Islamic State Recruits Are Young, Angry And Rebellious, But Are They Actually Religious?

If you were to assemble a clichéd prototype of a British fighter for the Islamic State, what would they look like? They'd be young, looking for a way to rebel, maybe with family in places the West has intervened, like Iraq, Gaza or Afghanistan.

He, for it is almost always men, probably rebelled at school, and against authority in general. He is looking for excitement, for a sense of purpose, to get out of rundown suburbs.

But, bar watching YouTube clips of extremist preachers from Saudi, is he actually religious?

Are the IS fighters really following the call of religion?

The answer, according to psychologists, mosque leaders and academics, is almost certainly not. Mehdi Hasan points out this week in his HuffPost UK column, that two wannabe jihadists Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, purchased Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies from Amazon.

"Religion is rarely, if ever a sole motivator, but part of an ideology," Dr Anne Speckhard, professor of psychiatry in the Georgetown University Medical School and author of Talking to Terrorists, which involved speaking to more than 400 failed suicide bombers, family members, militants and hostages. "In this case a hijacked version of Islam that promises the jihadi an abundant afterlife, rewards for himself and his family, forgiveness from 'sins'.

"The ideology and group has to resonate to needs—to belong in some cases, to feel manly, to offer an adventure, to offer an alternative to boredom, frustrated aspirations, to confer a heroic identity versus feeling marginalised or discriminated against."

"These people are within ordinary reach but they may have already opted out of mainstream mosques and from mainstream authority figures," she added. "They often isolate themselves with others who believe as they do and reinforce groupthink in that way."

In the wake of the barbaric killing of James Foley by a masked jihadist with a south London twang, British Muslim community leaders are facing recriminations that they don't do enough, but often they simply do not know the young people who are at risk.

Nasser Muthana and Reyaad Khan in the recruitment video

Reyaad Khan pictured previously at school in Cardiff

In June, it was alleged that two British jihadis who appeared on a slick recruitment film for Islamist insurgents in Syria had been themselves recruited at The Al-Manar Centre in Cardiff, something the mosque stringently denied. "We are opposed to going to Syria or any other country, to participate in an armed struggle and have always made this clear," the Centre said, after the video of Nasser Muthana and Reyaad Khan surfaced.

"May we reiterate our concerns that the internet has become an alarming source for radicalisation of such vulnerable members of our British society."

Muthana's father Ahmed, said his son had "betrayed'' his country and was "brainwashed" by what he read online. Friends remembered Khan was a "loser loner" at home in Cardiff.

That has been the experience of Salman Farsi of the East London mosque. "He [Foley's killer] is supposed to be from south London, right?" he said. "The communities in south London have a lot of hardships, there are many broken homes, criminal backgrounds. To be honest, going to mosque would help them but we can't go onto the street and drag these people away from their computers and into mosques."

Shiraz Maher, senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College, London, said radical preachers and rogue mosques were now far less of a problem. "In the past, certain hard-line mosques — like Abu Hamza’s notorious complex at Finsbury Park in North London — played the central role in driving impressionable young men towards extremism," he wrote in a piece for the Daily Mail. "But today the mosques and hate preachers are less significant. Now, the internet and social media are the key recruiting tools for the jihadists."

Fiyaz Mughal, who works on radicalisation prevention with his organisation Faith Matters, said there was little in practice that mosques could do to reach the troubled teens and young adults.

"It's an anti-establishment calling, not a religious calling," he said, pointing to the example of the Deghayes family from Brighton.

Abdullah Deghayes is believed to have gone to Syria to fight pro-Assad forces

The brother of Guantanamo detainee, Abubaker Deghayes, pictured, one of the problem families Mughal identifies

The teenager was in Syria with two of his brothers

Omar Deghayes was captured in Pakistan and sent to Guantanamo, later released without charge. Two of his nephews went to fight in Syria, with one of them, Abdullah, killed in the conflict. Police, along with Mughal's organisation, are working to try and prevent more of the family joining them.

"All of those kids, they have an absent father, a mother who is only semi-religious," Mughal said. "The kids fought police, fought at school, rebelled against every power structure at every opportunity. They suffered a lot of racism which made their rebelliousness even more aggressive.

"If the imam says, 'don't go', they'll do it. They'll just rebel against any forms of authorities. They don't know much about religion, or about anything, frankly. They won't listen to their imam, or their parents, or to me."

Violence at home can be a factor, Speckhard said, because "a barrier to using violence to solve problems has already been breached." And once they arrive in the desert, the violence is already so normalised, it "snowballs" and peer pressure makes young men do extreme things they would never have expected.

"Recent immigrants from backwards areas and parents who are struggling to make it might not pay enough attention to their kids and what they are getting into," she added, citing her experience interviewing those caught up in extremism from Manchester and Leeds.

The East London Mosque's Salman Farsi said that many of those who were drawn to extreme Islam were "thugs" who wanted to give their love of violence and intimidation a higher purpose. "In my experience of coming into contact with these troubled individuals, who have come to Islam while they were in prison or through unsavoury characters, they have always held on to part of their previous identity, their ignorance, their predisposition for violence," Farsi said. "They haven't let go.

"They use the religion to legitimise that anger and violence into hatred for individuals who are not now conforming with their new way of thinking, their new ideology." He cites the infamous "Muslim patrols" in east London where stickers appeared declaring Tower Hamlets a "gay-free-zome". "They were very hard for Muslim leaders to reach because of their troubled backgrounds," he said.

And slick recruiters know those troubled youngsters are their target audience, with videos posted on YouTube aimed at getting young men to join the fight in Syria, entitled "Mujahid's Advice to leave the 'Gangsta' Life".

Going off to fight for a "noble" cause is an exciting prospect for a young man with a troubled past and few prospects at home, but the Instagram and Twitter pictures and statuses posted by British recruits show cute cats, Robin Williams movies and missing European treats like Nutella, are just as common topics as any kind of theological debate. Theology, when it is discussed, stretches only as far as twisting verses of the Koran to fit their extreme violence.

Islamic State (IS), formerly known as Isis, are different to Islamist recruiters of recent times, Farsi added. "What IS have manage to do is glamourise living in the desert with nothing, even Al Qaeda didn't actually manage to do that. The use of social media, infographics, Instagram. It connects with young people."

That romanticism evaporates soon enough, but the recruits are too far gone to turn back by then, Maher wrote in the Mail. "Any initial romanticism about an adventure in the desert, or early idealism about protecting Muslims, is quickly replaced by a pitiless inhumanity and a callous glorification of terror," he wrote "It is common to describe these young British radicals as ‘brainwashed’. But I dislike using that term because it far too easily absolves them of responsibility for their actions.

"They know only too well exactly what they are doing. They have consciously decided to immerse themselves in a blood-soaked narrative of vengeance and power, in which they will annihilate their enemies, destroy Western values and ensure the triumph of their perverted, totalitarian version of Islam."

Speckhard says that social justice, just as it was for George Orwell heading to fight the Spanish fascists or young Brits volunteering to fight the Nazis, is actually a motivator for the Islamic State (IS) recruits, in their own twisted outlook.

"When they see terrible things happening they feel upset," she said. "If a group offers them an opportunity to respond and feeds them an ideology that tells them to do so via terrorism is the best way and conveys to them that they will win many rewards and a positive identity, if it impresses the women, leads to a belief that all wrongs will be forgiven, offers adventure etc. it all comes together to form the lethal cocktail of terrorism."

Speckhard said she believes most of the young jihadis know they will die, unlike many of the soldiers who signed up to fight in World Wars. She met failed suicide bombers who had entirely accepted the idea, they were "so unhappy in their lives that they preferred to go to a 'better place'."

One quote that has done the rounds on Twitter, attributed to the BBC's Frank Gardner, is that the motivating factor for IS recruits is "not religion, not even territory, it's psychopathy." But it's not really as simple as that, Speckhard says, saying the men are not mentally ill.

"For one guy it may be losing his job and now he’s ready to go, for another wanting to impress a girl, for another his friends have gone or are going and he decides to join them, but for all of these they have already 'drank the koolaid' of the virulent ideology and been impressed enough that this is a group that they want to join and belong to," she said.

IS is "euphoric with success" right now, she added. "There is high social support all resonating and interacting with the individual needs and vulnerabilities of potential fighters. When it all comes together boom—that’s the person who goes."

It can leave mosques and Muslim youth leaders feeling a sense of helplessness. Government cuts have played their part too, Mughal said. "We have to identify the families it could happen to, and look at what is causing their grievances," he said. "It costs money, but it can save lives. The best work that was being done, early intervention and youth engagement work, that has all been been cut away. Cuts have massively affected how we can challenge this problem."

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