‘The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had’
When we were both sixteen, my then-best friend Dave carved the above lyric on his school desk. It was from the song ‘Mad World’ by the band Tears for Fears and we both thought it ineffably cool. It’s a line that elegantly evokes the self-pity and nihilism that afflicts so many teenaged boys.
Every decade has songs that hit a nerve because they are similarly doom-laden and grandiose. But the important point is that many adolescent boys fantasize about death, killing and suicide – melodramatic, shocking gestures that might free them from their sense of powerlessness as they flail between childhood and the adult world.
One of the reasons why the authorities have failed to stem the flow of young Britons to ISIS’s ‘caliphate’ may be because they have forgotten the extent to which many teenage boys live in a world of macho fantasy. It is certainly not something overlooked by jihadi recruiters, as even a quick glance at their propaganda will show.
Those in charge of counter-radicalisation may also have underestimated the profound appeal to the adolescent mind of adventure, risk, and sacrifice – all things that play a big role in jihadi recruitment materials, but that can be hard for young men to find in mainstream British life.
Today one of the key elements of the UK’s ‘Prevent’ counter-radicalisation strategy involves police visiting schools in cities such as Bradford and Birmingham. Their central message? Going to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS is very dangerous.
But the danger is one of the most appealing things about it. You’re not drawn to ISIS because you hanker for comfort and safety, any more than you’d join the SAS because you want a cosy 9-5 job. This is true not just for the criminals and gang members converted and recruited so effectively in British prisons, but also for the geeky South Asian boys who are radicalized online.
So it’s hard to imagine a more useless exercise, or one that better demonstrates to those students how laughably out of touch the authorities seem to be. In that way, the ‘Prevent’ strategy is a bit like those naive adult interventions of previous decades, when police or social workers visited schools to warn of the dangers of smoking or alcohol. The more earnest the warnings, the cooler it was to be one of the kids who smoked or drank.
During the last two years ISIS has made jihadism more enticing than ever before. And for certain types of young man, especially but not exclusively in the British Pakistani community, it was already powerfully attractive.
After the 7/7/2005 bombings, our commentariat often agonized about why British born young men would blow up trains and buses in London. It was generally assumed that the roots of home grown terror must lie in phenomena such as lack of opportunity, social exclusion, racism, poverty, ‘Islamophobia’ or the percieved wrongs of British foreign policy. After all, the logic went, to commit such a terrible crime you must surely be angry about some terrible wrong. For middle-aged politicians, home office officials, policemen and social workers – people for whom killing or dying for a cause seemed almost unimaginably extreme – no other explanation made sense.
They did not really register that all the suspects in the British bomb plots were young men in their teens or twenties, that there were no angry elderly or middle-aged men, no angry women, and at least in the UK, no angry girls seeking to set off explosives in buses and tubes.
It did not occur to them, even before the advent of ISIS, that jihadist recruiters were offering their potential cadre something positive and idealistic, an intoxicating cocktail of adventure, discipline, belonging, manliness and glamour.
To boys rebelling against their immigrant parents and caught between cultures, they offered not just community but a particularly intense form of it: membership in a proud international brotherhood of warriors fighting on behalf of a global umma.
To youths humiliated at school by their lack of confidence with girls, they promised a future in which they would (finally) get respect from women; not just respect, but the respect due to heroes.
By joining the movement in Britain they could become jihadi James Bonds and Jason Bournes. They would enter a world of subterfuge and conspiracy, defying the entire security structure of a modern state, and carrying in their hands the technology to terrify a nation. And if they were to fail, then they could embrace a martyrs doom.
This was exciting enough for some. But ISIS offers even more, and it does so using methods cleverly designed to attract a generation shaped by social media, computer gaming and online avatars.
What ISIS proffers is something equally attractive to poor young men in Yemen, humiliated Sunnis in Iraq, and science graduates from Birmingham. It offers participation in Victory. To identify with ISIS is to identify with a winner, an unstoppable world-changing force.
Moreover, their dazzling successes against vastly larger armies and governments recall those of the original empire-shattering Muslim conquest of Arabia, North Africa, Persia and Central Asia. When recruiters tell their targets that Allah is on their side, it’s not hard for them to make a convincing case.
ISIS offers the opportunity to take part in a real war, and the chance to enjoy the fruits of victory in a real caliphate. Just days from London it could be you cradling an assault rifle, racing down dusty streets in your heavily-armed Toyota pickup (no driving license necessary) on your way to buy a pair of Yazidi slave girls or to watch the beheading of a Shia prisoner. It certainly trumps joining a local British street gang and controlling the dreary streets of a depressed midlands post code, or the wing of a prison.
Moreover, you don’t have to be genuinely tough to join. Indeed, in the UK, ISIS actively recruits computer geeks and science nerds. It needs them for its cyber warfare, to make its propaganda videos, and to run its thousands of blogs and social media feeds.
And, unlike any other potential employer, ISIS promises it will let you kill someone. If the UK’s authorities are to have any chance at countering the appeal of ISIS, they will have to start acknowledging aspects of human nature and the male psyche that British society prefers to keep tidied away.
Jonathan Foreman is Senior Research Fellow at the Civitas think tank.