Reporting surrounding high profile Western jihadis has ignited fiery debate over how terrorist groups recruit from Europe and the United States, and why their monstrous brutality can be so seductive to educated individuals in the developed world. While the study of radicalisation is difficult due to the uncooperative and elusive nature of its subjects, brief glimpses into the process can be garnered through the examination of the backgrounds of its victims. In this piece, Encyclopedia Geopolitica‘s terrorism and extremism writer Simon Schofield examines how the claws of radicalisation can sink into victims in some of the most unexpected places.
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The process by which people are radicalised into joining extremist groups and fundraising, supporting, or even carrying out acts of terrorism is a burgeoning field of academic study and political discussion, although myths and misconceptions persist. High profile Westerners such as Mohammed ‘Jihadi John’ Emwazi, Samantha ‘the White Widow’ Lewthwaite and John Georgelas have ignited fiery debate about how terrorists recruit and why their monstrous brutality and outright rejection of Western values can be so appealing. The utility of social media and the internet in recruitment is hotly contested, and the reality is that we don’t yet fully understand the psychological forces at play which drive the processes of radicalisation. Despite this, we can tread the sands of this intellectual battleground and find scraps of answers to many of the most asked questions – what are the tools terrorists use to swell their ranks? What kinds of people are most easily seduced? What are the processes that transform a promising student, a humdrum housewife, or a peerless IT salesman into religious zealots capable of cold-blooded murder?
Conveyor Belt Theory
The first crude ‘theory’ – less a theory and more a constellation of overlapping assumptions – of how radicalisation works has been labelled (almost exclusively by those deriding the concept) as ‘the conveyor belt theory of radicalisation’. Whilst there does not appear to be a specific academic or politician who first posited the theory, and certainly not under this name, it appears to have been a nebulous set of assumptions which have aligned to create an impression of the radicalisation process. Because this theory is almost exclusively referenced by those opposing it, either by identifying these underlying assumptions, or by carefully building a very flimsy strawman and calling it ‘conveyor belt’, the full model of this theory is very difficult to articulate, however there are some very clear features and characteristics.
As the label might suggest, the model assumes that there is a linear journey, passing through specific milestones before reaching the blood-soaked shores of terrorism. This would treat each individual as a mathematical equation, where the right inputs will leave you with your run-of-the-mill militant who will kill and die in the service of uniting the Ummah, driving out the crusaders, and bringing them either to the light or the sword. This would involve an algorithm of adding association with radicals, interest in fundamentalist Islam, and sympathy with ‘the cause’, and subtraction of supporting social networks, commitment to Western values, and the various fears rightly associated with pulling the trigger, both physically and metaphorically.
The single greatest weakness of this model is that – like early economic models – it treats all people as essentially rational robots who will respond uniformly to similar sets of inputs and stimuli. Of course we all know that very rarely will two people in similar situations react identically. The solution in economic theory was ‘behavioural economics’, a marriage of economics with numerous schools of thought in social psychology, which apply the best science available on how people think and feel, and how that translates into economic choices.
The best antidote to those stuck in ‘conveyor belt’ mode is probably something similar. Radicalisation is still an emerging field, and it needs to grapple with the wider psychological aspects involved as well. To be sure, ‘behavioural security studies’ or similar, will likely be the future orthodoxy.
The dark side of technology
Online platforms play a strong part in radicalisation. It plays two key roles: firstly propaganda and secondly recruitment.
Whilst Islamic State is largely in retreat on the ground, with many of its best propagandists killed and the quality of their online output greatly compromised by Western bombing, there are still lessons to learn about how the group managed to make itself so attractive. The UK Government issued guidance around ISIL propaganda, identifying four key themes they use in their online posts to lionise their cause and demonise the West. These themes are: presenting an image of success, with phrases like Baqiyah wa-Tatamaddad (remaining and expanding); an offer of status and belonging, inviting people to come to a welcoming community with a strong identity; personal duty, that there is an Islamic obligation (disputed by scholars) to support and defend the ‘Caliphate’, and as the only group able to defend Sunnis from the depredations of the Assad regime and their ‘Shia backers’. There is a carefully organised constellation of online propaganda, with Facebook and Twitter used to peddle narratives, Instagram and YouTube used to share glamorous images and videos either of the glory of Jihad, or else tourist board-like shots promoting visits to ISIL territory. Jihadists already abroad and fighting even used Ask.FM accounts to organise question and answer sessions with those considering joining them.
Careful laying up well-crafted prose and glossy presentation gave these publications a sense of legitimacy and intellectual rigour, pitching at the trendy, educated, and politically interested demographic that could conceivably also gravitate to publications like the New Statesman, the Atlantic, and the Spectator.
As well as the rapid-fire approach of criticism of the West and praise for Jihad, Islamic State used its long-form magazines Dabiq and Rumiyah to spread its appeal. Al Qaeda has long issued its own magazine along similar lines called Inspire. Careful laying up well-crafted prose and glossy presentation gave these publications a sense of legitimacy and intellectual rigour, pitching at the trendy, educated, and politically interested demographic that could conceivably also gravitate to publications like the New Statesman, the Atlantic, and the Spectator. These magazines combine pieces on theological justifications for jihad which cloak religious violence in divine favour, with practical tips on how to make bombs, carry out knife and car attacks, and travel to Iraq and Syria to join the conflict, together forming the jihadist equivalent of a narrative love potion.
In recruitment, as well as for propaganda, Islamic State in particular favours encrypted messenger platforms such as Whatsapp and Telegram, as well as VoIP platforms like Skype. Melanie Smith, an Institute for Strategic Dialogue researcher remarked to author David Patrikarakos that the digital realm is particular fertile ground for recruiting women, perhaps due to the social norms of fundamentalist Islamic society. “It’s rare for women to be radicalized or recruited offline… men are radicalized more in social settings than women. Men can form groups and share ideas. For women, the idea is more shameful, and they are more likely to do it in isolation online.”
In order to better explore this complex issue, it is perhaps most useful to look at a number of case studies of westerners who have fallen under the spell of jihad, as well as looking at the stories of feared characters from the Middle East, whose paths to terrorism shed light on the flaws and virtues of the conveyor belt concept.
Mohammed Emwazi, better known by his nomme de guerre Jihadi John was an ISIS militant, distinctive in his strong London accent, who transformed from a salesman of IT equipment to a grim, masked executioner, who brutally beheaded five British and American journalists and aid workers, two Japanese nationals, and an estimated 22 Syrian soldiers.
With young, impressionable minds, a culture of respect for authority, and social groups based on peer pressure, it is easy to see how ideas, good and bad, can easily be spread.
Emwazi was born in Kuwait but moved to London with his family aged six. He grew up popular, an avid footballer who enjoyed pop music and the Simpsons. He was known to have anger issues in adolescence, a teacher from Quintin Kynaston School in North West London recalled that he got into fights and had to take anger management therapy in his first year of secondary school. A human life is a rich tapestry of social intersections, and isolating and exact cause for someone’s choices is virtually impossible. Matters are complicated further with Emwazi as we are unable to interview him, given that he was, in the words of one US official, ‘evaporated’ by a drone strike in Raqqa in November 2015.
However, looking at Emwazi’s life, deeds, and words does point to a number of places where he collided with radical Islam. Both his school and his University have produced several terrorists other than him. Choukri Ellekhlifi died fighting alongside Jabhat al Nusra, then al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, whilst Mohammed Sakr died fighting for al-Shabaab –al Qaeda’s Somalia franchise. In the aftermath of his unmasking the British Department for Education subjected the Quintin Kynaston Academy to a probe into radicalisation to investigate whether lessons can be learned about avoiding future issues. Emwazi’s alma mater the University of Westminster had concerns raised as early as 2011 that it had been ‘infiltrated by Islamic extremists’, with accusations continuing in 2015 of ‘consistently giving a platform to extremist students’ and that its Islamic Society was ‘dominated by ultra-conservative Muslims’. Put in context with the Birmingham Trojan Horse school revelations, where school governor Tahir Alam was found to have prepared a 72-page blueprint for the islamisation of state schools, shows education is clearly a field in which jihadist radicalisation remains an issue. With young, impressionable minds, a culture of respect for authority, and social groups based on peer pressure, it is easy to see how ideas, good and bad, can easily be spread.
Emwazi could also have been radicalised at his place of worship. Little is known about Emwazi’s particular religious habits, but an anonymous author in The Independent claims he went to the same mosque in Regent’s Park, London, and that he could just as easily have fallen into radical Islam. Regent’s Park was named in a Wikileak release as being part of the extremist network centred on the Finsbury Park mosque, a formerly radical mosque led by the notorious hook-handed hate preacher Abu Hamza.
In his own words, Emwazi claims harassment from security services was what radicalised him, after he was allegedly denied entry to Tanzania at Dar-es-Salaam airport, flown to Amsterdam’s Schipol airport, and interrogated by MI5, who accused him of trying to join al-Shabaab in Somalia. He also alleges that MI5 prevented him from moving back to his native Kuwait, where he had planned to marry and start a new life. This was denied by Sir John Sawer, former MI6 chief as ‘false and transparent’, adding that extremists “draw attention to themselves because of their activity, their mixing, participation in extremist and sometimes terrorist circles.” Whether or not joining al-Shabaab in Somalia had been on Emwazi’s to-do list, security services had good reason to suspect him given that he was a close associate of Mohammed Sakr and al-Shabaab commander Bilal al-Berjawi. Nevertheless, Emwazi’s run ins with the security services appear to be a great source of regret for him, as his brother Omar recalls he had warned him not to follow in his footsteps.
Samantha Lewthwaite, now known by her convert name Sherafiyah Lewthwaite, or by her press-endowed nickname the ‘White Widow’ is, or was, a suspected member of al Qaeda’s Somali affiliate al Shabaab. She is implicated in numerous terror attacks including a 2012 grenade attack in Mombasa, the 2013 attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, and in recruiting ‘all-female terror squads’ in East Africa. Her current whereabouts are unclear, but Regnum news agency claims she was shot dead in Ukraine by a volunteer sniper for pro-Russian rebels near the Eastern Ukrainian city of Debaltsevo. This has not been confirmed, in fact it has been denied by the Ukrainian group she was allegedly fighting alongside, and Regnum is a known propaganda arm of the Kremlin, casting further doubts on the story. Nevertheless, alive or dead Lewthwaite’s story of her transition from the daughter of a broken home in Aylesbury to a lionised jihadist is fascinating, and shows how in some cases social and family breakdown can also open the door to terrorism.
Lewthwaite’s parents separated in 1994, when she 11. As distraught as any other child would be in this situation, she sought solace from Muslim neighbours, whose strong familial structures stood in stark contrast to her broken home. She converted to Islam whilst studying for her A-levels, taking the name ‘Sherafiyah’ and eschewing the common teenager attire of jeans and t-shirts in favour of the traditional salwar kameez. By the age of 17 she was wearing more conservative Islamic garb in the form of a jilbab, or chador. By 18 she was studying religion and politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, which led to her taking part in one of the many Stop the War marches in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Here she would meet Germaine Lindsay, a radical Sunni student one year her junior whose extremist views and fervent support for al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden enchanted her.
Indeed witnesses attest that Lewthwaite met with radicals to ensure that any potential suitors were sufficiently committed to jihad before she would consider marrying them.
Samantha was beyond smitten. She said that she ‘just wanted to find a Muslim husband and settle down’, adding that ‘when we got together we were fantastic and prayed five times a day together.’ This jihadist Bonnie and Clyde partnership was sealed in October 2002 at an Islamic ceremony in the front room of a terraced house in Aylesbury, using the Islamic names Asamantra and Jamal. Lewthwaite dropped out of SOAS in order to become a housewife and following the nuptials were two years of wedded bliss, living first in Yorkshire, then in Aylesbury and in September 2004 returning to Yorkshire, following the birth of their first child, Abdullah, in April. In Dewsbury Lewthwaite and Lindsay met 7/7 mastermind Mohammad Siddique Khan and his wife Hasina Patel. Lindsay, enamored with Khan, began spending days at a time away from home, shaving his beard to avoid being recognised. This bizarre behaviour raised eyebrows at home and, suspecting an affair in early July 2005 Lewthwaite threw Lindsay out. Two days later Lindsay detonated a bomb on a London Underground Piccadilly Line train between Kings Cross and Russell Square, part of the coordinated bombings that day which killed 52 people from 18 countries.
Whether or not Lewthwaite had an any awareness or involvement in Lindsay’s plans is unclear, but following the attack she took to the media to decry the attack, painting her husband as a victim whose mind had been ‘poisoned’ by extremists. Lewthwaite claimed it was the move to London and visiting mosques in the capital and in Luton that had led her ‘innocent, naïve, and simple’ husband astray. The facts that Lindsay was close to hate preacher Abdullah Faisal, had strong ties with known al Qaeda operative Mohammad Siddique Khan, and distributed al Qaeda leaflets when he was in high school stand as testament more to Lewthwaite’s loyalty than her accuracy, but these comments are interesting in light of what would happen next.
Following the death of her husband, Lewthwaite would have felt distinct social forces pushing and pulling her. On the one hand, being the widow of a suicide bomber who had murdered 26 commuters in cold blood left a mark on her. She was shunned by many of her Western friends – indeed childhood friends now refuse to talk about her. Conversely, being the widow of a shaheed (martyr) made her a very attractive prospect to extremists looking to boost their ‘jihad credibility’. Indeed witnesses attest that Lewthwaite met with radicals to ensure that any potential suitors were sufficiently committed to jihad before she would consider marrying them.
Little is known about her second husband; rumoured to be Abdi Wahid, a Kenyan naval officer who defected to al Shabaab with whom she had her third and fourth children before his probable death. In notes seized by Kenyan authorities in 2011 Lewthwaite gushed about her second martyred husband, saying: “Allah blessed me with the best husband for me. In fact, exactly what I asked for when I made du’a [prayed] before marriage. I asked for a man that would go forth, give all he could for Allah and live a life of terrorising the disbelievers as they have us.”
In 2014, months before her reported demise at the hands of a Ukrainian sniper, Lewthwaite appears to have married for a third time to Hassan Maalim Ibrahim, a senior commander in al Shabaab.
Role of redemption
As well as the obvious and much chronicled idea of religious holy war, there are other, subtler, theological pulls that can draw people into the vortex of jihadi violence. It is well known that many inducted militants have at best a fledgling understanding of Islam, needing a ‘Quran for dummies’ before they are deployed, and a previous Encyclopedia Geopolitica article outlined that sympathy with jihadism and conservative Islam are not necessarily as overlapping as common sense might dictate. Whilst the excuse for violence is a salient attracting factor, the role of redemption cannot be ignored. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the grandfather of the group that would become Islamic State was himself a drug dealer, a pimp, and a thug, who, according to Jordanian intelligence, served a prison sentence for sexual assault. He fell in with radical Islamic scholar Sheikh Muhammad al-Maqdisi, where he became enamoured with the concept of redeeming himself and cleaning his grubby slate through jihad, even going so far as to burn off his prison tattoos (which are prohibited in Islam) with acid.
A particularly striking piece of propaganda displayed in the paper shows a hooded jihadist with an AK-47 held behind his head with the English strapline ‘sometimes people with the worst pasts create the best futures’.
In the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) paper ‘Criminal Pasts, Terrorist Futures’ it is made very apparent the nexus between crime and jihad. The paper identified no fewer than 10 extremists who had been radicalised as a result of the redemption narrative. Not only do they furnish individuals with a deeply held commitment to the cause, but prisons also ‘radicalise’ in the sense that they facilitate transfers of criminal skills, making for more effective terrorists. A particularly striking piece of propaganda displayed in the paper shows a hooded jihadist with an AK-47 held behind his head with the English strapline ‘sometimes people with the worst pasts create the best futures’.
These case studies show clear themes that led to these people becoming radicalised. The first theme is isolation, be it due to family breakdown, or difficulty ‘fitting in’. It is clear that when people are unable to make or maintain vital social bonds they reach out for welcoming communities, which makes them obvious and easy targets for jihadist recruiters who leverage psychological principles such as reciprocity – that one good turn requires another, and graduated commitment – the ‘boiling frog’ approach, where demands are slowly and imperceptibly increased until a subject crosses moral lines without even realising it.
Recruits are not won over by theological or moral debate, they are given an emotional narrative that suits their pre-existing situation and biases, and which over time becomes assimilated as part of that person’s identity.
A second similar feature is an enduring anger or frustration. A general feeling of anger and frustration can be focused and channeled towards violence with the use of powerful narratives.
Thirdly, radicalisation appears to often take place in places with social hierarchies, where deference to authority is an abiding trait. Specifically there are five situations which warrant closer attention – peer pressure in friendship groups, the guard-prisoner, cleric-worshipper, teacher-student, and the digital outsider-understanding stranger relationships.
Fourthly there are two clear processes which run in tandem for radicalisation to be successful – a target has to be pushed away from the West and pulled towards Jihad. Sometimes the simple experience of a broken home is enough to undermine one’s faith in Western social structures, other times it requires more proactive propaganda effort, portraying the West as decadent, amoral, callous, and impious. On the other side of the coin, jihad can be naturally appealing to those of a conservative Islamic inclination, or to angry young men who want to commit violence, but for others the image may need some spit polishing to be persuasive, with nationalist tropes, brotherly calls to arms, and rose-tinted portrayals of life on the ground.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, radicalisation is driven by emotional, rather than rational, faculties. Recruits are not won over by theological or moral debate, they are given an emotional narrative that suits their pre-existing situation and biases, and which over time becomes assimilated as part of that person’s identity. Strong examples of these are victimhood, redemption, and honour narratives.
Ultimately radicalisation is as complex a process as political campaigning. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ explanation as to how one person influences another to profound changes of worldview, lifestyle, and choices. Redemption, love, money, anger, social acceptance, a just cause, and an excuse to kill are all powerful lures to these wayward souls.
Purchases from our suggested reading lists made with the links in this article earn referrals for Encyclopedia Geopolitica. As an independent publication, our writers are volunteers from within the professional geopolitical intelligence community, and referrals like this support future articles.
- American Radical: Inside the World of an Undercover Muslim FBI Agent (Tamer Elnoury & Kevin Maurer)
- United States of Jihad: Who Are America’s Homegrown Terrorists, and How Do We Stop Them? (Peter Bergen)
- The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda (Ali Soufan & Daniel Freedman)
- Jihadi Culture: The Art and Social Practices of Militant Islamists (Thomas Hegghammer)
Simon Schofield is a Senior Fellow and Acting Director at the Human Security Centre, where he researches a broad range of security issues from terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and human rights issues. He has served as a geopolitical consultant for numerous news outlets including the BBC, RTE, and the International Business Times.
For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.
Photo Credit: Thierry Ehrmann, Islamic State flag graffiti in St.-Romain-au-Mont-d’Or, Rhone-Alpes, France