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