– Executive Summary –

Recent studies have found a disproportionate number of converts to Islam are taking part in radical activities as opposed to those born into the faith. Forty percent of those arrested in the United States for activities related to the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL) are converts to Islam.[1] Only about one of five Muslims in the United States however converted to the religion.[2] Another study of Germans traveling to Syria to fight for ISIL found 23 percent were converts, but the German Islamic converts make up less than 1 percent of the German Muslim population.[3] While the research linking conversion to radicalization is available, a gap exists in research examining what in the conversion process may be causing this phenomenon. This thesis asks, what is the relationship between religious conversion and violent extremism?

Past research examining the psychological and sociological factors influencing religious conversions were analyzed and four hypotheses were formed:

  • Hypothesis 1: Religious conversion borne out of a lack of secure attachments creates a cognitive opening to adopt new worldviews, including radical ones.
  • Hypothesis 2: Religious conversion takes place through interpersonal connections, and conversion to extremism takes place through prior associations with radical individuals during the conversion process.
  • Hypothesis 3: Personal problems and connections to radical milieus substantially increase the likelihood of religious converts becoming violent extremists.
  • Hypothesis 4: Recruitment among converts to Islam reflects a selection bias on the part of the recruiters seeking targets of opportunity among aggrieved individuals with low levels of religious knowledge.

This study examined 38 individuals who were residents or citizens of the United States, were converts to Islam, and committed or attempted to commit a radical act. The lives of the individuals leading up to the conversion were researched for events and common traits to test the aforementioned hypotheses. This study found the most support for Hypotheses 1 and 3.

The study found 25 of the 38 individuals had personal problems leading up to their decision to convert to Islam. Personal problems were defined as individuals who suffered from any of the following:

  • Mental illness
  • Significant past criminal history
  • A history of addictive behaviors
  • Past history of violence
  • Personal adjustment issues
  • Relationship problems
  • Employment problems

Other findings of interest were found. Five of the 38 subjects were females, and all converted due to a lack of secure attachments. All five females had a romantic catalyst as the cause of their conversion. The average age of the subjects at conversion was just over 22 years. Also found in the study was little evidence supporting Hypotheses 2 and 4.

While clear convincing support for any of the four hypotheses was not found, this study did find common variables in the subjects’ lives pre-conversion occurring at a higher rate than others.

  • The average age of the subjects was between 22 and 23
  • Subjects had recently befriended a Muslim
  • Subjects had contact with radical Muslims prior or in close proximity to their conversion
  • Subjects had a strained or no relationship with at least one of their parents
  • Subjects’ background indicated they were loners or recluses
  • Subjects’ had a significant history of criminal activity in their past.
  • If the subjects were female, they were converting for romantic or sexual attraction reasons

Conversion by itself should not raise red flags, but conversion with other underlying factors indicates a greater risk for radicalization. The underlying factors are the drivers of radicalization, and the conversion gives individuals a reason to manifest their radical tendencies.

[1] Lorenzo Vidino and Seamus Hughes, Isis in America: From Retweets to Raqqa (Washington, DC: The George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security—Program on Extremism, 2015), https://cchs.gwu.edu/isis-in-america.

[2] Besheer Mohamed, “New Estimates Show U.S. Muslim Population Continues to Grow,” Pew Research Center, January 3, 2018, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/01/03/new-estimates-show-u-s-muslim-population-continues-to-grow/.

[3] Sean C. Reynolds and Mohammed M. Hafez, “Social Network Analysis of German Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq,” Terrorism and Political Violence, 2017, 22, doi: 10.1080/09546553.2016.1272456.

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