Zahra and Salma were 16 the night they sneaked out of their warm beds in their family home and departed for a hazy future. They had been top-ranking students, scoring among the ten per cent across the UK in their GCSE exams.
The news media has been shaken recently by these twin sisters of Somali origin that left their homes in Manchester to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) allegedly following the call of their Jihadist brother. The incident also reminds us of the two Somali descendant Norwegian teenage sisters that had left their homes to join the Syrian Civil War.
The lives that these youngsters abandoned are such that thousands of people around the world risk their lives for every year. Their parents are among the "lucky" ones that could make it to Europe to earn a living and some future prospects for the family. What then made them leave their "dream lives" to embark on a path of extreme challenges, if not death? Is it really that they see the Garden of Eden at the end of the tunnel, as promised by their fellow Jihadists?
While some watches the degree of violence in the Middle East scared out of their wits, these youngsters are eager to take their part in this vicious cycle. The massive and rapidly increasing number of voluntary recruitment into groups such as ISIS is noteworthy and has raised a number of questions as to why these people are eager to risk, if not sacrifice, their lives. Around 8 to 11 thousand people have travelled to Syria so far to join Jihad. More than 1500 EU citizens, most of whom British and French, are estimated to have joined these groups during the civil war.
Ideology of secondary importance
The post-September 11 era has witnessed a significant rise in radicalism particularly following the US-led "war on terror" and the invasion of Iraq. Western countries have not only been targets for attacks but also recruitment venues for radical groups. According to a report by Security Assessment in North Africa, the recruitment process of groups like ISIS is largely bottom-up voluntary and the political context of the home countries of recruits play a major role, even more than the dawa (cause) of Jihad itself. Genuine ideological concerns seem to have lower priority.
For instance, although religious concern is one of the reasons, often it is of secondary importance. In fact, studies show that many of the recruits lack sufficient theological knowledge before joining these groups. According to Quintan Wiktorowicz, recruits often believe that these organizations represent the "true" version of Islam, a bias that stems from a lack of sufficient religious knowledge.
Studies indicate that there is no one-size-fits-all prescription for recruiting youngsters into Jihadist groups and there are many factors that motivate them to join. Although poverty, unemployment, lack of future projection and despair may be some common reasons, other reasons may have major influence as well. In fact, contrary to common belief, many of the recruits come from middle class families some of whom with university degrees. For instance, Nasser Muthana, a young Briton who has recently left home to join ISIS, was offered seats at four UK universities to study medicine. This and other examples suggest that not all of the recruits lacked future prospects.
Need for belonging
Repression and discrimination often play a key role in the process. Studies reveal that most of the recruits that come from Western countries faced racism and felt humiliated in their everyday lives prior to joining these groups. Social inequalities, being stigmatized, labelled and pushed towards the margins of the society fuel anger and tension.
Umm Haritha, a 20-year-old woman of Canadian origin who left home to marry off a Jihadist in Syria she met through the internet, indicated that she experienced extreme mocking in public when she started to wear a hijab in Canada. "I would get mocked in public, people showed me and told me to go back to my country and spoke to me like I was mentally ill or didn't understand English. Life was degrading and an embarrassment and nothing like the multicultural freedom of expression and religion they make it out to be," she noted.
Recruits often lacked the sense of belonging to their societies and felt criticized for their ethnic or religious affiliations. The rise of the extreme right in a number of countries across Europe in the recent elections may be supportive of such arguments. The economic crisis that swept Western countries in recent years has also raised criticism against immigrants who have been portrayed as scapegoats. In this view, the failure of politicians was seen as a secondary reason behind the crisis.
Truly sensible measures?
European countries have been on alert about the situation and have tended to take extreme measures. France initiated a hotline to encourage "responsible" parents and citizens to inform "suspicious behavior" of their children and potential Jihadists. "The idea is to deal with the problem from when someone is in their room watching Jihadi videos to the moment when they are taking the bus to the Turkish-Syrian border" said French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve.
The British government has gone as far as striping alleged Jihadists of their citizenships to cope with extremism so far. The controversial case of Mahdi Hashi, a Somali origin former British citizen who was stripped of his citizenship for his alleged links with al-Shabaab is one of the many examples. Another measure that Britain plans to take is to encourage Muslim women to persuade their children not to join Jihadists. Once again, officials are concerned more with the outcome of the problem rather than the root causes. One wonders whether they plan to ask white British mothers to persuade their children to abandon racist and discriminative behaviour against immigrants.
Cutting off the branches of a conflict would only bring temporary relief, if any at all. Yet, to be able to achieve sustainable solutions one needs to go down to the roots of the problem and eliminate the real motives behind such radical decisions. After all, it is very likely that Zahra and Salma, alongside their thousands of counterparts, would reconsider leaving their homes had they felt as truly appreciated and accepted members of their society.
* Research Fellow at POMEAS