5. They are looking for an identity.
Many young people often join terrorist organizations because they are looking for an identity for themselves. A 2010 study from the United States Institute of Peace found that among “2,032 ‘foreign fighters’” who joined al-Qaeda, being a so-called “identity seeker” was the largest reason to join a terrorist organization.
Like many young college students, high school students and adolescents, potential terrorists are looking to answer the question “Who am I?” Having a traumatic experience as a youth in particular is a motivating factor in deciding to become a terrorist — and terrorist recruiters recognize this.
“The personal pathway model suggests that terrorists came from a selected, at risk population, who have suffered from early damage to their self-esteem,” said psychologist Eric D. Shaw in a 1986 paper.
American-born al-Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn, shoe bomber Richard Reid, American Taliban John Walker Lindh, Puerto Rican dirty bomber plotter Joe Padila, and underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab have been cited as prime examples of this.
4. They have a need for belonging.
Terrorist organizations often grow their ranks by recruiting youths who have a need for belonging. Randy Borum, a professor at the University of South Florida, argued in a 2004 paper that future terrorists find “not only a sense of meaning, but also a sense of belonging, connectedness and affiliation” in terrorist organizations.
Since terrorists often attempt to recruit those most vulnerable in society, becoming involved in terrorist activities, whether as a passive supporter or an active supporter, may represent the first true meaning a terrorist has had in his or her life.
Borum added in his 2004 paper that for some, this strong sense of belonging for the first time in one’s life is the main reason for staying in the terrorist organization and becoming an active supporter engaging in terrorism rather than a passive supporter simply sympathizing with the cause.
3. They want to correct what they believe is injustice.
Righting what a terrorist perceives as a wrong is a major factor in youths deciding to engage in terrorist activities. This is particularly true of the “lone wolf” scenario.
Georgetown professor Bruce Hoffman has said that recruiting based on perceived injustices, especially by saying that the West is hostile toward Islam, is a point terrorist recruiters drive home. Hoffman added that these recruiters will argue jihad against the West is only option to correct this, while the Hoover Institue says that righting perceived wrongs is a major terrorist motivation.
Stanford professor Martha Crenshaw has written, “One of the strongest motivations behind terrorism is vengeance, particularly the desire to avenge not oneself but others. Vengeance can be specific or diffuse, but it is an obsessive drive that is a powerful motive for violence toward others, especially people thought to be responsible for injustices.”
2. They are looking for a thrill.
According to the United States Institue for Peace, so-called “thrill seekers” accounted for 5% of the “2,032 ‘foreign fighters’” they interviewed in 2011. This small group of individuals often were attracted to violent video games and stories glorying jihad and war. The study mentions that this type of future terrorist “often came from a middle- or upper-class family and joined out of boredom.”
Borum also cited boredom as part of the process by which youth become radicalized, saying, “They follow a general progression from social alienation to boredom, then occasional dissidence and protest before eventually turning to terrorism.”
According to research conducted by the Library of Congress, instances of joining out of boredom are often found in the Gaza Strip, especially among those with little education.
“Those with little education, such as youths in Algerian ghettos or the Gaza Strip, may try to join a terrorist group out of boredom and a desire to have an action-packed adventure in pursuit of a cause they regard as just,” reads a 1999 report conducted by the Library’s research division.
1. They sympathize with a group and self-radicalize via the internet.
Many youth often make the jump from a passive supporter and sympathizer of terrorists to active supporter actually engaging in terrorist acts through the internet. The internet can instruct future terrorists how to build bombs, join an organization, fund terrorism, and share information. In many ways the internet serves as a virtual training camp.
Much like the way non-terrorists use social media, the internet has “become a virtual ‘echo chamber’ — acting as a radicalization accelerant,” according to a United States Senate Committee.
The Department of Homeland Security has cited three ways that young people find sites to become radicalized: browsing for entertainment; searching for a community to belong to; and looking for information related to heritage, traditions, or ideologies associated with a particular radical group.
A relevant case study of this is the example of American Colleen LaRose, although not a youth, better known as “Jihad Jane.” LaRose found herself going through a tough time. After attempting to kill herself, she converted to Islam. Using the internet, she went from a passive supporter of terrorism to and active supporter, and she was enlisted by an al-Qaeda operative to fly to Sweden and kill the author of a cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad’s head on a dog. She was arrested when caught by the FBI in 2009.