05/27/2015 01:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Want to Know How to Recruit a Terrorist? Just Ask a Gangster . . .


Reports of the increasing intensity of young Americans seduced and brainwashed by ISIS recruiters are disquieting. These young people are traveling thousands of miles to join and practice an extreme brand of terrorism. Such actions are forcing us to answer an unsettling question: How can a teenager go from attending high school algebra class one day to flying to Syria to join a blood thirsty terrorist organization the next?

To understand these phenomena it is helpful to consider the core philosophy behind the decades-old recruitment model of American criminal street gangs. Radicalization is generally fueled by a sense of disempowerment, a desire for adventure, misguided idealism, perverted romanticism, and a naive perception of the warrior lifestyle. A more robust strain of the same proselytization formula used by gangs like the Crips and Bloods to claim territory in South Central Los Angeles since the 1970s is now being harnessed by ISIS recruiters who are bent on forming a caliphate.

ISIS preys primarily on disillusioned youth who struggle with self-esteem and who hunger for respect, prestige, and status--the same emotional vacuum that criminal street gangs expertly dissemble. These recruiters exploit a deeply rooted element of human nature: the need to feel important and possess a strong sense of identity in an increasingly complex world. ISIS, like the street gangs before it, claims to be the corrective for the angst that results from a lack of individual identity that so many young people experience. David Kennedy, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, believes that many of those young people recruited in the United States are not primarily motivated by the "abstract or theological"; instead, they are attracted to jihadist groups because those groups appear to offer a prepackaged sense of purpose and status. The ISIS brand has resulted in what observers like renowned author Salman Rushdie have termed "Jihad Cool," a subculture of recruits from Western nations who are enticed to join Jihad by social media, rap music, and video games.

But why has ISIS had such exponential success radicalizing and recruiting? The U.S. State Department reports that ISIS sends more than 90,000 social networking messages daily (many to lure Westerners to their cause), and the Brookings Institution reports that ISIS is linked to 46,000 Twitter accounts. ISIS uses its own media production house, a sophisticated propaganda machine that pledges through multiple media platforms a world of excitement, mentorship, and moral purpose, to attract those who feel marginalized by society and who are starved for emotional support, discipline, and camaraderie. The barbaric videos of burning a pilot alive in a cage and decapitating journalists arguably serve to counterintuitively accelerate the radicalization process and mobilize armies of online followers. ISIS has masterfully woven a utopian narrative of pleasure, instant gratification, and glamor for those who join the fight to bring down what it calls the evil and corrupt West. In one video ISIS uses a version of the popular gang-inspired Grand Theft Auto video game in which ISIS fighters gun down victims on the screen while the message flashes: "Your games--We do the same actions on the battlefield."

ISIS's recruitment tactics, at their core, are nothing new; American gangs have long used violent imagery, rap lyrics, and territorial markings to promote their organizations. Graffiti, once the "gangster's newspaper," has largely been replaced by "cyberbanging" in which individual sects electronically recruit, proliferate symbols, claim territory, and intimidate rivals online. Facebook postings of gang members sporting cash, guns, gaudy jewelry, and attractive women paint a fantastical portrait of a gang member's life. These organizations lure new prospects with promises of riches, respect, brotherhood, a pseudo-family, purpose, and physical protection.

But the cold reality of life in both ISIS and criminal street gangs is far from the fantastical. Instead, it is grueling, dangerous, scary, abasing and impoverished. As Secretary of State John Kerry said, ISIS is "looking for people gullible enough to believe that terrorists enjoy a glamorous lifestyle." ISIS recruits and gang recruits are equally naïve to believe their lives will, in any way, resemble the glitzy, almost comic-book persona these groups peddle.

In efforts to limit the radicalization of American youth by ISIS, it is wise to employ strategies that have been most effective in combating the recruitment of young people by domestic criminal street gangs. Chief among those is the development of a cohesive counter-narrative that lays bare the fallacy of the pathological propaganda ISIS spews before recruits board flights to Syria. The U.S. State Department has created The Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications "to coordinate, orient, and inform government-wide foreign communications activities targeted against terrorism and violent extremism." Still, trusted, credible, faith-based, and other local community leaders need to take the initiative on the messaging if the effort is to have any chance of durable success. As Victor Hugo wrote, "If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness." To be sure, in this information age, the meme war will be no easier to win than the military campaign.