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Geopolitics

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.

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