Earlier this week, it was confirmed that an American humanitarian worker, Kayla Mueller, was indeed killed by ISIS. The details of her death are still unclear, but there is no evidence to suggest that she was killed in an airstrike (as ISIS claimed).

It’s disturbing enough when you hear about young people like the 26-year-old Mueller dying at the hands of ISIS. But it’s perhaps even more unsettling when people her age, or even younger, fall victim to recruitment by ISIS.

Recently, the quiet Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook was shocked when 19-year-old Mohammed Hamzah Khan was indicted and charged with attempting to travel to Istanbul to meet up with someone who would help him join ISIS.

In a statement to the press, his mother offered a tearful and powerful statement.

“We condemn the brainwashing and recruiting of children through the use of social media and internet. And we have a message for ISIS…leave our children alone.”

Nobody wants to believe that young children are becoming radicalized on our homeland. And for this particular dilemma, the psychological factors behind have not been addressed nearly enough as they should be. Because when you look into the mind of a young Westerner who’s become radicalized, you’ll see it’s not as simple as the ‘they’re just crazy’ explanation many people seem to be accepting.

While just a handful of children have fallen victim to the seduction of ISIS, it’s enough to beg the question – what makes these American kids go bad?

The term ‘impressionable youths’ should come to mind.

Why? Because whenever you’re talking about teens and young 20-something’s, you’re talking about some of the most impressionable members of the population. And extremist organizations – especially ISIS – have figured out how to pick out the most suggestible.


Mohammed Hamzah Khan of Bolingbrook was just 19 when he was arrested for attempting to join ISIS.

When you look at some of the Americans in the past year or two who have tried joining ISIS (or similar extremist groups), you notice all the stories have at least one of these elements: 

– Most were recruited via chat rooms.
– They are a first generation American.
– They moved a lot as kids.
– Or, they converted to Islam from another religion.

But on a psychological level, these elements all have one very common theme: lack of attachment. 

“The common element here is not necessarily that their families or society did something wrong to these kids,” psychologist Joe Novak told me. “But rather, these kids appeared to struggle internally for an identity and sense of purpose.”

Novak, a clinical psychologist here in Chicago, specializes in adolescent and family therapy as well as anxiety and depression.

“All humans seek to belong to a group, community, or cause,” Novak continued. “We could argue that each of these individuals may have been struggling to figure out what they stood for…what better way to feel connected and make a statement than to join a cause that can change a country. To help a cause and influence world politics?”

22-year-old Palestinian-American Momer Mohammed Abu-Salha had a typical American upbringing in Florida and shocked acquaintances when he was radicalized by an American-Islamic cleric.

20-year-old Nicholas Teausant moved around a lot as a kid, converted to Islam, and connected with extremist organizations online.

19-year-old Colorado teen Shannon Maureen Conley converted to Islam and wanted to marry a Muslim man she met online. The judge at her trial even said, ‘She is very young…teenagers make dumb decisions a lot.”

And Khan – the aforementioned teen from Bolingbrook – couldn’t stand his tax dollars going towards airstrikes against ‘Islamic brothers and sisters,’ and radicalized his 16-year-old brother and 17-year-old sister in the process.

[quote_right] It’s enough to beg the question – what makes these American kids go bad?[/quote_right]

Uprooting a lot as a kid, feeling like you’re floating between two cultures, trying to find that connection via the internet – none of these one factors necessarily lead to anything bad – but they are all symptoms of a struggle to find a sense of belonging and connection.

It isn’t a coincidence that so many of these stories involve people so young.

Who doesn’t remember being an angsty teen desperate to figure out who you were, what you stood for or where you belonged? As Novak put it, “young adult minds are still developing and are influenced by many things.”

Young minds aren’t just developing in terms of gaining life experiences, either. Biologically, the frontal lobe of the brain (the part that deals with decision-making, rational thought, etc.) isn’t even done growing yet. Combine an easily suggestible brain with the power of the internet and you’ve got a potential disaster.

Being part of the ‘cyber’ generation means constant (and sometimes necessary) access to the internet, which can be a powerfully manipulative tool. To put this in non-extremist, more relatable context – think about the early 2000’s when internet bullying and fake online identities was the new scourge of our teens.

That’s where ISIS finds its strength. Their methods may be barbaric, but their outreach is anything but primitive. They are incredibly tech-savvy, and know how to use social media to benefit their organization.

[quote_left]ISIS is incredibly tech-savvy and know how to use social media to benefit their organization.[/quote_left]

Most importantly? They know exactly who they’re looking for.

Take Maajid Nawaz, for example. A Pakistani-British man who became radicalized at the age of 16 and has gone from a jihadist recruiter to a fighter against extremist beliefs. And now, he’s running for Parliament in England.

Nawaz is the prime example of a misguided teen – seeking purpose and connection – who was seduced by extremism.

In a podcast with NPR’s “Fresh Air”, Nawaz talks about how jihadist recruiters carry out their mission.

“The second stage to radicalization is…a perceived sense of grievance. And then it moves on to an identity crisis. And that identity crisis begins the search for an alternative form of belonging or an identity. And the third factor is when a charismatic recruiter appears and exploits that perceived grievance and exploits the identity crisis to provide that sense of belonging.”

He goes on to say that recruiters would look for ‘people like him’ to speak to. And ISIS seems to be doing the same thing by ‘brainwashing’ impressionable minds.

Youth is certainly not an excuse. Extremism is a path these names willingly looked into. But these kids aren’t crazy, nor are they inherently bad.

They’re kids who fell victim to manipulation and temptation out of seeking purpose and connection; something any former kid can certainly relate to. 

(Original featured photo courtesy of – and heavily manipulated from – Marisa Ravn)