How ISIS Appeals to Converts — and Ex-Criminals
Understanding both sides is key to figuring out how to slow recruitment.
In 2014, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the organizer of the November 2015 Paris attacks, appeared in a video, driving a pickup truck with a mound of corpses in tow. Speaking to the camera before driving off, he said: “Before we towed jet skis, motorcycles, quad bikes, big trailers filled with gifts for vacation in Morocco. Now, thank God, following God’s path, we’re towing apostates.” This was a derogatory reference to his victims, who, in his mind, were renegades from the Muslim faith and thus legitimate targets for slaughter. But it was also a telling allusion to his own irreligious past, before he found God and joined ISIS and started murdering people.
Indeed, Abaaoud was once a wayward soul with a rap sheet. His sister Yasmina told The New York Times that Abaaoud didn’t show any particular interest in religion prior to his departure for Syria, and “did not even go to the mosque.” But he had gone to prison several times, and it was apparently there, like so many Western jihadists, that he grew radical.
Brahim Abdeslam, who blew himself up in the Paris attacks, seems to have been intimately acquainted with criminality as well: The bar he owned in Molenbeek, Brussels was shut down by police a week before the attacks over concerns about the illegal sale of drugs there. And Brahim’s brother Salah, a suspected Paris assailant who remains at large, was not your typical finger-waving ideological fanatic: He reportedly visited gay bars and was more likely to be seen rolling a joint than a prayer mat.
According to a recent Washington Post article, Abaaoud and his crew of assassins represent a “new type of jihadist”—“part terrorist, part gangster,” who uses “skills honed in lawbreaking” for the ends of “violent radicalism.”
“European jails have been breeding grounds of Islamist radicals for years, particularly in Belgium and France,” the Post’s Anthony Faiola and Souad Mekhennet write. “But recently, criminality and extremism have become even more interwoven, with recruits’ illegal behavior continuing even after they are shown ‘the light’ of radical Islam.”
This is an acute observation, although it’s scarcely surprising that Westernized recruits to ISIS are just as deviant and lawless as their patrons in Syria and Iraq—the true originators of punk jihad, where anything goes and nothing, not even the weaponization of children, is off-limits. After all, the spiritual founder of ISIS, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was a violent thug both before and after his embrace of Salafi jihadism.
Like Abaaoud and Zarqawi, Siddhartha Dhar (a.k.a. Abu Rumaysah), the latest British-accented ISIS recruit to gain notoriety for his suspected role in the group’s videos, also broke dramatically with his past: He was a Hindu before gravitating toward radical Islam, although, unlike Abaaoud and Zarqawi, Dhar didn’t have a history of violence, robbery, or drug-dealing, and hadn’t done any jail time. Instead, he rented out bouncy castles to the kafirs he came to loathe.
These biographical traits have cropped up in numerous studies. In his survey of 31 incidents of jihadist terrorism in Europe between September 2001 and October 2006, Edwin Bakker found that at least 58 of the 242 perpetrators of these attacks—or 24 percent, a “strikingly high number,” he says—had a criminal record prior to their arrest for terrorism-related offenses. According to a study by Robin Simcox, of 58 individuals linked to 32 ISIS-related plots in the West between July 2014 and August 2015, 22 percent had a past criminal record or were in contact with law enforcement.
Simcox also found that 29 percent of these individuals were converts to Islam. Converts, he reported, accounted for 67 percent of American Muslims involved in committing or planning an ISIS-related attack—“a significantly disproportionate percentage, considering that they comprise only 20% of Muslims throughout the entire United States.” Converts are similarly overrepresented among convicted British jihadists. According to Scott Kleinman and Scott Flower, converts constitute an estimated 2 to 3 percent of Britain’s 2.8 million Muslims, yet “converts have been involved in 31% of jihadist terrorism convictions in the UK from 2001 to 2010.”
What is it about ISIS, and militant Islamist groups in general, that makes them attractive both to criminals and to converts or born-again Muslims?
In The True Believer, published in 1951, the philosopher Eric Hoffer suggested that mass movements hold a special appeal to “sinners,” providing “a refuge from a guilty conscience.” “Mass movements,” he wrote, “are custom-made to fit the needs of the criminal—not only for the catharsis of his soul but also for the exercise of his inclinations and talents.”
This also applies to jihadist groups like ISIS, which promise would-be recruits not just action and violence, but also redemption.
In his 2005 study of al-Muhajiroun, a banned Islamist movement based in Britain with reputed connections to ISIS, Quintan Wiktorowicz detailed the multiple material and social costs attached to what he calls “high-risk Islamic activism.” He mentioned one al-Muhajiroun document in which members are sternly warned to refrain from behaviors ranging from “listening to music and radio” and “window shopping and spending hours in the market,” to “hanging out with friends” and “joking around and being sarcastic.” The organization’s activism, Wiktorowicz observed, is “fast-paced, demanding, and relentless.” It also bristles “against the mainstream,” generating a “kind of excitement often found in counterculture movements rebelling against the status quo.” Many members, he noted, “seem to enjoy their role as ‘outsiders.’”
But more crucially, Wiktorowicz argued, al-Muhajiroun promotes the idea of spiritual salvation—socializing its members to believe that their sacrifices in the here-and-now will be rewarded in the hereafter.
High-risk, high-intensity Islamist activism, in other words, seems tailor-made for the needs of criminals and ex-cons, providing them with a supportive community of fellow outsiders, a schedule of work, a positive identity, and the promise of cleansing away past sins.
Can the same be said for converts to Islam or born-again Muslims?
A common line of argument among scholars is that converts to Islam are insufficiently knowledgeable about their new faith and thus acutely vulnerable to extremist interpretations of Islam, which they lack the intellectual or theological resources to counter. While this explanation seems intuitively plausible, it assumes that converts to Islam know less about their newfound religion than Muslims who were born and raised into it. Yet the evidence for this claim is shaky, and at odds with studies showing just how engaged and well-versed many converts are in debates over matters of faith. The idea that converts, lacking in religious knowledge, are peculiarly susceptible to demagogic manipulation also carries the implication that those with a deep knowledge of Islam are unlikely to join jihadist groups. This, too, is a contentious point—and it’s unclear whether it could even be empirically established, given how contested Islamic knowledge is. More contentious still, this logic essentializes Islam as inherently pacifist, suggesting that some true or proper understanding of the faith would serve as a repellent against deviant jihadist interpretations. But what Islam is or isn’t is an open (and indeed volatile) question; there is not one “true” Islam, but a plurality of Islams, each competing for epistemological hegemony.
A more promising explanation lies in the social situation of converts in the West, and their status as apostates or defectors from the non-Islamic faith or secular world into which they were born and acculturated. In an illuminating article on “court Jews and Christian renegades,” the sociologist Lewis A. Coser wrote, “The renegade is, as it were, forever on trial.” Indeed: “He must continually prove himself worthy of his new status and standing.”
Converts to Islam are perennial outsiders, fully belonging neither to the Muslim communities into which they convert nor to the communities they leave behind. They are “doubly marginalized,” as Kate Zebiri puts it in her study British Muslim Converts. This, more than any cognitive failings on their part, may explain the nature of their vulnerability to jihadist groups, which offer potential recruits not only belonging, but also seemingly irrefutable proof of commitment to the faith: self-sacrifice and ultimately death. It may also make them more lethal as jihadist talent, since their eagerness to prove their new commitment may push them to ever greater extremes.
Yet this hypothesis depends on the assumption that the converts in jihadist groups were in any meaningful sense converts to Islam prior to becoming jihadists, rather than the other way round: that they converted to jihadism before, or at the same time as, they became Muslims, so that their conversion to Islam was, as the political scientist Olivier Roy recently argued, “opportunistic” and thus a consequence of, and not an antecedent to, their conversion to jihadism.
One way of clarifying the sequencing in these situations would be to look closely at the convert’s social milieu and the circumstances in which he or she converted to Islam. According to Roy, the “second-generation Muslims and native converts” who dominate the European jihadist scene were “radicalized within a small group of ‘buddies’ who met in a particular place (neighborhood, prison, sport club)” and who “recreate a ‘family,’ a brotherhood,” often with biological ties. They are, he says, in the first instance attracted not to “moderate Islam,” but to the radicalism of violent Salafism, and correspondingly, “almost never have a history of devotion and religious practice.”
In short, Roy argues, echoing the findings of Marc Sageman and Scott Atran, radicalized European youth, disaffected from their own societies, are not seeking Islam, but “a cause, a label, a grand narrative to which they can add the bloody signature of their personal revolt.”
Hoffer reminds us how deeply personal that revolt can be. “A mass movement,” the philosopher wrote, “particularly in its active, revivalist phase, appeals not to those intent on bolstering and advancing a cherished self, but to those who crave to be rid of an unwanted self.” For today’s repentant criminals and restless converts, whose “innermost craving is for a new life—a rebirth,” the all-immersive and all-redeeming jihadist project seemingly offers the perfect solution.