It is difficult to imagine oneself in the shoes of one of the young men or women who leave their homes to fight, pillage, and murder on behalf of ISIS, and no less difficult to imagine the experience of ISIS's recruits from far-off Western Europe. Why go? Why give up often-comfortable lives in peaceful communities for the horrors of combat and most likely death far away in Syria or Iraq?
Journalist Ben Taub looked for answers to these questions in a lengthy and excellent New Yorker profile of 18-year-old Belgian ISIS recruit Jejoen Bontinck, who traveled to Syria for jihad before returning home. Although Bontinck is the star of the piece, another young Belgian jihadist who appears in it only briefly, Hakim Elouassaki, offers a much more illuminating look into what motivates ISIS's most enthusiastic recruits.
The circumstances of Bontinck's recruitment are almost disturbingly banal. Once a bright student, Bontinck converted to Islam for a young girlfriend during a period of teenage disillusionment. Religion might have helped him regain focus, had he not been lured into a small extremist group known as Sharia4Belgium, which condemned attendees of Bontinck's mosque as not "real" Muslims and showed video lectures by the al-Qaeda preacher Anwar al-Awlaki. "You sit for months in a group in which jihad is considered quite normal," Bontinck told the New Yorker.
Like any good predator, Sharia4Belgium isolated Bontinck from his friends and family. When the Syrian civil war began in 2011 and 2012, and many members went to fight on behalf of one of the nascent jihadist groups — which later became ISIS — Bontinck joined them. He was at first enthusiastic but later became disturbed by the violence, tried to leave Syria, was imprisoned and tortured for his attempts, and later returned home with the help of his father. Apparently listless and unrewarded by Belgian authorities for his cooperation with the police, he has since tried to return to Syria.
"I wish the filming worked when I killed him"
But not all Belgian fighters whom Sharia4Belgium funneled into ISIS's ranks were disillusioned by the violence. That brings us to Hakim Elouassaki, a young man who left Belgium to fight in Syria at about the same age as Bontinck. In the New Yorker story, author Ben Taub mentions Hakim in only two paragraphs, to illustrate how ISIS used the roadblocks it set up throughout Syria to fund itself through extortion and petty theft. But they are also a glimpse into the daily life of a young ISIS recruit, and the sort of personality that might find that life attractive rather than repellent:
He explained the routine in phone calls to his girlfriend in Belgium, captured by a wiretap. "We take every unbeliever . . . and we take his money and everything from him," he said. "I can take money, as much as I want . . . but it must be in the path of Allah." Only the Sunnis were spared. Hakim stole a gold ring from a Kurd and a laptop from a Christian. His girlfriend later recounted to a friend that, when she offered to send Hakim an iPhone from Belgium, he told her not to bother, because he was "waiting to steal it from an infidel."
At the roadblocks, the Belgians held Syrian civilians for ransom. "Normally it is seventy thousand" euros, Hakim told his girlfriend. "If they do not pay, then we kill them." But prices varied according to the victim's sect. Hakim released an Armenian Christian after his family paid thirty thousand euros, but, when the brother of a captured Shiite civilian delivered the same amount of money, Hakim killed him. That evening, Hakim called his girlfriend. "As I shot him, he put up his hand," he said, "so the bullet went through his hand and his head." Yet Hakim felt unfulfilled. "I wish the filming worked when I killed him," he said. "I placed the camera badly, and it filmed nothing." (Hakim has since denied killing anyone in Syria.) The Europeans filmed other murders, though, including the beheading of an old man. In the video, one jihadi saws at his neck with a knife, while another hacks at the same wound with a rusty machete, to the excitement of the others.
So much is revealed in these two paragraphs quoting from Elouassaki's calls home to his girlfriend. He, like many ISIS fighters, is filling his days not with glorious battles, but rather with the acts of hostile governance that appear more like those of a particularly powerful mafia than a real state. In these passages, he is preoccupied not with scripture or religious zeal but with the thrill of genocidal violence, the intoxication of feeling powerful.
Elouassaki comes across more like one of the ultraviolence hobbyists of A Clockwork Orange than a committed jihadist. Indeed, as Taub notes, many European jihadist recruits know very little about the religion they believe they are fighting for.
Later, Elouassaki was wounded badly on the battlefield and made his way home to Belgium, where he was arrested for his actions abroad and with Sharia4Belgium. His seemingly casual relationship to Islam and jihadism, and his apparent preoccupation with extortion and murder, should tell us much not just about who is leaving home to join ISIS, but about what the terrorist group really stands for.