Trafficked into Terrorism: How ISIS is Recruiting Your Neighbor into the Jihadi Next Door

08/04/2016 07:55 pm ET Updated Aug 04, 2016
© Leandro Neumann Ciuffo

In June 2016, Mohamed Khweis returned to the United States to face charges for providing material support to terrorists, after finding life in the Islamic State difficult. Like most Jihadists recruited from the United States, he was described by his former peers as an “average guy” prior to joining ISIS. Soft-spoken and not particularly devout in his religion, his background challenges the historical stereotype of a terrorist, as an angry and violent, religious extremist. Instead, Mohamed’s background represents the increasingly common narrative of modern ISIS recruits, who come from various religious backgrounds, nationalities, and socioeconomic statuses. The public often questions why these young people, who have everything to live for and unlimited opportunity for legitimate success, join a terrorist organization like ISIS. The reality is that many of them are being manipulated into joining. These young people are actually being trafficked into terrorism. 

Human trafficking is defined as the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of exploitation. Although human trafficking is most frequently discussed in the context of commercial sexual exploitation of women and children or indentured servitude, people are also trafficked into conflict as well. The United Nations has formally recognized the fact that both state and non-state armed groups force, defraud, and coerce people, especially children, into becoming fighters, cooks, suicide bombers, human shields, messengers, and sex slaves for their cause. ISIS is also trafficking people into terrorism, beginning with child soldiers

ISIS defectors, like Mohamed, often describe becoming disillusioned at some point after joining the Jihad. This is because they were deceived into joining in the first place. ISIS leadership’s acumen for social media propagandizing effectively publicizes their two predominate sources of fraud, utilized for recruitment: (1) religion and (2) the promised fulfillment of basic human needs.

First, ISIS operates under the veneer of religion. New recruits are manipulated into believing that they are carrying out the will of Allah and joining the Jihad to protect their Ummah (community). However, in reality, front-line “Mujahedeen” (holy warriors) are being exploited for the benefit of war profiteers and Godless opportunists. Islamic theologians around the world agree that ISIS leadership manipulates the interpretation of the Quran to fit their personal agenda and then disseminates this message through clever propaganda, charismatic speeches, and intensive instruction/brainwashing. 

Second, ISIS’ leadership targets people who are in need to become their martyrs, and recruits these prospects by temporarily filling (or simply making the false promise to fulfill) the needs in their life. For citizens of Syria and Iraq, this means offering basic physiological sustenance to support their families (e.g., food, money, and safety from their wrath). For citizens of industrialized countries like France, United States, Canada and Australia, this means offering prospective recruits a sense of belonging, “love,” esteem, and/or  the prospect of self-actualization. 

Ultimately, if the ISIS recruit ever comes to the realization that they have been defrauded into joining and are being exploited, it is typically too late. Even planning to go to Syria or Iraq to assist in the Jihad carries a lengthy federal punishment, much less actually making it there. Therefore, there is no incentive to defect. Even if the recruit lives to regret their decision, they will be returning to certain and indefinite punishment, not the life they left behind. 

Mohamed Khweis is being described by his peers as an average American, because that is who he was, until he was manipulated into being exploited by ISIS. Now, his charge of providing material support to terrorists will affect Mohamed and his family for the rest of their lives. Understanding the methods of extremist recruitment is imperative to preventing average American youth from joining the Jihad. Winning the war on terror centers on our ability to prevent people like Mohamed from being manipulated into joining groups like ISIS. 

“With guns you can kill terrorists, with education you can kill terrorism.”

-Malala Yousafzai

Author Dr. Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in Criminology, Law and Society from George Mason University, with an expertise in human trafficking. She currently serves as a human trafficking expert witness for criminal cases and her book, “Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium,” is contracted for publication with Praeger/ABC-Clio.

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