If recruiters for the Islamic State – the self-styled caliphate running large swathes of Syria and Iraq – depends on volunteers like 19-year-old Denver nursing aide Shannon Maureen Conley, they are doomed.

According to an affidavit by an FBI agent unsealed yesterday by the US District Court of Colorado, Ms Conley was arrested on April as she was about to board a plane bound for Turkey. She was planning to make her way to Syria, marry a 32-year-old Tunisian man whom she had met on the internet, and become a housewife and camp nurse for the terrorist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Her parents seemed only dimly aware of their daughter’s interest in joining the jihadists, although they knew that she had converted to Islam.

How do we know all this?

Because Ms Conley told FBI agents in several interviews about her devotion to jihad and her plans to join a banned terrorist organisation.

Information about her is sketchy but she first came to the attention of police when she attended several meetings at Faith Bible Chapel in a suburb of Denver last year clad in a hijab. Since a shooter went on a rampage at this campus in 2007 and killed two people, the authorities at FBC were alert to suspicious behaviour. Ms Conley obliged by taking notes of the layout of the campus and asking, “Why is the church worried about a terrorist attack?”

Everything she knew about Islam came from the internet, she told the FBI. But she believed in violent jihad and that she would not be troubled if women and children died in a terrorist attack on a military installation. Jihad was the only answer to correct the wrongs against the Muslim world. She backed up her words by joining the US Army Explorers, an army cadet program, to get some military training. The agents warned her that she was in danger of going to jail, but she responded that “she would rather be in prison than do nothing”.  

Ms Conley sounds like a confused soul, naïve and desperate for attention, who blithely ignored Rule #1 in all terrorist manuals: do not explain your plans to FBI agents.

But not all recruits are as clueless as Ms Conley, who is probably now kicking her heels in a jail cell awaiting trial. According to some reports, hundreds of Western-educated men are flocking to Syria to join the Islamic State. They pose a huge danger to Western societies whether or not the “caliphate” survives. Security agencies believe that they will eventually make their way back home to wage violent jihad.

What draws them to Islam? A 2011 survey of Muslim converts in Britain by a researcher at Swansea University found that converts felt their own lives had been “lost” and were “lacking in purpose” before conversion. They feared that there was a “normalisation” of “immoral” behaviour amongst an increasingly less religious British public. They were disgusted by drunkenness, a “lack of morality and sexual permissiveness” and “unrestrained consumerism.” Nearly two-thirds of the converts were women, more than 70 percent were white and the average age at conversion was 27.

Very few of these converts will become violent extremists. But the extremists are cleverly exploiting the idealism and commitment which drew converts to Islam in the first place. The video below was made by the Islamic State and features a handful of Britons and an Australian encouraging young Muslims to join them in Syria.

They do not mention the sadistic violence which has characterised the behaviour of the warriors of the “caliphate”, the kidnappings, the extortion, the crucifixions, the beheadings, the murder of prisoners, the killing of Shi’as and Christians. Instead they urge listeners to make a total commitment. If they perish as “martyrs”, they will be rewarded by Allah. Death comes for everyone, one of them says; better to die honourably defending Islam than in idle comfort. “Are you willing to sacrifice the fat job you’ve got, the big car you’ve got, the family you have?” asks one of them. “The cure for the depression is jihad,” says another.

This is madness, but even in madness there are specks of truth. We live in a secularised society which offers nothing beyond death. Its highest ideals are professional success, a comfortable lifestyle, and a secure retirement. As the advertising slogan goes, “the one with the most shoes when she dies wins.” 

There is a vacuum of values in the lives of many young people in the West. For some of them, just a handful perhaps, will fill that with the simple and brutal message of radical Islam. It only took one confused and angry 19-year-old terrorist, Gavrilo Princip, to unleash the slaughter of World War I.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet. He lives in Sydney, Australia.