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Watch: a 15-year-old Swedish girl explains why she joined ISIS — and why she regrets it

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Marlin Stivani Nivarlain is a 15-year-old Swedish girl. Last year, her boyfriend became obsessed with ISIS, and she followed him to Syria to join the group.

Last week, Kurdish forces stormed an ISIS-held town near Mosul, Iraq, where they found Nivarlain and rescued her.

Shortly after her rescue, Nivarlain was interviewed by the Kurdish outlet Kurdistan 24, and described her boyfriend's radicalization, her trip to ISIS-held territory, the miserable life she encountered there, and her joy at being rescued.

Nivarlain says she met her (unnamed) boyfriend in mid-2014. "At first, we were good together," she said. "Then he started watching ISIS videos, talking about ISIS, stuff like that."

She was confused when he said, months after they met, that he wanted to take her to join ISIS. "I said OK, because I didn't know what ISIS is, what Islam means, nothing," Nivarlain explained.

They left Sweden on May 31, 2015. After taking a series of trains, buses, and cars to Syria, they eventually settled in the ISIS-held Iraqi city of Mosul — where life was far from what she'd expected. "In the house, we didn't have anything: no electricity, no water, nothing," she says. "In Sweden we have everything; when I was there, I didn't have anything."

She then decided to try to escape. She got a phone and called her mother in Sweden, telling her, "I want to go home."

Her mother then contacted the Swedish government, and some time later she was rescued — though the video redacts her discussion of the actual rescue, thus leaving any connection between her call and subsequent escape a mystery.

The key part of Nivarlain's story, to my mind, is her complete ignorance of what's happening. We often tend to hear about teens who join ISIS as corrupted by ISIS propaganda — and indeed, that appears to have been the case with Nivarlain's boyfriend. But Nivarlain simply went along because it seemed like a cool thing to do. It was teenage rebellion, not sincere ideological conviction, that dragged her to hell.

A December report from the Soufan Group, a consulting firm that studies terrorism, found that social media alone does not motivate most recruits. Rather, most recruitment happens through communities: real-life hotbeds of ISIS support where people meet in person and convince one another to travel to Syria and Iraq.

"While the power of the Islamic State’s social media outreach is undeniable, it appears more often to prepare the ground for persuasion, rather than to force the decision," the Soufan Group explains. It continues:

[A]s hotbeds develop, recruitment through social media becomes less important than via direct human contact, as clusters of friends and neighbors persuade each other to travel separately or together to join the Islamic State,

Cases like Nivarlain's are very rare, which is part of what makes her story so affecting.

"I want to thank [the Kurds] to send me back to Sweden, and meet my family again, and a happy life," Nivarlain says at the end of her video, smiling. In the last shot, it's not clear if she's laughing or crying.

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