Between recruitment videos and social media, ISIS jihadists are working hard to recruit "soldiers" in the Western world, and their efforts appear to be succeeding, with recruits falling for the violent Islamist group's influence in the United States, as well as in Europe, Canada, and other countries around the world, experts warn.
While there were some who were surprised to hear that journalist James Foley's ISIS executioner spoke with a British accent, the man the British press has nicknamed "Jihadi John" is just one of thousands of people from Britian who have pledged their allegiance to ISIS, reports the BBC
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"John" leads the small cadre of British militants who are in charge of guarding hostages captured by the Islamic State. The hostages call them "John," "Paul," and "Ringo," after the Beatles, the BBC’s Frank Gardner said.
But the British contingent isn't limited to those three, reports USA Today
. British law enforcement says there are actually more British Muslims fighting for ISIS forces than are in the British military itself, and the problem is growing.
"This is something we have been tracking and dealing with for many, many months and I don't think this video changes anything," said United Kingdom Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond. "It just heightens awareness of a situation which is very grave."
Parliament member Khalid Mahmood, whose district has a high proportion of Muslim residents, said the official estimate of British ISIS fighters is far too conservative, and that he believes there are at least 1,500 British extremists recruited by ISIS to fight for control in Iraq and Syria.
British former rapper Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, 23, is one of three potential suspects in Foley's death, reports The Telegraph
. The former West London resident, who went to Syria last year and later tweeted a picture of himself holding up a severed head, has a similar accent to the jihadist who killed Foley, and has a similar build and skin tone, British law enforcement officials say.
But the growing trend does not appear to be catching on very quickly in the United States quite yet, said American University criminology professor Joseph Young.
Young estimates there are about 100 to 150 Americans fighting for ISIS, and geography may be the reason. It's difficult and expensive for Americans to fly to Syria or Iraq, he said.
Further, the United States integrates its minorities better than European countries, said Young, noting that isolating minorities "is a much bigger problem in Europe."
Ghaffar Hussain, of Britain's Quilliam Foundation, said that many British Muslims feel they are being mistreated in a society that is predominantly non-Muslim.
"It makes them feel like they are part of something that is important to the world," he said. "If you feel like you don't really fit in or if Muslims are being attacked and a narrative comes along that explains all that away in a simple way, that is attractive."
But its influence is reaching disenfranchised young adults in the United States through the Internet, FBI Director James Comey said this week during a visit to Denver, reports CBS affiliate KCNC
“We have seen an emergence since I was last in government of the people we call home grown violent extremists,” Comey said. “These are the people who are directed by al-Qaida, may not even personally know somebody in al-Qaida but the Internet makes that irrelevant."
And it's not just men, the affiliate reports.
One young woman, Shannon Conley, of Arvada, Colo., also known as Halima Conley, is facing criminal charges of aiding ISIS, and is said to have become radicalized online.
Court documents say Conley joined the U.S. Army with the intention of being trained in military tactics and firearms, and that she told the FBI she wants to wage Jihad overseas.
Comey said that Americans need to watch people such as Conley closely and to report behavior changes or odd online posts, which can be a sign a person has become radicalized.
"More often it will be a family member or a friend who will see something in person or online. We need those folks just to tell us," he said.
The threat is also spreading to Canada, where the Imam Syed Soharwardy, founder of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada says an ISIS member has threatened to murder him for calling for Canadian and Western authorities to intensify the battle against radical Islamists, reports Al Arabiya News
Soharwardy also says ISIS is recruiting members throughout Canada.
"Absolutely I am convinced that this recruitment is going on right here in this country, under our noses, in our universities, in our colleges, in the places of worship, in our community," he told CBC public television, reports Al Arabiya.
He said that as a well known imam, he is threatened often, and the ISIS threat came to him through a Facebook message from a Muslim man from Ottawa who is overseas fighting in Mosul with the jihadists.
"He was condemning me for condemning ISIS, and he was saying that 'You are a deviant imam and your version of Islam is not the right version,'" Soharwardy said.
Back in February, intelligence services reported at least 130 Canadians have joined ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria, and Soharwardy said he was very familiar with one of three young men from Calgary who were killed fighting for ISIS.
"These people are brainwashing people here in this country," he said.
There are many reasons Westerners join such groups, John Horgan, a psychologist and terrorism specialist, told New York Magazine's Science of Us
"Different kinds of people become involved for many different kinds of reasons, and they end up doing many different kinds of things," said Horgan. "Some become snipers, some become bombers, some become beheaders, for example."
And instead of trying to determine a general model, psychologists are finding broad risk factors for understanding why someone from the western world would join a radical jihadist movement fighting thousands of miles away.
"There’s typically a very, very strong moral pull," said Horgan. "You often see recruits are driven by this passionate need to right some perceived wrong, to address some sort of injustice, to restore honor to those from whom it’s been taken."
Horgan said he has been studying terrorism for 20 years, and ISIS "truly is something different" from other groups.
"It holds very, very broad appeal to both converts and natural-born Muslims alike," he said. "In the eyes of potential recruits, this is fantasy made reality. It’s everything that a would-be jihadist could have hoped for."
The radical jihadist group is also demonstrating quick results, another factor that a budding terrorist would appreciate, said Horgan.
"They’re capturing cities, they’re flaunting weaponry," he said. "They’re creating a safe haven, or refuge, where they can live."
There is a difference between fundamentalists, he pointed out, as "most radicals don’t act on their beliefs, let alone become involved in terrorism."
But ISIS is working hard to recruit soldiers, said Horgan, through selfies and YouTube videos that allow people to immediately live the fantasy and "scowl back at their home countries."
As a result, Western countries will need to rethink their assumptions about terrorism, he said.
"This is far more warlike, far more akin to a large-scale insurgent movement than a small-scale terrorism movement," he said.
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