The surrender of an American ISIS recruit provides the United States a rare opportunity in its struggle against the terrorist organization. Not only could the young man provide valuable intelligence on the Islamic State, he may also prove to be a valuable asset in the effort to counter its extremist ideology and disrupt its recruiting.
Ever since ISIS (DAISH according to its Arabic acronym) exploded onto the world stage in the spring of 2013, law enforcement, the military and counter-terrorism experts have been struggling to understand its ideology and disrupt its highly affective recruitment efforts. Why, the pundits have wondered, has the group's message of religious intolerance and strict adherence to a rigid form of Shari law been so appealing to young Muslims, even those in the affluent West?
Probing this vexing question has led to the painful realization that countering an extremist ideology is even harder than combatting a terrorist organization. The self-proclaimed caliphate has misused the teachings of Islam to create a seductive empowerment narrative. That narrative has persuaded marginalized youth that their lives will have greater meaning if they join ISIS. Coupled with the lure of exotic adventure, the group's message has motivated thousands of young men and even some women to journey to Syria.
Understanding the channels through which young people get information, ISIS has mastered social media. It has made extensive use of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, producing slick videos of its activities, offering an exiting adventure to young men. It also appeals to young women, "Jihadi Janes," with a romantic fantasy of marrying a Sheik and having babies for the caliphate.
ISIS also understands that new recruits make the best recruiters. The Islamic State has made extensive use of its zealous converts to attract more followers. Young men traveling to Syria Tweet about their experience every step of the way. They attract friends and acquaintances, often vouching for them with the ISIS leadership. Some of these foreign fighters soon regret joining the group, but few have escaped to share their story.
That lack of testimony by disillusioned recruits makes Jamal Khweis potentially so valuable. Mainstream imams, scholars, and teachers have done a great deal to debunk the perversion of Islam by extremist groups, but the ability of these leaders to dissuade eager youth may be limited by their age and their status as members of the establishment. A young person who has gone through the radicalization process, however, may be far more effective in reaching people his own age.
If the Kurds turn Khweis over, the U.S. government will face a choice. It could prosecute him for providing material support to a terrorist group, but that would be a mistake. The authorities would do far better to rehabilitate him and elicit his help in preventing others falling into the trap he did. If ever there were a time for restorative instead of retributive justice, this is it.