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How ordinary people decide to become terrorists

A member of the jihadist group al-Nusra Front stands in a street of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on January 11, 2014.
A member of the jihadist group al-Nusra Front stands in a street of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on January 11, 2014.

For all the hand-wringing in the US over the threat posed by Syrian refugees, it turned out that so far, every positively identified terrorist from the Paris attacks was not a refugee at all — but rather, a European Union citizen.

Those in the US who advocate for accepting Syrian refugees have emphasized this as a way to counter fear of refugees. But this revelation highlights a very different and all-too-real threat: Westerners who join terror groups such as ISIS. And people are naturally wondering what the hell is going on in France and Belgium that a handful of its citizens would commit such terrible acts against innocent people.

The threat is often shorthanded as "radicalization." But how it happens, what drives it, and who it can affect are all commonly misunderstood — and seeing the gap between the way we commonly talk about radicalization and how it actually works is the first step to understanding and combating it.

The key thing to understand about "radicalization": It's not exclusive to any one group or religion

Radicalization is the process by which individuals (or groups) come to adopt extremist views, particularly sociopolitical and/or religious views. But becoming "radicalized" is not the same thing as becoming a terrorist. Not all individuals who adopt radical or extremist views will decide to engage in violence.

Nor is radicalization unique to any one religion, ethnicity, nationality, or gender identity. As terrorism analysts William McCants and Clint Watts put it, "Anyone can potentially sympathize with a terrorist organization if the conditions are right."

The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, for example, was perpetrated by two white former US Army buddies who were mad at the federal government. As reported by the New York Times, a recent study by New America found that since 9/11, "nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims." The FBI's own report on terrorist acts in the United States between 1980 and 2005 "identified 318 events (including bombings, arson and malicious destruction, and shootings); only 7% of those events were attributed to Islamic extremists."

The point is that although it is true that the perpetrators of the Paris attacks were affiliated with ISIS and were pursuing a violent jihadist agenda, and it is true that jihadist radicalization is a real phenomenon we should take seriously, radicalization can and often does occur in many other forms.

Adopting extremist views and committing horrendous acts of violence in the name of some half-baked "righteous" cause (or just out of plain old hatred) isn't something that only Muslims, or Arabs, or immigrants, or any other group of people do. It's something humans do.

Are there root causes of radicalization?

There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of factors that might make it more likely for someone to radicalize and adopt a violent jihadist ideology: societal factors and individual factors. None of those mean someone will radicalize for sure, nor do the absence of those factors mean it won't happen, but they're the things that typically coincide.

First, here are a few of the societal factors that are typically associated with a higher risk of radicalization:

  • The presence of a large minority population that is socially, politically, and economically marginalized
  • Treatment of certain groups as "suspect communities" that are subjected to invasive and overbearing counterterrorism efforts
  • A cultural or political hostility toward religion in general or Islam in particular
  • Unpopular foreign policies, such as support for repressive regimes or involvement in a military campaign, especially in a predominantly Muslim country (or several of them)
  • The presence of preexisting recruitment networks

And here are a few of the individual risk factors. Again, it's not an exhaustive list, and people still have individual agency, but this is meant to help you get a sense of what the experts look for:

  • Personal ties to an already radicalized individual
  • A sense of personal failure, often tied with a yearning to do something important and meaningful with one's life
  • A desire for adventure, rebellion, and life experience
  • The need to belong
  • Feelings of compassion and concern for the suffering of others with whom one feels some kind of personal connection, often (but not necessarily always) co-religionists
  • And, of course, good old-fashioned teenage angst

Who gets radicalized, and how does it happen?

I have bad news: There is no standard model of the radicalization process — although (understandably) that hasn't stopped scholars and law enforcement agencies from trying to construct one. The process differs by individual, and since there is also no standard profile of the "typical" radicalized individual, there is no one single model of how individuals radicalize.

Even if we focus just on Westerners who become violent jihadists — including guys like the attackers in Paris — those individuals tend to come from wildly different backgrounds, are attracted to an extremist ideology for a whole host of different reasons, and take any number of different paths to get there.

You probably have an image in your head of the "typical" radicalized individual: male, 18 to 24 years old, angry, devout, ultra-conservative Muslim, etc. You know, this guy:

(RAMI AL-SAYED/AFP/Getty Images)

But that's not the whole picture. Not even close.

The profiles differ even more depending on whether you're looking at the United States or Europe, and even from one country to another within Europe.

Just consider, as examples, these three individuals. As you read their stories, you may start to see that there's no such thing as a standard path to radicalization:

1) Mohamed Merah was a 23-year-old French citizen of Algerian descent who in 2012 killed seven people — including several fellow Muslims, a rabbi, and three Jewish schoolchildren — in a series of shooting attacks in the French cities of Toulouse and Montauban. The attacks culminated with him being shot in the head by French commandos as he leaped out of the window of his first-floor apartment with "all guns blazing" after the commandos had stormed in at the end of a 30-plus-hour siege.

A mechanic by trade, he reportedly "was considered a juvenile delinquent. As a minor he was reported at least 15 times for acts of violence, and was described as having 'a violent profile from childhood and behavioral troubles.'" According to the Washington Post, "His acquaintances told reporters he never seemed very interested in religion as he grew up and at one point went in for punk clothes." There are conflicting reports about exactly when and how he was radicalized: Some claim he was radicalized in prison, while his own brother blames Mohamed's radicalization on their parents and sister.

2) Aqsa Mahmood is a young woman from a wealthy neighborhood in Scotland who in 2013, at age 19, dropped out of Glasgow University to marry an ISIS fighter in Syria and is now one the group's top recruiters, extolling the virtues of being a jihadist bride on Tumblr and Twitter. As reported by The Daily Beast, "At [age] 15 a process of radicalization appears to have started — apparently hidden from her parents and most of her friends — and she spent increasing amounts of time locked away in her bedroom and interacting on radical Muslim chat forums."

3) Nidal Malik Hasan was a 39-year-old US Army psychiatrist who in 2009 opened fire at the military base in Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13 people and wounding 28. As an Army psychiatrist, part of his job was to council soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from their combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems the constant deluge of stories got to him, as he was reportedly motivated to kill by "a hatred of American military action in the Muslim world and a desire to protect Taliban leaders in Afghanistan."

Prison, the internet, social media, and personal ties to friends and family members who are already radicalized are the most common ways people become exposed to extremist ideologies. Whether a person is exposed to these ideas sitting alone in her bedroom reading the latest issue of ISIS's propaganda magazine and gradually being persuaded by the violent words and images on the screen; by spending time with a cellmate, friend, or loved one who is already indoctrinated and is eager to spread the "truth" of his newly acquired beliefs; or by interacting on social media with strangers whose ideas and beliefs seem profound and exciting, the common element is exposure to the ideology. Terrorist groups like ISIS know this, which is why they focus so much on spreading their propaganda in multiple formats — digital magazines, brutally violent videos, an army of useful idiots who parrot their ideology constantly on social media, and individual recruiters who actively seek out people susceptible to radicalization.

The common perception is that radicalization happens at the mosque. But in fact, with a few notable exceptions, individuals are likely not exposed to violent extremist ideology from the imam at the local mosque. In fact, it is much more likely that an imam who sees someone in his mosque heading down the path to violence will try to intervene to correct that person's misconceptions about Islam, get the person's family involved, or even report the person to the authorities. People who do embrace a violent jihadist ideology will often, for this very reason, actually stop going to the mosque.

Even when security services are able to identify the radicalized individuals in their communities, it can still be difficult to predict which of those individuals are likely to take the next step and engage in terrorist violence (and thus should be watched closely) versus which are just passive sympathizers. The latter category is just too large for everyone in it to be watched, and in any case, sympathizing is not a crime.

Even in cases where a radicalized individual previously identified by the security services has openly threatened to commit a terrorist attack — as appears to have been the case with Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the man believed to have been the "chief planner" of last week's attacks in Paris — it can be difficult to locate and apprehend the individual or predict where and when the attack will take place. In several other recent terrorist attacks in France, the perpetrators were already known to French security services, yet they were unable to prevent the attacks from unfolding.

Why France and Belgium?

The Paris attacks made it clear that these two countries have a real problem with radicalization: Of the six attackers who have thus far been identified, five were French citizens — three of whom were living in Belgium — and one was a Belgian citizen. As reported by the New York Times, since the attack, French authorities have conducted more than 400 raids in France, arresting 60 people, seizing 75 weapons, and placing 118 under house arrest. Several police raids have also been carried out in Brussels, with at least 10 people arrested on suspicion of involvement in the attacks. France and Belgium also have some of Europe's highest numbers of citizens who have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS and other groups fighting in the wars there.

No one factor can explain this entirely, but they help show how this problem came to be so serious.

Both countries have large minority populations of Muslims who emigrated from North Africa (particularly Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria) and who are often socially and economically marginalized. France has the largest Muslim population of any European country: an estimated 5 to 6 million, or about 8 percent of the total population. Belgium is home to some 600,000 Muslims, comprising 5 to 6 percent of Belgium’s total population of roughly 11 million.

In Belgium, these Arabic- and French-speaking communities — such as the neighborhood of Molenbeek, which has a troubled history of connections with terrorist attacks and was the location of the raids carried out by Belgian security forces in connection with the Paris attacks — can present a challenge to law enforcement, many of whom come from Dutch-speaking cities. This limits their ability to communicate and build rapport with residents and can increase distrust and "otherization" on both sides. The unemployment rate is also much higher in Molenbeek than in most other areas in Belgium, according to data from the Brussels Institute for Statistics and Analysis. In France, a strong tradition of secular liberalism has created a climate that can at times be unaccepting or even outright hostile to Islam.

Both countries also have jihadist recruitment networks that have been in place for some time. Recruitment networks have a significant presence in French prisons, and in Belgium, an organization called "Sharia4Belgium" has been identified as a "key recruiter of fighters for Syria and Iraq," though the group recently disbanded following the arrest and incarceration of a number of its leaders and members.

Finally, both countries have been involved (France much more heavily than Belgium) in the US-led coalition against ISIS — which is the primary reason ISIS gave in its statement claiming responsibility for the attacks in Paris for why France was targeted.

Given that both France and Belgium have a lot of the societal factors that can make radicalization more likely, more attacks like the ones in Paris are almost certain to occur. But it's important to remember that people are influenced by more than just external factors, and any one person who decides to join a group like ISIS or carry out attacks in its name is going to be driven most of all by his own personal and internal motivations. And that's exactly what makes dealing with radicalization so hard.