The Journey of Change: Behavioral Trajectories Leading to Terrorism

Cultural, social and personal identities play a key role in terrorist recruitment. Cultural principles introduce certain types of behavior that help an individual overcome obstacles in everyday life. Social identity is established when a person feels an emotional bond between themselves, and the social group to which they belong. Personal identity is a mixture of cultural and social identity through which a person assigns goals, values, and beliefs based on his or her perspectives. All three identities define existence, purpose, and provide a sense of value, dignity, and togetherness; however, extremist recruiters exploit one’s vulnerability by introducing a "we against them" philosophy. When this happens, an individual is confronted with an option that may go against his or her former belief system.

During the radicalization process, an individual undergoes three stages: early socialization, creation of a "new" identity, and conversion. Potential terrorists often begin by demonstrating sympathy for a terrorist group via social media or peer association. Over time, they become passively involved with the organization through activism or crime. As the individual becomes more involved with the group, recruiters impress a sense of belonging and self-worth. To emphasize the importance of camaraderie, ranking group members will include ceremonial elements, like name assignment, to erase the recruit’s previous identity, allowing for a new one to take shape. Some groups, like al-Qa'ida, permit members to express their opinions and even influence leaders' decisions, thereby strengthening the social bond. The newcomer surrenders his or her own individual identity to the collective, and adopts the group ideology. At this point, the recruit will embody a belief system that advocates the use of terrorist acts as morally acceptable means to an end. As the individual continues to progress in rank and status, he or she evolves into a fully loyal member.

Although many terrorism recruits follow the same induction pattern, it is not possible to identify a single social, psychological, or behavioral model from which terrorists originate. In 2017, researchers from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) reviewed data from the Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) database. Data was analyzed to determine common characteristics between U.S. terrorist operatives. From January 2000 to January 2018, there were 285 successful executions of terrorist plots conducted by lone individuals. Some individuals experienced life traumas or battled issues with mental illness. Almost all knew at least one person associated with extremism violence. Many engaged in violent criminal activity, while others committed small infractions or abstained from crime altogether. A majority utilized the Internet for communication or training purposes. Four types of ideologies were examined: far-right, Islamist, environmentist, and anti-migrant. Lastly, the ages of perpetrators varied from mid-adolescence to middle age.

Individuals suffering from past or recurring trauma are susceptible to radicalization. Trauma is defined as a deeply disturbing physical or psychological event that leaves its victim feeling powerless. It reduces feelings of self-worth, thereby, preventing the individual from feeling positive emotions and experiences. Depending on the type, level, and intensity of trauma, individuals may be forced to psychologically remove themselves from their current situation. When this happens, the individual may question his purpose in life and choose to develop a completely different identity to escape the negative emotions associated with the trauma. From the PIRUS data, 13 individuals were exposed to at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. Types of trauma involved the witnessing of a death, threats to life and severe physical injury. Fourteen individuals reported being abused during their childhood either by family members, non-family members, or a combination of both. Ten individuals reported abuse by family members, non-family members, or a combination throughout adulthood.

Mental illness, another contributory factor for extremist behavior, has shown to be prevalent in terrorist activity in the United States. As shown above, 36 individuals who had committed a terrorist act in the U.S. displayed irrational behavior prior to, during, or after the attack, suggesting the possibility of mental instability. Twenty-six people had been clinically diagnosed with a form of mental illness.

Another major component in the radicalization process is family and peer association. As per the database, 80 out of 285 individuals had at least one close friend known to have engaged in extremist violence. More than 60 individuals had at least one radicalized family member, and one-third of offenders reported their significant others participated in extremism violence. Twenty individuals had direct connections with an extremist group prior to their radicalization, while three individuals made connections post-attack. Interestingly, less than thirty individuals were successfully recruited into extremist groups; more than 140 were unsuccessful in their recruitment attempts.

The duration and location of radicalization also varies between individuals. Approximately 16% (n=47) of subjects adopted their new radicalized identity within 1 to 5 years. Forty-two individuals took more than 5 years, while 13 were fully radicalized in less than one year. Seventy percent (n=199) of individuals were radicalized while in U.S. territory, while 4% (n=11) were radicalized outside of the U.S.

Self-identification, or the sense of belonging to a particular group, can be established through direct or indirect experiences. From the data, 13% (n=38) of individuals identified themselves with a specific group ideology, without the need of personal connection. Ten percent (n=28) identified themselves with a group based on a direct experience, and 7% (n=19) reported having a personal connection with their group. Thirty-four percent (n=96) were members of an exclusive group with at least two individuals.

History of criminal activity may also serve as a precursor for violent acts of terror. Prior to radicalization, 72 individuals committed at least one violent act. Twenty-four committed non-violent, minor offenses. Seventeen subjects had participated in serious, but non-violent, crimes. Yet, over 80% of subjects utilized violence during their attack. Only 16% used non-violent methods.

With the help of technology, more people today are being exposed to sinister ideals that encourage terroristic behavior. With the appearance of social media, radicalization has found its place in cyberspace where physical human contact has been reduced to a minimum. Data shows that for 69 perpetrators, internet resources helped to reaffirm pre-existing extremist beliefs. For 17 offenders, internet resources were used as a primary means of radicalization, meaning that the initial exposure of extremist ideology occurred online.

Varying ideologies are also significant when analyzing radicalization. According to the collective data, more than half (54%) represented a far-right ideology. Sixteen percent (n=47) represented the far left, 14% (n=40) embodied an Islamist ideology and 12% (n=33) were radicalized by their own single issues. In terms of ideological subcategories, 126 individuals were white supremacists, 40 were Islamist radicals, 38 were eco-terrorists and 34 were xenophobic.

Younger groups, battling abuse and social awkwardness, present an ongoing challenge for the war against terrorism recruitment. Adolescents, who are more inclined to join extremist groups, feel alienated, exploited and completely marginalized in the community. These young adults often struggle with self-esteem issues and rebel against established social values and authority. Some adolescents may experience trauma within their home, in peer groups or within social institutions. Disturbingly, ten out of the 285 subjects of interest were below the age of 18.

Mohammed Emwazi, known to the world as “Jihadi John”, demonstrated a classic case of an ordinary young man transitioning into one of the most brutal, radicalized members of the Islamic State (IS). As a young boy, Emwazi once dreamed of being a famous football player for Manchester United. He enjoyed the English pop group S Club 7 and would routinely play his favorite computer video game Duke Nukemi: Time to Kill. But, in July of 2010, at age 21, Emwazi was placed on an international terror watch list.

Fleeing from state persecution at age six would play a large role in Mohammed’s quest for self-identity. Mohammed Emwazi was born as Muhammad Jassim Abdulkarim Olayan al-Dhafiri in Kuwait on August 17, 1988. The Emwazi family were from a bedoon, or stateless, social class with an Iraqi origin. His father Jassem worked as a Kuwaiti police officer, and his mother Ghaneyah was a Yemeni national. In 1994, the family moved from the town of Al-Jahra to the United Kingdom to escape state persecution. After receiving asylum from the UK, the family settled in North Kensington, Queen's Park in West London. Mohammed was six years old.

Ridiculed in his primary and secondary school years, Mohammed Emwazi was a shy, quiet, and unnoticeable individual that would later become immersed in criminality. He was regularly the subject of bullying due to his bad breath, which caused him to be self-conscious. As such, he would cover his mouth when he talked or smiled, and classmates assigned him an embarrassing nickname, “Little Mo”. Emwazi would later turn his attention to the virtual world using his computer as a means of escape the ridicule. During his teenage years, Emwazi spent time with older friends who were members of local street gangs. His behavior earned him a reputation of “party animal” as he began to drink and use illegal drugs, such as cannabis. Drawn further into the criminal lifestyle, he would later be arrested for his involvement in a string of multiple bike robberies.

From 2006-2009, the introduction of university culture and radical friends would drastically re-route Emwazi’s life course from IT student to terrorist operative. In 2006, Emwazi applied to the University of Westminster to study information technology. During this time, he met two radical and influential individuals: Mohamed Sakr and Bilal al-­Berjawi. Sakr and al-Berjawi had both traveled to Kenya where they were arrested on charges of terrorist activity. Their romanticized stories inspired Emwazi to re-evaluate his own Islamic identity. Changes in Emwazi’s behavior became apparent when he began actively participating in political protests on the university campus. He would go on to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Information Systems in Business Management, but the faceless university culture created a vacuum for Sakr and al-Berjawi’s influence.

As a young adult, Emwazi’s international travel and terrorist-linked associations would catch the attention of British security forces and disrupt his chances of creating a family. The key turning point on Emwazi’s identity came when he traveled to Tanzania in May 2009. While in Tanzania, he was detained and beaten by Tanzania security forces in Dar es Salaam for alleged links to the militant group Al-Shabaab. On the way back to England via Amsterdam, he was questioned by British MI5 agents and Dutch security officials for suspected terrorist activity. British agents tried convincing Emwazi to provide intelligence on his friends and affiliates overseas. During the interrogations, Emwazi discovered that the British government questioned the family of his then fiancé and monitored his phone conversations. The intrusion ended his relationship with his fiancé. In September of 2009, Emwazi relocated to Kuwait City to live with his father’s family where he secured an IT job. On a personal trip back to London, he was again approached by the British government. As before, British agents informed him that his second fiancé was provided information of his possible links to terrorism. As a result, his second engagement was called off. In 2012, Emwazi changed his last name to al-Ayan, and in early 2013, he unsuccessfully attempted to re-enter Kuwait.

In 2013, Mohammed al-Ayan, formally Emwazi, met a new mentor who would lead him directly into the ranks of the Islamic State and to his own demise. Abu Omar al-Shishani, the new field commander of ISIS in Northern Syria, ordered Mohammed and three other British nationals to join him in Syria. Mohammed and the band of British natives, nicknamed “the Beatles”, were assigned to conduct a hostage taking campaign. Emwazi quickly moved through the ranks to become the leader of the Beatles and Shishani’s most brutal executioner. In August of 2014, the Beatles, which consisted of Emwazi, Alexandra Kotey, Aine Davis, El Shafee Elsheikh, recorded themselves executing U.S., Spanish and Dutch journalists. In January of 2015, their recorded execution of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh by fire, lost the respect of the Muslim community. Mohammed Emwazi was killed shortly after by a U.S. drone strike on November 12, 2015.

Terrorist behavior must not be viewed through a single prism of behavioral elements. The presence of one or two behavioral elements does not mean that a particular individual has a behavioral predisposition to become a terrorist. We are all exposed to certain terrorist elements but only a small number of people will decide to go through that route. Тhe acquisition of terrorist behavior should be seen as a combination of not so simple behavioral elements combined with unique experiences processes that will enhance that type of behavior that would be impossible to avoid.

To ascertain reasons behind extremist motivation, counterterrorism analysts pay close attention to a suspected group or individual’s interests, goals, strategy, environment, and activities. CTG’s Behavior and Leadership (B/L) and Extremism teams will be working in a combined effort to identify common terminology within extremist recruitment videos and shared communications. The CTG Extremism team actively monitors social media sites for extremist chatter and recruitment training. Sites include Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit and YouTube. The Extremism team also tracks activity via online forums like Stormfront. CTG’s B/L team continues to monitor behavioral variables within the radicalization process. Using the CTG Behavioral Database, behavior trajectories are created to help detect potential threats so that law enforcement officials can apply appropriate and necessary countermeasures.

1. Cultural Psychiatry, Science Direct, 2015,

2. Social Identity, Oxford Reference, 2019,

3. What Is Personal Identity? - Definition, Philosophy & Development Video,, 2019,

4. The Seed of Evil: Elements of the Sociology of Terrorism, Dr. Mirko Bilandžić, 2010.

5. Power and Terror, Noam Chomsky, 2002.

6. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder After Terrorist Attack in Healthcare Professionals, Disaster and Emergency Medicine Journal, 2017,

7. Chart 1 - National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), University of Maryland. (2017). Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) [Data file]. Retrieved from

8. Ibid.

9. Chart 2 - National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), University of Maryland. (2017). Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) [Data file]. Retrieved from

10. Ibid.

11. Chart 3 - National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), University of Maryland. (2017). Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) [Data file]. Retrieved from

12. Ibid.

13. Coming of Age in a Multicultural World: Globalization and Adolescent Cultural Identity Formation, Applied Developmental Science, 2003,

14. Chart 4 - National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), University of Maryland. (2017). Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) [Data file]. Retrieved from

15. Who is Mohammed Emwazi, aka Jihadi John?, Youtube, November 2015,‘ Chart 4 - National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), University of Maryland. (2017). Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) [Data file]. Retrieved from

16. Jihadi John: From ordinary schoolboy to world's most wanted man, The Telegraph, February 2015,

17. Killer's father was Kuwait policeman before move to UK, Daily Mail, February 2015,

18. Mohamed Sakr, Deport Deprive Extradite, 2013,

19. Bilal al-Berjawi, Deport Deprive Extradite, 2013,

20. Unmasking Jihadi John: Anatomy of a Terrorist, HBO Documentary Films, July 2019.

21. Who is Jihadi John, and how did Mohammed Emwazi become the symbol of Isil?, The Telegraph, November 2015,

22. We need an ombudsman for extremism, The Guardian, January 2016,

23. Jihadi John's Crimes Terrified the World. Here's What Happened to the ISIS Terrorist, Esquire, July 2019,

24. 'Jihadi John' death: Islamic State says Mohammed Emwazi killed, BBC, January 2016,

25. The Mind of the Terrorist: A Review and Critique of Psychological Approaches, France Diplomatie, February 2005,

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