WASHINGTON D.C.—The Islamic State or ISIS group is recruiting people barely in their teens in what looks like a global campaign by the terrorist group to lure teenagers to extremism without leaving their homes.
Three girls aged between 14 and 16 from Denver, Colorado have tried to join ISIS, a State Department official said, and a Muslim community leader in Virginia said he has had to counsel a boy who "spread hate" from the basement of his house.
"In the old days, we would think of terrorism as an 18-to-35-year old thing. I think 35 is way too old. Now we’re looking at how kids are being recruited as young as 13, 14, 15," said the US Department of State's Irfan Saeed, in a briefing here for foreign journalists.
Saeed is director of the Office of Countering Violent Extremism, Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism. The office develops coordinated strategies against terrorism and secures cooperation of international partners.
He said ISIS recruitment has gone the way of the younger crowd who are being told to perform radical acts while staying home. Young people discover the call for extremism online, particularly via social media.
"What’s happening now is ISIS is saying, 'we are going to have a safe haven online, we are going to recruit online, and we want you to act where you are, not necessarily come to a foreign conflict zone,'" Saeed said.
The "inspiration of violence online" paved the way for instances of individuals acting in their hometowns in Barcelona, London, and Finland. This online recruitment appears effective for ISIS purposes, he said.
Imam Abdur Rafaa Ouertani said parents or the community would refer to him cases of troubled teens who fall prey to online propaganda that apparently made them feel important.
Ouertani belongs to the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Virginia, home to one of the largest Muslim communities in the US.
In one case of a boy he described as "dangerous," Ouertani said an 18-year-old recruited 45 to 50 people to go to Syria.
"Everything happened from the basement of his house. This guy is spreading hate," Ouertani said.
Ouertani believes in civic engagement at a young age, encouraging people to give back to the community, and combating extreme views by making teenagers feel they are part of a bigger purpose.
The recruitment targeting very young people is happening in places where there is "youth bulge" or where a large portion of the population consists of children and young adults.
"We have to understand that online recruitment is happening in places where you have a youth bulge, there is higher cases of unemployment, underemployment, government dissatisfaction, dissatisfaction with the world they’re living in, and then greater internet penetration," said Saeed.
Propaganda online where the recruitment happens has prompted social media companies to self-regulate, he said.
Digital giants Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube, for instance, banded in June to form the Global Internet Forum for Counterterrorism.
Recognizing that acts of violence which proliferated online points back to their platforms, organizations like Facebook or Twitter are "actively developing artificial intelligence to find extremist content and removing it by themselves."
They are also "actively increasing the amount of oversight they have on what gets posted on their sites, on their platforms, who’s using their platforms, and they are getting more active, again, in voluntarily taking content down."
(Editor's note: The author is participating in the East-West Center's Senior Journalists' Program currently ongoing in the United States.)