SAO PAULO — João left Brazil to study abroad and expand his horizons thanks to the national program Science Without Borders. He intended to return home afterwards, but something unexpected changed the script: While he was studying in Europe, his dreams, his ambitions and his beliefs changed as Islamic militants tried to recruit him for ISIS.
Authorities say terrorists from ISIS and other lesser known Islamist organizations are luring young, well-educated, multi-lingual people whose nationalities aren't suspect. Brazilians, for example.
João's (not his real name) first contact with jihadist recruiters came while he was studying in Spain. It happened subtly. He was first invited to participate in a group of Islamic studies. Over time, he converted to Islam. They grew more familiar. His Muslim partners offered him everything he didn't have in Europe, from attention to money. They became like his surrogate family.
After months of visiting the study groups, he started to attend gatherings that were "a bit more radical," where the ideas being exchanged went beyond the peaceful face of the Koran. On one of these occasions, João says he was introduced to two men who claimed to be ISIS recruiters.
Every week, new cases like this emerge, like that of 16-year-old Swedish jihadi bride Marlin Stivani Nivarlain, or 22-year-old Brian de Mulder of Belgium. They all had lives that they all abandoned to join ISIS. It's impossible to understand and to explain how terrorism can attract someone with no history of political or religious extremism if you haven't yourself lived the experience. That's why after months of investigation, this reporter went undercover to follow the same steps described in order to map the paths of the ISIS recruiting network.
After months of preparation and thanks to information provided by João, it was necessary to create a new identity, a new life story, new frustrations and, most of all, to highlight the aptitudes that the supposed recruiters are looking for: knowledge of foreign languages, technology fluency and attraction to radical Islamic philosophy. The sort of people ISIS is looking for are around 25 years old, and are able to enter various countries without any major visa restrictions, including the United States, analysts say.
Identify the target
The next step was to integrate into a group of Brazilians and foreigners who showed interest in the Koran. The conclusion, having spent months with these groups, is that many are actually trying to disseminate Prophet Muhammad's peaceful teachings. A few, however, are dedicated to other, more radical activities. It was possible to reach one of them thanks to João's help and by pretending to be an aspiring Brazilian jihadist.
The first meeting took place in Madrid, the city where João also had his first contact with these radicals. In total, I met contacts in six European countries, always through João for security reasons and concerns from both sides.
There were always two alleged recruiters. They were methodical, always using different means of transport. They never mentioned where they lived. The first meeting was at a fast-food chain for a snack on one of the Spanish capitals' main squares. The two were young and looked fairly indistinct, showing no signs that could identify them as radical or even religious, not even a beard. They spoke fluent English, and one of them spoke Spanish and tried to speak Portuguese.
Meetings always took place in public locations, shopping malls, restaurants, touristic monuments. The name ISIS didn't come up once in the first meetings. They were very careful with every word they used and were observing every movement and reaction, to the point where it could become tense and uncomfortable. They seemed to have been trained to detect any sort of reaction. They were asking various questions about my connections in Brazil, field of studies and my initial contact with Islam. According to João, this was a test for them to assess risks and check out information.
After days of conversations, they revealed to me that they were British nationals working for ISIS. The pair said their mission was to "lead volunteers to fight in the holy war and to help their brothers in the battle against evil." To help the chosen ones and attract more volunteers, the British jihadists said they were paid 10,000 euros per month.
Among potential recruits, there were different profiles of young people from various places, including young women. In one of the meetings, there were several people from South America, including one from Argentina. No group had more than 20 participants. They said there were 15 new volunteers joining them every month. Whenever the number reached the limit, the group was split up so as to not raise suspicions.
As the meetings evolved, volunteers were presented with two options: travel to Syria, to ISIS-occupied territory, or work for the organization outside of Syria. In both cases, recruits would be supported by the terrorists. Most of the approved recruits received training and extensive Koran classes.
Belgium to Tunisia to Syria
According to the recruiters, most of these training centers are in Belgium, where the terrorist cell that planned the November Paris attacks was discovered, and in Tunisia, where tourist targets had been attacked.
Men and women are separated but kept in areas close to one another. During the intensive training, the recruits would have all their costs paid for by the organization and would be accommodated in locations it controlled. According to João, the ideology they preach becomes radicalized during the training and the future jihadists' faith is tested.
The recruiters also claimed that ISIS had infiltrated universities across Europe, and was using this network to try to find new volunteers among Islamic study groups. Some of these groups are created and financed by mosques to convert volunteers. Potential recruits are then invited to join circles of radical studies, which usually gather in houses not far from university buildings.
These small groups of people act as a second filter, to assess just how much the volunteer is interested. Not everybody inside a group has connections to extremists. Most of them are just there to study the Koran.
Foreign students are the recruits they want most. The tactic the two recruits explained consists in exploiting their poor knowledge of the city and the fact that they're living alone. Study groups for them are also a means to get to know people, thus making their adhesion quicker and more efficient. In some cases, like João's, the recruits are given money.
But the two militants also said they were seeking more than just fighters. "We're looking not only for people who can take up arms, but also for recruiters," one of them said. "We want to be like a bacteria, undetected until we're everywhere and out of control."
The tactic represents a turn in ISIS strategy, as the organization tries to strengthen its presence by using natives of each country. Whoever wants to go to Syria to fight is usually sent to Tunisia, then to Turkey and from there travels to ISIS-controlled territory. Whoever chooses to remain in Europe goes into training and joins a geographically close leader to continue his education until he's ready to lead his own recruiting cell, for a salary.
I was often urged to push forward with our training. The fact that I came from Brazil, a country without any history of Islamic terrorism, would make it easier to go from country to country. They also said that in case I went back to Brazil to prepare for our training, I could join emerging groups from the tri-border region, where Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay meet. This area is suspected of being home to a network that finances extremists, according to Brazilian and American police.
With João's help, I thanked the recruiters for their invitations and informed them I would be back after returning to Brazil to take care of university paperwork and to bring my fiancée with me. I was told that they would keep in touch, and they did. As for João, he gave up on the idea of going to Syria and severed all ties with extremism. He also abandoned his Islamic faith entirely.