Inside Story

What is the driving force behind jihadist terrorism?

We should avoid exceptionalising jihadists, argues Olivier Roy. Otherwise we reinforce the fascination of rebels looking for a cause

Olivier Roy 18 December 2015 2934 words

French police patrol near the Eiffel tower on 23 November 2015 in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Paris. Yoan Valat/EPA


Because there is no general, open database of Islamic militants who have joined al Qaeda or ISIS in Europe, a scientific quantitative analysis is difficult to do. But there are a lot of individual stories describing the path of radicalisation. In fact, most of the militants who joined these organisations have been identified; moreover, their life stories and backgrounds are quite well documented, not only through police investigations but also by journalists. In France, for instance, the January 2015 attackers, Mohamed Merah, Amedy Coulibaly, and Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, and most of the people involved in the November 2015 Paris massacre were identified by the police as “radicals” before they went for action. The data we use are taken from these open sources.

There are two ways to define what a radical is. In the first category are those who jumped into action for one of three reasons: having reached a terrorist sanctuary such as Yemen, Syria or Iraq, or previously Bosnia or Afghanistan; having perpetrated a terrorist attack; or having been caught in an advanced stage of preparation for such an attack. In the second category are those who manifested only an intention to go to some jihad place or to do something in Europe. The problem is that the second category has swollen because of the increasing surveillance of internet social networks by the security services; it is difficult to know how many would have taken effective action if they had not been spotted.

As far as France is concerned, there is a certain discrepancy between the two categories: in the second category (about 7000 people) 20 per cent are aged under eighteen, 30 per cent are women and 37 per cent are converts; the first category (about 1500) includes far fewer under-age people and women, and “only” about 25 per cent are converts. So the issue is to understand whether the second category will pass into the first, or whether it is more about dreamers.

Beyond collecting individual stories, our objective is to understand the process of radicalisation in order to implement a policy of prevention and counter-radicalisation. This is a twofold process: to spot individual radicalisation before a person chooses to act, and to understand the general causes of radicalisation in order to devise a more comprehensive policy aimed at a larger population. The problem (although this is also good news) is that radicalisation seems more linked to individual trajectories than to the radicalisation of a community.

The study of individual trajectories allows us to spot a cluster of repeated patterns (but also to spot the absence of expected patterns). Two caveats: first, while general patterns are common across Europe, they are differently distributed in different countries. (For instance, few French radicals have a connection with a mosque, while the reverse seems to be true in Austria.) Second, there are always exceptions and specific cases.

So, can we draw a general portrait of an Islamist radical? Can we define the conditions and circumstances under which he or she may become radical? Are there sociological, psychological, cultural patterns that could be identified as characterising the radical? To sum up the conclusions: radicalisation is a youth revolt against society, articulated on an Islamic religious narrative of jihad. It is not the uprising of a Muslim community that is victim to poverty and racism: only young people join, including converts who did not share the “suffering” 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.


1. There are no psychiatrically specific patterns for radicals. Some come from dysfunctional families, some from “normal” families. Some second-generation radicalised Muslims have a family (and often a recent one) with young children (Omar Ismail Mostefai, one of the Paris attackers). To have a newly born baby is not an obstacle to undertaking a suicide bombing.

Frustration and resentment against society seems to be the only “psychological” trait often shared. Psychologists who study radicalisation (Fethi Benslama in France, for instance) detect a psychological (not psychiatric) state of “suffering,” a discrepancy between expectations and social outcome, a need for recognition – in other words, a narcissistic crisis that makes radicals more open either to nihilism or to the narrative of heroism that al Qaeda or ISIS offers. The religious dimension gives them a framework of personal restructuration: the truth, the good, a clear set of norms, brothers in arms, an unambiguous objective, and salvation, although the latter is not necessarily understood in terms of the paradise as described in the Koran. In fact, few of them speak explicitly about paradise. The nihilist dimension (revenge, suicide) seems to supersede the utopian one (to build a new and just society). Radicals are neither happy nor funny people.

2. The majority of the radicals come from second-generation Muslims born in Europe, and most of the others are converts; almost none came as a young adult or as a teenager to Europe from the Middle East. Apart from that, there is no common sociological background – or, more exactly, the Muslim radicals share the sociological background of most second-generation Muslims (some are not integrated, others have diplomas and jobs), while converts come from diverse milieus (mainly working class and lower middle class).

In France, the geographic distribution corresponds roughly to the demographic map, with a slight overrepresentation of zones with a strong migrant population (the Paris region, the North, Alsace, Lyon and Marseille), and an underrepresentation of the big cities in the west of the country, with the western rural areas sharing roughly the same patterns as elsewhere. But there are interesting discrepancies: the department with the highest absolute number of radicals is Alpes-Maritimes (Nice), which is a rather rich department. The 93rd department (Seine-Saint-Denis), which has the highest percentage of migrants in France, contributes little more than each other department of the Île-de-France region. The west of the country is underrepresented overall, but there is a significant contribution from rural departments: in other words, as a percentage of the population, rural areas contribute significantly to the reservoir of radicalisation.

3. Many have histories of petty delinquency and drug dealing. Before turning born-again or converts, they shared a youth culture that had nothing to do with Islam. But most of them share the pattern of a sudden and rapid “return” to religion (or conversion) immediately followed by political radicalisation. There is a clear “breaking point,” often linked with a personal crisis (jail, for instance).  

4. It is clearly a youth movement. Almost all of them became radicalised to the dismay of their parents and relatives (a huge difference if we compare them with Palestinian radicals). Most parents not only disapprove of their children’s radicalisation but also actively try to bring them back or even to have them arrested by the police. In this sense the radicals don’t express an anger shared by their milieus or by the Muslim “community.” 

It is also a peer phenomenon: whatever the concrete circumstances of their meeting may be (neighbourhood, jail, internet or sports clubs), the radicalisation takes place in the framework of a small network of friends. This puts them at frequent odds with the traditional view of family and women in Islam. These groups are often mixed in gender terms, and the women often play a far more important role than they themselves claim (as Hayat Boumeddiene did in the Charlie Hebdo killers’ team). They intermarry among themselves, without their parents’ consent. In this sense they are closer to the ultra-left groups of the 1970s. There is often a siblings’ solidarity: many radicalise following a brother’s radicalisation (pairs of brothers include the Kouachis and the Abdeslams).

5. Very few of them had a history of militancy, either political (pro-Palestinian movements) or religious (local mosques, Tabligh, Muslim Brothers or even mainstream Salafism). They were almost never pillars of a local Muslim congregation. Contrary to a widely shared belief, they never mobilised for Palestine and (almost) never spent time with the Muslim Brothers. A consequence is that a monitoring of legal but militant groups, either political (pro-Palestine) or religious (Muslim Brothers), does not yield much information.

In other words, their radicalisation is not the consequence of a long-term maturation either in a political movement (Palestine, extreme left, extreme right) or in an Islamic environment. It is a relatively sudden individual jump into violence, often after trying something else (Mohamed Merah, for instance, tried to enlist in the French army).

The recruitment process follows different patterns. The more common seems the radicalisation inside a small network of peers, where nominal Muslims and non-Muslims meet because they live in the same neighbourhood, share the same patterns of petty delinquency, found themselves together in jail, or are members of the same family (like the Kouachis). This tightly knit network dimension is often reinforced by matrimonial links (marriage to the sister of one’s own friend, for instance). Some “lone wolves” follow a process of self-radicalisation and try to get in touch with more hardened radicals. A final process is recruitment through the internet, which mainly involves young women who are systematically and rapidly contacted when they inquire online about Daesh, jihad or Islam in general. For the others, the internet doesn’t seem to be the place of recruitment but a tool of communication, propaganda and information.

6. The unusually high proportion of converts has been systematically overlooked because it contradicts the (culturalist) idea that individual radicalisation reflects the radicalisation of a frustrated Muslim community. The proportion of converts is highest in France (25 per cent) but significant everywhere. It is not new at all: it was already a pattern in France with the first wave of radicalisation of 1995, or with the Hofstad group in Holland. The case of the Hofstad group is interesting because, although something like a third of its members were converts, it was seen exclusively as a symbol of the revolt of young Muslim migrants.

In the United States, 40 per cent of those charged in 2011 for jihadist radicalisation were converts to Islam, slightly more than the 35 per cent of those charged since the 2001 attacks.

7. A more recent pattern is the recruitment of young women to marry jihadists, where their predecessors would already have shared a common militancy. The rate of converts in this category is probably the highest among all categories of recruits, and has to do with the narrative of the “hero” (see below). But there is also a strong tradition of “leading” women (Malika el Aroud, Hayat Boumeddiene) who exhibit the symbols of submission (veil, burqa) but whose real life doesn’t correspond to the cliché of a submissive spouse. (They choose their own partners, for instance, and are closely associated with the decisions.)

8. The main motivation of young men joining jihad seems to be the fascination for a narrative we could call “the small brotherhood of super-heroes who avenge the Muslim ummah”:

  • This ummah is global and abstract, and never identified with a national cause (Palestine, or even the Syrian or Iraqi nations). In Iraq the foreign volunteers don’t identify with the local Arab population they are supposed to support (which is why they need either imported spouses or sex slaves). Palestine is not at the core of the mobilisation process. (Palestinians are mainly supported by progressive people and cultural Muslims, not by the Salafists, because theirs is seen as a “profane” cause.)
  • The narrative is built using schemes taken from the contemporary youth culture, including video games like Call of Duty.
  • The narrative is “staged” using not only modern techniques, but also very contemporary aesthetics, with a special role for aesthetics of violence, which is also found in places with no Islamic reference (Columbine, the Mexican Narcos).
  • Two “figures” are of particular importance: the suicide bomber and the chevalier, the first being linked with what I call a “generational nihilism,” the second with video games. In both cases what is at stake is self-realisation (as an answer to frustration).

9. The revolt is expressed in religious terms for two reasons. First, most of the radicals have a Muslim background, which makes them open to a process of re-Islamisation (almost none of them having been pious before entering the process of radicalisation). Second, jihad is the only cause on the global market. If you kill in silence, it will be reported by the local newspaper; if you kill yelling “Allahuakbar,” you are sure to make the national headlines. The ultra-left or radical ecology is too bourgeois and intellectual for them.

When they join jihad, they adopt the Salafi version of Islam because Salafism is both simple to understand (don’ts and do’s) and rigid, providing a personal psychological structuring effect. Moreover, Salafism is the negation of cultural Islam, the Islam of their parents and of their roots. Instead of providing them with roots, Salafism glorifies their own deculturation and makes them feel like better Muslims than their parents. Salafism is the religion, by definition, of a disenfranchised youngster.

Incidentally, we should make a distinction between religious radicalisation and jihadist radicalisation. There is of course an overlap, but the bulk of the Salafists are not jihadist, and many jihadists don’t give a damn about theology. None of the radicals has a past history of piety. Most of them either broke with the Islam of their parents or had no religious transmission from their parents (which may be because they are converts, or orphans, like the Kouachi brothers, or had non-practising parents).

Almost none followed a real process of religious education. Their religious knowledge is small (some brought with them Islam for Dummies). When they said that they were going to learn Islam in Pakistan or Yemen, it was to appease their parents: in fact, they go for jihad.

10. Radicals have a loose or no connection with the Muslim communities in Europe. A sense of surprise tends to be evident in the aftermath of a terrorist action. Investigators and journalists who meet the family and the entourage of the attacker are told the same story: “He was a quiet, nice boy (variation: he was just a petty delinquent), and he was not pious, drank alcohol, had girls etc., except that recently his attitude has drastically changed.”

Few of them were regular “parishioners” in a local mosque. None of them was active in religious activities (proselytism): when they preach Islam it is to recruit other radicals, not to spread the good news. This explains why (1) the close monitoring of mosques brings little information; (2) imams have little or no influence on the process of radicalisation; (3) “reforming Islam” does not make sense: they just don’t care about “what Islam really means.”

There is no theological dimension. Their knowledge of Islam is minimal and they don’t care, although the religious myth plays an emotional role. We tend too much to identify religion with theology (what does Islam say about jihad?); while there is certainly an important religious dimension in the way they experience their struggle, it is not an ideological rationalisation of Islamic theology. Religiosity, not theology, is the key.

They are not the vanguard of a European (or Middle Eastern) Muslim community that would tend to see them as heroes. On the contrary, they have little connection with this community, they have broken with their families (the fact that they desperately try to convert their families shows their degree of estrangement, not of proximity), and they don’t arouse fascination except of course among their peers. They don’t even reconnect with a real Muslim local society in Syria or Yemen.

Consequence for fighting radicalisation

To promote a “moderate Islam” to bring radicals back to the mainstream is nonsense. They just reject moderation as such. To ask the “Muslim community” to bring radicals back to normal life is also nonsense. Radicals just don’t care about people they consider as traitors, apostates or collaborators as long as they don’t choose the same path. To consider Islam only through the lens of “fighting terrorism” will validate the narrative of persecution and revenge that feeds the process of radicalisation.

The priority, beyond building a more sophisticated intelligence system, is to debunk the narrative of heroism, to break the “success story” of ISIS as being invincible (including on the ground) and to let Islam in Europe appear as a “normal” religion. In other words, the management of Islam should not be identified as a security issue first: in this case it will reinforce the fascination of “rebels looking for a cause” towards what is constructed by the West as the archenemy. Instead of exceptionalising, we should normalise. Radicals hate normal people. If imams are appointed as Muslim chaplains in jail, it should be to deal with the spiritual needs of inmates, not to fight radicalism. In the long term it will have an impact on radicalisation, but to be taken seriously, imams have to be imams, not police auxiliaries.

The aim is to accentuate the estrangement of radicals from the Muslim population and to dry up the narrative of Islam as the religion of the oppressed. •