Undercover As ISIS Recruits University Students In Europe

Campus shadows in Spain
Campus shadows in Spain
Felipe de Oliveira

SAO PAULO â€" 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.

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

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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