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Trying to understand ISIS recruitment tactics

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Islamic State fighters
In this photo taken Monday, June 23, 2014, fighters from ISIS parade in a commandeered Iraqi security forces armored vehicle down a main road of Mosul, Iraq.
AP file

In the last year, stories of Americans attempting to join ISIS — with some succeeding — have dominated the news. In Minnesota, more than 20 young people are thought to have left the state and traveled to Iraq or Syria. Others have been indicted for planning to follow in their footsteps. 

ISIS is not the first terrorist group to aim its recruitment efforts at Americans, but the group's modern tactics have left law enforcement and communities struggling to understand and combat such efforts.  

MPR News' Tom Weber talked with three journalists who have been covering the recruitment and radicalization of young people by ISIS to understand how the process begins. 

"ISIS, more than any other group, has succeeded in appealing to a wide cross-section of the Western population," said Rukmini Callimachi, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. Recently, Callimachi profiled a 23-year-old white woman from rural Washington State who went from teaching Sunday school to making plans to travel to Syria in a matter of months.  

"It's very much a courtship. She literally fell in love with the recruiter," Callimachi said. The woman and her ISIS contact spent as many as seven hours a day talking online. 

Social media is where these recruitment relationships begin, said MPR News' Mukhtar Ibrahim, who has been covering the recent indictments of Minnesota youth in connection with ISIS.  

ISIS' success in recruiting young Somali-Americans from Minnesota has led the local Somali community and the U.S. Attorney's Office to strategize about what they can do to prevent recruitment. This isn't the first time the community has faced issues of terrorist recruitment, but, according to MPR News' Laura Yuen, this time is different.

Yuen covered the stories of young Minnesotans leaving to join al-Shabab, a terrorist group in Somalia associated with al-Qaida.

"A lot of them were motivated by what was happening in foreign policy," Yuen said of the Minnesota youth that joined al-Shabab. "Ethiopia had just occupied Somalia, which stirred up patriotic sentiments and rallied these young men to take up arms."

Today, Yuen says, "I think the ISIS situation is scarier because there are no ethnic or familial ties that are bonding these guys to Syria. It's harder to explain."

Law enforcement and community activists are working to predict who may become recruitment targets — but all they have to go on is a broad profile.

"What we find in looking at all these young people, is that there was in some level a hole in their life," Callimachi said. "They were seeking something, they were feeling some level of emptiness, and [ISIS] is able to fill it. ... But that description can describe pretty much every 18-year-old in the country."

To hear more from Callimachi, Ibrahim and Yuen on ISIS recruitment efforts and the difficulty of reporting on terrorist activities, listen to the full audio above.