Who becomes a terrorist?
© Getty Images

Nobody watching the tragic events in Paris unfold can help but think: Who are these people who don suicide vests and blow themselves and others up in a brutal, grotesque fashion? What would motivate a young person to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or any terrorist group and risk their lives to take the lives of others? Why would brothers from a family living in France travel to Syria and train to kill, and why would a woman from the same neighborhood blow herself up?


A new report by the New America Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy institute, offers some answers. The study, "ISIS in the West," takes a hard look at the profiles and characteristics of those in America and abroad who join the caliphate and pledge allegiance to radical extremism. For openers, the authors provide some concrete numbers, suggesting that 4,500 Westerners have travelled to Syria so far. Only about 6 percent are American.

On the question of France and Europe, the authors unbundle the issue of how young people from democratic, civilized societies grow up to become terrorists. According to the authors of the study, "the systematic disadvantages and isolation faced by Muslims in France and other European nations may breed a population that is poorly integrated into its home nation and could be more likely to become radicalized — unlike in the U.S., where Muslims are equal to the average American in terms of education and average income." What that really means is that immigrant communities often become deeply alienated from their adopted country and isolated from the mainstream civil society around them. Ghettoes form and become epicenters of unemployment, frustration, discrimination and radicalization. Family relations in these cut-off corners of society become strained with the youngest members angry, disillusioned and desperate to break out. Often there is crime, gang life, imprisonment and hopelessness.

None of this excuses the behavior of the ghettoized immigrant; it simply explains it. None of this suggests, by the way, that accepting immigrants into your country is a risk. Far from it. Immigrants have often risen to become the stars of their adopted countries — people like former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Apple co-founder Steven Jobs and retired Gen. John Shalikashvili, the Polish-born son of Georgian parents who became the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The list of successful immigrants is unbelievably long.

What the report does suggest, however, is that how immigrants and immigrant communities assimilate matters in the long run. If there is little educational opportunity, no dialogue with other communities, low employment possibilities and negative religious or nonreligious experiences, the oxygen of life can be cut off, and out of darkness will come dark alternatives, as we are seeing in Paris.

As for American recruits to ISIS, the report is equally enlightening, suggesting that attempts to classify U.S. foreign fighters as fitting any pattern are fraught. "In fact, there was no common profile among the Americans who attempted to reach Syria, indicating that no single demographic group in the U.S. is more likely to be drawn to ISIS." The report concludes that "on the whole, Western fighters in Syria tend to be young (with an average age of 24, or only 21 among the women), are active online, and have familial ties to jihadism. One in seven are women, an unprecedented proportion compared to previous jihadist conflicts." That is a separate concern.

Given the vulnerability of youth, and the alienation of unassimilated individuals, it is not hard to see how a terrorist group can exploit people. The key to ISIS's success, according to one of the authors, is that the group has cultivated an effective brand that has an ambiance of success, getting its message out in a way that is appealing to Westerners and that has "Madison Avenue production values." The highly produced videos, the outreach campaigns and the English-language magazine (Dabiq) all give the impression that the organization is professional and competent.

So what can the West do to counter the ISIS narrative? My take-away from the findings:

  1. We need to expose ISIS as "losers" in terms of territory and successes so that victory is no longer an argument for recruitment. That means a continued air offensive and crackdown on suspected terrorists.
  2. Muslim leaders need to hammer away at the religious inauthenticity of ISIS and provide more positive messages for their communities.
  3. We need to encourage legal immigration to America and Europe and show off what a democratic nation can produce.
  4. Within isolated communities in America or Europe, we need a "counter club" for isolated, alienated, unemployed youth who are trapped with no alternative narratives nor opportunities. That means deploying more "smart power" in parallel with military power. That means more engagement opportunities, study abroad, professional exchanges, vocational training, educational programs and financial assistance to keep unemployment numbers from rising. We need to better assimilate citizens to create a blended society with full democratic participation.

Reports like the one from New America should be read, digested and dissected by policymakers to learn how to prevent terrorism, not just confront it.

Sonenshine is former under secretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs.