Terrorism, particularly Islamist terrorism, has been at the forefront of news coverage for over a decade. While print and television media have thrived on Islamist extremism content, one aspect of the discourse has been under-reported, namely, the radicalisation of Muslim converts and their engagement in terrorist activities. Academia has also turned a blind eye to this group, even as it has focused excessively on ‘Muslim’ radicalisation. Muslim converts especially in Europe and America pose a serious security threat. And the fact that a westerner with no real ties to Islam can embrace a radical form of the religion and engage in violent acts for the perceived benefit of the adopted community is indeed puzzling.
Over the last decade, a number of terrorism cases involving Muslim converts have been seen in the West. In 2001, Richard Reid attempted to blow up a commercial flight in America but his attempt was foiled by co-passengers. In 2009, Michael Finton attempted to bomb a federal building in Illinois, United States. In 2010, Zachary Chesser was arrested for his attempt to join the Somalia based group, Al-Shabaab, as well as for his threats to the creators of ‘South Park’ for their portrayal of Islam. In 2013, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale attacked a British Soldier, Lee Rigby, outside his base in Woolwich, United Kingdom. Also in 2013, Richard Dart was arrested and charged with terrorism offences for planning to attack Wootton Bassett, United Kingdom.
The 2000s were not the first era to witness radical converts and their turn to violence. During the 1960’s and 1970’s extremist African-American converts engaged in terrorism as members of groups such as Nation of Islam, Black Panthers and Jaamat-ul-Furqa. In the late 20th century, Muslim converts also played a crucial role in conflicts in Afghanistan and Kashmir.
The radicalisation process for a large number of converts does seem to originate from previous criminal record, although it would be wrong to identify prison as a conveyor belt. For instance, in the case of Richard Reid, criminal record increased his susceptibility to radical Islamism. And the reason for that lies in the fact that the principles of radical Islamism are essentially built on victimization, which resonates with individuals with a history of criminal activity. Prison serves as a medium to recruit criminals to the Islamist cause. Conversion to Islam in prison has been seen on multiple occasions; Richard Reid, for example, converted to Islam in Feltham prison. In Western countries, a sizeable section of the prison population is Muslim. Conversion to Islam guarantees protection and respect in an environment otherwise known to be extremely abusive. It is hard to see prisons as ‘breeding grounds’ in this context, but the threat does exist inside this seemingly secure environment. While it would be difficult to pin-point prison conversion to radical tendencies, post their release Muslim converts seem to gravitate towards a radical interpretation of the faith.
Another significant factor with reference to convert radicalisation is contact with jihadists and extremists. Almost all converts have had contact with other jihadists, thus increasing their propensity to engage in acts of violence. Muslim converts with a limited knowledge of Islam draw knowledge and inspiration from these jihadists. For instance, Michael Finton corresponded with John Walker Lindh, an American Jihadist who fought for the Taliban and whom Finton idolised.
Radical clerics such as Anwar al-Awlaki and Anjem Choudary also play a significant role in radicalising converts. Their rhetoric, which customizes Islamist concepts to western audiences, is particularly potent. In addition to this strong presence of the radical Muslim community as the principle agent of socialisation, the lack of a moderate Muslim influence to counter the Islamist influence reinforces the convert narrative. The influence of these charismatic preachers cannot be diminished by arrest or even death, given that their fiery speeches are recorded and shared freely on online platforms thus making them accessible anywhere, anytime.
There is no doubt that the issue of identity is central to Muslim convert radicalisation. Individuals like Richard Reid and Zachary Chesser have struggled to identity with a social/ethnic group while growing up. Failure despite multiple attempts to ‘fit in’ result in alienation and isolation. For instance, Chesser, during his schooling years, had experimented with Japanese and Gothic sub-cultures before finding a home in Islamism. The ever-welcoming Islamist community accepts these individuals while giving them a chance to play the role of a vanguard for a global community of perceived victims.
Poverty has long been disregarded as a factor in the radicalisation process. While rational and political motives for radicalisation have dominated the academic discourse, the lack of economic opportunities and success does, however, contribute to a sense of grievance. It is hard, therefore, to ignore the poor economic background of a section of converts. In this context, radical Islamism becomes a form of social protest and rebellion. Although a cause-effect relationship cannot be drawn, in the case of Richard Reid, Michael Finton and Michael Adebolajo, poor economic conditions did contribute to a sense of distress. Finton, for instance, worked as fry-cook in a restaurant and greater success was limited by his lack of education.
Without arguing for a cause-effect nexus, in the case of many converts there are issues with emotional intimacy and familial friction in childhood and adolescence. This may not have contributed directly to radicalisation much later, but the fact that they have been observed in the case of a section of converts cannot be a coincidence. Richard Reid had a difficult childhood growing up, seeing his parents getting divorced and watching his father slide into a life of crime. Zachary Chesser shared a very difficult relationship with his mother and found it impossible to accept his mother’s choice of partners. Michael Finton had run away from foster care and showed serious behavioural issues in school even admitting to harbouring feelings of inadequacy.
Converts are important from the terrorist outfit’s point of view too. Converts are often seen occupying crucial roles in these outfits and are the face of propaganda campaigns to gather support. The Islamic State has been soaking up all the conflict related attention in the last couple of years. Even as the number of foreign fighters from western countries increases, very little is known about the number of Muslim converts fighting in Iraq and Syria. But the fact remains that the radical convert influence is not limited to foreign theatres of conflict, but poses a serious home-grown threat in Europe and America.
The campaign against Islamist terror has involved both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power, military operations and counter-narratives. These measures need not be tailored to the Muslim convert issue, but the threat must be acknowledged. The measures that should be taken to address this risk are not different from the inherent duties of the Government. However, convicting radical preachers who, under the guise of free speech, spread hate and extremist narratives and monitoring high-risk criminals post their release from prison could prove useful. At the moment, the radical Muslim convert threat does appear to be limited to Europe and America, where the converts are ‘less visible’.
Surya Valliappan Krishna is a post-graduate student at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. His areas of research are counter-terrorism, radicalisation and South Asian security. He is a lead researcher for the project on ‘Islamic State in South Asia’ at Mantraya.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India