Is Being ‘Naïve’ An Excuse for Falling In With ISIS?

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(Photo: Screenshot from ISIS propaganda)


Everyone is responsible for their own actions. So why might the attorney of a young man arrested on terrorism charges be claiming he was “naïve?”

Amer Sinan Alhaggagi, 22, of Oakland, California, has been formally charged with attempting to set up social media accounts for the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist group  after being indicted by a grand jury, according to CBS San Francisco. Alhaggagi has been in custody since last November.

Federal prosecutors told the court back in December that Alhaggagi met with undercover agents on “numerous occasions to plan a potential terrorist attack.” They also said he spent significant amounts of time in Yemen, although information about what he did there is not readily available.

Yet his attorney August Gugelmann argued that his client was simply unaware that he was getting involved with terrorism.

“Amer is not anti-American and does not support ISIS or any other terrorist organization,” Gugelmann said in a statement. “He is completely nonviolent, and he took no actions to harm anyone. The evidence we have suggests these charges are based on internet chat conversations that he had with a number of unknown people. Amer is a very young and naïve man, and it appears he allowed himself to be drawn into conversations that he should have been far more suspicious of.”

The case indicates two things:

  • The first is that American security services have effectively infiltrated online recruitment networks and are successfully picking up suspects long before they can pose a serious threat.
  • The second is that Islamist recruiters prey in vulnerable young men in much the same way as cults do. Here is a list of 10 reasons people might be susceptible to join cults ranging from low self-esteem to an existential crisis to post-breakup blue. What they have in common is that people who join cults are searching for something.

While it in no way justifies joining a movement like ISIS, understanding how cults work helps understand how a person could attempt to mount a “naivety” defense when accused of joining ISIS.

The Cult Education Institute writes, “No one joins a cult, rather people are recruited.” This echoes the arguments of former Islamic extremist turned liberal activist Maajid Nawaz, who argues that “charismatic recruiters” are among the keys to radicalization.

Understanding the dynamics of recruitment is key to thwarting the efforts of ISIS and related groups to radicalize young men.

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Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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