Iraqi army

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi shakes hands with a military officer before a celebration for liberation of Mosul in Mosul, Iraq, on July 10, 2017. (Khalil Dawood/Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS)


WASHINGTON — How does Islamic State (or ISIS or ISIL, as it’s known in some quarters) manage to recruit tens of thousands of followers to join its death cult even after it’s been well established that the fate of those newcomers is feudal or fatal? Who signs up to join a revolution looking to drag society back into a new dark age?

That’s a question that concerned U.S. State Department officials at a May 2015 briefing for journalists, and one that remains on their minds today.

Speaking at a briefing for journalists at the State Department last week, Terry Wolff, deputy special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, reported that recruiting foreign fighters is more difficult for Islamic State following its crushing battlefield defeats over the past couple of years. Still, Wolff noted, there’s a question of what drew as many as 40,000 foreign fighters to join ISIS in either Iraq or Syria.

Wolff, a retired lieutenant general in the U.S. Army, compared the lure of Islamic State to the same reason disaffected youth join gangs. “They are looking for something and they don’t find it at home,” Wolff said.

Those Islamic State recruits come from traditionally Muslim countries as well as from the West. There are even documented cases of Americans joining ISIS.

In a May 2015 State Department briefing, John Allen, who was then the president’s special envoy in the fight against Islamic State, raised the same red flag.

Why would people from relatively stable nations willingly join a group that murders non-adherents of their radical brand of Islam, treats women as sexual slaves and generally seeks to turn the clock back on a thousand years of progress?

Wolff noted recruitment has fallen way off since Islamic State’s “brand has been scuffed up.”

“It’s a massive falloff,” Peter Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London, told The Washington Post in 2016. “And it’s basically because Islamic State is a failing entity now. The appeal of Islamic State rested on its strength and its winning. Now that it’s losing, it’s no longer attractive.”

The question for the home countries of those ISIS recruits is what conditions attracted their citizens to Islamic State in the first place.

The big headline from Wolff’s presentation last week is that ISIS is losing to the coalition aligned against it. “We are on the path to victory,” he said.

Three years after the Iraqi army fled the battlefield in its first conflicts with Islamic State, Iraq’s military has rebuilt itself into a force that is shrinking the territory controlled by ISIS. Wolff noted the challenges in ISIS-controlled parts of Syria are different, requiring a balancing act between the Assad regime, Russian forces and rebel forces.

The problem of vulnerable youth who can be convinced to join a death cult — whether it’s Islamic State or something even newer — remains.