The Psychology Of What Drives Young People To Jihadism

Radical Islamists zero in on young people in the West who are lonely and disaffected by modern life.

The dark side of Western youth
The dark side of Western youth
Rinny Gremaud

GENEVA — They're 14 and 15, girls and boys, barely pubescent. They are neither misfits nor poor kids living in trailer parks. On the contrary, they are more often the sons and daughters of business executives, children of non-practicing Catholics, and children of non-practicing Muslims. They are often successful students, well integrated — in short, young people most of us would characterize as perfectly normal.

And yet, they left their European homes for Syria to fight under the banners of Ahrar ash-Sham, the al-Nusra Front or ISIS, leaving their non-radical parents in an abyss of doubt, guilt and hopelessness.

Over the past few weeks, spectacular stories about these kind of kids have been flooding Western media, raising a number of questions, chiefly: Why are young people who live in stable environments and have good future prospects choosing to risk their lives in a country they know nothing about and for a cause they knew little about just months ago?

To put the problem into some perspective, there are 3,000 people from Europe and the United States fighting with terrorists in Syria, according to a June 2014 report from the international strategic consultancy firm Soufan Group. One-third of them are French, 500 are from Britain, 400 are from Germany, and almost as many are from Belgium. Intelligence services estimate the number of people who have traveled from Switzerland to fight in Syria at 25.

Most of those recruits are aged between 18 and 29, again according to the Soufan Group, although the report describes "many instances of 15-17 year olds." French authorities believe that 25% of those who leave are converts and that 80% of them come from atheist families.

In an attempt to explain this trend — which, though troublesome, remains marginal — experts often cite the recruiting methods of these terrorist organizations, which are similar to brainwashing. Their communication strategy is modern, efficient and distributed via social networks. They showcase individual, sometimes violent, heroic acts, life in a united community, and the prospect of a radiant afterlife.

ISO a shared future

Still, if these images are attracting a growing number of teenagers, it must be because they represent a tempting alternative to what our Western societies have to offer. "Indirectly, the departure of these youths questions the world we are offering them," says Jean-Claude Métraux, a psychiatrist who specializes in teenagers.

"We live in societies that are both very fragmented and extremely focused on the present," he says. "The relationship with the past was deeply disrupted by a gradual depreciation of the notion of legacy while at the same time we struggle to formulate prospects for the future. In those conditions, the difficulty to develop a world that has some shared sense is greater now than 30 years ago. And not just for teenagers. For that reason, the idea of belonging to a group, as radical as it may be, appears to them as absolutely desirable."

Nahum Frenck, a family therapist characterizes our society as "hedonism-ruled" and therefore capable of passing on venal and materialistic values. "The acquisition of an iPhone 5, then 6, then 7 cannot suffice in terms of meaning," Frenck says. "Youths nowadays are suffering from a feeling that their existence is trite. War, on the other hand, whatever we may think of it, is a group project, a relational phenomenon that appeals to solidarity and requires that all work together. Our valueless world is a fertile ground for all sorts of fundamentalisms, because these give lives a purpose."

Mabrouk Merrouche, a senior educator with Reset, a support program for marginalized young people, offers a damning assessment of an every-man-for-himself society, which leaves teenagers in toxic solitude. "There's nobody left to talk to the youths nowadays, to teach them values, to explain to them the things of life," Merrouche says. "I'm not just talking about families with absent or deadbeat parents. I'm talking about good parents, upper-middle-class families. The kids tell me that they never do anything with their fathers. Not only from Monday to Friday, but on weekends too. So what do fathers do on weekends? They sit in front of their computers and tell their kids to leave them alone. They never do anything together. It's just everybody sitting in front of their screens. How can we build relationships in these conditions?"

A former street educator, Merrouche says that radicalization via Islam of youths seeking identity and meaning is nothing new. Raised in a French suburb, "where we spoke as much Arabic as French, because our parents were not integrated," he witnessed this phenomenon firsthand. "Back then, I saw a lot of people my age leave for Afghanistan, Pakistan. The difference with today is that radical Islam doesn't only affect fragile people from North African origins. It can potentially affect anybody," he says.

In the end, what radical islamists are targeting is teenagers' solitude. "These organizations, they talk to them," Merrouche says. "They show interest in them, give them advice, ask them questions, show them they exist. And not just once a week at the dinner table, but constantly, on the Internet. They give them the empathy they don't get from anybody else. All of us — adults, teachers, social workers, parents, journalists — we have a responsibility towards them. What drives them away is our indifference."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!