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The events of September 11, 2001 changed the way the United States viewed terrorism forever. In a matter of hours, al Qaeda transformed from a foreign and incapable threat to a force to be reckoned with. This group had succeeded where many others had failed: bringing terror to our homeland.
Unfortunately, 9/11 was not an isolated event. Since then, there have been numerous groups aspiring to invade the US and bring terrorism to American soil. Al Qaeda was but an example of how a network of seemingly primitive individuals can quickly become organized and sophisticated. Despite being viewed as unbelievably ruthless and violent, dealing with al Qaeda did nothing to prepare the US and the rest of the world for the rise of what has become arguably the most bloodthirsty terrorist organization to date—the Islamic State (ISIS).
Although in existence since around 2006, ISIS rose to complete power out of al Qaeda’s ranks in February of 2014. Following its separation, the group has become a focal point in international affairs after ambitiously claiming portions of Iraq and Syria as their own to establish a caliphate. Since their beginning, the group has become notoriously famous by performing unspeakable acts including public executions, crucifixion, and mass killings. As a result of the grotesqueness of ISIS’s actions, even Al Qaeda, who called upon the militants to refrain from killing civilians, has shunned the group’s appalling actions.
Despite their drastic and barbaric nature, it is important to note that groups like ISIS have existed in various forms for thousands of years. In essence this is not a new threat, however, it is the effortless manner in which they carry out their killings that strikes fear and draws fascination alike. The intimacy of the killings has a polarizing effect on viewers and is designed to demonstrate superior strength and an inhuman ability to kill without remorse. Their main purpose, according to Islamic war strategist Abu Bakr Naji, was to “make this battle very violent” (Cottee, 2014). So far, they have remained true to this statement.
Aside from the ghastly carnage, there is an element of the group that is even more terrifying. Despite their continuous atrocities, they have successfully increased their numbers to over 31,000. One would immediately wonder who these individuals are that seek to join a group of bloodthirsty terrorists, however, the answer to that question is even more shocking than the question itself. Of the estimated 31,000 members roughly 15,000 are foreign born—some of which are from Western nations. The Central Intelligence Agency currently estimates ISIS’s member profile is comprised of individuals from more than eighty countries and concludes that more than 2,000 of these people are Westerners themselves. The shocking increase in membership boomed following the group’s successful creation of their caliphate in Iraq and Syria, and signifies that the group has quickly become a greater threat to the US than al Qaeda. This spike in membership signifies that the group’s recruitment process is extremely successful, and even more disturbing; the number of Westerners seeking their guidance and acceptance is growing.
Once an individual becomes a member of a terrorist organization like ISIS, reconverting them is highly unlikely. In actuality, even terrorists who are apprehended are more likely to not only further radicalize themselves during incarceration but also recruit and sway others towards their cause. This ideological diffusion ensures that even terrorists sentenced to life in prison are still able to actively recruit replacements.
It is difficult to believe that so many Westerners would be willing to commit whole-heartedly to this life of violence against their own people, however, former terrorists indicate that once recruited, any semblance of morality is often replaced with a sense of duty to further the terrorist movement. In an interview with Forbes Magazine’s Donald Freedman, former senior member of the al Qaeda affiliated terrorist group Jemaah Islamiya confirmed this theory, indicating that while he was operational he did not have time to actually think about what he was doing. Instead, his loyalty to the terrorist group was so great it took the place of all rationality and caused him to do unspeakable acts with little or no hesitation.
Consequently, in the case of terrorism, prevention will always be more effective than rehabilitation and should therefore be a US priority. Furthermore, emphasis needs to be placed on identifying the most preventable and possibly dangerous at-risk group of possible ISIS recruits: Western citizens. This group of likely recruits poses an extremely high threat to the US, largely due to their ability to slip into and out of the nation undetected. These individuals possess the knowledge and know-how to conduct lone wolf style attacks at a moments notice, as they have the geographical and cultural knowledge necessary to blend in with the population.
After validating the threat, it is imperative to determine what causes these individuals to abandon all allegiance to their home nations and carryout attacks against their fellow countrymen. This paper shall analyze the common character traits and environmental elements that push Western citizens towards terrorism and use these qualities to identify those with the highest likelihood of joining groups like ISIS in an attempt to prevent new recruits from uniting with the jihadist movement. To help in identifying these common characteristics, this paper will conduct a case study of several known Westerners who have joined terrorist groups. This methodology will allow us to examine every aspect of these specific cases and allows for a more in-depth approach than conducting quantitative or qualitative analysis. These case studies will include examinations of the cases surrounding Mohammed Hamzah Khan and his younger siblings of Illinois, Donald Ray Morgan of North Carolina, and Shannon Maureen Conley of Colorado. These individuals were all American citizens of different descents and age groups that had a common dream of joining ISIS in the war against the West.
A variety of interesting research exists regarding this topic. According to Evan F. Kohlmann, a former FBI terrorism consultant, Westerners have grown more inclined to support terrorist groups in the age of advanced technology. He states “contemporary homegrown terrorist networks do not emerge merely as the result of coincidence or happenstance but, rather, with the active support and endorsement of high-ranking al Qaeda spokesman and military commanders” (2008). Similarly, Robert S. Mueller of the FBI stated, “The information age means you don’t need training camps to become a terrorist,” indicating the FBI’s belief that despite successful strikes against terrorist groups resulting in tremendous financial reductions, their strategic online presence will continue to be a strong recruitment tool.
In addition to a strong online presence encouraging the spread of terrorism in the West, researchers are investigating the psychological process involved in radicalization. Dr. John Horgan, Director of the Center for Terrorism & Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, has spent a majority of his life studying the process by which one transforms into a terrorist. His work suggests that counter-terrorism research should focus not only on identifying unique personal characteristics of terrorists, but also to include the alternative independent environmental stimuli that foster extremist behavior. He states, “an under-explored alternative to an account in terms of individual qualities is to see involvement in terrorism, at least in psychological terms, as a process rather than a state; this implies a focus not on the individual and their presumed psychological or moral qualities, but on process variables such as the changing context that the individual operates in, and also the relationships between events and the individual as they affect behavior” (2007).
To truly understand what drives innocent individuals to joining terrorist groups like ISIS, it is imperative to first evaluate their reasoning. Nineteen year old Mohammed Hamzah Khan and his younger siblings of Bolingbrook, Illinois were arrested in early October for attempting to provide “material support or resources” to a terrorist group. The teenagers were intercepted by the FBI at O’Hare International Airport after purchasing round trip tickets to Istanbul via Austria. Once they were apprehended, authorities conducted a search of their family home and located “numerous pro-ISIS writings and drawings in common areas of the house” (Mullen, 2014). More importantly, letters Khan and his younger sister wrote to their parents were recovered, providing an eye-opening glimpse into the mind of homegrown terrorists a firsthand account of their reasons for joining ISIS.
From the uploaded letters accessible from the Chicago Tribune, the opening statement was written in capital letters reading, “DO NOT TELL THE AUTHORITIES,” indicating Khan was fully aware his actions were illegal. His primary reason for leaving was that he “was an adult now” that “has to pay taxes to the government.” He attributes paying taxes to providing his hard earned money to the government to “kill his Muslim brothers and sisters.”
He continues on to suggest the establishment of an Islamic state requires every “able-bodied male and female to migrate there” and that he wishes to go because he feels he is afraid to speak his beliefs. He openly states he wishes “to be ruled by the Sharia, the best law for all mankind,” and questions why, if they truly have freedom of speech, can they not “openly talk about jihad.” He concludes his letter stating, “Western societies are getting more immoral day-by-day,” and that he cannot bare the thought of his “progenies being exposed to filth like this.”
Khan’s siblings, who are still unnamed, were persuaded by him to join ISIS in the Islamic State to fulfill their true destiny. His fifteen year old sister also left behind a letter to her parents, echoing Khan’s own confession. In it she states, “I could not bear to live in that land that is haram (forbidden by Allah)” and asks how she could ever live in a place that uses her money to kill her brothers and sisters.
Contrarily to her brother, she reasons that she cannot remain in the US for material gains while just waiting to die, especially while other Muslims are being killed every day. She includes a lengthy paragraph regarding her views on death being inevitable, citing “we cannot delay or postpone (death) and what we did to prepare for our death is what will matter.” Concluding the letter, she tells her mother “not to be blinded by others… this world is an illusion. It fools you into thinking you can have happiness when in reality, its not true.”
The letters left behind by these individuals are paramount in dissecting the extremist mindset. They obviously suggest a deep sense of religious duty and an inherent obligation to fulfill the goals of ISIS under Sharia law, however, determining what transformed these beliefs from traditional to extremist is fundamentally important. Once apprehended by the FBI, Khan admitted to authorities that he had sought out a contact online who helped him make arrangements to travel to the Middle East. He was equipped with a phone number of someone who would meet the group upon arrival and bring them to the Islamic State to serve the movement.
In his youth, Khan attended local a local Islamic school called Kurqaan Academy that taught the standard state required curriculum in addition to Islamic studies and courses such as Developing a Muslim Identity. A teacher at the school told ABC news he was completely unaware of Khan’s extremism, stating, “We don’t have these thoughts. We don’t have these types of teachings here… I don’t know what was going through his head at the time.” After graduation, Khan reportedly took time off from school to deeply memorize the Quran. Additionally, Khan was heavily involved with the Muslim Association of Bolingbrook and taught Arabic and the Quran at the local mosque.
It is important to note that there is an enormous difference between Islam and extremism. When considered independently, none of the elements surrounding Khan’s outside life automatically suggests a red flag for a potential terrorist, however, the wording of his letter leaves definite clues suggesting his family may have secretly supported extremist behavior. In it, he questions his parents as to why they cannot speak about jihad in public, which implies it was a common topic at home. Furthermore, he expresses explicitly secular views, as he refers to all others as “filth.” His sister echoes his beliefs almost exactly, indicating that either her brother recruited her on his own, or it was a common belief in their household.
In this case, it is evident that Khan’s family’s religious beliefs may have figured largely in his transition from devout Muslim to extremist. As Dr. Horgan’s work has suggested, it is imperative not to focus only on personal characteristics, but rather on the contributing environmental stimuli. This support, regardless of the parents being cognizant of their encouragement towards extremism, combined with ISIS’s ability to prey on juvenile desires to belong to something greater and fanatical ways of glorifying terrorism, appear to be the perfect ingredients to creating a Western terrorist. The second incident for examination took place in Colorado earlier this year. Nineteen-year-old Shannon Maureen Conley, a certified nurse’s aide, reportedly fell in love with an ISIS member over Skype and was recruited to come to Syria. Conley was to reside with the extremist in a camp near the Turkish border and become his wife and the camp medic. According to her own statements, she also pledged to provide medical training to other ISIS fighters. Additionally, Conley purposely joined the U.S. Army Explorers training program “to be trained in U.S. military tactics and firearms,” and that she would use this training to “wage jihad and train Jihadi fighters in U.S. military tactics.”
Conley attracted the attention of a pastor at her local church, Faith Bible Church, after she declared she was pursuing the Muslim religion and started becoming increasingly aggressive towards people of other faiths. Community members grew progressively more concerned after she was spotted numerous times lurking around the site of a 2007 shooting that left two missionaries dead and two others in critical condition. This suspicious behavior caused locals to contact authorities and eventually the FBI became involved.
While being questioned regarding her suspicious behavior, she told investigators she “liked the idea of guerilla warfare,” suggesting her feeling of comradery towards the shooter who purposely murdered the missionaries. More warning signs appeared when she began referring to US military bases as “targets.” After her apprehension she told investigators she believed “Jihad is the only answer to correct the wrongs against the Muslim world” and she “would rather go to prison than do nothing.” Unlike Khan and his siblings, Conley was not raised with any affiliation to the Muslim faith. She was a Caucasian Christian, born and raised in Colorado. One must ask: from where did her extremist views originate? What elements and characteristics drove a suburban teen to become an ISIS recruit? The fact is Conley’s transition from Christian to Muslim and ultimately Muslim to extremist did not occur overnight. Obviously, the transition from Christianity to Muslim does not inevitably equate to extremism; however, it is highly probable that her concurrent romantic involvement with an ISIS fighter served as the primary catalyst towards her radical behavior. Her pursuit of a new religion signifies a possible disenchantment with her formal Christian background, which could have originated either as a byproduct of maturation, or as a result of the suggestions of a Muslim extremist with a covert agenda. Also worth mentioning is the fact that Conley initially wished to join the U.S. military, however, she was afraid they would not accept her as a result of her donning religious head gear. This suggests she was fundamentally seeking acceptance and guidance, just as every other nineteen-year-old does. Conley is but one of many confused, sheltered teens that can grow to view groups like ISIS as the ultimate rebellion against the status quo. This, combined with the large number of recruitment videos aimed at romanticizing terrorism to young people, suggests it is not overwhelmingly surprising that this young girl fell in love with what she potentially viewed as her “hero.” In a way, this thirty-two year old militant ultimately represented everything sheltered, pampered teenage girls such as Conley dream of—power, rebellion, danger, and conviction.
Conley’s extremism was born from a mixture of religious, social, and cultural catalysts. Western culture has a tendency to overtly romanticize danger and murder, which may be observed through the “Twilight phenomenon,” where a teenage girl falls in love with a man that can kill her, but may restrain himself from doing so because he cares for her. We cannot and should not ban all movies that suggest these themes, rather the fact they exist calls for adult guidance and stresses the importance of parents rising capable, level headed adults who are proficient at determining fact from fiction and romance from abuse.
The similarities between these first two cases are apparent as they both involved teenagers. Contrarily, the third case involves a forty-four year old American ex-convict from North Carolina named Donald Ray Morgan. Morgan surfaced on the FBI’s radar after he attempted to return to the U.S. after visiting his second wife for eight months in Lebanon. During his stay, he drew attention from the intelligence community for his frequent tweets proclaiming his allegiance to ISIS, his willingness to provide weapons and support, and his insinuations that he was preparing for jihad. Additionally, according to the FBI, he was caught attempting to cross the border into Syria on numerous occasions, validating to his Twitter messages.
Back in North Carolina, Morgan also had a reputation for “brokering deals for military-grade weapons and ammunition,” which could have placed thousands of Americans at risk depending on his connections and intent. This intelligence prompted authorities to quickly apprehend him shortly following his arrival in Kennedy Airport. Once in custody, a Brooklyn judge quickly determined Morgan to be a flight risk and ordered him held without bail.
Unlike the first two cases, Morgan’s violent background was a cause for concern and his younger years certainly contributed to his descent into extremism. Despite his American citizenship, this individual was exposed to the Islamic religion while studying at his home university. After he graduated, he attempted to join the National Guard but could not complete boot camp and was discharged.
Following his refusal from the military, Morgan tried to use the structure of law enforcement in its place, but was discharged in less than two years. These two failures led him to a breaking point that included fighting and excessive drinking. This period of his life resulted in lengthy criminal charges, spanning almost a decade and includes numerous arrests for disorderly conduct that quickly escalated into hostility towards police. Eventually, these simple arrests were accompanied by threats he would “kick and kill” the officers. This drastic behavior is specifically alarming because he previously served not only as a Sheriff’s special deputy but also in the local jail and court offices. Revealingly, Morgan was fired from all three jobs. Following his dismissal from law enforcement service, he was incarcerated in 1997 for shooting into a local restaurant after being refused service. After being asked to leave the establishment for being belligerent, Morgan reportedly attempted to choke the owner and had to be restrained. After being released, he informed the owner he was going to return with his gun, which, coincidentally, was in his vehicle parked outside. Within minutes, Morgan returned discharging his weapon into the busy establishment, wounding one patron in the neck. Following his conviction, Morgan served two years in prison and was consequently forbidden from owning firearms.
After his release, Morgan once again sought structure in his life. He immediately started a career as an amateur bodybuilder and quickly became obsessed with the lifestyle. He married a fellow bodybuilder and had a son, establishing a sense of normalcy in his life. This marriage failed in 2007, and served as the final attempt at traditional life. The following year Morgan officially converted to Islam. In an interview with NBC News, Morgan told the reporter his reason for converting was that “Islam presented this package that said: ‘this is it…this is the path and this is the way you’re going to go’.” As was predictable of his personality type, following this conversion, Morgan eventually became more and more extreme with his religion. Morgan’s personality includes several red flags indicating he was a troubled individual. His willingness to open fire recklessly into a local diner filled with members of his own community signifies he was unconcerned for the welfare of those he knew. Even more alarming were his hostile actions to the officers with whom he previously worked. Becoming a member of a squad typically evokes feelings of comradery and loyalty between officers, a feeling that certainly did not resonate within Morgan. This lack of all normal emotion demonstrates an unusual behavioral pattern and signifies possible mental instability. Those incapable of experiencing sympathy and attachment towards others typically have underlying tendencies towards killing or inflicting pain upon those around them. This element of Morgan’s personality indicates a strong reason why he was the ideal ISIS recruit, as he demonstrated time and time again that he was willing to attack his fellow American citizens. This is not to say that all individuals who remain secluded in a community are potential terrorists, however it does seem that Morgan’s case specifically included both personality and environmental stimuli that drove him closer to outlaw organizations. According to neighbors and close relatives, Morgan and his wife divorced in 2007 and the following year he converted from Catholicism to Islam. This event, combined with his blatant hatred for law enforcement, may have contributed in his conversion into extremism.
In this case, it seems that Morgan was simply seeking a distraction from his life. By swearing allegiance to something that demanded control over every element in his daily life, he was able to escape having to think about his problems. There are many different organizations that could have provided such security to Morgan. Membership in many different U.S. based organized crime rings and gangs can offer a similar escape and the ability to live for something other than oneself. These gangs have existed arguably longer than the nation, however, they have evolved over time. When comparing the desire to join ISIS with common reasons for individuals to join other gangs, the lists are extremely similar. According to GangFree.org, the top reasons individuals join gangs include seeking a sense of family and unity, protection and power, family tradition, and excitement. Although these reasons most commonly apply to juveniles, it is suggested that a traumatic event can drive an individual to seek acceptance any way they can.
Noting these common facts about gang membership, why did Morgan seek out a foreign influenced terrorist organization rather than a local gang? His decision to pledge allegiance to ISIS may have occurred from his desire for extremism. Many individuals are simply attracted to the most violent, strict, anti-establishment groups in existence. For Morgan, ISIS may have been a more symbolic route to go against U.S. authority, as was demonstrated by his desire to harm fellow police officers.
Additionally, his conversion and obsession with Islam and social media driven exposure to ISIS propaganda likely served as the final catalyst towards his ill-placed loyalty. His evident extremist nature towards everything in his life signified there was no other way he would practice his Islamic faith. Feeling alienated by everything and everyone surrounding him undoubtedly drove him to seek the Islamic State.
Although there are definite differences between the circumstances surrounding the three cases, the case of Morgan shares commonalities with those of Conley and the Khan siblings. In matters concerning terrorism, it is necessary to remain ahead of the jihadists. The best way to do this is to prevent foreigners from joining the group before it is too late to redeem them. It seems that the homegrown terrorists of today do not arise simply by stumbling across a copy of “The Anarchist Cookbook,” but rather they compare their daily struggles and disassociation with society to the plight of oppressed peoples. This desire to find unity in oppression combined with the wealth of terroristic information currently available online fosters the perfect environment for “do-it- yourself” terrorists to access all the tools they need to fulfill their desire to fight for something. As Kohlmann (2007) states, “A wealth of information online fosters a sense of organization and purpose for isolated extremists drawn to al Qaeda who live in Western countries.”
Like al Qaeda, ISIS’s polarized propaganda provides certain individuals with inspiration and an option to join not only a powerful and dangerous militia, but also fulfills their desires to find purpose in their daily lives. In these three cases, it is impossible to determine whether the individuals’ desire to join ISIS was caused by their online presence alone; however, it certainly incentivized their extremism. These cases validate Dr. Horgan’s work researching terrorism as a process originating from specific environmental stimuli. It seems the common character traits that push Western citizens towards terrorism are strong desires towards comradery, their age, lack of personal identity, conversion to Islam, and an absence of purpose. Although it is likely that ethnic background is influential, as in the case of the Khan siblings admission in their letters that they were upset they could not speak of jihad outside their home, the subsequent cases suggest that, when provided with the right environmental stimuli, people from any race can become infatuated with terrorist organizations.
These individual’s backgrounds, although very different, were the perfect catalysts to aid their transition to extremism. It is evident that age certainly has a lot to do with an individual’s susceptibility to terrorist propaganda. In the first two cases, the young age of those involved indicates their eagerness at committing to ISIS was partially out of ignorance. Although this is in part due to the fact that every young person is continuously online, it also has to do with the way in which jihadists have learned to use social media.
Aside from the horrendous beheading footage posted online, there are also numerous accounts where both foreign and local born terrorists post twitter messages, Instagram and Hashtag pictures of themselves with their kittens, or Facebook themselves with their weapons and a pretty sunrise. While the violent videos are terrifying, they also represent the unknown, which can contribute to a young person’s desire to lash out and explore the unfamiliar. In posting these items online alongside pictures of young jihadists holding kittens and seeming completely “normal,” they send a message advertising that they too are young people just like the viewer. It seems as though they have found the ultimate freedom to do whatever they please, and have found purpose beyond their wildest dreams.
The sense of comradery also greatly appeals to young people who haven’t quite found their place in the world. These individuals are often seeking an answer to their disassociation with society, and, when introduced to a movement that can encompass their entire lives, they feel like they have found the ultimate answer. In using social media to portray a perfectly orchestrated picture of their daily lives as jihadists, they successfully appeal to a young Westerner’s tendency towards romanticism. This is the reason many foreign recruits become disenchanted upon their actual arrival in the Islamic State because their fanatical misinterpretations of daily life are shattered by reality.
This at-risk age group is quite accurate, but, as evidenced by Morgan, does contain outliers. Although he was forty-four, it can also be rooted back to his actions during his younger years. His tendency towards extremism was reflected in everything he did—throwing his entire life into bodybuilding, the military, or the police. For him, his desire to belong that he experienced in his younger years never quite left, even as he attempted to fill the hole with hobbies and a family. It seems as though his divorce was the breaking point, and finally drove him to seek to dedicate his entire life to a different cause to distract him from his own issues.
For each of these cases, the Islamic religion encompassed their lives and gave them a sense of belonging they were unable to experience prior. Although not all Islamic individuals are prone to violent behavior, the religion offers people a purpose that can encompass their entire lives. As they become further and further committed to their practice, they develop a sense of comradery towards other Muslims. This can quickly polarize these individuals, regardless of whether or not they are newly converted or have practiced their entire lives.
All these cases share similar processes to the individuals’ transitions into Western terrorists. Their home lives served as the ideal environmental stimuli to encourage their willingness to fully commit to and find solace in such an alien cause. For Conley, her transition into Islam likely originated out of spite for her parent’s and their religion, while for Morgan it was the dissolving of his family. Contrarily, the Khan siblings being raised in a Muslim-American home that likely openly discussed jihad inspired them to seek ISIS online and dedicate themselves to the cause. Unfortunately, terrorism will exist in this world for years to come. Our only hope at deterring Westerners from joining terrorist organizations lies within our ability to detect abnormal behavior. Knowledge is power, and by identifying characteristics and environmental elements that promote extremist behavior we can attempt to reduce ISIS’s recruitment rates. It is possible to understand the process by which individuals become radicalized and to use this knowledge to identify at risk individuals within our own communities. It is the responsibility of every American to aid in the detection of these individuals.
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