Since 2014, what prompted more than 3,400 men, women and teenagers from Western countries to leave their homes, families and lives to go fight alongside ISIS in Syria and Iraq? CNN claims images of Nutella, emoji and kittens on ISIS' social media were used to initially lure potential female recruits. Some US State Department officials feel unemployment is what compelled certain individuals to drop everything to join ISIS. The jury is still out.
But this doesn't mean there aren't steps we can take now to reduce such recruitment. The reality is that at this point we do have sufficient information to help us tailor our anti-ISIS strategies better - we are just not using this information effectively yet. However flawed, the current strategies should continue - from the counterterrorism summits, to anti-ISIS videos and social media clampdown. Here are three more steps policymakers need to take to more effectively counter ISIS propaganda in Western countries and so reduce foreign recruitment:
1. BE CLEAR ON THE ROOT CAUSE OF FOREIGN RECRUITMENT Let's not waste any more time debating this publicly - it just makes us look overwhelmed and confused. At the very least, at this point we can all agree on the following: there are different types of recruits who are recruited for different roles in ISIS, but underlying most Western recruitment is a sense of alienation from society and even government. It's not that social media is the reason for more ISIS recruits - it's that there are too many individuals who are being influenced by it. Why are they so easily influenced by social media? They clearly don't feel they have a stake or future in their community or country; in some cases, they don't see their government as legitimate. So why should they stay? ISIS is giving them an exit strategy from their life. Any anti-recruitment strategy has to take this obvious psychological aspect into account.
2. LEARN MORE ABOUT ISIS RECRUITMENT FROM ITS DEFECTORS There are too many examples of ISIS recruits who defected from the organization and returned to their home countries. Whether it's the 30-year-old from Vaud, Switzerland, the Australian national horrified by the executions of Westerners or the suicide bombers in training who defected to Turkey, we need to learn as much as we can from these ISIS defectors. Let's evaluate why they chose to join ISIS in the first place and what prompted them to defect. How much were they paid? What was their training like? What did they learn about the organization's inner workings and other members? The more data points we can collect on this, the more we can retool ongoing anti-ISIS recruitment policies for optimal results. Of course, we need to make sure these ISIS defectors are legitimate - one report suggests ISIS plans to have some members pose as defectors so they can return to their home countries and more easily launch attacks.
3. USE DEFECTORS (AND MAYBE CELEBRITIES?) IN ANTI-ISIS PROPAGANDA It makes sense that governments (e.g. US, France) have released anti-ISIS videos to counter ISIS recruitment. But is it really effective? If the individual is already experiencing a sense of alienation from mainstream society and government, why would he care to watch a government-created video? He probably wouldn't even be aware of it. We need to use ISIS defectors as our spokespeople for anti-ISIS propaganda in the West. Let's have them speak out about why they chose to join ISIS and why they chose to leave. We may also want to consider having public figures, even celebrities, speak out against ISIS (despite the potential security concerns) - at the very least, these anti-ISIS messages may resonate more with teenagers than a government video (last year, pop star Zayn Malik of One Direction and soccer star Lionel Messi apparently were called on by ISIS - if these stars spoke out against ISIS, would that deter potential recruits, especially among youth?) What if the celebrities with the most Twitter followers (e.g. Ashton Kutcher - 16M, Christian Ronaldo - 34M, Katy Perry - 66M) tweeted anti-ISIS messages - could that sway some potential recruits? There's no harm looking into this.
And yes, we may never know if any of these pre-emptive strategies actually work. But at this point, we have to take as many preventative measures as possible to make sure another man, woman or teenager in the West doesn't drop everything to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq. We really don't have any choice.