Converts are among the most fervent adherents to any faith. In the age of ISIS, Muslim converts are increasingly vulnerable to adopting a creed of extremism and violence.
About 40 percent of those arrested on terrorism-related charges last year were converts to Islam according to “ISIS in America,” a new report by George Washington University. That’s disproportionate with the overall picture of Muslims in America, where less than one in four are converts.
“I think it’s fair to say that certain converts…tend to be more vulnerable to certain interpretations of Islam,” Lorenzo Vidino, one of the authors of the report, told ThinkProgress. “They don’t have [an understanding of] the foundations [of Islam and so] they’re more easily lured into buying an extremist interpretation of the faith.”
American converts to Islam have been swayed to violent extremism for years, but they appear to be taking on a bigger role in perpetrating violence in the name of their adopted faith since the rise of ISIS.
John Walker Lindh — a Catholic schoolboy turned Taliban fighter — was likely radicalized while studying in Islamic seminaries in Yemen and Pakistan. David Coleman Headley, the mastermind of the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, has said that he was moved to adopt an extremist view of Islam after he met with an Islamist militant group in Pakistan.
Increasingly, however, it seems that Americans as well as Europeans are converting, radicalizing, and attacking — all within their home countries. While it’s hard to put a number on how many converts harbor extremist views, there are many reasons why late-comers to the faith are drawn to Islam’s darkest manifestation.
A Lack Of Grounding
The main reason converts appear to be especially vulnerable to extremist Islam is because they may not have a firm grounding in its scripture or history. If converts were better informed of the Islamic teachings on forgiveness, patience, mercy — or, for that matter, its very detailed rules of war — they would be able to differentiate between Islamist propaganda and the Islamic faith, according to Celene Ayat Ibrahim-Lizzio of the Andover Newton Theological School.
“Anyone who’s had a good background and training in Islamic studies would immediately be able to recognize the lies and the manipulations that are packed into some of this discourse that causes radicalization,” she told ThinkProgress.
Saeed Khan, who teaches courses on history and Islamic studies at Wayne State University put it this way: “For Muslims who were born into Muslim families [and as such are grounded in the study of Islam], there are certain kinds of circuit breakers or boundaries which tend to be applied.”
For converts, those circuit breakers aren’t there, and so they can fall into extremist ideologies without even realizing it.
“These days,” he said, “with social media and podcasts — this ocean of information regarding Islam — they will just start taking it in and oftentimes they do so without any kind of filters because they don’t have those filters in place already to determine if one podcast or YouTube video is within the mainstream [or not].”
Converts might also seek out what they believe to be more pure — and often more extreme — interpretations of Islam. In an attempt to abide by what they believe to be the proper manifestation of Islam, they might eschew centuries of cultural and social shifts that have created hybridized, and often more human, versions of the faith. The end of that journey could be an extremist version of Islam that bears little resemblance to the religion practiced by the majority of Muslims all over the world.
“For new converts, it’s not so much a lived Islam as it is an applied Islam,” Khan said.
They might also feel an added burden to prove their level of religiosity or piety. A sense of what Khan described as, “‘I’ve come in late to the game so I need to compensate,’” might dominate their thinking, and lead to a dangerous overcompensation.
An Exercise In Alienation
“If converts face further social isolation because of their decision to convert,” Ibrahim-Lizzio said, “that might also create a [void] of positive relationships in their lives which could lead to some of these feelings of social isolation that are often reported to be at the root of people’s radicalization processes.”
It’s not the case across the board. Ibrahim-Lizzio, who is herself a convert to Islam, said she felt “very supported with a lot of intellectual resources and communal resources at my fingertips,” but converting to a new faith can be an exercise in alienation for some.
While conversions are a cause of celebration in Muslim communities, converts might grow distant even when members of their newfound faith are nearby.
“Oftentimes, [converts] will find that the communities in which they’re being absorbed are dominated by people of an immigrant background who also have by and large been born into the faith going back several generations,” Khan said.
For some, accepting Islam means accepting a very different lifestyle: Islam discourages the consumption of drugs and alcohol and sex before marriage. In order to sever themselves from the sorts of actions at odds with their new religion, some converts find themselves severing ties with old friends, too.
That seems to have been the case with Elton Simpson, who was described as a friendly guy with a great sense of humor before his conversion to Islam drove him down a very different path.
According to a member of his mosque, the former high school basketball star grew increasingly distant from his old friends and haunts as he tried to manifest Islam in all aspects of his life after his conversion.
“He was in a pattern of feeling isolated, a pattern of feeling marginalized by society,” Courtney Lonergan, a friend and fellow convert told an Arizona news outlet.
According to Lonergan’s description of Simpson, who she knew for more than a decade, it seems as though his entire life revolved around his fervent beliefs.
“He was one of those guys who would sleep at the mosque,” she said, referring most likely to nights of devotion that some especially devout Muslims take part in. At 30, Simpson was eager to get married, but instead of turning to online dating, he asked the men at his mosque to help him find a suitable Muslim woman to be his wife.
With his life circumscribed around his extremist view of Islam, Simpson seems to have become increasingly at odds with the world around him — and, according to some community members, with the mosque he once spent so much time in. His sense of devotion to the religion was ignited when it came to the callous disregard of what many believe to be a strict prohibition on depicting the Prophet Mohammad.
CREDIT: AP Photo/Brandon Wade
On May 3, 2015, Simpson was moved to act on his convictions. On that day, an event in Garland, Texas brazenly defied that prohibition with a “Mohammad Art Exhibition and Cartoon Contest.” The event was organized by Pamela Gellar, an incendiary anti-Islam campaigner, despite — or maybe because — media organizations and individuals who drew the Prophet of Islam had been attacked in the past.
For Simpson, it was a call to action.
“[M]ay Allah accept us as mujahideen,” he tweeted before he opened fire at the event. Both he and Nadir Soofi, his roommate and accomplice, were killed by a police officer guarding the event before they could take any lives.
CREDIT: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
“Both of them — they were never engaged in any politics or [sharing] any extreme views,” Usama Shami, President of the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, said.
“It’s very shocking to see [people] who, to me, [were] always nice to others, to have these thoughts,” he said, adding that he didn’t believe that it’s their faith that moved them to attempt to kill others. “What makes them do that? Faith makes them do that? I don’t think so because all of the teachings of this mosque are against those kinds of actions.”
Shami added that after Simpson was arrested in 2010 for terrorism related charges, he seemed to change: “After that arrest, he stopped frequenting the mosque as [he did] before.”
Perhaps had he remained as engaged with the mosque — or been open about his radical beliefs, someone would have taken notice and reported Simpson as a potential threat.
Courting The Vulnerable
Unlike those born into often closely-knit Muslim communities, converts might lack another important failsafe when it comes to extremism: other Muslims.
Tips to law enforcement from Muslim American communities helped thwart terrorist plots in 52 of 140 cases involving Muslim Americans, according to a 2011 study by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. That means that nearly 40 percent of foiled domestic terror plots were thwarted because of vigilant Muslims.
According to Vidino, the author of the “ISIS in America” report, many converts are isolated from Muslim communities. For some in more remote areas far from where large contingents of Muslims live, that isolation might be physical.
“If you’re a Somali guy, [for example,] and you’re interested in jihadist activities and you live in Minneapolis, sure you’re also going to be active online, but…it’s [probably] not that difficult for you to know people in the physical space who can help them radicalize,” he said.
On the other hand, “If you’re a convert living in the middle of nowhere, especially if you’re a recent convert, how are you going to meet people who share your views? How are you going to mobilize? You have to proactive online and expose yourself and that’s when the FBI steps in.”
Part of the reason why converts make up such a high percentage of those arrested for terrorism-related charges might be because their radicalization is more likely to occur online. That could tip off law enforcement more quickly than discussions at a private home or even in a public place. While distance from Muslim communities could make converts easier targets for arrest, it could also make their radicalization process more intense since it’s so likely to occur within a vacuum — especially since ISIS recruiters are so keen to court people to their violent brand of Islam.
“They look for vulnerable people, in some cases they are people who are Muslims in other cases they aren’t Muslims at all,” Vidino said. “They understand that people who are potentially interested in Islam…potentially can be somebody who is attracted to ISIS.”
That’s what happened in the case of Alex, a 23-year-old woman in rural Washington who, in a matter of months, went from being an observant Christian and Sunday school teacher to a professed member of the ISIS Caliphate under the sway of some devoted extremists online.
Alex, who was only identified by her online pseudonym in the New York Times report about her shocking radicalization, declared her conversion to Islam over Twitter. Despite her public declaration, her family was not aware of her new faith, which she took pains to hide from them.
When Alex told one of the ISIS recruiters she spoke to about a mosque near her home, he discouraged her from attending by suggesting by suggesting that she would “be labeled a terrorist” for doing so. Instead, he may have been concerned that meeting the Muslims in her midst would cause her to question the extremist views he espoused.
At the behest of the ISIS recruiters she spoke with, Alex nearly traveled to Syria, although they were careful never to mention the country specifically, before her grandparents intervened and blocked her access to the internet.
If one thing is to be gleaned from Alex’s story, it’s that ISIS recruiters are experts at luring people to their extremist views.
“Social media allows people to seek a sense of belonging with people who they’re connected to by the internet, although they might live hundreds or thousands of miles away,” Khan, of Wayne State University, said. “When they are presented with a hospitality that says we’re going to take you on your own terms, there’s no need for you to fit into a particular community, this becomes very enticing.”
A Place To Belong
Converting to a new religion often comes after a long process of soul-searching. Some who feel moved to make a life change do so because of a feeling of being lost.
That was the motivation for Ariel to become a Muslim, according to her friends, co-workers, and housemates.
Raised as an Evangelical Christian in an impoverished home outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee, Ariel Bradley struggled to find meaning in her life as she worked a series of dead-end part-time jobs and crashed on friends’ couches after she moved out of her parents’ conservative home, according to a Buzzfeed report.
“Her life was a solar system without a star, without a sun,” Bradley’s closest friend said.
Although her acquaintances described her as intelligent, talented, and immensely caring — she once spent an hour getting a mouse out of a glue trap, one friend recalled — Bradley had a tendency to subvert her identity to adhere to that of the men in her life.
“It seemed like whatever guy she was with, she would just crawl into his skin and kind of become him,” the girlfriend of one of her former housemates said.
Her closest friend put it this way: “Be it religion, be it a man, be it a marriage, be it a child, be it ISIS, Bradley was always looking for something to define herself, an identity to cling to.”
Bradley’s initial interest in Islam might have stemmed from a crush she had on a Muslim man who frequented the pizza place where she worked for a time, but it extended after he told Ariel that he wasn’t interested in dating her.
After she converted, she became more and more fervent about her beliefs, and instead of morphing into the man she was dating, she sought ought a man who shared her extremist interpretation of Islam.
She found one in Yasin Mohamad, an Iraqi refugee who lived in Sweden. Even Bradley’s Muslim friends were taken aback by the extreme demands he made of her — no listening to music, no male friends on Facebook. One of them told Buzzfeed that she was shocked when Bradley refused to tell a male waiter her order because Mohamad forbade her from speaking to any men who weren’t her blood relatives.
Eventually, Bradley traveled to Sweden to meet — and marry — Mohamad. Within a couple of years, the two moved to ISIS-controlled Syria, where they apparently still live along with their two children. Bradley has kept an on-again-off again social media presence, including an instagram account which Buzzfeed identified as belonging to her.
Her dramatically different lifestyle — from a girl with tattoos and a proclivity for parties and hallucinogens to a covered and cloistered ISIS bride — was shocking to her friends. In some ways, however, this life seemed to fit the void Bradley was so desperate to fill. Despite being at odds with her conservative Christian upbringing and her more bohemian lifestyle as a young adult, ISIS seemed to offer her something she seemed to have desperately sought her entire life: a sense of belonging.
For converts who struggle to find a place where they’re accepted, ISIS offers an added bonus — the group allows new members to quickly rise through the ranks and feel like they are the first among equals, a prospect which might be an especially appealing prospect to those who felt out of place in the faith they were born into and out of place in the faith they came to adopt.
“From one of the earliest stages of membership, to be able to do things, to be assigned things, to be trusted with certain tasks, even if it’s something as brutal and violent as vicious as killing [is appealing to some],” Khan said.
There can be an element of peer pressure involved, too, according to William Braniff, of the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism Institute
“You’re sitting there with a meaningless life and every three minutes you’re getting a photo from the front lines,” he said. “You see other people leading meaningless lives and they are now leading heroic lives. It’s heroic. It’s epic. It’s massive. It’s a minute-by-minute presence in your life.”
That might be why the group offers people form Western countries and even children the highly visible roles of executioners. They want to show people that once they join, they’ll immediately be a part of the action. The promise of redemption — which converts might foster an especially keen earning for — might be similarly compelling. With the promise of paradise upon being killed as an extremist militant, converts from Ariel Bradley to Elton Simpson seem be especially inclined to risk it all.