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From hip-hop to jihad, how the Islamic State became a magnet for converts

This article originally appeared in the Washington Post.

THE HAGUE — She was a redheaded rebel, the singer in the family, a trash-talking, tattooed 21-year-old wrapped up in a hip-hop dream of becoming Holland’s Eminem. Then Betsy found Allah.

After her sudden conversion to Islam last summer, Betsy — a name given by her family to protect her identity — began dressing in full Muslim robes. By January, the once-agnostic Dutch woman, raised in a home where the only sign of religion was a dusty Bible on a shelf, began defending homegrown terrorists. A feud with her father over her apparent radicalization prompted her to leave home — turning up days later, her parents and Dutch authorities now say, in Syria, where she would become the bride of an Islamic State fighter.

She also became part of a growing crisis in Europe, where a surging number of young people from non-Muslim homes are flocking to the Middle East to heed the call of violent jihad. It is happening, terror experts say, as converts emerge as some of the most dangerous and fanatical adherents to radical Islam — a fact driven home this week by Elton Simpson, a 30-year-old American convert who joined one other man in opening fire on a Garland, Tex., contest for cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.

“I don’t blame Islam,” said Betsy’s mother, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her daughter. “I blame the people who made her believe in a radical way of life.”

As the Islamic State’s recruiting efforts have grown, concern in the West has largely centered on Europe’s entrenched Muslim communities — communities that have spawned more than 4,000 mostly young and socially isolated Muslims who have left to join Islamist militants fighting in Syria and Iraq. Once there, the new arrivals can transform into what intelligence officials call the most dangerous kind of radical: one with a Western passport.

Yet the Islamic State’s allure is hardly confined to traditional Muslim homes. In fact, as many as 1 in 6 Europeans joining the self-styled caliphate are converts to Islam from non-Muslim faiths including Christianity, as well as nonreligious backgrounds. In some countries, such as France, the ratio of converts among those leaving is significantly higher: about 1 in 4, according to European intelligence officials and terrorism experts.

The swell of converts happens as the Islamic State appears to be actively wooing them, using savvy social media outreach and recruitment drives. A number of female converts who have joined the Islamic State, for instance, have turned to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to encourage others to join. Increasingly, converts are being deployed in Islamic State propaganda aimed at the West, including videos for recruitment as well as for stirring fear.

In one video, for instance, Swedish convert Michael Nikolai Skramo — who grew up near Gothenburg and who European security officials believe moved with his wife and two children to Raqqa, Syria, in September — is shown calling, in Arabic and Swedish, for more Western fighters to join the Islamic State. “The door to jihad is standing there waiting for you,” he says. “It is the fastest way to paradise.”

In another Islamic State video released last year, several fighters — including “Jihadi John,” identified by The Washington Post as Mohammed Emwazi — were shown cutting the throats of captured Syrian pilots. At least one of the killers has been identified as Maxime Hauchard, a French convert to Islam from Normandy. And last month, a high-quality video released by the group graphically depicts its ruthless deeds as Denis Cuspert, a German hip-hop artist known as Deso Dogg who converted in 2010 and later joined the Islamic State, delivers a rap-like chant portraying the path to jihad as a chance for empowerment, spiritual fulfillment, vengeance and adventure.

Simpson — who, along with 34-year-old Nadir Soofi, was killed after opening fire on a security guard at the Texas event — was an Illinois-born homegrown radical who converted at a young age. His attorney described him as extremely devout, and U.S. officials think he and Soofi may have been inspired by the Islamic State.

Simpson was suspected previously by authorities of attempting to fly overseas to wage violent jihad, telling an FBI informant in May 2009, “It’s time to go to Somalia, brother,” later adding, “We gonna make it to the battlefield. . . . It’s time to roll,” according to court records.

Converts “are the most vulnerable because they do not yet fully understand Islam,” said Jamal Ahjjaj, an imam at As-Soennah Mosque in The Hague, where Betsy’s parents say she occasionally worshiped. “When we have religious classes for converts, sometimes there are people — the wrong people — waiting outside the mosque to greet them.”

Who are the converts?

In the post-Sept. 11, 2001, era, cases of converted extremists have cropped up on both sides of the Atlantic and include the likes of Adam Gadahn, an American who rose through the ranks of al-Qaeda, and John Walker Lindh, another American who fought for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Yet the number of converts streaming to aid the Islamic State, experts say, is far greater than in any other modern conflict in the Islamic world.

For Europe, in particular, the broad appeal of the Islamic State is rapidly morphing the group’s message of violence into a dangerous social problem at home, increasing the risk of homegrown terror and the chance that lost youths become indoctrinated into a perilous, cultlike lifestyle.

The profiles of converts joining the Islamic State often mirror that of Betsy. The child of divorced parents, she dropped out of school by age 14, was busted for shoplifting by 16 and was struggling with a drug problem at one point.

Here in the Netherlands, more than a dozen of those who have left for the Islamic State came, like Betsy, from the single largest pool of converts: young women. For instance, at As-Soennah Mosque, the heated national debate in the Netherlands over ­Islamist extremism has fueled a mini-boom in converts. Last year had the highest number, 97, since the mosque opened in 1993. Most were ages 19 to 21, and more than 70 percent were women. Many of them, mosque officials said, were dealing with problems at home.

“You find that a lot of the converts going to the Islamic State are girls, girls with problems, girls who have been prostitutes, girls with psychological and behavioral issues, sometimes borderline personalities,” said Marion van San, a senior researcher on foreign fighters at an institute affiliated with Erasmus University in Rotterdam. “Then someone comes along and promises that Allah is going to give them a second chance.”

Converts, experts say, also make easier targets. At least some tend to be lost souls searching for answers. For a minority of them, the radical ideology of the Islamic State is providing a heady sense of belonging, structure and a clear set of rules.

‘This is the way, brother’

A 30-year-old former convert to Islam who asked that his name be withheld because he has received death threats for leaving the faith and is still on parole after serving a prison sentence in the Netherlands on terrorism charges cited his own spiritual and political journey as an example. His first contact with Islam came after his parents divorced when he was a teenager and he began socializing with devout Muslim friends in the immigrant neighborhood where his alcoholic father had relocated.

“I noticed they had all the answers,” he said. “They offered me what I was looking for.”

After the Sept. 11 attacks, he said, he followed a more radical path. He began surfing the Internet for information on the Taliban and found its absolutist worldview to be intoxicating. He began skipping school to read the Koran, spending more time studying the lives of “martyrs,” whose deaths in violent jihad had, he believed, paved their way to paradise. He left his moderate mosque for a more conservative one and quickly met a Dutch Moroccan extremist in the Netherlands who would further radicalize him.

Soon he was on a plane to Pakistan to train in a terrorist camp. After his arrest and deportation to the Netherlands, he connected again with a group of homegrown radicals whom he had known before, some of whom were advocating domestic terrorist attacks akin to the 2004 killing of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. Not knowing that his home was under police surveillance, the convert agreed to store a cache of hand grenades in an apartment. When the hideout was stormed, he threw a grenade at police. “I wanted to die in bullets and go to paradise,” he said.

But he was apprehended alive. And during 8 1/2 years in prison, he began clearing his head of radical notions by, “of all things,” reading the works of Plato and by putting his faith in science and philosophy instead of religion. He emerged, he said, as if from a dream, shedding the hold that Islamist thought had over him.

Although he abandoned his adopted faith, his radicalization left a painful legacy in the form of his younger bother. The 30-year-old had helped to convert him years earlier, and, as the older brother sat in jail, the younger one maintained his associations with radicals, growing increasingly extreme. Three months ago, the 30-year-old said, his brother left the Netherlands for Syria to join the Islamic State.

“Dutch parents tend to be very liberal. They aren’t giving clear answers to what’s right and wrong, so some of us go looking for answers elsewhere,” the older brother said. “You don’t understand what it’s like when you meet someone who can set aside all your doubts and has convincing arguments and tells you, ‘This is the way, brother, and all you have to do is follow it.’ ”

Such transformations, like Betsy’s, can occur before parents understand what is happening.

‘Looking for something’

In the fall of 2013, a slightly awkward redhead with thick Poindexter glasses took the stage at “The Next MC” — a contest show like “American Idol” for aspiring hip-hop artists in the Netherlands. A YouTube video shows Betsy, with her long locks in cornrows and sporting a navy blue sweatshirt emblazoned with the word “b----,” rapping in Dutch to an insouciant crowd.

“You try to be tough, but you aren’t,” one of the judges tells her. “You are really a sweet girl.”

That was the Betsy her parents knew.

They divorced when she was still a child, so Betsy grew up between homes, initially living with her mother. After her mother suffered a serious illness, Betsy moved in with her father. By then, she was a teenager hanging with a tough crowd, experimenting with drugs and running afoul of the law. She got a tattoo on her middle finger — “C’est la vie” — to accentuate her point when flipping the bird.

Still, her father, Pete, 53, who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used, said, “She had a softness about her.” And he sensed a change for the better brewing in 2013. She had sought out the old Bible he kept on a shelf. “She was looking for something, I don’t know what, but some kind of peace,” he said.

The precise timing of her leap from aspiring rapper to Islamic State bride is somewhat unclear. But in 2013, she started a relationship with a young Dutch Turkish man who, according to people familiar with the situation, had left for Syria in 2014 to join the Islamic State. That same year, a close friend of Betsy’s who had converted to Islam, began introducing her to the faith, Betsy’s parents said.

Betsy, said her mother, contacted another Dutch convert in 2014 who had left for Syria that year with a former boyfriend, whom she married. Betsy also began to attend special events with a small Muslim prayer group that was not sanctioned by the local mosque and that her parents think included radical voices that wooed their daughter into extremism.

In a religious ceremony late last year, she married a Syrian man but left him only days later, claiming he was “too soft” a Muslim.

Yet the timing of her departure, Betsy’s family thinks, appeared spontaneous — a choice born of anger following the blowup at home after she defended the Islamist shooters who went on a rampage in Paris. After the family had heard nothing from her for days, Betsy finally sent a text to her father.

“Where are you?” he asked.

“Where do you think,” she replied, “in Syria.”

“No!!!” he texted back.

“Don’t pretend that you care,” she answered.

Her parents later found evidence on a computer that she had cashed in her savings and booked travel to Turkey. An arranged contact met her in Istanbul and took her by bus to the Syrian border, which she eventually crossed. Dutch authorities declined to comment on her case beyond confirming that they think she is still in Syria. She has told her parents that she is now the bride of a Dutch Moroccan national fighting for the Islamic State and that she spends most of her time learning Arabic and studying the Koran.

Her parents now live for her texts, which come once a week at best, apparently during rare times when she has an Internet connection. She has relocated from place to place, her parents said, because of bombing campaigns. A photo that she recently sent them shows her in a flowing blue niqab, in a room with a Middle Eastern-style wood-burning oven. But something about her face seemed different, Pete said.

“You can see there is no innocence left,” he said. “I look at that hard expression, and I cannot see my baby girl.”

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