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ISIS recruiting teenagers: Why the government is sounding the alarm

British teenage girls Shamima Begun, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana (L-R) walk through security at London's Gatwick Airport before they boarded a flight to Turkey, Feb. 17, 2015, in combination picture made from handout still images taken from CCTV and released by the Metropolitan Police, Feb. 22, 2015

Reuters

The U.S. government is finding that in addition to fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on the ground, it must also fend off the growing threat of ISIS online.

The jihadist group has proven adept at outreach to teens who are fluent in digital communication. Last week the FBI and Homeland Security Department issued a joint alert warning that ISIS's message is increasingly resonant with Western youth. The alert advised local and state law enforcement agencies that ISIS has been having some success with social media campaigns that invite youth to join jihadists for the fight in Syria.

"The concern is that you have a message that is proving romantic, heroic and alluring to a swath of the western population that's dangerous," said CBS News Senior National Security Analyst Juan Zarate. "The messages that are out there are really messages not just to local law enforcement but to communities and families to be on the lookout and to be vigilant about the potential that their youth are being drawn like the Pied Piper to this movement in the Middle East."

In recent months, there have been regular reports of teenagers fleeing their homes in places like Colorado and England to travel to Syria to join the ISIS fight, or to marry its fighters. Just last week, a high school student from Northern Virginia was taken into custody because authorities believed he helped a man travel to Syria to fight with ISIS.

A recent report from SITE Intelligence Group details how ISIS has moved beyond the typical password-protected jihadist forums and now operates on Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, Ask.fm and other social media sites. The three suburban Denver girls who tried to join ISIS communicated directly with its recruiters.

During a speech to the Brookings Institution last fall, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen said that ISIS "operates the most sophisticated propaganda machine of any extremist group."

"ISIL disseminates timely, high-quality media content on multiple platforms, including on social media, designed to secure a widespread following for the group," he said.

It has become a top concern for law enforcement officials. "You have the Islamic State using all forms of media and outreach to include peer-to-peer social media outreach to the youth to try to draw them to the fight," Zarate said.

"This isn't just about going to fight apostates or to right oppressors or occupiers. This is about a broader project, [the] establishment of an Islamic caliphate, that holds some allure to those who want to see a pure form of Islam and are willing to draw themselves into this heroic and romantic cause," he added.

The White House turned its attention to violent extremism last month with a summit that brought together governments, civil society groups and community leaders from more than 60 nations to talk about ways to combat the threat.

Meryl Chertoff, who heads the Justice & Society program at the Aspen Institute penned an op-ed in The Hill about what she learned at the summit about the jihadi recruitment process--"scary stuff," she called it. There are, she wrote, social media tools "pairing the incipient recruit online with the fighter of their choice, and then sending them to Sharespot or Kick to allow the grooming to continue out of the reach of standard internet tracking tools, which can lead to mobilization in a matter of weeks."

In the past, the U.S. has tried using Islamic rap groups to help counter extremists, and Tweeting to undercut extremist messages.

Since the summit, Zarate said, there has been a commitment to more resources to attack the ISIS narrative online and amplify the credible voices that are trying to counter the movement.

But will any of it make a difference? Zarate isn't exactly sure."Are we able to inoculate youth and those who would otherwise be susceptible to the message from the allure of what the ISIS folks and the propagandists are selling?" He suggests that their appeal is surprisingly broad. "[E]ven among non-Muslims you see some polling numbers, for example in France, where there is an allure to the Islamic state, an allure of the romanticism of what they are building and I think that's part of the ideological battle in addition to the theology that's hard to combat."

Part of what is so dangerous for western youth also lies in what they don't know. Secretary of State John Kerry, addressing the White House summit, put it this way: "Those recruiting for [ISIS] are not looking for people who are devout and knowledgeable about the tenants of Islam," Secretary of State John Kerry said at the summit. "They're looking for people gullible enough to believe that terrorists enjoy a glamorous lifestyle."

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.