By Matthew Schaller
Despite ideological differences, both sides of the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State utilize the same tool for recruitment: social media. It is a prominent example of how technology is able to shape the human psyche on both sides of this complex spectrum, whether it be a troubled teen in suburban America being courted by the radical group, or battle-hardened war veterans trying to escape their mundane lives by fighting alongside the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or the YPG.
For both sides, recruitment is easy. According to the New York Times, a manual written by Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to the Islamic State, entitled, “A Course in the Art of Recruiting,” states that recruiters should “listen to his conversation carefully” and “share his joys and sadness” in order to draw the prospective recruit closer.
This 24-hour online recruitment effort by the Islamic State caught the attention of Alex, a 23-year-old Sunday school teacher and recent college dropout who was increasingly adrift. Eventually, she struck a relationship with an Islamic State fighter named Monzer Hamad, whose kindness and curiosity struck Alex. In due course, she started communicating online with over a dozen radical sympathizers of the Islamic State, and not even Twitter users including @KindLadyAdilah could help.
“I know they seem sweet,” @KindLadyAdilah warned. “They are grooming you.”
This same phenomena can be witnessed in the Kurdish YPG’s recruitment of foreign fighters to support the cause against the Islamic State. A Facebook group called “The Lions of Rojava” has recruited fighters from Europe, America, and as far away as Ghana in West Africa. When Clay Lawton, a former Army veteran, received videos via email from a friend of the atrocities committed by the Islamic State, he immediately Googled “how to fight ISIS.” Eventually, Lawton got in contact with a representative from the website, and soon took a one-way trip to Sulaimaniya, Iraq.
However, despite both the two sides of this radical spectrum being lured by social media in order to quench the first for a more meaningful existence, the cracks started to show the moment they entered.
Alex’s acceptance into the group caused an increased isolation from her family, which led them to contact the FBI.
On the other hand, foreign soldiers fighting with the YPG were brought together by feelings of adventurism and delusions of grandeur. Eventually, what resulted were purposeless days of fighting alongside inexperienced Kurdish soldiers with no sense of military tactic. What resulted from this, according to the New York Times, was the death of six foreigners at the hands of ISIS by the end of this summer.
Anna Erelle, a French freelance journalist, wanted to explore this phenomenon further by posing as a helpless youth on the path to complete radical transition. After a few months of correspondence with an Islamic State member from Syria named Abu Bilel, she realized the importance of these recruiters in targeting the weak and promising them a fresh start in the Holy Land, similarly to what happened in relation to Alex. Additionally, Erelle’s affection for children also caught the attention of Bilel, who suggested that she could be a surrogate mother to orphaned children, in the same way that the Kurdish YPG took advantage of the mundane lifestyles of their foreign recruits.
According to the British Home Office, charges could be brought forward “that will depend on the nature of the conflict and the individual’s own activities.” Another determinant of charges is the YPG’s connection to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is deemed a terrorist organization by the United States.