steinbach, assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division, replied, “There’s hundreds, maybe thousands” (Sanchez).

In 2009, US forces in Afghanistan captured a pamphlet written by Al Qaeda in Iraq entitled “A Course in the Art of Recruiting.” The manual instructs the user to “start with the religious rituals and concentrate on them.” The manual further directs that recruiters should “[spend] as much time as possible with prospective recruits, keeping in regular touch…‘listen to his conversation carefully’ and ‘share his joys and sadness’ in order to draw closer…focus on instilling the basics of Islam, making sure not to mention jihad” (Wood).

In “ISIS and the Lonely Young American,” New York Times June 27, 2015, Rukmini Callimachi illustrates the recruitment ­process in lurid detail.

“Alex” is a friendly, 23-year-old girl, Sunday school teacher, and babysitter who lives with her grand-parents on a farm in rural Washington State. When reporter James Foley was killed in 2014, Alex was repelled and yet fascinated. She went on social media to see if she could find anyone who agreed with the killing so that she could understand why they did it. “It was actually really easy to find them,” she recalls, “Once they saw that I was sincere in my curiosity, they were very kind.” Friendships quickly developed despite her revulsion for the killing. Being lonely in her rural environment, Alex soon began spending many hours each day chatting with her new found friends, some of who openly identified as ISIS fighters and supporters. Conversations ranged over everything from gardening and diets to jihad.

Although Alex questioned how beheadings were justified, her perspective on ISIS had already changed. The media’s portrayal of brutal killers didn’t make sense against the background of her new found friendships. “I knew that what people were saying about them wasn’t true,” she said. They also introduced her to the tenants of Islam and answered her many questions. Her new friends also began pressing her to reexamine Christianity, stressing that while Jesus was a prophet, and as such deserves reverence, he was not God.  One named Hamad said, “What you do not know is that I am not inviting you to leave Christianity…Islam is the correction of Christianity” [sic].

Over the next several weeks as Alex wrestled with these questions, her faith was cast adrift. Her friends were encouraging, sending cards, chocolate, and gift cards to an online Islamic bookstore. One in particular named Faisal chatted with her on Skype, sometimes for seven hours a day. Each day he prepared a lesson in Islamic ritual. Finally, she made her decision and posted her Shahada (confession of Muslim faith) on Twitter. In just a few hours, she doubled her Twitter following. Gifts followed: a prayer rug, hijabs and books on the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.

Alex told no one of her conversion except a cousin who was herself considering converting. Having never met another Muslim in person, Alex began looking for a Mosque near her. Having found one, she suggested to Faisal that she would begin attending. He urged her to avoid contacting other Muslims. Muslims, he said, are persecuted in the U.S., and she could be labeled as a terrorist. Others in her virtual community began to pressure her to also sever ties with people who were infidels on social media. When she did not unfollow some of her Christian friends, she was accused of being a spy and immediately blocked by a number of people she thought were her friends. Isolated and desperate, she pleaded with her “friends” to take her back. She even offered them her social media passwords so that they could monitor her messages. Faisal interceded on her behalf, and after a grueling interrogation via Skype, she was reaccepted. Almost immediately, Faisal urged that it was a sin to remain with the kuffar, and that she needed to travel to “a Muslim land” where she would marry a “nice Muslim” with whom he had made arrangements.

Alex’s grandmother had begun to notice the long, sleepless nights that Alex was experiencing and confronted her. Eventually, Alex’s family confiscated her computer and cell phone, told Faisal to never contact her again, turned over the transcripts of her interactions to the FBI, and shut down all of her social media accounts. However, Alex’s grandparents forgot her Skype account, and according to Callimachi, although Alex no longer trusts Faisal, she is still in contact with him (Callimachi).

This story reveals, in dramatic color, the lengths to which ISIS will go to attract potential recruits, and sheds light on a very disturbing reality: the Islamic State is a cult.

Colloquially, cult is used to refer to almost any religious group a speaker considers to be strange, fundamentalist, or radical. Clinically and academically, the word cult has very specific connotations and very serious consequences to those touched by them. Cults are defined by three distinct characteristics: 1) exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to a charismatic individual, ideal or object, 2) engaging in unethical manipulative techniques of persuasion and control to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, 3) to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community (Needham).

In an unpublished study, “Implications of Psychologically Manipulative Sect Subculture on Childhood Development” (2015), I explore the methodologies used by cults during recruitment. This process is well documented in a number of academic articles, and the similarities to Alex’s story are striking.

First, a prospective member is engulfed in a “pink cloud” of “love bombing” and “focused attention” that quickly subverts the normal cognitive and critical thinking functioning of the individual, inducing a dependent, almost catatonic state (Needham).

Second, the prospect is isolated and all information and communication is controlled. Further contact with former associates is prohibited, while an increasingly intense regimen of lectures and events consumes an ever increasing proportion of the individual’s time and energy.  This destroys the prospect’s frame of reference and ability to critically evaluate the information. Religious exercises and restriction of normal freedoms promote passivity and a focus of attention on the directives of the leader. This subjection insures a constant focus on internal discipline and heightened suggestibility during indoctrination (Needham). Mr. Shaikh, a former recruiter for Islamic extremist groups, explained the recruitment process to the New York Times, “We look for people who are isolated…and if they are not isolated already, then we isolated them” (Callimachi).

Third, internal responses are conditioned. The new member further discovers that any resistance or questioning of the groups dogma, practices or leadership results in a distinctively negative response from the other members (Needham).

Prolonged exposure to this intense programm disrupts the usual functions of personality, changing the identity of the individual and creating a “doubling” of the personality. However, unlike normal dissociative identity cases where the individual experiences distinct identities, the cult personality may “float” back and forth between the behavioral characteristics of two separate personalities superficially overlaying and controlling the existing identity (Needham).

The consequences of this manipulation are devastating. Christianne Boudreau didn’t even know that her son was radicalized until the Canadian Security Intelligence Service showed up at her door and told her of his involvement with the Islamic State (Newton). He had turned to Islam to escape depression and had been doing well, but then was approached by ISIS recruiters who told him that he could “help save women and children…stop the torture, [and] stop Bashar al-Assad” (Newton). He told his family that he was going to Egypt to study Arabic but then went to Syria, and in January 2014, died in battle (Newton).

In Billstedt, Germany, two girls, Merve (17) and Ece (18), disappeared from their homes and traveled to join ISIS. The fate of the girls is unclear at this time, but for Ece’s father, the loss of his daughter to ISIS was too much. He was found in his apartment building having committed suicide by hanging (Flade, George and Hinrichs). The families of a newly married Mississippi couple were stunned when, at the airport on the way to their “honeymoon,” the couple was arrested for attempting to join ISIS using their honeymoon as a ruse to get to Syria (CBS News).

But not all recruits journey to ISIS territory. On December 2, 2015, a health inspector-turned-terrorist and his wife fired on co-workers at a holiday party killing 14, in San Bernadino, CA (Schmidt and Pérez-Peña). A George Washington University study, by its program on extremism, identified 300 U.S. based ISIS sympathizers who “are using social media to connect and disseminate information” (Gore). The U.S. is not the only country with this problem. The attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo were carried out by brothers who had grown up in France  (BBC Europe); while many of the shooters from the mass attack on Paris hailed from France and Belgium (BBC Europe).

The consequences, however, do not end with recruits’ families and their victims. There are dire consequences for themselves. Over the past year, multiple self-identified ISIS deserters have spoken with authorities and the media regarding their experiences. “It was totally different from what they said jihad would be like,” a man name Ghaith told the New York Post. He described a culture wherein wholesale killing was purposeless, women recruits were abused, and meals consisted of mainly bread, oil, and cheese (Associated Press). Another, Hammad, told the Boston Review that after joining ISIS he was placed in a training camp and spent four month studying Islamic Law under a variety of foreign fighters (Farooq). “They taught us how to pray correctly, how to be trustworthy Muslims, how other Muslims had a flawed belief in God…At the end, you were ready to blow yourself up for them” (Farooq).

Once control over the individual is established, the consequences are deadly. According to OZY, German intelligence estimates that of the 700 individuals who have left Germany to join ISIS, 80 have already died in jihad attacks (Flade, George and Hinrichs). The Atlantic reported in October 2015 that 20,000 ISIS fighters have been killed, and while there is no way to know exactly how many of these were foreign fighters, they did report a disturbing statistic: the number of ISIS fighters remains about the same (Gilsinan). Thus, either there was an initial underestimation of ISIS’s strength, or recruiting efforts are replacing those killed almost as quickly as they are dying.

In order to combat this growing problem, according to Fox News, the U.S. Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, and several corporate partners sponsored the “Peer to Peer [P2P]: Challenging Extremism” initiative in which various groups used social media and digital tools to counter extremism. Cadets at West Point developed websites to point those they termed “fence-sitters” toward more moderate Muslim voices (Johnson). Others, like Christianne Boudreau, spread the word about the dangers of recruitment and talk to those considering joining ISIS.

While these programs have had some success, often it is only the harsh reality of what the Islamic State does in practice that shakes a recruit free of the mental control. In a recent report by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, most of those who leave ISIS do not have ideological differences with the group, rather it was disillusionment with the practices of the organization that cause the defection (Robins-Early).

Behind the façade of pious devotion, rigorous observance, and unwavering faith lies a culture fraught with cruelty, wanton brutality and senseless murder. And while recruits may find excuse for this when exercised against the kuffar (infidel) and riddah (apostate), justification evaporates when the casualties are innocents, citizens, and friends. Hammad told the Boston Review that in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, rival fighters were beheaded “everyday;” he was jailed on multiple occasions for speaking to a girl he liked, not closing his shop quickly enough at a time of prayer, smoking, and on a false charge of plotting to bomb ISIS. Each time an uncle who was high in ISIS’ command structure got him off, but not before he had endured significant beatings and torture (Farooq).

It is my belief that the Islamic State’s recruitment phenomenon is not a novelty or an aberration of luck, nor is it the joyful flocking of the masses to a movement in which they believe passionately. It is the deliberate, calculated manipulation of individuals to buoy an otherwise untenable ideology.

Many initial reports said that Hasna Aït Boulahcen had become the first female suicide bomber in Europe. Later reports indicated that she died when someone near her detonated their vest. Neighbors reported hearing someone they thought was Hasna screaming for help. Some have speculated that this was to lure the cops closer so that her accomplice would cause maximum destruction. However, I have a different theory: I believe that in that moment of trauma, the dire nature of her situation broke through the cultic haze. She realized that she was about to die for a cause that she didn’t believe in, and she panicked. As the cops closed in behind a hail of bullets, and as her erstwhile “friend” grabbed her as a shield while he attempted to detonate his suicide vest, she screamed desperately, “Aide moi! Aide moi!”




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