Why young Syrians join ISIS, and how to prevent it

The ongoing conflict in Syria — currently in its sixth year — is responsible for the death of approximately 300,000 individuals, 12,000 of whom were children. Millions of others have been displaced from their homes. The conflict has caused one of the largest refugee movements in recent history, with more than 4.8 million refugees registered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Syrian society is in chaos, and the conflict has allowed extremist groups to step into a void of ineffective government and take advantage of Syrian youth who are highly vulnerable to radicalization. Young Syrians are being recruited by armed groups at accelerated rates, fueling the conflict and dissolving hope for peace in this region.

While Western scholars tend to attribute the continued existence of such groups to religious extremism and ideology, there is debate on the role of these factors. Does ideology play a central role in the process of radicalization, or does it provide a black-and-white justification at the end of the process?

The noted feud between French scholars Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy breaks down the two camps of thought. Kepel believes that ideology is one of the main drivers, stating the problem to be the "radicalization of Islam," while Roy notes that all religions have violent histories and claims that the problem is the "Islamicization of radicalism."

Why Syrian youth join ISIS

Often the reasons young people join and support groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are more practical than ideological. Syrian youth generally join radical groups out of necessity, seeking to fulfill a psychological, social or material need. These groups can provide a sense of purpose, a source of income, or an outlet to avenge loved ones' deaths.

The head of International Alert's Middle East and North Africa program, Rebecca Crozier, explained that some refugees even choose to return back home to Syria to fight with extremist groups rather than enduring the stigma, unemployment and poverty that they face in their new homes.

I have seen firsthand the work of these extremist groups. They are using aid to win the hearts and minds vof the Syrian youth by indoctrination, many times recruiting more fighters and gaining territory. They prey on the fragility of broken communities to fulfill a violent agenda, using fear-mongering tactics to build insurgencies from the ground up.

These extremist groups entice individuals not only by offering material resources, but also by promising a life that will give them a voice, a better future and an alternative to becoming a refugee. For those who feel they have no other meaningful choices, joining ISIS or other radicals may seem like the only viable option.

Youths whose families have been destroyed are especially vulnerable to the influence of groups that provide immediate resources, a sense of belonging and a sense of agency. In a country where chaos has become the norm, extremist groups offer young people a sense of structure and often better governance than the central government.

The wages offered by violent extremists alone act as financial incentive for many to join. Fighting for an extremist group is likely to pay as much as three or four times more than fighting for the moderate military — and on a more regular basis, too.

ISIS uses this tactic to recruit in other nations as well. It offers up to $1,000 in countries like Chad, Mali and Sudan, where few people earn more than $1 a day. Groups like Boko Haram similarly exploit young people's lack of choices, especially when their families have been killed, to increase their fighting forces.

Since ISIS is moving more into northern Africa, we must identify the vulnerable communities it is targeting, arrive before they do and build resiliency.

Current efforts to limit extremist recruiting

Effectively helping Syrian youth carve out alternative paths for themselves is not an easy task — it must be a comprehensive effort that couples aid and development with military power. A counterterrorism strategy that prioritizes military intervention at the expense of development is a zero-sum game.

The United States has taken a leadership role in providing aid to Syria, providing funding for the operations of multiple nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In September 2015, the White House announced that the U.S. would provide an additional $419 million in lifesaving assistance for those affected by the conflict in Syria.

Additionally, the U.S. is working to mitigate the strain placed on countries housing an influx of Syrian refugees. Unfortunately, its counterterrorism strategy is piecemeal at best, prioritizing surveillance and the elimination of individual terrorists over addressing the fundamental social and economic issues that empower and sustain terrorist groups.

Breaking the cycle of desperation in Syria requires more than economic aid or limited reactive military intervention. Until the root causes that lead individuals to form and join these violent extremist organizations are addressed, both existing groups and new organizations will continue to gain power.

Aiding Syrian youth 

We must establish alternative paths to stability and provide Syrian youth with more choices to weaken the near-monopoly of extremist recruiting. As most of the young recruits to ISIS and other groups are not doing so for ideological reasons, removing the blinders desperation puts in place will weaken the influence of those indoctrinating the youth.

"Normal" must be redefined for Syrian youth, with a shift back to natural empathy for fellow human beings and a visceral disgust for violence. The internet and social media are often used by extremist groups to circulate and praise acts of violence, numbing the youth to horrific sights. Social media is also used as a recruiting tactic.

Adding safeguards to prevent this kind of abuse of technology and giving tools to law enforcement officials to trace those posting these messages will make it harder to carry out recruiting measures successfully over social media.

With the interconnected nature of our global society, the ability to spread ideology beyond geographical borders is growing exponentially and, as we have seen all too recently, creating homegrown terrorists. Effective analytics and productive development efforts are needed throughout Syria and other fragile states; preventive measures with high-level participation from leading nations like the U.S. are needed.

It's not enough just to tackle violent extremism after it has occurred.

Instead of its current military-heavy strategy, the U.S. needs to focus its efforts on a comprehensive joint effort that couples aid and development with military power. By placing its energy on assisting in development in Syria —from an economic as well as a political standpoint — it can help close the vacuum that causes these terrorist organizations to form in the first place.

Syrian youth deserve more meaningful choices than simply becoming refugees with little agency or joining up with violent extremists. The practical concerns driving most young Syrian recruits to join ISIS can be remedied with a comprehensive joint effort focusing on development.

While the current counterterrorism strategy the U.S. is following may not be effective, by joining other actors, it can surely help Syrian youth find meaningful life paths and avoid becoming just another desperate recruit.

Chang is CEO of Linking the World, a humanitarian organization that builds resilient communities in areas of instability and conflict. Chang also served as a fellow with the Center for the Study of Civil-Military Operations at West Point, where she developed community-focused academic programs in areas requiring humanitarian assistance.


Published on The Hill