Migrating to the Land of Islam? Or Joining a Terrorist Group?

The process of becoming an ISIS citizen or member through the lens of criminological theory

By Adnan Mouhiddin


“Individuals become terrorists in order to join terrorist groups and commit acts of terrorism.”(Post 1990:35). This statement and other similar concepts are probably what correspond to the public mood in Europe and the UK while discussing the phenomena of young people joining (or immigrating to, as they like to describe it) the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS. This paper aims to explain the pathways and factors behind joining ISIS through different criminological theories. This will be achieved by distinguishing between the process of radicalisation which led them to join the organisation (or the state), and that which led to the act of terrorism after becoming a member (or citizen) of the ‘organisation’. This will enable us to gain a clearer distinction between both processes and the different factors that contribute to them. Hence applying the corresponding criminological theories which will lead to the appropriate conclusion as to why young, ambitious and lively young boys and girls take that root of migration along with thousands of European citizens.  Veldhuis and Staun (2009: 6) explain this distinction in that:

“terrorism is above all a political tool that, irrespective of its success rate, is used in an attempt to bring about political or societal change. Radicalisation, on the other hand, is a process of transformation that in itself does not serve a clearly defined purpose and that does not necessarily have to be related to violence.”

However, dealing with such a distinction has been blurred by the unfortunate absence of one definition of terrorism; for defining the latter differs in accordance with different cultures and socio-political constructs. Studying terrorism has attained the attention of academics following the unfortunate events of September 11 (Ruggiero, 2005) and crime theories elaborated on the causes of terrorism (Rosenfeld, 2002; LaFree and Dugan 2004).

Nonetheless, taking in consideration the key elements that are frequently and commonly shared (LaFree and Dugan, 2004) terrorism could be defined as ‘the commission of criminal acts, usually violent, that target civilians or violate conventions of war when targeting military personnel; and that are committed at least partly for social, political, or religious ends’ (Agnew 2010: 132). Defining radicalism, has been less problematic and is perceived as the process of “increasing extremity of beliefs, feelings, and behaviors in directions that increasingly justify intergroup violence and demand sacrifice in defence of the in-group” (McCauley and Moskalenko 2008:416).


Get off the plane

The blurred distinction between terrorism and radicalisation has led to fatal conclusions which resulted in labelling those merely joining ISIS as terrorists. This view has been adopted on official level and through legal instruments criminalising those joining the ‘Organisation’. In addition, officials engaged in what I may call as unconstructive contributions that fail to touch the real issue. For instance, Boris Johnson, while citing a report from MI5 on the profile of jihadis, described men who join ISIS as ‘wankers’ who cannot make it with girls ‘so they turn to other forms of spiritual comfort.(The Guardian 2016).Moreover, the collective paranoia and the frequent incidents in which individuals were subject to discrimination due to their language and physical features incited the existing problem which has been growing since September 11, and the more recent terrorist attacks across Europe (The Guardian 2016). Such misconceptions and trivial dealing with the phenomena is closely related to long-term Western confusion between radical and conservative Islam. This confusion, in my opinion, is evident in the lack of recognition that someof those who joined ISIS were not conservative Muslims, and hundreds of millions of conservative Muslims did not join ISIS and disprove its theological approach.

Similarly, when Arab and Middle Eastern dictators were delivered to power and/or are supported by major Western powers, mainly the United States, to maintain steady and secured oil supplies, and when Muslims aimed to topple those dictators through what has become known as the ‘Arab Spring’, they ended up being labeled as ‘extreme fanatics’ due to the violence that accompanied those revolutions which amounted to civil wars in some cases.


“Muslim is the brother of the Muslim”[1]

For a long time, the West entertained a fatal misunderstanding as to what the community means to the Muslims. It is not only a fundamental element in their belief system, but also something they live and perform spontaneously while Western societies tirelessly promote and advocate the element of ‘community’. This might shed some light as to why Muslims take offence watching their fellow Muslims being persecuted or oppressed; something that could be observed in the flood of Jihadis into Chechnya, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. In addition, long term ‘grievances’ (Stevens 2002; Freeman 2008) resulting from the West and American military, economic and cultural dominance and the clash between Western and Islamic values (Agnew 2010) all amounted to what might be called collective strains. This, combined with the growing gap in social and political priorities and strong cultural differences, along with differences in values, norms and beliefs have weakened the emotional and material ties to the source of strain (i.e. their societies) (Goodwin, 2006). Collective strains contribute to the development of groups that pursue collective goals, alleviating individual strains such as anger, humiliation, identity threats and hopelessness; (Stern, 2003; Vicoroff, 2005; Forst, 2009), arguably increasing the likelihood of terrorism (Stern, 2003).

Relatively, the process of labelisation combined with the collective strains have produced alienated and socially marginalized groups, which triggered their sense of lack of belonging to the societies they live in (Abrahms, 2008), and at the same time triggered their quest to find their identity that has been challenged constantly, which Posts (2007) described as ‘identicide’. The identity and sense of belonging are the very concepts which ISIS provides for the new “immigrants”; a receiving community with whom common principles, laws and aims are shared.

One would probably deny all the allegations above (i.e. the West responsibility of eastern Muslims pleas). While such denial may hold some truth in it, and while it remains one’s respected opinion, it is important to realize that this is about how they (the strained) genuinely believe to be the case rather than one’s perception (Agnew 2010). Those individuals perceive the world differently. As Crenshaw (1988:12) succinctly observed, “the actions of terrorist organisations are based on a subjective interpretation of the world rather than objective reality.”Those individuals therefore derive their perceptions and belief systems from their traditions, cultures, social environment.

This alienation has in some cases led to the foundation of a subcultures in which alienated individuals share values, norms, traditions, and rituals, thereby rejecting the dominant culture (Young, 2010). In those groups, individuals develop codes of conduct and rules that reflect their views of the world in general and their society in particular (Foster 1990). In the case of individuals joining ISIS, their religious belief play a vital role in the formation of their views of contemporary global and regional issues that favors terrorism, involving family members and friends (Forst, 2009). Eventually, those views are transmitted and circulated among those groups (Brake 1980).  This call and yearning for the community, however, shouldn’t be confused with that of the gangs. This is due to the lack of political motivation that drives the terror or groups among those of the organized crime and their secretive nature (Decker and Pyrooz 2011: 151). This was similarly observed by Curry (2010), who adds that the ‘profit motive for gangs that is largely absent for terrorist groups’ along with the ‘ideological belief among members of terror groups that is not present among gang members.’

Furthermore, the Muslim, whose voice remained unheard by his totalitarian rulers in the East, or his societies in the West in which he was alienated, is telling us ‘here I am’, which is stemmed by the lack of recognition (Taylor 1994).Tragically, he chooses to get attention by chilling footages and images, which ISIS has proven to acquire advanced skills in producing, of him beheading someone. While this behavior demonstrates a grave mental defect, it nevertheless stands that such individuals do not kill just for the sake of killing. It is not about the fanatic terrorists whose fanaticism makes them cruel or sadist as per Laqueur’s (1977) description of terrorists. Otherwise, Rachid Kassim, a jihadist who orchestrated attacks in France, would not have described leaving his cat behind him as the saddest things about him joining ISIS (Paris Guardian 2016). These individuals arguablykill because it is their way to send a massage to global leaders and make them pay the consequences of ignoring their message. Beheading James Foley and Steven Sotloff is thus the manifestation of power and control and is their way to say ‘I can do’. One should also bear in mind that the “I am here” is now pronounced by familiar accents and languages; British English, American English, London accent, French, German, Dutch and Flemish. A Palestinian terrorist stated once that:

“An armed action proclaims that I am here, I exist, I am strong, I am in control, I am in the field, I am on the map”(Post, 2007: 61).

Many academics supported this claim, in suggesting that aggression, manifested in terrorism, is a response to ‘the frustration of various political, economic and personal needs or objectives’ (Margolin 1977; O’Connor 1994) and motivated by the desire to revenge by blaming their strains on others(Agnew 1992; Araj 2008). When frustration reaches such an extreme level, ideology becomes the outlet. That kind of strain, as a motivator to join ISIS where Jihad is the core principal, could be better understood in the light of the necessary and fundamental distinction betweenwhat I may callthe ‘Modern Jihad’ and the one that was initiated and carried out in the early years of Islam. The most common reasons for Muslims today for Jihad, either in the West or the East is entirely different from the ones, which the early Muslims relied on. The early Jihad was inspired by conquest while the modern one had acquired the element of liberation (from invasion, occupation, colonialism) which gave it a political nature. Not only that, it has also liberated the concept of Jihad from various controls imposed by Sharia’a law. This intersects with Kundani’s observation that ‘more relevant than Islamist ideology was the news from Iraq of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians following the US and UK military occupation’ (Kundani 2015: 25) in relation to Al Qaeda recruitment. He also emphasises the social and political contexts in which individuals reside to understand terrorism.  Comparatively, although strains may help us explain terrorism, they do not justify it. In other words, while strains might be the reason behind the radicalization, the latter cannot explain why such strains result in terrorism among a minority of those exposed to the radicalization process (Agnew 2010).

In 2004, Wikström revisited the traditional criminological theory and developed the Situational Action Theory in which he argues that ‘to start with the terrorist act is to study the direct causes of terrorist: the interaction of an individual, his or her experience, skills, knowledge and other characteristics, with the circumstances of a particular setting.’ (Bouhana, Wikstrom 2008) in other words, we need to explain how the individual comes to perceive terrorism as an action alternative. Furthermore, the theory finds a direct link between a person’s involvement in acts of terrorism and their morality and the moral context in which they operate. Subsequently, this moral background guides whether an act of terrorism is considered an action alternative (Wikstrom 2005).

Observing ISIS’ literature, publications, slogans, signs and ideological preaching, it is safe to conclude its adaptation of Islam as an ideology. Islamist radicalisation has been considered to involve the adoption of the belief that:

to recreate an Islamic state, Muslims must not only adhere to a strict Salafist or ultraconservative interpretation of Islam, but also wage jihad, defined as armed struggle against the enemies of Islam, including non-Muslim nations (especially the United States) and the current rulers of Muslim states who have supplanted God’s authority with their own”(Rabasa, Pettyjohn, Ghez & Boucek, 2010: 2-3).

Concepts such as ‘Martyrdom’ and ‘Jihad’ are fundamental principles on which the organisation (or the state) is founded upon. This, however, begs the question as to why some individuals among those who join the organisation resort to terrorism, and others become mere members (or citizens) performing non-combatant duties. Wikstrom argues that individuals vary in their propensity to engage in a particular moral action, which depends primarily on their moral values and emotions and their capability to exercise self-control. The latter, however, is relevant only when the individual considers whether to engage in the act of terrorism or not. It is ‘part of the process of choice, not an individual trait. Self-control is something we do’(Wikstrom, Triber 2007). This is supported by the fact that the act of terrorism is a process too, as much as radicalisation is, which has been conceptualised by all academic models, such as Moghaddam’s ‘staircase’, McCauley and Moskalenko’s ‘pyramid’, and Baran’s ‘conveyor’ (Neumann 2013: 874).

The act of terrorism is not executed in the heat of the moment. Rather, it is a process of deliberation. It takes time to be considered, prepared and studied while taking many contribution factors in consideration. Also, it is often the case that the terrorist is waiting instruction from his organisation. Therefore, terrorism is a decision resulting in intentional act that relies on moral code which entails the individual not only to harm the victim, but also himself. His belief must be engaged to the maximum level before he commits the act of terrorism. Even if he establishes that his victims are legitimate targets, he must also legitimise killing himself in the process for a higher cause. Failing to do so would result in illegitimate suicide, which is unflavoured by the deity and is punished severely by Allah (Quran 4:29).


Allah hath purchased of the believers their persons and their goods”[2]

In contrast, some academics such as Atran (2010: 479) reject this approach, arguing that ‘terrorists don’t simply die for a cause, they die for each other’. He asserts further that ‘what inspires the most lethal terrorists today is not so much the Quran or the teachings of religion as it is the thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends’ (Atran 2011: 483). This argument could be challenged on various grounds. First, ‘dying for each other’, as Atran puts it, is in fact a cause. Its status as a cause is even justified by the teaching of Islam. Second, a terrorist executing an action for the benefits of ISIS is prepared to die, a destiny that is more likely to happen than not. What is even more attractive than the glory in the eyes of the friends, is the glory in the after-death life and in the eyes of the deity who promised those dying for him with the Paradise (Quran 9:111); which almost all terrorists have their focus on. It is a more assuring element than the anticipated thrill and glory in the eyes of friends, which the terrorist most likely won’t be alive to enjoy anyway.

It is worth noting that the misinterpretation of certain perceptions and scriptures in sharia law is not only related to the concept of Jihad, but also evident even in the foundation of ISIS itself. ISIS does not comply with the Sharia’alaw criteria to establish the Khilafah(the Caliphate, the Islamic state). In other words, the conditions and status of ISIS do not fulfill the criteria. Just as the post-capitalist societies first go through a lengthy socialist stage before arriving at the classless society of communism, Islamic societies, especially in a complex picture of the contemporary world that includes and deals with frontiers and borders, must go through certain stages before it reaches the stage in which it is ready to be established and declared as Caliphate. What ISIS did is to cross all those stages, announcing itself Caliphate. So the question that poses itself here is: was ISIS birthed from the womb of Sharia’alaw? The answer is no. ISIS does not represent an authentic version of what the Caliphate is because it does not meet the prerequisites for an Islamic State.[3] Many who are faced with this fact are unaware of it, provided they don’t have access to the authentic sources. If anything, this indicates how ignorance contribute to terrorism. Moreover, the internet and other social networks has established a platform from which ISIS and other radical groups distribute their views and the twisted interpretations of certain Quranic scripts so that they meet their agenda and recruitment policy (Klausen 2015:17).

Moreover, and considering the services and privileges ISIS offers to its ‘citizens’ and followers, materially deprived Iraqi and Syrian citizens who have been displaced or lost their homes and lands, have often found in ISIS their safe destination and refuge amid fierce civil wars(Agnew 2010), leaving them with no other options(Araj, 2008). Joining the organization (the state in their eyes) has become their ‘alternative action’. While Piazza did not find a connection between poverty and terrorism, his conclusion was nonetheless challenged by Von Hippel (2004) who argued that local contexts and groups must be studied on a case-by-case basis before concluding whether a link exists between poverty and terrorism. Her findings correspond to that of a UN report on suicide bombers in Afghanistan, which provides that “Afghanistan and Pakistan are counter examples to the consensus about no link between poverty and terrorism”(UNAMA, 2007).



As Crenshaw rightly observed, “the outstanding common characteristic of terrorists is their normality”(1981, 390). ISIS is the story of long-term frustration, disappointment, hopelessness and destructive anger. It resembles the accumulating effects of a broken ideology that ruled the world for long period in history, bitter feeling of injustice, and the dreams and yearning to great past. When all those elements came together along with a violent misinterpretation of particular scriptures, ISIS was born. Therefore, it is not about the unsuccessful Muslims in the West. Rather, it is about the alienated, frustrated and marginalized ones; conditions that are enhanced by different priorities between those individuals and their societies. Restricting the concept of radicalisation and terrorism to one or more theories is therefore unhelpful. The process is arguably too complex and broader than can be contained by one theory in isolation. Instead, each stage need to be explained by different theories.

As such, we must question the belief that can be eliminated by air strikes and military force. An ideology cannot be bombarded. Instead, the ideology and stance of ISIS should be challenged from within; by enlightened Sunni Muslims and clerics (Goodwin, 2007). In doing so, terrorism can be prevented not only by reducing or altering the common strains that contribute to it, but by also targeting the intervening mechanisms (Agnew 2010). The genie is out of the bottle. If the underneath causes and reasons are not tackled, ISIS, as its slogan declares: “will remain and expand.”


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[1]Sahih al-Bukhari 2442, Vol.2, Book 43, Hadith 622

[2]Quran (9:111)

[3]Similar findings are supported by Al-azhar school, and Yusus al-Qaradwi, the chairman of the International Union of Muslim Scholars.

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About Adnan Mouhiddin عدنان محي الدين