It’s now clear that a lot of otherwise “normal” people fall under the sway of dangerous radical groups like ISIS. This should be seen as a profound psychological mystery. ISIS, after all, revels in posting grotesque videos of executing unarmed prisoners by beheading them, shooting them, and drowning them in cages. What possible appeal could all of this have for anyone who isn’t a psychopath?
“Alex,” a 23-year-old living with her grandparents in rural Washington State who found herself in ISIS’s recruitment crosshairs, offers a very valuable data point in understanding these dynamics. Over the weekend, the New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi told her story, and it’s worth reading if you’re at all interested in the weird psychological paradoxes underlying ISIS recruitment.
After initially seeking out information about the group in the wake of the James Foley beheading video, Alex, a Sunday-school teacher and babysitter, found herself communicating almost constantly with a network of ISIS sympathizers and members, foremost among them Faisal, a British proponent of radical Islamism who spent “hours each day with her on Twitter, Skype and email, painstakingly guiding her through the fundamentals” of Islam.
Alex, whose therapist says she has fetal alcohol syndrome that contributes to poor decision-making (her mother, who had problems with addiction, lost custody of Alex when she was 11 months old), reveled in the attention and quickly became convinced the West was misunderstanding ISIS. A young woman stranded in a small town in the middle of nowhere, “Her life, which had mostly seemed like a blurred series of babysitting shifts and lonely weekends roaming the mall, was now filled with encouragement and tutorials from her online friends,” writes Callimachi. The flurry of new friends made her life much more exciting: “If before she waited hours to hear back from friends, now her iPhone was vibrating all day with status updates, notifications, emoticons and Skype voice mail messages.” She “converted” to Islam via Twitter — Faisel and others told her that Twitter witnesses would suffice in place of the two witnesses traditionally needed for a conversation to take place.
What’s striking about this unusual story is just how normal so much of it is. A subset of young people always have and always will feel adrift or lonely or stranded or lacking a purpose. In this case, ISIS was, from its own point of view, in the right place at the right time to give Alex both the sense of connection to a social network and a larger sense of purpose that she so desperately craved.
Especially when you read Alex’s story alongside the Times’ February story about Islam Yaken, a young Egyptian who went from a secular aspiring fitness instructor to ISIS fighter in a relatively short period of time, it’s hard not to feel a tiny note of encouragement, as weird an emotion as that may be when the subject matter is beheading and civil war. Both kids — that’s what they are — started out as normal; in both cases, ISIS found effective ways to target universal human vulnerabilities. And normal vulnerabilities can be countered with normal interventions, by finding ways to fill in these emotional and social voids before groups like ISIS can.
None of this is to excuse the grotesque behavior of full-blown ISIS fighters and propagandists, Yaken included. But the point is that when it comes to the psychology of recruitment, nothing ISIS is doing is rocket science. And because experts are starting to understand who’s the most vulnerable and why, they’re also starting to better understand how to step in to prevent radicalization.