Terror threats were the main focus of the Republican debate this week, with candidates pitching their plans for how they would keep the Islamic State from crossing our borders and recruiting new fighters in the U.S.
The threat to the U.S. from the Islamic State is made scarier because it isn’t necessarily limited by geography. The terrorist organization is concentrated in Syria and Iraq, to be sure, but people have become radicalized and taken up the mantle of the Islamic State all over the world, including, with tragic consequences, in San Bernardino, Calif.
Some scholars argue nations must take a rigorous approach to understanding how people become radicalized — and, just as importantly, that religion itself is not the main motivation.
A substantial number of radical Islamic terrorists are recent converts who know surprisingly little about Islam, Olivier Roy, a professor at the European University Institute in Italy and well-known analyst of Islamist terrorism, said in a recent lecture, where he attempted to lay out "a scientific perspective on the causes/circumstances" of people joining radical groups.
"Radicalisation is a youth revolt against society, articulated on an Islamic religious narrative of jihad," he says. "It is not the uprising of a Muslim community victim of poverty and racism: only young people join, including converts who did not share the 'sufferings' of Muslims in Europe. These rebels without a cause find in jihad a 'noble' and global cause, and are consequently instrumentalised by a radical organisation (Al Qaeda, ISIS), that has a strategic agenda."
In one famous case, two 22-year-old British men who pled guilty to terrorism offenses in 2014 had ordered “Islam for Dummies,” “The Koran for Dummies” and “Arabic for Dummies” to read before they left for Syria. The two men were inspired by al Qaeda materials online, and used the Internet to talk with other radicals abroad. It was one of the men’s mothers that contacted detectives shortly after the pair left for Syria, and they were arrested as they returned to Britain in 2014.
According to Roy, religion comes into play in radicalization mostly because it offers the person a narrative of restructuring their life in line with the truth and the good -- they can say their actions are for a higher purpose. In reality, though, their motivations are usually personal.
No comprehensive data exists on the militants who have joined the Islamic State and other organizations, but Roy has analyzed individual stories of the path to radicalization – saying that we must first understand radicalization before we can hope to prevent or reverse it.
In the lecture in November, Roy was speaking about Islamic radicals in Europe, but the conclusions he draws hold valuable lessons for the U.S. Here are eight other findings about how people are radicalized:
1. Radicalism is mostly a youth movement, and a rebellious one.
Most of those who have been radicalized are young, and their behavior is often a kind of rebellion against their parents and relatives. It is articulated as a religious narrative of jihad, but is actually a revolt against society, Roy says.
Radicalization typically happens through networks of friends or peers, outside of the person’s family or the Muslim community more broadly. Many Europeans radicals have a history of delinquency or drug dealing, Roy says, but few have a history of political or religious militancy.
2. Few radicals come directly from the Middle East.
Most European radicals have a Muslim background, but few are themselves immigrants from the Middle East, says Roy. Most are second-generation Muslims, while others are converts.
According to figures from Charles Kurzman at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, 35 percent of those charged for jihadist terrorist plots in the U.S. since Sept. 11 were converts to Islam.
3. The Islamic State is very much a modern movement.
While the Islamic State may seem like something out of a previous millennium, with its barbaric ideas of justice, attitudes toward women, and call to restore an ancient caliphate, their methods are very modern.
The Islamic State has inspired what Roy calls “a virtual Ummah” – a global and abstract idea created by the group’s powerful media and propaganda apparatus. Some radicals in far-off places are part of this virtual society, but not a real one: They have radicalized themselves through the internet and follow agendas that don’t have much connection with what’s actually going on in Syria and Iraq.
4. Most radicals are motivated by the desire to be a hero, to do violence or get revenge.
Roy says that most of those who are radicalized are fascinated with the idea of becoming part of a “small brotherhood of super-heroes who avenge the Muslim Ummah” [meaning community or nation].
Many are motivated by the promise of capturing headlines. Ordinary murders rarely receive that much coverage, but those that are branded “terrorism” tend to be reported prominently.
Their desire for suicide or revenge for the real or perceived marginalization of the Muslim community is often stronger than any utopian desire to build a different society. “Radicals are neither happy nor funny people,” Roy says.
5. Radicals typically have little connection with the Muslim “community.”
In fact, their radicalization usually happens as a reaction against the Muslim community, imams and their parents. Radicals aren’t considered any kind of vanguard or representative of a larger disgruntled community; instead, many have broken with their families, and consider the larger Muslim community to be traitors.
6. Which means it’s mostly pointless to charge the Muslim community with de-radicalizing radicals.
Radical movements by their nature are a rejection of moderate Islam, meaning moderate Muslims generally have little influence. The connections between radicals and the rest of the Muslim “community” is usually loose or nonexistent, says Roy.
As a result, asking the Muslim community to help de-radicalize these people doesn’t make a lot of sense.
7. We should be careful about how we describe the connections between radicals and the larger Muslim community.
Roy’s analysis suggests that the tendency to paint Muslims broadly as terrorists – besides being factually inaccurate – could encourage more radicalization. Lumping all Muslims together as terrorists feed into a story of persecution and revenge that motivates radicalization in the first place.
8. What we need to do is to subvert the Islamic State’s standing among radicals and potential radicals.
Beyond increasing our intelligence capacity, Roy says, we need to debunk the myth that radical terrorists are heroes and subvert the idea that the Islamic State is successful and impervious to our attacks.
What’s more, we need to foster the idea that Islam is a normal part of society, not a dangerous or oppressed minority. “Instead of ‘exceptionalizing,’ we should ‘normalize,’” says Roy.