Teens from Denver to Chicago have left their comfortable American lives in the hope of joining the ranks of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Their motivations vary. But there’s one common denominator: Most were recruited online.
"It can happen to anybody, to me, my friends, anybody," said Governors State University senior Amer Wazwaz.
"I hear about people going on these websites, mainly to learn about Islam and then they get sucked in," said Ata Alaraj.
Amer Wazwaz and Ata Alaraj have more to worry about than just college life.
"I’ve seen one of my friends do it," said Wazwaz. "And I had a long hard talk with him and I told him you shouldn’t be watching this. It’s not good."
Wazwaz said he believes the website was meant to recruit teenagers.
"Sharia laws were on there," he said. "I saw jihad and all that. This is a recruiting site. I can just tell. It’s easy to tell. It’s common sense."
But not always.
A number of young Westerners are believed to have been duped and radicalized online, including Chicago-area teen Mohammed Hamza Khan and his 15-year-old brother and 17-year-old sister – who were stopped by Federal Agents before boarding a plane headed for Turkey.
"Leave our children alone," a tearful Zarine Khan told the media in January after her son Mohammed Hamza Khan pleaded not guilty in Federal Court to a terrorism charge.
Parents like Zarine Khan are at a loss. Law enforcement struggle to stop these online recruits, and Chicago’s Muslim community fights to protect their young people.
"Many of them feel vulnerable," said Northwestern Associate Muslim chaplain Tahara Ahmed, referring to her students.
"These predators are looking for people who are really broken or don’t have a sense of direction and are questioning their identity."
The recruits are often young. Many are searching for their place in life. And others are grappling with their religion.
"The likelihood of an American teenager finding this website, it’s kind of as easy as going to Google," Khalil Marrar, Professor at Governors State University.
Sources who monitor these recruiting websites tell NBC5 Investigates this particular one is a vital recruiting website.
"This banner basically provides the viewer with news of Jihadi operations taking place around the world," said Marrar.
On the recruiting website, there are Facebook and Twitter links, public forums, instructional bomb-making videos and romantic visions of life in a utopic world.
"It’s a recruiting technique because it’s showing how wonderful life is," said Marrar.
As of this month, more than 19,000 foreign fighters from 90 countries traveled to Syria, according to the State Department. More than 3,4000 of them were Westerners and at least 150 Americans.
"Honestly I think its pure stupidity," said college student Ata Alaraj.
For friends Ata Alaraj and Amer Wazwaz, they know better than to go on these sites, but still worry about their friends.
"It’s an uncomfortable talk you have to have, saying if you really want to learn about Islam you won’t go to these websites," said Amer Wazwaz. "You go to the Imam. You go face to face, not online."