The Islamic State has recruiters all over the Western world seeking out new members though social media or known jihadi supporters in Canada, Britain, the U.S. and other largely non-Muslim nations. The militant group’s sophisticated media center is a vital part of spreading their message: Join us or die. But getting the word out is just the first step in what has proven to be a successful and complex recruitment campaign. The U.S. State Department said it knows of “dozens” of U.S. citizens fighting with the Islamic State, the Canadian government claims there are at least 130 and the British government’s most recent headcount is 500.
“Westerners are involved, especially in the recruitment and social media dissemination of the whole ISIS brand,” Mubin Shaikh, a former Taliban recruiter who operated from his hometown of Toronto before becoming a national security operative in Canada, told International Business Times. “Look at the videos they’re making. You think those people were trained in Syria and Iraq? Those people were trained in the West.”
Shaikh went to work for the Canadian government, doing “eye and ear verification” of suspected terrorist operations, after successfully giving what he called the “jihadi dawa,” call or invitation, to young Muslims. More recently, he has been part of several counter-terrorism research groups and is in contact with many members of the militant group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
“There were certain things we looked for,” Shaikh said, speaking of his time as a recruiter. “People who didn’t know the religion as much. People who were converts, because converts would probably have problems with their parents at home, so they were more likely to stay in our company."
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Most Western recruits are teenagers and almost all going to Syria to fight are men. “The vast majority of Westerners joining up with ISIS are extraordinarily ignorant when it comes to religion,” said Max Abrahms, a Northeastern University professor who studies jihadist groups. Most recruits have no prior connection to Syria and “never even thought to visit.”
How do you go from being a teenager in Middle America to pledging allegiance to the bloodthirsty Islamic State? There's a lot of vetting along the way, terrorism experts said.
“People collaborating with IS can be ordinary people,” said Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum. “They don’t have to be religious fanatics. They could be anyone provided you give your pledge of allegiance to ISIS.”
In countries like the U.S., Canada and Britain, potential recruits must find a jihadi mentor, which can be done online or through ISIS supporters in their local communities, according to Imam Syed Soharwardy, founder of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada.
"I cannot believe that there is no one from ISIS on the ground here in Canada or the U.S. or Europe. They are now recruiting, so they are absolutely here,” he told IBTimes. “IS people, those who are very rigid fanatics, they do live in this country, they do recruit. They do facilitate in recruitment.”
The mentor-recruit relationship often begins through religious seminars, community activities or classes that might look normal to the average Westerner, Soharwardy said. Of the five known foreign fighters in Syria from Calgary, Alberta, three attended the same mosque, Soharwardy said.
ISIS is also likely recruiting in colleges and high schools under the cover of student groups, Soharwardy said. Recruits are seeking camaraderie, and they often know someone who has joined a militant group beforehand. For example, after U.S. citizen Douglas McCain from California went to fight with ISIS in Syria, it was later discovered that he had lived in the same building as a classmate who joined al-Shabab, the Somali militant group with ties to al-Qaeda.
“If you’re in a city where you have an actual physical person, that could be one of the routes,” Shaikh said. “Maybe not. Maybe you’re using another recruit, because there are several. They act autonomously, but they feed into the same product, which is bringing guys over, guys that they know are trustworthy and that ISIS can use as fodder.”
Militant leaders also use Western recruits for publicity to inspire others to join the Islamic State. As with McCain, that usually only happens after he is dead.
Many recruiters use social media, such as Twitter and ask.fm, to field questions about joining the Islamic State, almost an online version of the religious seminar, the terrorism experts said. Once a Westerner has expressed interest, there is an interview process to determine how serious the potential recruit is and to hopefully weed out any spies. The interview happens using encryption software and proxy servers, Shaikh said.
“If they can Skype you, they’ll Skype you. They want to see what you look like. You can’t be that secretive with them,” Shaikh said. “If you know somebody, they’ll probably get in touch with someone from your place, whether you're American, Canadian or British. They’ll ask you what area you’re from, what scholars you know.”
It’s important for recruits to mention the “right mosques” and to choose the right mentor.
Earlier this year, Al-Tamimi received a direct message on Twitter from a young American man eager to join ISIS. The man, who falsely believed Al-Tamimi was associated with the militants, said: “I want to go to Syria. Can you tell me how?”
Once the vetting process is complete, whether it has happened online or in person, travel logistics are discussed. Turkey is the most commonly used route into Syria, and the recruiter will often set up meeting points on both sides of the border to facilitate the journey, Shaikh said.
Throughout the process, the recruiter will keep up the narrative of joining a brotherhood, of finally being among your people. They will make promises, such as, “We will join you up with your fellow countrymen,” Shaikh said. “And boom. Then you’re in with your friends.”
Once in Syria, the recruitment process continues and the Westerner must further prove his allegiance to the Islamic State.
“For those who have an online presence and who end up there, they have to give over their passwords to the group,” Shaikh said.
After the recruit hands ISIS the keys to his online life, the training process begins. Shaikh described several weeks of religious ideology and physical training, followed by a period of “ribat,” or keeping watch over the infidels. The recruit would be expected to perform low-level tasks for the Islamic State, like collecting taxes from residents and money from oil fields, or acting as a lookout.
“It’s usually a mix of people,” Shaikh said. “It’s a very international experience; it’s like international camping.”
After the recruit has paid his jihadi dues, he is then assigned or will volunteer for a position in the Islamic State, which can be anything from "martyrdom" (i.e. suicide) operations, media relations or even the police force, Shaikh said.
“You get a stipend once you’re over there,” Shaikh said. “If you’re married or you get married you get money as wedding gift. You automatically get weapons.”
After having made the right friends, passed the vetting process, endured the training and been assigned a role, recruits are now members of the Islamic State.
“It’s happening all over the place,” Shaikh said. “Are there ISIS supporters and sympathizers in New York? Of course. Without a doubt.”