Islamic State's next recruiting target: Germany’s young and vulnerable

A fire rages after Islamic State militants battled in Beiji over Iraq's largest oil refinery.


By MATTHEW SCHOFIELD | McClatchy Foreign Staff | Published: June 20, 2015

BERLIN (Tribune News Service) — Last month in Beiji, Iraq, a 23-year-old German who’s being referred to as Yannick N. died in a suicide bomb attack for the Islamic State.

The story of a young German man willing to fight and die for the Islamic State has become disturbingly routine, but to experts and police, the tale of Yannick N. is especially shocking because of what the former Freiburg resident didn’t possess.

He didn’t have close family or friends, the most common way Islamic State fighters are recruited. He didn’t have Internet access and wasn’t known to have ever used social media sites believed critical to Islamic State recruiters. He didn’t have a home mosque, or a background in Islam, which again would make him a lower-risk target. He was homeless.

Instead, Yannick N., who was learning disabled, appears to have been approached in person and to have been recruited in what amounted to a cold call by radical Islamists targeting a vulnerable person by offering to give him what they had and he wanted — protection, a future and a family.

A year after that initial approach, he drove a truck filled with 1.5 tons of explosives into an Iraqi military checkpoint.

The news in Europe is full of such stories of people vanishing from here who end up there. Last weekend, a Hamburg father killed himself after learning that his teenage daughter and her friend had sneaked away and into Syria. British news media this week were reporting that three British sisters and their nine children are feared to have slipped into Syria after making a pilgrimage to Mecca.

German experts on the radicalization of young people say Yannick N. fits a new trend in the Islamic State recruiting. For years now, Germany, like other European nations, has provided a steady flow of recruits to the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Most of those were young Muslims, many of them recent converts, who’d been radicalized by family, friends, imams or the Web.

The new strategy appears to target the homeless, those with disabilities and young, frustrated refugees. Experts believe that before, European recruits were often lured with the promise of taking part in a struggle that was bigger than their small, mundane lives. This new batch, however, is simply desperate for any kind of acceptance. As such, the fear is that they’re more likely to be willing to accept their fate as suicide bombers than those who want glory, but also want to revel in it with friends online.

“Since early this year we’ve noticed active recruitment of children in foster care, among the homeless and of unaccompanied young refugees,” said Berna Kurnaz, a German social worker in Bremen who works for Kitab, an organization devoted to discouraging young people from joining the radical fight.

“This is new, and it’s very troubling,” she said.

One reason for her dismay is that the new targets don’t frequent the online chat rooms or youth gathering spots that her group focuses on.

“Maybe this phenomenon is the result of our work countering their recruitment efforts,” she said. “Maybe they had to get more aggressive because it is less easy for the recruiters to convince the old audience than it used to be. Or maybe it’s just a new strategy.”

Most chillingly, she said, the Islamic State is targeting an ever-younger audience.

“In the past, the most vulnerable group for Islamic State recruitment was 16- to 20-year-olds,” Kurnaz said. “Today, they are targeting 7- and 8-year-olds who want to become Islamic warriors.”

She noted that at the recent carnival in Bremen, which people attend in costume, there were a number of children dressed in black, carrying dolls dressed in orange — symbolic of the black-clad Islamic State fighters and their orange-clad beheading victims.

“When asked what they wanted to do when they grow up, the answer we were getting was ‘mujahedeen,’” she said — holy warriors. “Radical Islamism is our fastest-growing youth movement. The more provocative the message, the more attractive it is to teens, and now even to preteens.”

Magnus Ranstorp, an international security expert at the Swedish National Defense University, said the offer of what has become a “counterculture” lifestyle appeals to many young Europeans. Beyond that, the more complex the problems of young recruits, the more willing they are to listen.

“The recruiters are offering brotherhood, family, for those who don’t fit in,” he said. “And they’re offering them the chance to become heroes in the great struggle of our times.”

The homeless, who feel ignored by society, and new refugees, whose presence is the subject of protest movements across Europe, can find an Islamic State recruiting effort a welcome kindness, Ranstorp said — meals shared with others who appear to care, time spent talking through problems. When that kindness eventually comes with a promise that while “this life may be painful, there is much more in the next life,” new recruits are susceptible.

The most in-depth understanding to date of those leaving Germany to work and fight in Syria and Iraq comes from a recent report compiled by German intelligence and police agencies. The study looks at 378 people known to have traveled to join radical groups. German intelligence last week said the official number of radical recruits from Germany is 680.

Other experts said the real total is certainly around 1,000, if not higher. Europol, Europe’s multinational police agency, earlier this year reported that about 5,000 Europeans have gone to join the fight. The overall number of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq is thought to total more than 25,000. Recently, Ranstorp noted, Tunisia reportedly stopped 12,000 potential recruits from joining Islamic State efforts in Libya.

Some results of the German study are entirely predictable: 9 of every 10 recruits are men.

Others surprise. The youngest recruits to make the trip have been 15 years old, and the oldest, 63.

Almost two-thirds were born in Germany and are German citizens. Only 1 in 3 has a high school diploma, but 73 of the 378 were in school when they left, and 46 were in vocational training. A third of those making the trip had no parental connection to any form of Islam. Only 21 percent were known to be unemployed.

The most likely to return to Germany from the fight are those who travel to the Islamic State alone. Of those who return, half will remain heavily involved in “the radical Islamist scene.”

And, the report noted, the time it takes to radicalize a recruit ranges from slightly less than 12 months to three years. During that time, the report said, friends and family members are unlikely to notice the radicalization, though police and intelligence agencies might.

The German newspaper Die Welt recently reported that security officials believe the Islamic State has dramatically lowered its recruitment standards in Germany. The Islamic State “used to vet new recruits and asked for references” but now “accepts everyone.”

Die Welt noted that the need is particularly great for suicide bombers, who are used as tactical weapons similar to airstrikes during assaults. “The terrorists constantly need new suicide bombers who are their most important offensive weapon. The three-day attack on Ramadi alone left 50 (bombers) dead,” the newspaper said.

Claudia Dantschke, a Berlin-based specialist in Islam who tries to identify families where the young people are at risk of choosing the fight, said ISIS recruiters seek out “petty criminals, those smoking weed, those just hanging out.”

“What is new is that they recruit among refugees, who come here as minors without families,” she said.

The young refugees find themselves alone in a country that is often openly hostile toward new arrivals, so when friendship and familiar foods are offered, many are convinced to return to the life they had just fled.

“There are many attempts to encourage teenagers to recruit fellow teenagers, in the streets (‘street dawa’), in institutions and through social media (Facebook, WhatsApp groups) alike,” she wrote in an email.

Educating young people about the negative aspects of fighting for the Islamic State “works to some extent,” she said. “But I would not like to exaggerate its effect.”

And efforts to short-circuit recruiting often meet some well-meaning obstacles. “Unfortunately, some parents overreact and unwillingly speed up the radicalization process,” she said.

Ranstorp said that when added up, the recruitment trends suggest a long, brutal and difficult war for the West against the Islamic State.

“Tactically there has been some progress,” he said. “But strategically, the West is losing. The genie is out of the bottle, and it’s spreading.”

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Claudia Dantschke, seen here in a photo from September 2013 in Berlin, is a specialist in Islam who tries to identify families where the young people are at risk of choosing the fight in Syria or Iraq.