Terrorists' most powerful recruiting tool: Boredom

The young man had wavy hair down to his shoulders, white teeth, and a charisma palpable even from across the street. My driver saw it, too: “al-Qaeda,” he said, fear and awe mingling in his voice. Whether or not the man was indeed al-Qaeda, he had a cosmopolitan air, making every man around him on the dusty street in downtown Sana, Yemen, seem small-town by comparison.

It was that day that I understood firsthand a key recruiting tool for violent jihadis: boredom. Nearly a decade later, it’s still one reason for youth radicalization. For young people in Yemen, where youth unemployment is about 50%, the possibilities of ordinary life must pale besides joining a transnational band to fight in a foreign land. How else to catch some of that reflected globalization they saw on communal televisions?

Modern terrorist organizations, such as ISIL, are creating more complex and nuanced propaganda to lure these disenchanted youth in the Middle East, and the West. ISIL’s English YouTube videos target Western kids weaned on Western pop culture. There are custom retools of Grand Theft Auto for wanna-be jihadis, and testimonials that look like snowboarding videos. Young women schooled on Disney princess DVDs join ISIL dreaming of, in the words of one recruit’s tweet, “doing a Mulan” and going out disguised as a man on the battlefield.