Amira Abase's dad spent the weekend begging her to come home. "Remember how we love you," Abase Hussen pleaded, holding a teddy bear, in a public video message to his missing 15-year-old. "We cannot stop crying. Please think twice. Don't go to Syria." That's the feared destination for Amira and her two teenage friends, all of whom left London last week to allegedly join the Islamic State group. They're not the first youth to be seduced by ISIS -- just Friday, the United States criminally charged a Minnesota teen for attempting to join up in November -- and they likely won't be the last. As the militants ramp up their recruitment techniques, parents like Hussen are questioning how best to protect their kids from being lured overseas.
Above all, University of Maryland psychology professor Arie W. Kruglanski recommended constant vigilance. ISIS militants draw young people in with messages of power and determination, he said, and teens are especially susceptible because of the lifestyle changes they're going through. "They're confused," he said. "They look for clarity and coherence, and this kind of ideology that is black and white, clear-cut, very structured is of great appeal to them."
ISIS tends to target mainly males who are eager to express themselves through religion -- though many of the Western recruits eventually convert to Islam after joining the militants, the Christian Science monitor reported -- and those longing for a sense of identity. ISIS is also looking to enlist teenage girls, some of whom want to break the mold of the "jihadi bride" and actually join the fight, as evidenced by three Colorado girls who were allegedly traveling to Syria in October 2014 before being caught by the FBI in Frankfurt, Germany. The entire ISIS recruiting process is quite intricate, and its onset can often times take place at religious or educational settings, where many prospective, would-be members of the Islamic State are likely seeking comraderie.
But boys in particular may be attracted to the chance to fight, Kruglanski said, and they're encouraged to think they're fighting for the greater good. In order to combat these ideas, Kruglanski said parents should show their children that ISIS's promises could be false. "These people are just doing bad things," he said. "They could well be killed. They could well be totally radicalized.
"The most recent ISIS propaganda video, released Sunday, centers directly around this concept. It depicts about 80 camouflage-wearing children, some as young as five-years-old, standing in formation, repeating military exercises and praying before a pair of guns. NBC News reported that the so-nicknamed "cubs" are also taught how to behead people and use AK-47s.
ISIS also uses sex appeal to its advantage, promising wives to militants, Kruglanski added. Recruiters feed girls on social media a similar message: Come to Syria, and you'll feel like a princess to a war hero husband. These benefits combine to create "a very powerful package," he said.
The French government is working to bust open these methods of enticement in a youth-targeted online campaign against ISIS. The country, still reeling from the Islam-motivated attacks on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo's offices last month, has the highest number of Western recruits.
To staunch the flow, France recently published a "Stop Jihadism" video that contradicted ISIS's claims of glory, showing images of corpses and crying children. "They tell you: Sacrifice yourself by our side, you will be defending a just cause," superimposed text reads, according to VICE. "In reality: You will discover hell on earth, and you will die alone, far from home."
Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C., said that relying on the truth -- that ISIS does not promote justice, freedom or solid religious values -- is critical in the fight against the group. People need to spread a counter narrative that gives young people evidence that "no, whatever you're being told, this isn't a just caliphate, this isn't the Islamic State -- this is a bunch of of violent thugs doing things in direct violation of of basic Islamic beliefs," he said.
The counter narrative won't be effective if it comes from the government, Hooper said, especially for teenagers already feeling rebellious. Likewise, he said, if parents confront their kids about having an interest in ISIS, it could have a reverse effect, with youth listening more to kidnapping victims or disillusioned ex-fighters who have escaped ISIS.
U.S. President Barack Obama acknowledged the issue on Wednesday at the White House's first summit on Countering Violent Extremism. "The high-quality videos, the online magazines, the use of social media, terrorists' Twitter accounts -- it's all designed to target today's young people online in cyberspace," he said. "The older people here -- as wise and respected as you may be, your stuff is often boring compared to what they're doing. You're not connected."
But that doesn't mean parents don't have any role to play in keeping their kids safe. Families should closely monitor their children. Sara Khan, the director of British women's rights and anti-extremism group Inspire, urged parents to keep their children's passports locked away so they can't secretly skip the country, the Guardian reported.
Adults should also change up the language they use to talk about ISIS, Khan said, adding that ISIS youth recruitment is in fact grooming: a term usually used in connection with pedophiles who subversively try to form relationships with children. "We need to stop using the phrase 'jihadi brides,'" she said. “These are normal teenage girls who should be in school, with their families, and have sacrificed everything to run off and join this crazed group."
Looking back, Christianne Boudreau told MSNBC that she saw warning signs. The Canadian mom of late 22-year-old Damian Clairmont, who was killed fighting for ISIS in Syria last year, said his behavior changed before he left. He was agitated, colder, emptier.
Boudreau is now an anti-radicalization activist working to distribute resources that families and schools can use to broach the subject of child safety. "We need to start arming ourselves with the knowledge, the awareness, the education, and to be able to deal with these issues and be able to speak with our children at an early age," she told CNN. "We do the same thing with sex education, with drugs, and this is just one more thing that our kids are faced with, a challenge."