How do you cultivate an ISIS follower? New York Times shows how it's done

The 4,600-word story that ran this weekend in the New York Times about how ISIS is -- or was -- recruiting a confused 20-something woman in rural Washington state was so gripping, I read it several times. So much was disturbing: The cluelessness of this young woman; the vapid response by her pastor and the details describing the 24/7 worldwide network of online ISIS recruiters working to get people like this woman to join up.

The article starts off with an eight-minute video that shows “Alex,” her face shaded to remain anonymous.

“The first thing they told me,” she begins, “was I was not allowed to listen to music.” Then her online friends love-bombed her with Tweets, Skype conversations and CARE packages of Islamic literature, head scarves, money and chocolate. These folks don’t want her involved in a local mosque. They want her involved with them. In Syria. Start here:

Alex, a 23-year-old Sunday school teacher and babysitter, was trembling with excitement the day she told her Twitter followers that she had converted to Islam.
For months, she had been growing closer to a new group of friends online -- the most attentive she had ever had -- who were teaching her what it meant to be a Muslim. Increasingly, they were telling her about the Islamic State and how the group was building a homeland in Syria and Iraq where the holy could live according to God’s law.
One in particular, Faisal, had become her nearly constant companion, spending hours each day with her on Twitter, Skype and email, painstakingly guiding her through the fundamentals of the faith.
But when she excitedly told him that she had found a mosque just five miles from the home she shared with her grandparents in rural Washington State, he suddenly became cold.
The only Muslims she knew were those she had met online, and he encouraged her to keep it that way, arguing that Muslims are persecuted in the United States. She could be labeled a terrorist, he warned, and for now it was best for her to keep her conversion secret, even from her family.
So on his guidance, Alex began leading a double life. She kept teaching at her church, but her truck’s radio was no longer tuned to the Christian hits on K-LOVE. Instead, she hummed along with the ISIS anthems blasting out of her turquoise iPhone, and began daydreaming about what life with the militants might be like.

Notice some of the amazing details in this piece.

Alex was a Sunday school teacher. And she listened to KLOVE. You know, the Christian station with the slogan of  “encouraging words, positive music”? Doesn’t sound like either of those things made a speck of difference in her interior life. You’ve got to be really desperate to hang out with the suicide bombers and this young woman was desperate for friends.

If you’ve ever wondered how extremist groups lure Americans overseas and into their clutches, this piece gives a step-by-step breakdown of how it is done. 

By reading her story woven in between quotes from terrorism experts, FBI sources and an ISIS recruiting manual, we learn how easy it is to get someone to give up their faith, adopt another religion and plan to travel about 6,700 miles (the distance between Seattle, Wash., and Damascus, Syria) to join up with ISIS. The reporter got some pretty thorough access to Alex’s Twitter timeline, plus sat in on a Skype conversation between one of Alex’s Islamic handlers and her grandmother, who eventually wised up to what was going in and called in the police. The bewildered Alex did seek counsel early on in this journey from her Presbyterian pastor, but he blew her off after 15 minutes.

One thing the reporter oddly did not dwell on was Alex’s fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), a condition that happens when a pregnant woman drinks enough alcohol to cause permanent brain damage to her unborn child. Readers also hear that she’s a college dropout who can’t hold down a job, that her grandmother considers her a “lost child” and that Alex has poor judgment.

Although this is a small burp in an excellent article, we needed a bit more joining of the dots at this point. The piece dwells on her loneliness in boring, rural Washington but not enough on the role FAS played in her entrapment. It’s not unheard of for FAS adults to have fulfilling lives, but they often lack the discernment and smarts to survive alone. Considering this disability, one wonders why her church had her teaching Sunday school.

What we do see are the persistent efforts by ISIS sympathizers, most of them apparently based in the UK, who work day and night combing English-language Twitter feeds and God-only-knows what other social media to prey on the seekers and the lonely. One thing they dangled in front of Alex was the chance to marry and bear children; a distant possibility for her in rural Washington. 

I would have liked to known more about the mechanics of this story, such as how a Times reporter found out about this 23-year-old woman in Washington state. I’d be interested to know how many other young women (and men) these ISIS Twitter users are engaging night after night. The story says only 100 Americans are known to have physically moved to Syria as a result of such recruiting but when you throw in all Westerners who've made the trip, the number jumps to 4,000.

The article threw in some fascinating details, ie that one can convert to Islam through simply posting an appropriate Tweet and having two others respond, turning them into the witnesses needed for a real conversion. And that there are non-radical Muslims on Twitter who were reading Alex's messages and warning her that she was being recruited.

The secondary theme to this piece is how this woman's Christian community utterly failed her and had it not been for the watchful grandmother, Alex could already be on a plane to Syria.

One pities the grandparents, who must be at their wits end as to how to amuse and distract someone who will not work or attend college and whose mental impairment makes her low-hanging fruit for ISIS. What will happen to this young woman, who was still corresponding with these ISIS members when the article ended? Apparently she’s still a Muslim. Does she want to stay that way?

When an article teaches us of things that we never dreamed could happen -- but are happening in our own backyard -- it fulfills one of the noblest callings of journalism. That is, to sound an alarm of this clear and present danger, using clear, solid, basic reporting of the key details. Stunning.

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