Why teens are joining ISIS

Jan 4, 2016 at 6:15 p.m. ET
Image: JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

One in seven Western militants in Iraq and Syria are young women. That’s a fact. A new study from November, 2015 finds that not only are one in seven ISIS militants women, but their average age is 21 years old, with some as young as 15 years old — all eager to join ISIS and become jihadi brides. The Soufan Group counts 550 Western women to have joined ISIS in total. 

In her New York Post story “My ISIS Boyfriend,” Margarette Driscoll writes that for young women, romanticizing the newly minted caliph — the attraction of having a jihadist fighter as a lover — is better than having Brad Pitt, “because Brad Pitt is not religious.”

If it shocks you that young people are heading to Syria, a look back into history shows a long-standing pattern of young people exhibiting this same type of extremist and radical behavior. In 1939 there were 8.8 million boys between the ages of 16 and 17 who were recruited to be part of Hitler’s boy soldiers known more famously as the Hitler Youth. The demographics of Jonestown shows more than one-half of the residents were under 30, while over one-third were under 20 .

The teenage brain is a work in progress

Young brains are malleable and always have been. A developing brain, the frontal lobe specifically, is the part of our brain that helps us in our decision-making processes and also understands the consequences of those decisions. However, the frontal lobe is a late bloomer. Scientists finally understand and have evidence that the developing brain is, in fact, still evolving. The most important functions that happen there — reasoning, working memory, problem solving and planning — are not fully developed in teens. This is the sole reason why, for many generations, religious cults and political movements so easily prayed on the young to join their causes.

Long-term studies that follow the growth of the teenage brain through neuroimaging tell us that the adolescent brain continues to mature well into the individual’s 20s. This is important because it explains why we do stupid things when we’re young, but more importantly why policy makers are arguing to change the age of driving, voting and drinking. Yet, girls not even old enough to drive, vote or drink are joining ISIS. Most teens who become part of a dangerous movement don’t fully grasp the consequences of their actions until it’s too late.

Dismissing these kids as “dumb” or “psychos” is a huge mistake

John Horgan, a psychologist and professor at the University of Massachusetts warns, “Because of what terrorists do, we assume that can be explained via the pathology of those people, but trying to explain terrorism as mental illness is misleading.”

The vast majority of Western teens who choose to join ISIS have intellectualized the process. In his quest to uncover the intellectual and developmental underpinnings of what motivates kids to join a terrorist organization, researcher Dr. Arie Kruglanski found that adhering to an extreme ideology has a lot more to do with the search for personal significance, which is an intellectual pursuit.

His studies also found that people identify as either individuals, part of a religion or part of their country. Those who identify as a part of their religion adhere to more collectivist ideals, making them more willing to give up their personal goals in service of the collective — which in this case are the tenets of an extreme sect of radical Islam. What they are promised is an idealized life that is more important than the individual, one that serves a greater good making a teen feel vital to the cause giving them the worldview they’ve been seeking.

Girls are told, “you’ll be treated like a princess”

A teenage crisis is going on: Your best friends have ostracized you over something meaningless; someone in school is bullying you; your boyfriend broke up with you; or perhaps something more legitimate is going on at home. A death in the family, poverty or abuse can lead a teen to feel out of control and vulnerable. Studies have shown that in moments of personal crisis and vulnerability, some teens are more likely to join cults or religious movements. This action is a way to take control of your world and to feel powerful again. For young ladies, promises of being treated like a princess in Syria may make teen girls finally special. Teens who perceive a major injustice as having been done, a wrong that needs to be righted, turn to religious cults and political movements that offer not only answers, but a utopia.

Why isn’t the suicide part a deterrent?

This goes back to Dr. Kruglanski’s theory of personal significance. Dying for the sake of a cause or the group elevates the status of yourself and your family becoming larger than anything you can contribute in life. The suicide terrorist achieves martyrdom and a great notoriety in death that they never attained in life. They are celebrated on trading cards, posters and keychains.

“Suicidal terrorism is an extreme means and the perpetrators are hailed as giving the ultimate sacrifice, says Dr. Kruglanski, “It has the potential of bestowing greater significance upon the actor.” 

What is to be done?

More articles need to be written, more conversations need to happen and more information needs to be disseminated regarding empirical evidence on the lure of extremism so that we can keep our kids safe.

Another finding from the November 2015 study shows one-third of the teens bound for Syria to join ISIS have some kind of familial ties to jihad and were all active online, where they became radicalized — two more red flags. Having this information available allows parents to avoid taking actions that would drive a teen towards an extremist cult. These vulnerabilities are not to be taken lightly. A teen showing interest in ISIS or any extreme movement should be managed with the help of a professional. A teen may not understand the consequences, but the adult does. Their fate and ours falls to you.