DUBAI // Vulnerable youths are being targeted by ISIL recruiters on social media and parents must monitor what their children are seeing, experts say.
Since 2014, when ISIL decided the use of social media was allowed, the extremists have been using Facebook and other platforms to appeal to young people.
“Terrorist groups, especially ISIL, have been using social medial platforms to brainwash the youth and join them by becoming fighters,” said Khalil Al Ali, an official at Dubai’s Al Ameen Service, which confidentially reports incidents to police.
“They have used social media and other methods to make inroads in Arab countries, including the UAE. However, authorities in the UAE were aware of terrorist groups’ plans and the danger of social media.”
Under the UAE’s cyber-crime law, it is a criminal offence for terrorist groups to use the internet to “promote their ideologies and finance their activities”.
Mr Al Ali said social media platforms were also taking action, including Twitter, which had closed about 600,000 accounts for promoting terrorism.
But much of the responsibility rested with parents.
“Less parental involvement and supervision makes children and young men more vulnerable to terrorists,” he said. “Authorities will launch education campaigns to raise parents’ awareness about the dangers of unrestricted use of social media.”
Psychologists said the terrorists built relationships with young people online and slowly altered their thinking.
“ISIL has been using social media platform and online games to brainwash children,” said Dr Ahmed Al Mai, head of child and adolescent psychiatry at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City.
“They examine the principles that a child was raised on and then they try to destroy these principles through methods considered attractive to kids, including social media platforms and electronic games.
“They start building a relationship with a teen to gain his trust and friendship. Then they start cultivating destructive ideas.
“At this stage, kids and teens start accepting their ideas, which have nothing to do with the environment he was raised in.”
But Dr Al Mai said the UAE was taking action against grooming of children through the Sawab Centre, a joint UAE-US initiative combating ISIL’s online propaganda.
Dr Tara Wyne, a clinical psychologist and director of a community mental health clinic called The Lighthouse, said that children became vulnerable to terrorists when they do not fit in at school, or when they were being abused or having trouble at home.
“Children and adolescents are always looking for a strong identity and for a purpose in life,” Dr Wyne said.
“When radical groups interact with disenfranchised or vulnerable children and teenagers, they tell them grandiose lies such as ‘you now have a place or mission in life, your life matters now, you are serving humanity and you are going to change the world’.
“What chance does a vulnerable 12-year-old child have against such sophisticated psychological propaganda?
“Young people crave attachment and connection to others. When they don’t have a group to belong to they feel vulnerable and exposed. Therefore, they are prone to joining gangs.”
Ahmad Al Tartor, director of the Sharjah Children Hotline, said that parents’ negligence was a major factor.
“We should educate our children about religion and extremist and teach them to differentiate between these terms,” Mr Al Tartor said.
“Parents should develop their children mentally through reading and discussing important aspects of life with them.”
The experts were speaking at a lecture on Saturday, organised by Al Ameen Services and the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Knowledge Foundation.
At least 10 Emiratis, including an 18-year-old and a 19-year-old, were accused by the Federal Supreme Court for seeking to join terrorist groups this year and last year.
In the capital, the Abu Dhabi Supreme Court sentenced young Emiratis and expatriates to death and jail for joining ISIL and other terrorist groups.
In one case a 19-year-old Emirati was given a five-year jail sentence for joining ISIL. He was 17 when he travelled to Syria and he told the court that he regretted his decision.