The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been picking up recruits from Europe, Canada, Australia and the United States. Most of those recruits have one thing in common: they’re teenagers.

An anonymous tipster told Fox News that the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) recently gave police in Phoenix a heads up on a national security situation. ISIS was recruiting “high-school age students” in their area.

Why would ISIS want to convince teens to join them?

Because teens are easy targets.

Why do teens fall for it?

It may be hard to understand why a bright teen with a good family would consider joining ISIS, but they do. The three Bethnal Green Academy students who made headlines in February by fleeing Britain to join ISIS were described as “smart” and “popular.”

Mental acuity isn’t quite the issue. The teen brain is just more vulnerable to these messages than the brain of an adult.

The part of the brain responsible for planning, self-awareness and judgement is called the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is also the last part of the brain to get fully “wired” as a person matures. The average frontal lobe isn’t fully firing until its owner ages into her 20s or even her 30s. Neurologists think this may be why so many teens are reckless drivers, do drugs or act impulsively. It may also be why they’re more susceptible to ISIS flash and bang messages. Teen and young adult frontal lobes are not fully developed.

The average teen brain also has an enlarged nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens is also known as the pleasure center of the brain. The pleasure center gets the largest it’ll ever be during the teenage years, which can lead to poorer decision making. Risks seems smaller when the rewards seem so much sweeter, as they do when a gigantic pleasure center is driving the bus.

ISIS is speaking pre-frontal lobe language

ISIS boasts a $2 billion budget. Some of that is going toward recruitment over the Internet and social media. Teens with dual nationalities are particularly vulnerable.

It’s the perfect medium to exploit teenagers’ underdeveloped decision-making skills.

The extremist group has gotten good at reaching teens where they are and producing content they’re attracted to, even exciting, “sexy” videos urging teens to radicalize. These segments feature handsome jihadists in sunsets and jihadi brides toting rifles. It’s much hipper imagery than the violent, grainy footage from al Qaeda’s propaganda videos.

These images can be manipulative. Many police officers, health professionals, educators and community leaders in European cities are already treating this problem the same way they treat gang recruitment, drug problems and Internet pedophilia cases. They’re viewing teens as vulnerable, impressionable and at-risk for radicalization.

Recognizing Radicalization

The response to teens at risk of joining ISIS has been changing from criminalization to intervention. Teens need stakeholders – people who are invested in their health, happiness and future – to look out for them at home and abroad. The best antidote to radicalization may be education and protection.
Learn more about ClearCause’s mission and vision to keep young people safe as they explore the world.