One Young Man’s Story of Being an ISIS Recruit

Right wingers are determined to make State Department Spokesperson Marie Harf their punching bag for saying that we can’t kill our way out of the threat of terrorism.

As she attempted to clarify in that interview, what she was addressing was how we reach the young (mostly) men who are attracted to the cause of ISIS.

To put a face on what she’s talking about, John Simpson wrote about his experience of participating in the interrogation of a 17 year old ISIS recruit who was captured before he completed a suicide bomb mission at a Shia mosque in Baghdad.

His name was Zakariya al-Rawi, and his story was sad and squalid. He had run away from home after rowing with his parents and gone to a nearby town that was occupied by Islamic State. An IS loudspeaker van drove up and down the streets constantly, calling on people to volunteer to serve Islam. That filled Zakariya with a new sense of purpose. He joined up, together with friends.

The recruiters gave him some basic military training but it is clear what they wanted: suicide fodder. They must have detected his weakness of character, his uncertainties, his innocence, and they started to work on him, telling him that Shia Muslims were heretics who had to be extirpated, the enemies of Sunni Muslims like Zakariya and his friends. He believed them…

How old were the others who decided to volunteer?

“Most of them were like me, or younger.”

How young?

“Fourteen, 15, 16.”

I asked him what his father and mother would have thought about what he had become. Tears came to his eyes: he suddenly stopped being a terrorist. Now, he was just a kid who had upset his parents and didn’t know how to get home.

His IS minders took him to Baghdad, put him up at a safe house, and taught him how to use an explosive vest. He had to keep his thumb on the trigger of the bomb. Directly he raised it, the bomb would go off. And at that instant, they said, without needing to go through the process of having his life and actions judged, he would find himself in paradise. It might not have been particularly good theology, but it worked.

That’s just one young man’s story. We know from the videos ISIS has made that he is not representative of some (most?) members of that group.

But when we talk about young 14, 15, 16, 17 year olds being recruited to be fodder in these death games, it’s important to keep this kind of story in mind because “in the Arab countries’ populations, young people are the fastest growing segment, some 60% of the population is under 25 years old, making this one of the most youthful regions in the world.” There is the potential for a steady stream of young recruits just like Zakariya al-Rawi. This is exactly who Ms. Harf was talking about.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .