In the summer of 1995, Mubin Shaikh traveled throughout Pakistan, volunteering with a missionary group in the sweltering summer heat.
As the 20-year-old invited people to learn more about Islam, he felt conflicted by memories of being shamed as a bad Muslim by his family and religious leaders back home in Canada. Shaikh didn't feel worthy of his faith — until the day he met the Taliban.
In the midst of his identity crisis, Shaikh's encounter with the Taliban gave him hope for finding a purpose — and redemption — in life. They told him he was important, a good Muslim and that he could make a difference in this world.
"I saw them as heroes," Shaikh said.
While it is common for adolescents to undergo identity crises, Shaikh's experience mirrors those of many teenagers whose confusion takes them too far — and of the predators — from pedophiles to gangs to radical Islamists — who know how to target and lure them in.
One of the most sophisticated and influential recruiters today of young, troubled Muslims is the Islamic State group. The group has created a powerful recruitment machine that skillfully exploits adolescent vulnerabilities. While there is no set profile of an Islamic State recruit, experts have identified common psychological traits among Western adolescents that Islamic State and other radical groups tap into: the search for an identity and community, stemming from alienation.
With ISIS obtaining up to 4,000 Western recruits, according to the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, and almost 200 coming from the U.S., Muslim and youth outreach groups and organizations in the U.S. and Europe have been taking action to prevent youths from the radicalization and identify those headed in that direction.
"You need to develop a relationship with them (young Muslims)," said Shaikh, who eventually became a sought out expert in counter radicalization. "You need to put yourself out there as someone with a legitimate voice in the topic."
Need for belonging
Shaikh was born and raised in a middle-class family in Toronto. He attended public school by day, doted on by caring and nurturing teachers. But at night, he went to Quranic school — and experienced the complete opposite.
The environment was rigid and strict, with boys and girls separated. Shaikh had to memorize verses from the Quran — Islam's holiest text — but he never understood the Arabic he was reciting. If he made a mistake, he would get smacked.
"This created for me the beginnings of an identity conflict that would manifest later in my life," he said.
And radicalization, according to experts, exploits identity conflicts similar to Shaikh's.
Fathali Moghaddam, a professor at Georgetown University, has theorized a stepwise process he calls “The Staircase to Terrorism.”
“The central theme in ‘The Staircase to Terrorism’ is identity,” he said. “A number of (young people) have problems in the West because they don’t feel they belong to important groups. No identities are satisfying for them.”
That was a sentiment Shaikh had experienced.
By the time he reached high school, Shaikh was among a popular crowd at school. When his parents were out of town one weekend, he decided to throw a wild, boy-girl drinking party. But when his uncle caught him, everything changed.
"He shamed me, he made me feel guilty about how I had dishonored the family," Shaikh said. "I convinced myself the only way I could salvage my reputation was to get religious."
Shaikh felt alienated from both his Muslim and Canadian backgrounds, caught between the two cultures in which he felt he couldn't fit.
According to Thomas Schmidinger, a political scientist at Vienna University, alienation stems from a variety of issues that can manifest in any teenager — from family problems, to lack of educational and economic opportunity, to psychological problems.
Arie Kruglanski, a professor at University of Maryland, pointed out that these adolescents are not mentally ill but are often gullible and naive, tending to think in categorical terms — good or bad, strong or weak. That black-and-white mentality simply makes them see violence — which is innate in humans — as the only solution to the perceived problem.
“Violence is something that is very available in our biological repertory,” Kruglanski explained. “The aim of civilization and religion in many cases is to curb these aggressive instincts in order to allow society to function. But (Islamic State group's) ideology is subverted to legitimize violence, (and) violence is condoned by none other than God.”
Ervin Staub, a professor at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said adolescent vulnerabilities and frustrations are major elements in violence-prone teenagers, but what pushes it over the edge is a desire for adventure and stimulation.
Islamic State group and similar radical groups promise teenagers a package difficult to turn down: comradeship, loyalty and affiliation with a successful group owning a worldwide reputation — just the meaningful identity these adolescents are looking for.
Theological ideology is rarely the deciding factor for young recruits, experts said.
“It’s not a religiousness,” Schmidinger explained. “It’s a message, ‘Here you have your space, you have community, you’re a part of something bigger.’”
Islamic State group uses an us-versus-them theory, showing Muslims as victims of the West.
“The message is Muslims are suffering, the West is out to humiliate and disenfranchise (them), and it’s your duty as a Muslim to come to your defense,” Kruglanski said.
The methods and message
When Shaikh decided to immerse himself in his religion, his desperate need to belong and his limited understanding of Arabic prevented him from critically analyzing and questioning the Taliban's simple, religiously laced message, which was easy for him to grasp.
The militant held up his AK-47 rifle and told the impressionable teenager, "If you want to bring change into this world, you have to do it with this," Shaikh recalled. "I became completely enamored by them. I saw them as the vanguards defending Islam from the unknown invaders."
That face-to-face encounter with the Taliban was a crucial segue into Shaikh's subsequent radicalization — and it's a method of recruitment that Islamic State group uses today.
Schmidinger’s research team encountered 60 radicalized individuals in Austria — and all of them had personal contact with recruiters. That's in additional to the sophisticated use of social media, digital search and video gaming by radical groups like Islamic State.
“What really matters is communication, but not just through social media,” Cristina Archetti, senior lecturer at the University of Salford, explained. “It’s communication that happens through a variety of channels.”
And for its Western recruits, Islamic State group's most effective tool is local members.
“It’s for a reason Jihadi John is not an Arab from Raqqa, but a British person who went to (ISIS),” Schmidinger said.
German propaganda is done by German jihadis, French propaganda is done by French jihadis, and so on.
“Some young girls recruited in the U.K. were recruited by a 22-year-old girl from the same area,” said Thomas Elkjer Nissen, a strategic communications advisor for the Royal Danish Defense College. “She was intimate and familiar with their social background, concerns, aspirations. What makes it so effective is the recruiters themselves often come from the same background.”
With these same backgrounds, it is easier for the recruiter to identify the potential recruit's insecurities and vulnerabilities to foster a trusting relationship.
Solving the problem
Upon returning to Canada, Shaikh continued to support the Taliban, al-Qaida and other groups from afar, recruiting and convening with like-minded people. But when he realized the people he had been supporting would take things as far as crashing pssenger jets into the World Trade Center and killing thousands of innocent people on 9/11, things changed, his identity crisis resurfaced.
"I decided this is not right, I need to study my religion properly," he said. "I didn't know any Arabic, I had a very superficial understanding of Islam."
So Shaikh traveled to Syria in 2002 and studied Islam with a religious scholar for two years. He learned a different interpretation of Islam and determined the radical position was wrong and didn't represent his faith.
Upon returning to Canada, Shaikh started working undercover for the government to help other kids like himself.
In addition to Shaikh, there are many counterterrorism programs and efforts, attempting to prevent and halt radicalization.
The first step groups must take, according to Schmidinger, is figuring out and preventing Western adolescents' alienation.
“There are always people who don’t find their place in society, but (it's) growing,” he said. “This is really something we have to think about — educational, economic, social policies in Western societies.”
Nissen added that it is necessary to dismantle “the appeal of ISIS’s narrative” by educating vulnerable adolescents in media literacy and safety.
“Very few people are thinking about how much malign activity actually goes on in social media,” he said. “They blindly go into it thinking that this is for a social purpose, and ‘he or she wants to be my friend.’”
One way to dismantle the appeal of ISIS’s and other radical messages is to give adolescents the community they are looking for at home.
“(Generate) meaningful joint projects between people,” Staub said. “It can on the one hand create a sense of belonging, but on the other hand attribute to higher ideals of humanity and people living together in peaceful ways.”
The Muslim Public Affairs Council launched a campaign in response to the Boston Marathon bombings called "Safe Spaces Initative: Tools for Developing Healthy Communities."
The campaign has a toolkit for dealing with radicalization with three levels: prevention, intervention and involving law enforcement.
"The Safe Spaces Initiative creates and builds healthy communities," Hoda Elshishtawy, MPAC's national policy analyst, said. "We're focusing on prevention," which she compared to gang prevention.
"It gets people away from being idle and just going online — now they're busy with beautifying their mosque, or they're on a soccer team or they're learning about their faith," she said.
Preceding the Safe Spaces Initiative, MPAC leveraged social media with a video of prominent scholars all over America saying injustice does not defeat injustice.
However, Elshishtawy affirmed that the majority of their cases have nothing to do with theology but rather existential issues in an adolescent's life.
Imam Suhaib Webb, resident scholar at the Make Space community center for Muslims in Washington, D.C., has come across about five of these cases during his 15 years as an imam and agreed. However, in the rare case that theology compelled adolescents, Imam Webb walked through each point with them, explaining the context for more accurate interpretation.
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"Islam has an extremely sophisticated theology," he said. "You show them that sophistication, and you walk them through these (issues), and they say, 'I'm starting to see it's much more complex than I thought.'"
Shaikh says there is only one way to implement these strategies in order to defeat ISIS and its recruitment methods.
"We face a common enemy," he said. "One that attacks Muslims and non-Muslims the same. If we are serious about fighting it, we must fight it together."