From hip-hop to jihad, how the Islamic State became a magnet for converts
CONFRONTING THE ‘CALIPHATE’|This is part of an occasional series about the rise of the Islamic State militant group, its implications for the Middle East, and efforts by the U.S. government and others to undermine it.
By Anthony Faiola and Souad Mekhennet | Thewashingtonpost.com
THE HAGUE — She was a redheaded rebel, the singer in the family, a trash-talking, tattooed 21-year-old wrapped up in a hip-hop dream of becoming Holland’s Eminem. Then Betsy found Allah.
After her sudden conversion to Islam last summer, Betsy — a name given by her family to protect her identity — began dressing in full Muslim robes. By January, the once-agnostic Dutch woman, raised in a home where the only sign of religion was a dusty Bible on a shelf, began defending homegrown terrorists. A feud with her father over her apparent radicalization prompted her to leave home — turning up days later, her parents and Dutch authorities now say, in Syria, where she would become the bride of an Islamic State fighter.
She also became part of a growing crisis in Europe, where a surging number of young people from non-Muslim homes are flocking to the Middle East to heed the call of violent jihad. It is happening, terror experts say, as converts emerge as some of the most dangerous and fanatical adherents to radical Islam — a fact driven home this week by Elton Simpson, a 30-year-old American convert who joined one other man in opening fire on a Garland, Tex., contest for cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.
“I don’t blame Islam,” said Betsy’s mother, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her daughter. “I blame the people who made her believe in a radical way of life.”
As the Islamic State’s recruiting efforts have grown, concern in the West has largely centered on Europe’s entrenched Muslim communities — communities that have spawned more than 4,000 mostly young and socially isolated Muslims who have left to join Islamist militants fighting in Syria and Iraq. Once there, the new arrivals can transform into what intelligence officials call the most dangerous kind of radical: one with a Western passport.
Yet the Islamic State’s allure is hardly confined to traditional Muslim homes. In fact, as many as 1 in 6 Europeans joining the self-styled caliphate are converts to Islam from non-Muslim faiths including Christianity, as well as nonreligious backgrounds. In some countries, such as France, the ratio of converts among those leaving is significantly higher: about 1 in 4, according to European intelligence officials and terrorism experts.
The swell of converts happens as the Islamic State appears to be actively wooing them, using savvy social media outreach and recruitment drives. A number of female converts who have joined the Islamic State, for instance, have turned to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to encourage others to join. Increasingly, converts are being deployed in Islamic State propaganda aimed at the West, including videos for recruitment as well as for stirring fear.
In one video, for instance, Swedish convert Michael Nikolai Skramo — who grew up near Gothenburg and who European security officials believe moved with his wife and two children to Raqqa, Syria, in September — is shown calling, in Arabic and Swedish, for more Western fighters to join the Islamic State. “The door to jihad is standing there waiting for you,” he says. “It is the fastest way to paradise.”
In another Islamic State video released last year, several fighters — including “Jihadi John,” identified by The Washington Post as Mohammed Emwazi — were shown cutting the throats of captured Syrian pilots. At least one of the killers has been identified as Maxime Hauchard, a French convert to Islam from Normandy. And last month, a high-quality video released by the group graphically depicts its ruthless deeds as Denis Cuspert, a German hip-hop artist known as Deso Dogg who converted in 2010 and later joined the Islamic State, delivers a rap-like chant portraying the path to jihad as a chance for empowerment, spiritual fulfillment, vengeance and adventure.
Simpson — who, along with 34-year-old Nadir Soofi, was killed after opening fire on a security guard at the Texas event — was an Illinois-born homegrown radical who converted at a young age. His attorney described him as extremely devout, and U.S. officials think he and Soofi may have been inspired by the Islamic State.
Simpson was suspected previously by authorities of attempting to fly overseas to wage violent jihad, telling an FBI informant in May 2009, “It’s time to go to Somalia, brother,” later adding, “We gonna make it to the battlefield. . . . It’s time to roll,” according to court records.
Converts “are the most vulnerable because they do not yet fully understand Islam,” said Jamal Ahjjaj, an imam at As-Soennah Mosque in The Hague, where Betsy’s parents say she occasionally worshiped. “When we have religious classes for converts, sometimes there are people — the wrong people — waiting outside the mosque to greet them.”
In the post-Sept. 11, 2001, era, cases of converted extremists have cropped up on both sides of the Atlantic and include the likes of Adam Gadahn, an American who rose through the ranks of al-Qaeda, and John Walker Lindh, another American who fought for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Yet the number of converts streaming to aid the Islamic State, experts say, is far greater than in any other modern conflict in the Islamic world.
For Europe, in particular, the broad appeal of the Islamic State is rapidly morphing the group’s message of violence into a dangerous social problem at home, increasing the risk of homegrown terror and the chance that lost youths become indoctrinated into a perilous, cultlike lifestyle.
The profiles of converts joining the Islamic State often mirror that of Betsy. The child of divorced parents, she dropped out of school by age 14, was busted for shoplifting by 16 and was struggling with a drug problem at one point.
Here in the Netherlands, more than a dozen of those who have left for the Islamic State came, like Betsy, from the single largest pool of converts: young women. For instance, at As-Soennah Mosque, the heated national debate in the Netherlands over Islamist extremism has fueled a mini-boom in converts. Last year had the highest number, 97, since the mosque opened in 1993. Most were ages 19 to 21, and more than 70 percent were women. Many of them, mosque officials said, were dealing with problems at home.
“You find that a lot of the converts going to the Islamic State are girls, girls with problems, girls who have been prostitutes, girls with psychological and behavioral issues, sometimes borderline personalities,” said Marion van San, a senior researcher on foreign fighters at an institute affiliated with Erasmus University in Rotterdam. “Then someone comes along and promises that Allah is going to give them a second chance.”
Converts, experts say, also make easier targets. At least some tend to be lost souls searching for answers. For a minority of them, the radical ideology of the Islamic State is providing a heady sense of belonging, structure and a clear set of rules.
A 30-year-old former convert to Islam who asked that his name be withheld because he has received death threats for leaving the faith and is still on parole after serving a prison sentence in the Netherlands on terrorism charges cited his own spiritual and political journey as an example. His first contact with Islam came after his parents divorced when he was a teenager and he began socializing with devout Muslim friends in the immigrant neighborhood where his alcoholic father had relocated.
“I noticed they had all the answers,” he said. “They offered me what I was looking for.”
After the Sept. 11 attacks, he said, he followed a more radical path. He began surfing the Internet for information on the Taliban and found its absolutist worldview to be intoxicating. He began skipping school to read the Koran, spending more time studying the lives of “martyrs,” whose deaths in violent jihad had, he believed, paved their way to paradise. He left his moderate mosque for a more conservative one and quickly met a Dutch
Moroccan extremist in the Netherlands who would further radicalize him.
Betsy, said her mother, contacted another Dutch convert in 2014 who had left for Syria that year with a former boyfriend, whom she married. Betsy also began to attend special events with a small Muslim prayer group that was not sanctioned by the local mosque and that her parents think included radical voices that wooed their daughter into extremism.
In a religious ceremony late last year, she married a Syrian man but left him only days later, claiming he was “too soft” a Muslim.