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Inside the Mind-Control Methods the Islamic State Uses to Recruit Teenagers

The author of "Combatting Cult Mind Control" talks to us about how extremist groups manipulate young people into joining them—and what we can do to stop them.

Illustration by Imogen Reeves

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

It's reported that at least 1,600 people from the UK have left to join the Islamic State. Some of them are teenagers, and a few high-profile runaways—like the Bethnal Green Academy trio—are teenage girls, plucked from stable, happy families. So what is it that makes these recruits want to leave all that behind and instead throw themselves into a world of conflict and brutality?


More often than not, the extreme dedication to the caliphate seems sudden and surprising to friends and family members. However, it's often down to a longer campaign of online grooming than first seems apparent. The loyalty has less to do with an adherence to the Islamic State's extreme, apocalyptic brand of Islam and more to do with advanced persuasion techniques, similar to those seen in cults like the Children of God, Heaven's Gate, and the People's Temple.

To find out more, I spoke to Steven Hassan—a former member of the Moonies and author of Combating Cult Mind Control—about the methods the Islamic State uses to gain absolute control over some of Britain's young Muslims.

Islamic State fighters at the border of Syria and Iraq

VICE: Maybe you could start by explaining the difference between brainwashing and mind control?
Steven Hassan: Brainwashing was coined in the 1950s about communist indoctrination. Patty Hearst, for example, was kidnapped out of her apartment, put in a closet, raped, and tortured. She became a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army. She was what I'd call brainwashed, in the sense that, initially, she would have never gone with these people—she was taken by force and quite brutally assaulted.

Mind control is much more subtle. You're more likely to be seduced by the recruiter—if not sexually, then emotionally, where you think of them as a friend or a mentor, or someone you really look up to. So there's much more of a sense of what I call the illusion of choice, or the illusion of control. And in that sense, the indoctrination is subtler and deeper—because there's more sense of co-ownership over their new beliefs.


So what happens when we're talking about the kind of influence the Islamic State uses over the internet?
With ISIS it's a soft sell at the beginning, what we call a "grooming seduction period," where there's love bombing and flattery, and it's, "What can we do for you?" But once they get their hooks into [a recruit], they'll threaten their lives, they'll threaten to kill their families, and if you ever leave, "We will kill you, and we'll track down your family and kill them too."

Girls recruited from the UK have often been clever and studious. Are mind control methods not affected by intelligence?
One key concept is that people are not making informed choices. They don't know what it is they're getting involved with fully. They're given enough information to formulate a fantasy or projection. Like my group [the Moonies]—I thought we were going to end poverty, end war, end crime, make an ideal kingdom of heaven on earth. That was the fantasy that I was told initially; it wasn't a religious group at all. And, within two weeks, I find out we're all bowing to an altar, praying for God to help the messiah to take over the world, and we'll all speak Korean. I only found out two years into it that we would kill everybody who didn't convert—which is exactly what ISIS is doing.

"It's easy to say these terrorist bombers are sickos, they're psychopaths, they're criminals. But if you look at who they were before they were recruited, a lot of them were very good, moral people from great homes, with good education."


There's a fierce stigma towards people who have become radicalized. Is that fair?
From us looking in from the outside, it looks like people are making really bad decisions, or that there is something wrong with them to get involved with something so obviously weird. But stepping inside the mind of a person who is being recruited, it's typically this science of social psychology—what buttons to push to activate people's motivation, curiosity, and interest. And what these groups want are essentially people who want to improve themselves, or want to make the world a better place, in one way or another.

What's your own experience of indoctrination tactics?
When I was in the Moonies I was a major recruiter and indoctrinator. The model that we were taught was the four-part model: People are either thinkers, feelers, doers, or believers. And so, as you're talking to this prospective convert, you want to analyze them. Because if they're a thinker, you're going to want to talk very intellectually and engage them in a very abstract way. If they're feelers, you want them to feel like they're loved and they're a part of a community, and it's very emotion-driven. If they're very justice-orientated, it's about saving lives, it's about protecting children, it's about fighting the evil and enemies that are repressing our people. Or if they're believers—then God has chosen you. At a certain time in your life, depending on the context and who you're hanging out with, one of those four angles can find a way into you.


Right—so you'd be using what you've learned about them to customize your manipulation?
It's an incremental progression. If you can control those four components I've just mentioned, you can reshape someone's identity. This new identity is now dependent and obedient. And in the case of Islamist cults, they will literally change your name—kind of baptize you into this new identity. The indoctrinated don't think they're following human beings, they think they're following the divine.

It seems they're often complete victims.
The general public is operating on what social psychology refers to as the fundamental attribution of error. It's the single most important principle of social psychology. And very simply, what it refers to is that when people try to understand what other people are doing, they have this error, or a bias, to over-attributing personality variables and under-attributing social, environmental influences.

Islamic State fighters in Raqqa

It's easy to say these terrorist bombers are sickos, they're psychopaths, they're criminals. But if you look at who they were before they were recruited, a lot of them were very good, moral people from great homes, with good education. And so you must understand that recruiters performed quite a deliberate transformation on them.

How does mind control work online?
A big piece of it is how to hook someone so that they keep coming back for more and more indoctrination, but give them the illusion that it's of their choosing. It's what we call double bind—to use a hypnotic term. Double bind is where the manipulator or hypnotist is giving an illusion of choice. But whatever the person does, they need to do what you want them to do.


So like the Islamic State's use of propaganda. What's your assessment of the material they create?
They've clearly studied social psychology; they've clearly studied the principles of influence.

How do the indoctrinators avoid family and friends breaking the influence?
Well, they'll often encourage people to keep it to themselves and not tell their family and friends, and not be overtly changed because they've learned families will react. Unfortunately, by trying to talk young people out of it, most people end up talking them deeper into it. Especially if parents try to use their authority. That's a big mistake.

We often see converted Islamic Sate members happily promoting their new way of life on social media. Is it genuine or a facade?
I think that's their cult identity, doing what they're told they should be doing. It's a dual-identity model—there is their true self and their cult self. And the cult self is saying, "You need to cut someone's head off." And they're surrounded by people going, "Yes! Go for it!" That's what's normal, that's what's expected. That's what's going to be rewarded—that's reality for them.

WATCH: The Islamic State

Even the most sadistic behavior can become normalized, then.
Well, yeah. Because you're programmed not to look at the person you're killing as a human being with real feelings and family members. You're programmed to believe this is an agent of the devil, and you're just ridding the world of a devil to make the world purer for the new sharia Islamic state to take over.

So the people who died at Heaven's Gate in 1997—they didn't think they were committing suicide. They thought they were leaving their container—their loaded language for the body—so they could beam up to the spaceship that they were told was waiting to take them back home. They weren't really humans; they were from another planet.

Is there a point of no return for the indoctrinated?
If someone had a relatively intact identity before getting into the cult, I would like to believe, based on all my decades of experience, that if we had them in custody, where they wouldn't run away, that we could devise a way to help anybody. But the issue is running away. The way someone's been programmed—it's better to kill yourself than leave the group.

Finally, in your opinion, what's the best way to tackle Islamic State recruitment?
Part of it is developing more education and an inoculation program, especially to help young people to understand influence techniques. There also needs to be recovery for ex-members, so if they do get disillusioned they can learn what happened to them and no longer be a threat. A certain number of those people could potentially make good spokespeople in the inoculation, education, and intervention process.

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