Understanding ISIL’s Recruitment of Young Jihadist to Perpetrate Terror Attacks in Europe

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Feyza Khan

South African born, UK based freelance Journalist

Not since 52 people were killed in London twelve years ago has Britain suffered a major terrorist attack like the one the recently occurred at the Manchester Arena. We also see the slaughter in Paris, Brussels and Berlin, and while we feel their pain, send our prayers and join the vigils, it always feels like terrorist attacks are like one step away from our homes. When the bloodied faces we see interviewed on our TV screens talk like us, from streets we recognise, and when breakfast radio plays sombre music and the newspapers turn their mastheads to black, the reality that terrorism is no longer a plane journey away, disappears.

Then the names come. British names of British children, the kind of names we hear called from across the road, in the playground, in the supermarket, our neighbours’ names, our family’s names. Then we hear about an eight-year-old going to her first ever concert. She should have left her siblings at home, more excited than ever, and desperate to see the singer she loves and probably cannot wait to tell everyone about it. But, like the 21 people who died in the incident, she never made it home.

The attack was carried out by Manchester-born Salman Abedi, a 22-year-old from a family of Libyan origin. ISIL proudly claim responsibility, promising they’ll continue to murder “people who worship the cross”. What? Like the 8-year-old girl at a pop concert? Is this not too much, even for the criminal psychopaths who do their bidding?

In 1998, the Irish Republican Army (IRA)’s bombing of the town of Omagh was the beginning of the end of violence in Northern Ireland. Enough was enough. Will the hundreds (thousands) of deluded, misled and disenchanted youngsters in Europe who were recruited by them now decide that the direct targeting of children is a step too far? Will it show these would-be “soldiers” the true reality of the gang they idolise?

ISIL does not offer glory – what is glorious about murdering children?

What interests me about the recruitment of British and European youths by terrorists in the Middle East is the normality of their lives. It’s the mundane testimonies from next door neighbours – “we can’t believe it, he was quiet and kept himself to himself” that continues to surprise. Normal men or boys living very normal lives, hiding a deep anger with the world that ISIL is able to exploit, before turning them into the murderous monsters behind the masks.

When young girls join the group, the motivation is different. They’re doing what normal teenage girls do – meeting a boy online and then arranging a meeting in person, maybe with friends. Except “the boy” they’re going to meet is actually a killer. In comedian Shazia Mirza’s recent show “The Kardashian’s Made Me do it”, she jokes (kind of) that the girls do it because it’s a quest for sex they can’t get, or even talk about at home and that draws them in. If there are girls in a repressed home, why wouldn’t they look for excitement outside of it?

In a slightly different world, I worry that I could have been one of those girls. I grew up in South Africa, and while my home was more open than many, the natural questions and emotions of a standard troubled teenager were certainly not up for discussion. After a turbulent set of events, including the death of my father, my head was turned by a boy online, which seemed to promise a way out of what I felt was my claustrophobic and cloying home life. He happened to live in the UK and I was even more attracted because I mostly had classical English interests. But like most “ISIS brides” my experience was not as promised. My Downton Abbey was more like downtown Karachi and I too was trapped. It took me years to escape, get my life back and find out who I really was. And it often worries me that if I had been a teenager today, would I be cajoled with sweet words, and later intimidation and conditioning to leave my family?

The boys that go to ISIL aren’t always angry young men. More often than not, they are just a little disengaged from society, they are young people who feel different, sometimes they just want to make a difference and usually they are quite deep thinkers. Surprisingly, a lot of the time, they are very intelligent but have not been given many opportunities and are frustrated or feel on the fringes of society, watching in.

So, what makes some people – and mainly many of those in Britain’s Islamic communities – feel severed from society? Perhaps, that is why the British curriculum now promotes “British Values” and the freedom to practice different faiths and even now, people who are different are still looked at with wariness from both sides. There’s very little real integration.

The government should be investing in more activities to engage young people and normalize differences. There must be more support for them, maybe in the form of youth groups with open free discussions offering an outlet to express themselves and feel more included rather than excluded. Maybe an indoctrination of our own?  Like more free events exposing young people to art, music and literature?  And while I am not suggesting that staring at the brushstrokes of a Monet or dissecting the surrealism in a Picasso is going to change the mind-set of an angry 16-year-old ripe for ISIL’s brainwashing scheme, but it will offer an opening of the mind and the re-channeling of thought processes.

What needs to happen is a more systematic inclusion process; mosques have open days, some people attend out of curiosity, but later are still confused between Muslims and Sikhs. And why on earth are there people who have lived in Britain for years – even decades– cannot speak a word in English? Are these examples of unity?

Until we are a truly inclusive and cohesive society, with one goal in mind, ISIL will continue to grow, recruiting our children to be their personal pawns.

I find it hard to believe that most recruits start off as killers. In fact, most of them are possibly indoctrinated and desensitized until they can’t possibly recognize their own souls, those very same souls they want to “save” with ISIL’s deformed ideology.

Whatever it is, the international community must do something to prevent our youth from being recruited by terrorist groups such as ISIL to commit atrocities like the one in Manchester Arena. How long before Manchester’s – actually Britain’s – tragedy goes to the recesses of our minds like Sweden, Germany, Tunisia and France– and the others that I haven’t named because they have disappeared from mine?

Feyza Khan,

South African born, UK based freelance Journalist

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