A series of in-depth interviews conducted by HSE researchers reveal what young residents of Dagestan think of their peers who have joined ISIL.* The latter tend to be perceived as victims of brainwashing and unresolved social problems rather than enemies, the study shows.**
Rather than examine the objective circumstances of youths running away to join ISIL, the study focuses on how these young people are perceived and described by their peers in Dagestan. Most interviewees explain the situation by reference to irrationality and manipulation and characterise those who have left as 'too suggestible', 'submissive', 'inexperienced' and 'weak of character' people with 'little education' and 'undeveloped minds'.
«... they are all chasing a fairy tale, something illusory — and certainly it's a sort of hypnosis or conditioning. Because most boys here are easily suggestible. They tend to comply, they are easy to manipulate...»
«They are just silly, silly guys ... They are offered good money, plus they want to feel strong and powerful, but these boys will never be normal men if they can be so easily brainwashed this way or another.»
Those who join ISIL are not perceived as enemies or traitors. Instead, respondents tend to see them as having made a really bad choice and to sympathise with their families.
«Since he left, his mother has literally been devastated knowing that he is out there somewhere with ISIL and may get blown up — or perhaps he is already dead or something else has happened to him.»
«He went to war... to Syria or something. His parents are mourning, his whole family is grieving, because they had not expected it — apparently, he had been very secretive.»
Quite often, respondents mention unemployment and needing to feed a family as a reason why men choose to join ISIL.
«...Providing for the family is a priority. And when you face a choice, to be quite honest, it's a question of having money. I found it really funny when I first heard that in order to be conscripted into the army, you must pay [a bribe] here. Seriously, its' not a joke! Everywhere else in Russia, people pay to avoid being conscripted, but here you pay to be issued a military card and given a chance to get a job [in the military]. That's what it is: unemployment, particularly when one has a wife and kids. And then he is told, come join us and fight. Perhaps you will die, [your fate] depends on you, but your family will be provided for. A man with character will agree. He will go [to war] for the money...»
In describing the local labour market, young Dagestanians note that employers want new hires with job experience, but young people cannot get experience without a job. In addition to this, vacancies are usually offered to relatives and friends.
«The biggest problem here is that getting a job is hard without connections. Everyone's pushing for their relatives to get jobs or promotions. It's so widespread that ordinary people find it really hard to get a job.»
According to the authors, their respondents explaining ISIL joiners' choice by irrationality and proneness to manipulation emphasise the role of 'recruiters' and describe them as good psychologists skilled in using NLP and similar techniques to influence and manipulate their targets.
«Let's say, there's a young girl with no particular interests, no hobbies, not very good at school ... and plenty of spare time, which she spends on social media… She might meet a recruiter with NLP skills online... who can manipulate her into leaving everything behind ... Most girls [who have joined ISIL] belong to this category: either kind of weak or oppressed and humiliated by their families. And then bang! An angel comes by who can understand and support her.»
Recruiters are considered hard-to-resist, skilful communicators.
«Some of the guys [who left] I know personally... A friend's relative left [to join ISIL] — he was a nice boy, athlete, did not drink alcohol or smoke, attended the mosque ... one would expect that he'd be fine. But sadly, it was in the mosque that he met [a recruiter] who would approach all these guys. He [the recruiter] did not tell them ‘you must not kill other people’. Instead, he told them, ‘Yes, you may take such and such people's lives — you will be better off if you do so...' Unfortunately, some of the boys [he had talked to] eventually left [to join ISIL].»
Speaking about those who left, respondents admit that they may not be immune to similar manipulation themselves:
«... A while ago, it was a fairly common situation: you were approached by a girl wearing a hijab, and she would say, ‘Could you deliver a package to such and such place? I cannot go there myself’. And this package would contain something dangerous or illegal. And then they would say, ‘Now that you've done it, we can report you as an accomplice. So you must work for us’.»
According to respondents, social media and Skype are the main channels «used by recruiters within Dagestan and also by those outside both Dagestan and Russia.»
Even talking about ISIL is perceived by young Dagestanians as placing them at risk of being suspected of sympathising with terrorists and attracting the attention of security agents. This concern is reflected in their avoidance of certain questions and in attempts to reduce the interview to a discussion of the situation in abstract terms.
«You just try to keep away from this kind of person, because sooner or later they will leave anyway and you might have problems. There’s been a case when some guys just gave another guy a lift in their car... they weren't even close friends with him... and then he left — either to the woods or [to ISIL]. And then the guys who stayed had problems — they were taken to court and so on.»
People change their everyday behaviour, such as wearing a hijab or a beard, to avoid attracting the attention of security agents:
«My friend had this experience. She used to wear a to hijab, but after a while she stopped. For some time now, some of us have been afraid to wear a hijab. Indeed, it seems very, very scary, especially if it's black. People tend to avoid us [if we wear it] and we also avoid people [who wear it]. We are not sure what to expect from [those who wear a hijab].»
«They have started checking into every [man] who has not shaved, like myself. You make a mistake — and you end up in the [police] office.»
At least some of the statements may reflect the official attitudes promoted by the authorities and mass media, depicting joiners as 'those who have betrayed their families, their Republic and homeland', 'those who have caused shame to the Republic' and 'monsters'.
However, none of the interviewees was in favour of severe punishment of those who have left. «Our study's findings indicate that repressive anti-terrorism policies affecting a wide range of people may not be supported by young Dagestanians,» the researchers conclude.
Instead, most statements are consistent with the idea that a sound social policy, in particular addressing problems in education and employment in the region, can be the best anti-terrorism response.
*ISIL is a terrorist organization banned in Russia
**The empirical research base included 49 in-depth interviews with young residents of the Republic of Dagestan, aged 17 to 27 and users of major online communities of Dagestanians on VKontakte.