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Why are ‘Normal’ People Joining ISIS?

If you’ve been anywhere near a TV or computer in the past months, you must have heard about the most recent rise of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). The name is a bit misleading because it implies the goal of ISIS is merely to take over two sovereign states and populate it with Muslims. In fact, their name has evolved as they grow in number and influence. Currently, they are best known simply as IS (Islamic State), because their stated end goal is one global Islamic state consisting entirely of Muslims – a state of made up of radical Sunni Muslims to be exact.

To fully grasp the sweeping ideology that drives these fanatics, consider the radical Christian group, the Westboro Baptist Church. For those who haven’t heard of them, they are an exclusive group of a few dozen hate-everyone-that-isn’t-us types who enjoy picketing funerals and other emotional settings with signs about God hating everybody but them. They come across annoying, heartless and a bit crazy, but aren’t physically aggressive. Imagine this group one day taking their radical ideology and declaring war on everyone in the universe in the name of the coming global “Christian State.” Their objective would be to kill or convert anyone who is not a Christian as well as anyone who considers themselves a Christian but is not their type of Christian.

It’s a level of aggressive elitism we haven’t seen since World War II. As we speak, ISIS is slaughtering not only Christians across the Middle East, but also Muslims they deem not radical enough. They are also killing Muslims belonging to different sects such as Shia. Reports coming out of the Middle East say that even our own local crazy terrorists near Israel – namely Hamas, Hizbollah and the Syrian and Iranian governments – are terrified of ISIS. It’s not that our local crazies are more noble in their efforts to dominate their own people; it is the sheer level of uncompromising agenda that ISIS lives by which will not allow for any other ruling party to come along side them. ISIS will only allow subservience to its cause. ISIS will not negotiate. ISIS will not share power.

Such a reality begs the question – if ISIS is so intimidating and brutal that other terrorist organizations are weary of them, why on earth would anyone join them out of their own free will?

Shannon Conley in photos of before and after her conversion to Islam.
She wore a headscarf proclaiming her devotion to Islam even though it stuck out in her non-Islamic neighborhood

Just this month, a 19 year old girl was arrested in the US trying to board a flight that would land her in Turkey. Her goal was to use her nursing skills to tend to the wounded ISIS fighters, as well as marry one and bear him children. Luckily, her father caught wind of her plans and was able to call the authorities. Across the pond in the UK, the masked man who is beheading journalists on camera is said to be a former British rapper who left the cobbled streets of London for the dusty roads of Syria. Sadly, there are many more like them.

A Canadian named Andre, who renamed himself Abu Muslim, joined ISIS two years ago. He was recently killed on the battlefield in Syria. But not before “sharing his heart” via a propaganda video on YouTube telling why he left his money, friends and family to join the fight. Andre shares how he was mentored into Islam and shown that he shouldn’t pay his utilities and taxes to Western powers who use his money to fight against Islam. Being the inexperienced Westerner he was, in Andre’s mind, the only logical thing left to do was to find an Islamic group that would be willing to take him in to the fold. In ISIS, he found a family with a cause (and, of course, tales of a great afterlife). His video gives insight into a defining difference between ISIS and other terror groups. ISIS is not just a fighting force. It is a movement looking for doctors, engineers and other professionals to join. Unlike the typical terror organization whose sole purpose is to destroy its target enemy, ISIS is already preparing for the day after their planned victory when they will be required to build a new society.

While world leaders sit around scratching their heads regarding what to do about ISIS, it is becoming clear to many that there are two types of people in the world – those who don’t like ISIS and those who join them. No terrorist group – or modern day organized military for that matter – has been able to ignite such excitement in a generation. Simply put, ISIS is not just the most radical thing out there, it is the most radical thing out there readily available to you.

Trendy Terrorism

ISIS actively recruits supporters through social media and a constant flow of videos from the field hitting YouTube. The clearly educated-in-western-culture leadership of ISIS has been able to appeal to issues important to the young generation.

With their media-savvy jihadists, ISIS litters the internet with protests against corruption and injustice. The problem is, they’re partly right. There is much corruption and injustice in society today. And most people, young and old, feel helpless to stop any of it. After all, what is your one vote among millions? And how do street protests really change anything? But here they are, a new but established radical group making headlines with their every move. If I am young, naive and passionate about doing something that matters with my life, with no particular understanding of God, why wouldn’t I consider ISIS as a chance to stand up and fight against the status quo? It’s a formidable answer to the classic question, “You got any better ideas?”

Choosing a life of brutality over normalcy seems jarring to most people in civilized society; however, between video games and movies, the average pop-cultured teen has been exposed to hundreds of deaths and injuries. This desensitization to violence combined with the insatiable desire to do something that matters can be a deadly combination.

However, ISIS is not just looking to lure the activist type; they want to build a well-rounded society. Goofy pictures of cats and guns and beautiful Syrian sunsets are all over ISIS member’s Twitter and Instagram accounts. Their use of imagery is intended to normalize the idea of everyday life with ISIS. With stories of heroism and brotherhood, ISIS offers the public at large something that no terrorist group has ever offered before – the invitation to join the family. From the Irish to the Palestinians, local terrorist groups have always been about “defending” their local community. Even Al Qaeda’s attacking Western targets worldwide was largely about getting Western influence out of Islamic nations. The Islamic State, on the other hand, is less about where they are fighting now and more about their desire to spread Islam to all nations. The Islamic State is a classic religious “crusade” puckered with fresh lipstick.

Instead of offering a number to call and cast a vote for a contestant in a reality show, ISIS is offering anyone and everyone the opportunity to become part of the ultimate reality show. The theme of a “Global society that bows to Allah,” is one that airs daily on the international news. What FOX is trying to do in their newest reality ploy, “Utopia” (where 15 meticulously chosen contestants are isolated for a year and must create a new society), ISIS is offering a chance to do in real life.

Seeing young people searching so hard for meaning and finding it in mass murderers who live in caves is heartbreaking. But knowing that this generation is ready and desirous to live radical and uncomfortable lives if it means being a part of something that matters is encouraging. Surely many of the youth of the 60’s followed the hippie movement simply because it was the most radical thing available.

Spiritually Speaking

Natural reasoning aside, this worldwide power struggle is clearly a spiritual happening. Darkness cannot thrive when there is light nearby. Thousands of Christians have been slaughtered just this past month because ISIS cannot thrive where the light of Yeshua shines. These Christians were not willing to extinguish their heart-light. And ISIS is showing no sign of slowing down. Would that we would take a minute to look up from our lives and grasp the current threat.

Members of ISIS tweet “everyday life” from the battle field giving an air of normalcy to the violent group

The saddest part of the ISIS recruitment trend to me is that for those looking to join the family of ISIS, joining the family of worldwide believers in Yeshua, is not the ‘obvious other choice.’ We aren’t known by our love for one another. We are known for our bickering about right and wrong. Love can be spoken, or love can be screamed. Both will be true, but one will be wrong. I’m not saying ISIS is a beacon of brotherly kindness. Unfortunately, for all these Westerners whose fantasies drove them to ISIS, when the axe of truth comes down, it will be a real axe. But somehow, amidst the savagery of the battlefield, ISIS has managed to portray itself as human.


Islam Yaken came from a wealthy family in Cairo. He was a Law school student who enjoyed studying languages and working out in the gym. His transformation into a raging fighter is dramatic.

While I doubt the appeal of ISIS is a threat to anyone who has a personal relationship with the Living God, we must realize every individual believer’s need to feel a part of a community – a family of friendships. Hearing inspiring speeches will not be enough to give them the strength to say no when they are faced with the temptation of being a part of another “family with a cause.” But having deep friendships and accountability with other believers who will walk with them through their struggles – will give them that strength.

Even though Muslims do not recognize the Name that is above every Name, they pray five times a day, beseeching their “god” to give them victory and world dominance. As followers of Yeshua, we know the God who made the universe and knows the end from the beginning. It is our prayers to Him that will overcome. The only way we lose is if we do not fight at all.

Some of us may be called to physically confront these terrorists on the battlefield. But most of us are called to fight the darkness of ISIS by being a light where we are. It’s fine and appropriate to share the Good News of forgiveness of sins with unbelievers. But if we don’t have a family waiting to take in the newborn believers, they may not survive. When we forgive a fellow believer who hurt us, we are showing the world we are are brothers. When we would rather be wronged than take a fellow believer to court (I Cor 6:7-8), we demonstrate to world that our treasure is in Heaven. When we take responsibility for our mistakes and embrace others when they make them, we show the world how a loving family functions. Then perhaps when someone Googles, “What to do when you feel lost and alone,” or “How to make my life count,” they’ll find us before they find ISIS.


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