Tess Lane ’16
It started with a search on Twitter. Alex, a 23-year-old Christian Sunday-school teacher living with her grandparents in Washington state, was curious to find an explanation for the beheading of the journalist James Foley. She searched Twitter for people and groups that condoned the beheading to better understand the reasoning. She even went as far as posting her own questions. Members of ISIS quickly answered her back, and Alex, a lonely young adult, felt a sense of validation. The conversations online continued to grow via Skype, Twitter and email, each lasting many hours. Her new “friends” were teaching her how to be a Muslim and would send gifts of books and chocolate to her home. Three months after her initial post, Alex converted to Islam. She had been seduced by the world of ISIS.
Why are adolescents in the United States befriending a religious extremist group? What is the attraction? The answer comes down to one word: identity.
“You can become politicized at any age, but young adulthood is a prime time for politicizing and radicalizing identities because, if you look at Erikson’s theory [of psychological development,] identity formation is the psychological task of the young adult,” said Lauren Duncan, a Smith psychology professor.
During this stage, adolescents explore their independence and sense of self. They ask questions like “Who am I?” and internal conflict is centered around developing a personal identity. All teenagers go through this process – why would some identify with a terrorist organization?
There is no one psychological profile of an adolescent who becomes a terrorist nor do all terrorists have a uniform mind. Most terrorists do not suffer from severe mental disorders. But research suggests that individuals with particular personality traits, including action-oriented traits, aggressiveness and hungry for stimuli, are drawn to terrorist organizations. Additionally, they may be searching for an outside source to blame for their difficulties, as a result of dissatisfaction in lives.
The media has told many stories in which adolescents, Muslim or not, have aligned with the beliefs and values of ISIS. In Feb. 2015, three Muslim girls, ages 15 and 16, fled to Syria from London. Around the same time, a 23-year-old American was making plans to travel to Austria to meet a member of ISIS before authorities intervened. Access to and time spent on social media, not religious fervor, is the common thread amongst adolescents who seek to become associated with terrorists groups.
“[Adolescents] may be spending huge amounts of time online, which is not quite the same thing as doing [radicalization] in person, but they wouldn’t do this in isolation,” Duncan said.
Not surprisingly then, endless hours of chatting online to new “friends” may result in a radicalized or politicized identity, especially for an adolescent.
Duncan defines politicized identity as “the idea that you have an identification with a particular type of group, a sense of common fate with that group. So saying that whatever happens to members of that particular group affects my life.”
Moreover, Duncan adds that during adolescence, “people tend to be very idealistic, and so they tend to see the world more in black-and-white terms … if they are presented with some sort of political analysis that says ‘Your group is being unfairly treated, and here’s the solution,’ they are more likely to be pulled into that sort of radicalization.” All terrorist groups embody a similar version of “us versus them,” which Duncan is speaking to. “Them” refers to the establishment, outside the source of all sin in opposition to “us.” Consequently, such individuals who are searching for an outside source to blame for their troubles find the extreme rhetoric of terrorism very alluring.
Adolescence is a ripe time for societal instability and flux. Between questioning your sense of self and the developing brain, it’s no wonder that young people tend to take more risks than adults. Add social insecurity and loneliness to the mix and emotions start to boil over.
It’s no coincidence that ISIS targets these types of teenagers online. Research has shown that the main component of whether youth end up in a terrorist group, a youth gang or the drug scene is the network of friendships that a teenager keeps. ISIS uses this to their advantage. They target lonely teenagers, who are searching for purpose and meaning in their life. ISIS becomes their reason to be. ISIS propaganda not only embraces modern technology, but is also extremely efficient and effective. ISIS is a 24-hour operation with a $2 billion budget. They distribute high-quality videos across many different platforms daily. ISIS understands the vulnerabilities of adolescence: insecurity, loneliness and poor judgment. They give these teenagers large amounts of attention and seem caring by asking them questions about their interests, family and lifestyle. It’s not a radical idea that teenagers of western countries may align with their “new” friends beliefs and values. It’s adolescent behavior.