Recently, the New York Times published an article about ISIS outreach to American and Western youth, whose goal is to win the hearts and minds of young people. The article looked at the case of a young woman in Oregon named Alex. Alex connected with ISIS activists on Twitter and, under their guidance, converted to Islam and progressively radicalized her worldview. Her contacts manipulated her into keeping her conversion a secret from her family, and not to contact local Muslim communities who are not affiliated with ISIS.
This is horrifying, because it means that ISIS has identified and exploited potent Western anxieties: the weakening of community, the disenfranchisement of the individual, and the individual’s search for importance and meaning. Alex’s story includes each of these things. Geographically and socially isolated, she lacks a solid and defining peer group. She does not work. Her limited human contacts consist mainly of her grandparents, who she lives with, and Sunday trips to church. That loneliness and a lack of meaning are key aspects of her life experience should surprise no one. She sought human connections and answers to her personal vacuum on the Internet. There, she found people – the wrong people – all too willing to fill the void.
If these points sound interconnected, that is because they are. As western communities and their constituents have grown more polarized, and progressively more concerned with questions of us-and-them, we have grown more closed to people like Alex. In addition, I propose that this situation is even more likely to produce people like Alex. If one looks at the New York Times discussion boards, one is struck by the number of attempts to pigeonhole Alex as an aberration. Either she suffers from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, borderline personality disorder or some related chemical or psychological malady, and does not represent the American norm. These comments, beyond being insensitive and crude, themselves indicate the problem: a denial of community to people like Alex; the fall of community as a supreme patriotic value.
ISIS understands this situation and has crafted an alarmingly subtle strategy: wait and endear. They understand that the Internet is the main social outlet for many people who lack strong feelings of identity or belonging in other parts of their lives. It is only a matter of time before someone calls, “who else is out there?” The New York Times article makes clear how ready the ISIS social media apparatus is to make connections with targets who identify themselves, and how prepared ISIS is to give these people what they need – a sense of love and belonging – for their own purposes.
Should we be surprised? ISIS terrorists rape people in the name of sexual jihad. Why shouldn’t they engage in psychological terrorism too? We must not assume that Islamic State is stupid because it is barbaric. Barbaric does not mean stupid, and the analysis of Islamic State’s strategy should demonstrate that Islamic State is anything but stupid. Similarly, we must not assume that victims of this strategy are stupid either. It is a trap to blame the victim, and to deny the role of deeper processes in the host society – our society – that produce vulnerable people. ISIS is betting on our failure to recognize this fact.
How can we fix this situation? How can we fight back? How might Alex’s story, and the stories of people like her, end differently if someone like you or me were to reach out and make the connection? How can we resurrect community as a supreme patriotic value to combat Islamic State’s war of persuasion?