The Jihadi Next Door is written by Dr. Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, a PhD in criminology, law, and society from George Mason University in the United States of America. She is a social scientist with an expertise in human trafficking and in multimedia and terrorists’ use of cyberspace.
The main purpose of her book is to provide information that can be used to combat terrorism. The author hopes to empower readers with the knowledge needed to prevent future radicalization and recruitment and thereby prevent acts of terrorism. She shares her experience on the topic and provides some very useful theories to understand the phenomenon.
The Encounter with Jihadism and the Analogy with Human Traffickers Recruitment
The author encountered the topic of jihadist terrorism while she took a position as an instructor in the criminoly department of a top-ranked university. During office hours, her Muslim female student, Amal, who wore a hijab, asked her for some advice and the most important was how she could become an FBI agent, despite her brother having been convicted for terrorism. Here is how the author meets jihadism.
Terrorist recruiters had targeted Amal’s brother online, recognizing his computer programming skills and asked him to set up a website to facilitate money transfers for jihad. He did and was arrested by FBI. He was later diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, which is an Autism Spectrum Disorder that, among other things, causes challenges for normal social interactions. He found solace online, chatting with strangers for more than 40 hours per week. As the author points out, terrorists trapped him by providing a sense of belonging that he struggled to find in normal day-to-day relationships.
The encounter with Amal’s brother provides a conceptual framework that is the best part of the book: the analogy between terrorist recruitment and human traffickers.
The author conceives of human trafficking as follows:
- the human trafficker identifies a target and determines which of his or her needs are not being met: psychological, safety, love/belonging, self-esteem, or self-actualization;
- the human trafficker typically makes the false promise to fulfill the needs of the target or temporarily meets the needs of the target in order to gain his or her trust, and distance them from their other social support systems;
- once the target is distanced from their own social support, the human trafficker often attempts to create a bond and power imbalance with him or her. The aim is to make the target reliant on the trafficker and distrustful of anyone besides the trafficker, while the target internalizes blame for any negative consequence received;
- human traffickers are typically very skilled in making their victims believe they are consenting to their own exploitation.
This pattern is very familiar with those recruited by terrorists — Amal’s brother being merely one instance among many, and quite a specific one since he had a disorder that could be exploited.
The jihadists also share with the human traffickers a tendency to finance themselves by extortion, fraud, and other means of coercion and deception. The religious precepts — such as jihad, takfir, and hijra — provide a sacred cover for very earthy exploits.
The Manipulated Women
Umm Sumayyah al-Muhajirah is a “jihadi bride” who authored an article, “The Twin Halves of the Muhajirin,” in the eighth edition of the Islamic State’s (ISIS) Dabiq magazine in March 2015. She stressed the importance of females embarking on hijra, described as a migration from the places of disbelief and sin “to the land of Islam and obedience,” referred to the zones ruled by ISIS. Though phrased in high theological terms, as bringing women from an area where they would experience a “death of the heart” that would make Islam and its people unrecognizable, to a place of purity, the material aim was to have women migrate to join ISIS in Syria, where they could serve as mothers and enforcers of the state project.
The Dabiq article claimed that by joining men in hijra, women would “strengthen their forces, and wage jihad against the enemies of Allah,” something it declared was obligatory for women, just as it was for men.
The article notes that one of the important obstacles for women is their own families, who can call the police or otherwise divert them from the “cause of Allah”. If the woman bypasses these travails, Umm Sumayyah promised an exiting journey, full of memories, where she will leave darkness and caves for light and green land. The article even acknowledges the dangers and the deaths of children, but rationalizes these tragedies, claiming it was better for the babies to die in the Islamic State than to die in lands ruled by non-Muslims.
The article concluded by pleading for women to stay in the Islamic State after hijra, even if their husbands were killed or imprisoned. The message was that patience will be rewarded by paradise.
It is important highlight how the hijra concept is manipulated, because in Islam, hijra refers to the Prophet Muhammad’s migration from Mecca, a place where he and his companions were aggressively persecuted for over a decade, to the predominately Jewish city of Medina, where Muhammad established a secular state with the Jews through the Constitution of Medina. Following the hijra, Mohammed lived alongside pagan Arab tribes and Jewish people in peace. Instead, the Dabiq article makes an argument such that if you don’t live with ISIS in “caliphate,” you are outside of Islam, and therefore any critiques of their tactics and religious interpretations are invalid.
Mehlman-Orozco argues that the ISIS propaganda used to recruit women into terrorism is similar to the tactics used to ensnare women in sex trafficking. In particular, the first red flag is ISIS designating the family as an obstacle — trying to distance the victim from her social support system. Similarly, women are manipulated into believing that the men coercing them to come to the Islamic State “love them,” even though they are unwittingly being exploited.
The author documents that romantic love is one of the most powerful sensations a person can feel — based in the reptilian core of the brain, below cognition and emotion. From this area, feelings of love create and disperse dopamine in a way that drives desire, motivation, focus, and craving. The feeling can possess you and make you lose your sense of self to the point that you become willing to risk everything for it. For this reason, fabricated feelings of “love” are an effective tool for conscripting victims of human or sex traffickers, as well as terrorists.
Terrorists have historically excluded women from armed conflict, and for this reason some counter-terrorism experts are inclined to discuss the modern trend of radicalized women separately from that of men, although there is considerable overlap in tactics used to recruit the two. Men recruited into ISIS and such organizations arrive by a similar mix of push and pull factors to their female counterparts. Pushed by feelings of prejudice, whether personal or against all Muslims, an aversion to Western culture, and frustration; pulled by the influence of recruiters, the desire for brotherhood and/or romance, a sense of adventure, utopianism, and the male warrior hypothesis.
The male warrior hypothesis argues that human tribalism and parochialism leads people to categorize individuals on the basis of their group membership. In-group members are then treated benevolently, while out-group members are treated malevolently. According to the theory, men have psychologically evolved to initiate and display acts of intergroup aggression because it represents an opportunity to gain access to in-group friends, intimate partners, territory, and increased status. Therefore, according to this theory, men may be drawn to ISIS because of their psychological proclivity to pursue intergroup conflict.
Again, both extremist groups and organized crime syndicates exploit this dynamic, and through some research the author highlights this considerable overlap, including the very tailored, individualistic way these organizations exploit a person.
According to Abraham Maslow’s Theory of Human Motivation, a hierarchy of needs influences individual choices. There are three types of targets by region. The first is Middle Eastern Targets, motivated by safety and physiological needs like food, shelter, water, and sexual intercourse. The second is Western Targets, motivated by love/belonging and self-esteem needs, namely to acquire physical and financial safety. Third is All Targets: once the needs of the previous levels are met, people will seek self-esteem and respect from others, followed by self-actualization to realize their full potential and positively transform society.
Following this theory, the author stressed that men and women are manipulated and radicalized by recruiters based on diverse levels of need.
For instance, men and women from Middle Eastern countries are more likely to be induced into joining terrorist organizations like ISIS when compared to their Western counterparts for the simple reason that ISIS took over parts of Middle Eastern countries. In ISIS-controlled territories, resources can be restricted and recruits can feel compelled to join so that they can have access to food, shelter, employment opportunities, and other social and financial capital. When and if they decline to join, their safety and their family safety can be threatened.
On the other hand, men and women from Western countries are more likely to be drawn in through false promises of love, belonging, romantic relationships, and in-group brotherhood or sisterhood. Additionally, men from Western countries are lured through overtures targeting their esteem and opportunities to gain respect from others, as the male warrior theory stresses.
In addition, data collected by the author from radicalized individuals suggests that people recruited into ISIS from the West are often converts to Islam or were not described particularly religious prior to being targeted. Radicalization typically occurs during the peak of life course criminality, and male recruits often have histories of delinquency or drug use prior to conscription. Furthermore, Western ISIS recruits are often described as easily impressionable or socially isolated, and many exhibit signs of mental illness.
In Mehlman-Orozco’s conception, a terrorist organization like ISIS is little to do with religion, which is a cover for a will to power — and money. Like a cartel or other criminal organization, ISIS is effectively engaged in human trafficking, targeting vulnerable people, including children.
Based on the refined capabilities of face-to-face and online recruitment, ISIS has managed to recruit tens of thousands of people who fight in diverse ways believing they defend Islam and the Ummah (Muslim nation) from infidels. This book allows us to see ISIS through the lenses of those who want to make it clear that to defeat terrorism we must understand that they are simply manipulators and counterfeiters.
Finally, to combat terrorism organizations, counter-terrorism efforts and strategies have to focus on the prevention of radicalization. In traditional Ponzi or pyramid schemes, targets are tricked into financially investing in a company that does not produce any goods or services. The business simply generates a return on investment when more defrauded victims invest. Similarly, the people who are actually committing acts of terrorism and becoming suicide bombers are defrauded into believing they are contributing to an altruistic cause and will receive the benefit of salvation in the hereafter for their sacrifice. The scheme is that the people at the top would never go to the front lines of the battle or kill themselves. The men leading terrorist organization are simply guided by their selfish motives for money and power.
It is a well-known fact that traditional Ponzi schemes are discontinued when they can no longer attract new investors. To that end, terrorist Ponzi schemes, like those run by ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and the rest will similarly cease when they can no longer attract new recruits. Hence, preventive counter-radicalization is more important than reactive counter-terrorism. An important first step — easier said than done — is exposing the criminal and cynical nature of these terrorist organizations.