Five Myths about Jihadi Radicalization

"You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth," Winston Churchill famously stated.  The Islamist tiger in the United States is ready to pounce, and until Americans understand this enemy, we cannot even begin to fight back.  Dispelling myths about jihadist radicalization is only the beginning.

Myth #1: Poor, uneducated, downtrodden youths are more likely to become jihadists.

Many school administrators, local politicians, and community members believe that young adults have a greater chance of becoming jihadists if they hail from an underprivileged, deprived neighborhood.  Their solution is to fundraise for after-school programs and free lunches, believing that this will keep the youth "out of trouble."  This 1960s thinking will not solve the jihadist problem because it is not about money or more programs.  It is about an extreme ideology and belief system.

According to a 2016 World Bank study, most jihadists grew up in a middle-class family and earned at least a college degree.  "There is no link between poverty or educational levels and radicalization."

According to the Gatestone Institute, "Britain's MI5 revealed that 'two-thirds of the British suspects have a middle-class profile and those who want to be suicide bombers are often the most educated."

Jihadi leaders who used their fortunes and education for jihad include:

  • Osama bin Laden: estimated net worth $300 million, studied at King Abdulaziz University and summer at Oxford.
  • Ayman al-Zawahiri: head of al-Qaeda, was a medical doctor.
  • Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab: the "underwear bomber," had a degree from University College in London.
  • Omar Saeed Sheik: terrorist who was convicted of murdering American journalist Daniel Pearl, attended the London School of Economics.

Fourteen-, fifteen-, and sixteen-year-old girls, all honor students from middle-class families, left London to join ISIS in Syria, where one of them, Kadiza Sultana, was killed in an airstrike.

Myth #2: Radicalized jihadists are deranged, psychopathic criminals.

It seems far-fetched for an American adolescent to willingly leave home to fight for jihad.  Yet three honor-roll high school girls from an upper-class Colorado neighborhood joined ISIS online and planned to board an airliner headed east when they were intercepted (rescued) by the FBI.  In addition, a straight-A, all-American couple (one of whom was a popular cheerleader) planned to celebrate their honeymoon in Syria with ISIS before they were convicted of terrorism.  A single American mother of two planned to join the caliphate, leaving her children as orphans, until undercover FBI agents arrested her.

RAND Corporation study found that "terrorists are not particularly impoverished, uneducated[,] or afflicted by mental disease.  Demographically, their most important characteristic is normalcy.  Terrorist leaders tend to come from relatively privileged backgrounds."

Psychiatrist and George Washington University professor Dr. Jerrold Post stated, "[N]ormal people, not psychopaths or criminals, generally become radicalized.  Unexceptional people are moved to exceptional violence."  Crazy people are more likely to be victims of jihadists than members of a terrorist organization.  Yearning for emotional security, purpose, and a routine, many teens are manipulated into believing in fundamentalist Islam and make some very bad decisions.

Myth #3: People are driven to terrorism by religious inequality and lack of social justice.

Jihadi recruiters create strategies to manipulate vulnerable youths by using religious, political, or psychological lures.  College students are particularly vulnerable and may become enamored with a charismatic professor, a political or religious club member, or chat room recruiters.

Social media are the most common avenue for jihadi recruiting.  Quantum Researchers found many reasons for joining jihad, none of which involves social injustice, discrimination, or inequality.  Lonely, isolated teens unsure of their identity, searching for redemption or vindication from sin; thrill-seekers searching for adventure; and justice-seekers hoping to right a wrong are ripe for indoctrination.

Myth #4: Lone wolves are individuals who radicalize themselves online in their basements.

The term "lone wolf" means that the perpetrator of the terrorist attack did so without any affiliation or influence from a larger group, completely on his own.  Terror does not occur in a vacuum.  With opportunities online, in mosques, in schools, at open lectures, and at social events, people don't become radicalized on their own.

The FBI created the term "known wolves" because suspects were being watched or were on the radar, but police were not aware of behavior warranting arrest.

Extremists do not suddenly become terrorists by reading an article online or meeting someone at an event.  Radicalization is a process that requires an internal and external element together.

First, internally, there may be an emptiness, loneliness, or incompleteness that provides the recruiter the opportunity to exploit the youth who is looking for some relief.  Second, the external element is a radical recruiter, imam, or mosque member who approaches the prospective jihadi.  When the internal and external elements meet, the opportunity to radicalize occurs.  A so-called "lone wolf" may be internally exposed, usually online in a chat room, but must meet a handler to bring him through the radicalization process.

Myth #5: All people have the same values and want the same things.

Which bumper sticker works better for you: "death is art" or "coexist"?

It depends on your values.  Most Western leaders ignore, rationalize, or deny sharia law and the Quran, as if they will change or become negotiable.  But it is undeniable that radical Muslims will never compromise on their endgame as written: complete and total Islamist supremacy.  "Allahu akbar!" means "Our god is greater" (than yours), therefore jihadists seek to convince all non-Muslims, or infidels, to follow sharia law.

All people do not want the same things in life or in death.  Islamists believe they are doing the "right thing" by cleansing the world of the infidel.  When the martyr (shaheed) dies, it is believed that 70 members of his family will receive a "get into heaven free card."  The so-called martyr himself will receive hero status and 72 virgins.  These extreme jihadist Muslims look forward to death when they can look beyond life on Earth.  Seeking the highest rewards after death, as specifically prescribed in the Quran, is one of the highest Muslim honors.  All of life's decisions are prescribed by the Quran.

By dispelling myths and understanding ourselves, our adversaries, and the dangers before us, we can better face the security challenges ahead.  Remember the wisdom of Winston Churchill: "[o]ne ought never to turn one's back on a threatened danger and try to run away from it.  If you do that, you will double the danger.  But if you meet it promptly and without flinching, you will reduce the danger by half."  Good advice.

Valerie Greenfeld is the author of Backyard Caliphate: Preventing Radicalization in Our Neighborhoods.  To pre-order the book, go to

If you experience technical problems, please write to