Violent Converts to Islam: Growing Cluster and Rising Trend

By: Jahangir E. Arasli

The role of Muslim converts in the context of Islamist homegrown terrorism remains largely below the radar screen for both researchers and policymakers. Despite evidence suggesting that increasing numbers of converts are playing significant roles within terrorist organizations, most conventional wisdom still treats them as a marginal phenomenon rather than a sustained trend.[1]

A person who converts to Islam does not, by default, pose a security problem, and the ability of an individual to convert to Islam should be assured as an essential component of the freedom of belief and expression. Neither Islam nor conversion to it is a threat as such, and only a small minority of Islamic converts actually turns to violence.[2] However, although the percentage of violent converts is small, evidence suggests they constitute a growing pool of hundreds, if not thousands, of very dangerous people who represent direct security threats.

This article provides an overview of the issue by reviewing individual cases of converts who have been involved in violence, considers why and how individuals might be converted to a violent strain of Islam, and looks at how these converts are being used by terrorist organizations and in terrorist operations. Of course, this one essay cannot cover all aspects related to the issues of violent converts; rather it aims only to chart the general contours of the problem and provide some initial thoughts on the subject, leaving particular aspects, as well as policy recommendations, for future research. All views expressed in the article are my own, and they do not reflect the official position of any institution.


Presented here are some key terms and explanations for how those terms are used throughout the article.

Conversion: In simplest terms, religious conversion might be understood as a change from one faith to another. Conversion can also take place when an individual with no religious faith or a religious identity affiliated chiefly with national or ethnic roots becomes a practicing believer of a different faith.[3]

Violent Islamic converts: Although there is no universally accepted definition of this term, I use it in this article to signify a convert who adopts a new identity based on or linked to a vision of Islam that justifies or encourages violence, including terrorism.

Conversion-radicalization-activation (CRA) loop: The CRA loop includes conversion to extreme interpretations of Islam, which is the first and most important step to allow for further radicalization, and can eventually lead to the activation of violent intentions (i.e. actually carrying out terrorist attacks). Though their individual paths may vary, almost all violent converts perform a CRA loop.[4]

Violent activity: This term is used primarily to refer to terrorism and terrorist-related activities. In addition to direct actions, it also includes related political and ideological activities, such as recruiting and spreading extremist ideas, as well as fomenting violence through organizational, technical, materiel, or financial means. The term may also be applied to certain "gray area" cases that at first glance appear purely criminal, yet on closer inspection might be linked in some way to Islamic conversion.[5]

Overview of Links Between Violence and Islamic Converts

Before 9/11

...the Black Panthers... chose Islam as a tool to assert their racial identity while mixing the religion with a good portion of Marxism.

Prior to the 9/11 watershed event, Islamic converts who turned to violence were rare but not unheard of. The first generation of violent converts can be traced back to the late 1960s and early 1970s when a number of young African Americans joined either the radical wing of the Nation of Islam movement, the Black Panthers, or similar violent anti-establishment groups. Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, a number of American converts—white and black—were admitted to the extremist Islamist sect Jamaat ul-Fuqra (JuF), a Pakistan-linked group that was active throughout the United States and often involved in violent operations. In 1980, American convert David Belfield killed a prominent Iranian opposition leader who lived in exile in the United States. Belfield, also known as Dawood Salahuddin, had been recruited by the security services of the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran.

However, this first generation was not embedded into the broader context of global jihad that was emerging. Rather, they mostly represented "protest conversions," like the Black Panthers who chose Islam as a tool to assert their racial identity while mixing the religion with a good portion of Marxism. Others were contained within a peripheral trend such as the case of converts who chose to join JuF. Or, in some cases, such as Belfield's, they acted as operatives of a foreign intelligence service. It is important to note that most converts in those years lacked an elaborate religious justification for violence.

The second generation of violent converts arrived with the wave of global transformation that occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s and with the ascendance of radical, political Islamism and associated violence. The war in Bosnia was one of the first conflicts to experience this growing phenomenon. The conflict attracted dozens of European converts who were radicalized while fighting on the Muslim side. The notorious "Roubaix Gang," and particularly a French convert and Bosnian war veteran named Lionel "Bilal" Dumont, serve as an eloquent example of this developing trend,[6] which was not really noticed at that time.

This worldwide preaching campaign... aimed primarily at Muslims from migrant communities, also delivered a byproduct—Western converts to Islam...

Indeed, the armed conflicts of the last decade of the 20th century, including those in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, and Kashmir, produced scores of professionally trained and battle-hardened, violent converts to Islam. Many of those conflicts included direct or indirect participation by al Qaeda (AQ), and before 2001, AQ founded the Al-Khaldan camp in Afghanistan, which was used exclusively for military and terrorist training of non-Arabs, including converts.[7]

Those converts who survived the fighting went back to Europe and North America, taking their violent philosophies and battle experience to migrant communities, which had been growing sharply during these same years. The rise in migrant communities, which occurred partly because of European liberal migration and asylum policies, also provided an expanding pool of Western converts to Islam, some of whom were inclined toward violence.

Another factor influencing the rise of violent converts during this time period was an aggressive preaching of radical versions of Islam, projected and financially supported by certain religious circles and centers in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the Arab states of the Gulf via forward outposts located in the West. This worldwide preaching campaign, waged everywhere from official mosques to correctional facilities, and aimed primarily at Muslims from migrant communities, also delivered a byproduct—Western converts to Islam, radicalized and ready to perform violent activities.

All of these factors contributed to the initial development of violent Islamic converts as an integral part of the global jihad movement (GJM).[8] Yet violent converts were still seen both by practitioners and scholars as an isolated and marginal phenomenon.

Since 9/11

The 9/11 attack reshaped the entire global political-security landscape. When the World Trade Center towers collapsed, major paradigms decisively shifted. Foremost, it marked the beginning of a new stage of overt, broad confrontation of the GJM against the Western world. Among thousands of other things, it influenced the rapid evolution of violent Islamic converts. The high-visibility attack brought scores of already disgruntled or disenfranchised Westerners under the banner of radical Islam.

In a stunning development, hundreds of Americans—citizens of the nation that had been the victim of the attack—converted to Islam within months after 9/11

In a stunning development, hundreds of Americans—citizens of the nation that had been the victim of the attack—converted to Islam within months after 9/11, most likely to demonstrate disagreement with the public mainstream.[9] For instance, several members of the "Toronto 18" terrorist group, which was dismantled in Canada in 2006, admitted after they were arrested that the 9/11 attacks captured their imagination and attracted them to Islam.[10] The role of 9/11 as an enabler of conversion demonstrates how 2001 marks the beginning of the third generation of violent converts and how this generation is fully integrated into the GJM.

Cases of Violent Converts

Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that, in the decade after 9/11, a growing number of violent Islamic converts have been considerably involved in terrorist acts. These converts are playing increasingly important roles as part of the GJM, making them a serious security threat in the context of terrorism in general and homegrown terrorism in particular.

The United States

Between 9/11 and June 30, 2010, 42 Islamist, terrorism-related plots and incidents took place or were foiled in the United States, according to my calculations.[11] Violent converts were directly engaged in 26 of those 42 cases, almost 62 percent of the total. Converts operated in myriad ways—in cells, in pairs, as individuals, or as operatives of AQ or other terrorist groups. They performed or attempted to perform acts of direct violence, espionage, and conspiracy. Details of some of the cases are offered below.

* Some violent converts operated within groups or cells of between four and 11 members. Roughly half of these cells were a combination of "native" Muslims and outside converts, including the "Portland 7" group, which had three converts out of seven members, and the "Virginia Jihad Network," which had four converts out of 11 members. The "L.A. Prison" cell included three converts in a group of four and was also led by a convert, as was the "Raleigh Jihad" group, which included four converts out of eight members. Meanwhile, half of the examined cells consisted solely of converts, including the "Miami 6" group, the "JFK Fuel Tanks Plot" cell, and the "New York Synagogue Plot" cell.

One "gray area" case involved Michael Reynolds, a non-Muslim who offered his assistance to AQ but was motivated by something other than religion.

* Some violent converts worked as part of a pair with one native Muslim; an example would be James Elshafay and Carlos Almonte. Other converts, such as Derrick Shareef and Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad—the "Arkansas Shooter"—acted as a "lone wolf." Still others, such as Michael Finton and Chris Paul, had formal ties but no clear operational links to any known terrorist structure. One "gray area" case involved Michael Reynolds, a non-Muslim who offered his assistance to AQ but was motivated by something other than religion. All of these cases involved low-profile, amateurish, terrorist intentions and activities that were localized within the U.S.

* In at least three cases, converts were chosen by AQ-affiliated leaders to plan or execute high-profile, mass-casualty attacks in the U.S. or against U.S. targets. These cases involved Richard Reid, Jose Padilla, and Diren Baroth and included plots to use an improvised explosive device against an airborne jetliner and to disperse radiological contaminants in an urban environment.

* Two episodes involved converts attempting to provide classified information to AQ recipients. Both converts were serving in the U.S. military at the time; Ryan Anderson was in the U.S. Army National Guard, and Paul Hall, also known as Hassan Abu Jihaad, was in the Navy.

* In another military-related case, Hassan Akbar, a U.S. Army sergeant, was convicted and sentenced to death for killing two and wounding 14 others in an armed attack against his unit members in Kuwait just after the U.S. invasion of Iraq began in 2003. In his trial, both defense and prosecution lawyers said that Akbar wanted to keep troops from killing his fellow Muslims.[12]

* Two American women converts, Coleen LaRose and Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, conspired within a wider group to kill a Swedish cartoonist for alleged blasphemy.

* Several U.S. converts, including Omar Hammami, Bryant Vinas, and Daniel Joseph Maldonaldo, were involved in direct fighting in conflict zones such as Afghanistan and Somalia, that included battles against other Americans. At least one convert, Adam Yahye Ghaddan, was engaged in a sophisticated strategic communication campaign conducted by AQ. A recently detained convert, Barry Bujol, Jr., allegedly provided materiel support to AQ.

* Not included in my count of terrorist incidents involving converts were incidents revealed in the second half of 2010 and the first half of 2011, including the cases of Antonio Martinez, accused of plotting a terrorist attack against a military recruitment station; Zachary Adam Chesser and Jesse Curtis Morton, who allegedly issued death threats against the creators of "South Park"; and Joseph Anthony Davis (Abu Khalid Abdul Latif) and Frederick Domingue Jr. (Walli Mujahidh), who are suspected of plotting an attack against the military recruitment facility in Seattle. In addition, Lance Corp. Yonathan Melaku from the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve was arrested in the vicinity of the Pentagon in June 2011 with explosives in his backpack; he most likely is also a convert to Islam.

All of these cases illustrate the wide range of individuals, activities, and operational patterns that link the actions of American converts to homegrown terrorism and the global jihadist movement. It is also important to keep in mind that this is just the tip of the iceberg; these are cases publicly revealed after the perpetrators had been apprehended. Presumably, many more converts who may be prone to violence are on law enforcement watch lists.

Other Western Countries

In Europe, converts have been part of most of the major known terrorist plots and associated networks that have come to light since 9/11. It is hard to find a country on the European continent, from Spain to Norway, where violent converts did not leave footprints. Violent converts have also been linked to terrorist-related activities in Canada and Australia. Some examples are listed below.[13]

  • A British–Jamaican convert, Germain Lindsay, was one of four suicide bombers who conducted the 7/7 attack on the London Underground in 2005.
  • Spanish convert Jose Luis Galan Gonzales (Yousuf Galan) was a member of a jihadist logistic recruitment ring linked to the 9/11 hijackers. Jose Emilio Suarez Trashorras supplied 110 kilograms of stolen explosives to terrorists who launched the 3/11 attack on the Madrid mass transit system in 2004.[14]

Although these cases share certain similarities with those in the U.S., they also bring differences to light.

  • A Belgian convert, Muriel Degauge, became the first-ever European female suicide bomber. She died in the attack in Iraq in November 2005.
  • A German–Polish convert, Christian Gancharzski, was affiliated with AQ and a mastermind of the April 2002 terrorist attack in Djerba, Tunisia, which left 14 German tourists dead.
  • Two of the four members of the Sauerland cell in Germany, which planned a mass-casualty attack against German civilian and U.S. military targets, were homegrown converts.
  • Three converts were among the 24 people detained as conspirators in the "liquid explosive plot," which means 12.5 percent of the people involved were converts. This operation aimed to destroy trans-Atlantic jetliners in summer 2006.
  • At least three of 19 members (15.8 percent) of the Hofstaad Islamist terrorist network in the Netherlands that killed filmmaker Teo van Gogh were ethnic Dutch converts. The number might be even higher if converts in the group's outer circle are included in the count. The network's second-in-command, Jason Walters, was a convert of Dutch–American descent.
  • At least four members of the "Toronto 18" (22.2 percent) terrorist network in Canada were converts.
  • Between 2002 and 2006, Australia experienced eight criminal cases related to terrorist activities committed by converts. Included in that count are a female convert's preparation for an attack with an explosive device; a convert's participation in a grassroots, self-radicalized cell; and four cases of converts cooperating with foreign terrorist networks.

Many more examples could be provided, but this list demonstrates both the scope of the problem and its diverse patterns. Although these cases share certain similarities with those in the U.S., they also bring differences to light.

The major factor influencing differences between Islamic converts and their rapid radicalization in the United States and Western Europe is the existence of massive, not-fully-integrated Muslim migrant communities steadily growing across the European Continent. Those communities—with their extensive social relations and associated web of mosques, Islamic centers, and clubs—attract nonimmigrant Europeans, particularly those who experience certain problems of alienation or who feel the need for spiritual guidance or social kinship, or who wish to change their way of life. (These ideas will be discussed in more detail below.) The existence of large Muslim communities creates an environment hospitable to conversion, and in many cases, subsequent radicalization of those converts. According to some estimates, more than 400 (about eight percent) of the nearly 5,000 confirmed Salafi Muslim extremists put under police surveillance in France were "newborn" Muslims,[15] grouped mostly around mosques and praying congregations.

Another factor that makes the role of Muslim converts unique in Western Europe is the geographic proximity of Europe to the Muslim world, in particular to the Middle East, the Gulf and south Asia. This proximity facilitates relatively easy access to those regions for the primary purposes of studying Islam and participating in armed jihad. The 2007 disclosure of the Sauerland cell and the revelation of the existence of the "German Taliban" group operating in the lawless area of the Afghan–Pakistani border in 2009[16] were wake-up calls highlighting the real danger of "exchanges" between convert cadres in Europe and the war zones. It is believed dozens of violent converts from Germany, Great Britain,[17] Canada[18] and other Western countries have joined the Islamist insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many of the surviving converts will return to their homes as battle-seasoned veterans, indoctrinated, and ready to act.

Other Countries Worldwide

Violent converts are not an exclusively Western phenomenon. They may be found in many conflicts involving Islamist movements and organizations around the world. The most notable example is Russia, in the Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus. Since the start of the Chechen war in 1994, hundreds of ethnic Russians and other Slavs, including military personnel, have converted to Islam and joined the ranks of the insurgency. (In some cases, the sequence of action was the opposite: they joined the insurgency and later converted to Islam). Details of some of the cases are listed below.

  • An analysis of search warrants issued by the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs against 59 individuals for their participation in the Chechen invasion into Dagestan in 1999 demonstrates that five of them (8.4 percent of the total) were ethnic Russians who were at least nominally Orthodox Christians prior to becoming converts to Islam.[19]
  • At least three of 32 terrorists (9.3 percent) who seized hostages in the Beslan school in Russia in September 2004 were converted ethnic Slavs. Among the converts was the group's alleged leader, Vladimir Khodov.
  • A convert, Alexander Tikhomirov, (also known as Said Buryatski) was for more than two years a primary ideologue of the "Caucasus Emirate," an umbrella for the constellation of the Islamist insurgent groups in the North Caucasus. The example of Tikhomirov, who was killed in March 2010, indicates that converts are trusted enough be allowed to occupy high positions in the command hierarchy and act as authoritative sources of jihad ideology.[20]
  • Another notable convert, Pavel Kosolapov, a cadet who dropped out of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces' Military Academy and joined the insurgency, allegedly has served as the mastermind behind several major terrorist attacks in mainland Russia.
  • Russian-Cossack convert Vitaly Razdobudko allegedly had a role in the January 2011 suicide terrorist attack in the Moscow airport. Two months later, Razdobudko committed a suicide attack against a police checkpoint in Dagestan together with his wife, Marina, also an ethnic Russian convert. Notably, Razdobudko was converted and indoctrinated by an imam who was also an ethnic Russian convert.[21]

Violent converts are not an exclusively Western phenomenon.

  • Violent converts of Russian or Slav background were detected in several Islamist radicalized cells in mainland Russia, especially in Siberia and the Volga region, and in the ranks of Islamist groups in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. The geographic reach of the Slav converts is widespread as is illustrated by the following cases: in 2005 a Belorussian citizen was arrested for his links to an Islamist cell in Spain; in 2007 a Russian convert was detained trying to cross the Pakistani-Afghani border disguised as a woman; and in the same year an 18-year-old Russian was apprehended by security forces in the camp of the violent Fatah al-Islam organization fighting against the government of Lebanon.

In addition to the influence of the 15-year conflict in North Caucasus, other factors driving the high rate of violent conversion in Russia appear to be the post-Soviet ideology & identity vacuum, and frustration due to the ongoing severe economic crisis. These factors seem to have influenced many non-Muslims to turn their attention to the "protest potential" of Islam. Although anecdotes such as the ones listed above are plentiful, it is difficult to assess the real role Russian converts play in Islamist activities in Eurasia because information released by official Russian sources makes it difficult to verify facts.

Other remarkable examples of activities of violent Islamic converts are taken from three disparate regions of the world:

  • In the Philippines, the underground Raja Solaiman Movement (RSM), which is engaged in an urban insurgency against the government, includes several hundred converts, according to some estimates.[22] RSM operatives are blamed for the worst incident in the history of maritime terrorism, a February 2004 arson attack aboard a ferry that claimed 116 lives.
  • On the other side of the globe, in Trinidad and Tobago, the extremist organization Jamaat ul-Muslimeen (JAM), consisting of African Caribbean converts, is engaged in a broad range of violent activities, from organized crime to political militancy, including an attempted armed coup.[23]
  • The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an insurgent group in Uganda, consists mostly of hardcore, violent converts to extreme Islam. Led by Sheikh Jamil Mukulu, the group fights against the government of this African nation.


It is safe to state that the cases detailed here display evidence of the rise of violent Islamic converts and their significant roles in both homegrown terrorism and the global jihad movement in the past decade. The vast reservoir of open source information makes it easy to find details of such cases. Harder to determine are the answers to three key questions arising from these findings: who are the converts?; why are they converted and radicalized?; and how does that process take place? I turn my attention to those questions in the next section of the article.

...there is no universal portrait of violent converts. They are all different.

Patterns of Conversion

This section does not examine broad dynamics and structural dimensions, instead it focuses exclusively on the individual level, which is crucial to understanding motivations behind violent conversion and attempts to map its trajectories. Such an understanding is relevant for assessing political and operational implications of violent Islamic conversions and for establishing effective countermeasures, such as profiling, counter-radicalization narratives, de-radicalization strategies, and others. Given the broad scope and complex nature of this segment, I will only highlight some key observations derived from my compilation of convert profiles.[24] This section also examines the potential link between individuals with military backgrounds and conversion to violent Islamism.


The first discovery from the study: there is no universal portrait of violent converts. They are all different. A violent convert might come from any nation, race, age, social stratum, family background, or level of education. Such an individual might have had deep roots in any branch of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, or Buddhism; or could have been only nominally religious; or might have professed to be agnostic or an atheist. A violent convert might be a member of parliament and the ruling party, a wealthy businessman in his 50s, and a father of three adult children, as was Abdul Qader from Guyana, who conspired to blow up fuel tanks at the New York City international airport.[25] Or, the convert could be a mentally disabled, uneducated, and unemployed 22-year-old, like Nicky Reilly from England, who detonated an explosive device in the shopping mall in his hometown.[26] These two examples demonstrate the range among converts comprising this pool.

Yet a careful investigation of personal profiles of violent converts does reveal a common characteristic evident in most: a crisis in their lives before their conversions. The problems causing this crisis might be psychological, personal, social, or of a combined nature. But whatever the source of the problem, the individuals came to see conversion to Islam as a remedial solution to their troublesome life experiences.[27] In simple terms, the pre-conversion crisis creates a trigger factor leading to conversion. Such a move marks the first stage of the conversion-radicalization-activation (CRA) loop.

...a careful investigation of personal profiles of violent converts does reveal a common characteristic evident in most: a crisis in their lives before their conversions.

Several examples of violent converts illustrate this idea. For instance, all three of the most notorious German convert jihadists—Fritz Gelowicz, Daniel Schneider, and Eric Breinninger—came from dysfunctional families, and their parents all divorced when the trio were in their early teens. Muriel Deagauge, a Belgian convert "she-bomber," had experienced both sudden and persistent life crises. Her brother died in a motorbike accident; she had been perpetually employed in low-income jobs; she experienced bad relations with her parents; and she was twice divorced. In these cases, as in most of the others, life crises drove the individuals to seek a solution that eventually led them toward conversion to radical Islam.

Life crises can make individuals who are suffering feel disenchanted, frustrated, alienated, or marginalized. Individuals who are reluctant to blame themselves for the problems will instead— consciously or not—often blame their environment, including their society and state, and fellow citizens who are doing well. Anger generated from these thoughts moves the disgruntled and disenfranchised individuals closer to conversion and to radical interpretations of Islam, allowing them to more quickly bridge the gap between conversion and radicalization inside the CRA loop.


This begs the relevant question: why do some individuals opt for conversion to Islam to curb their problems? Below are several reasons someone might choose this path, listed in no particular order.

Compared with other religions, Islam is characterized by the simplest and shortest conversion procedure. To become a full-fledged Muslim, a neophyte should vocally articulate a shahada statement: "La Illahi illa'Llah wa-Muhammad ar-Rasool l-Llah," or "No God except God, and Muhammad is his Prophet." This must be verified by two Muslims.

Islam provides a detailed but simple map both for daily life and for dealing with contingencies. A strict list of prohibitions (clear "can" and "can't" guidelines) suits many, which is another facet of the ease in converting to Islam.

What is sometimes referred to as the "post-modern ideas crisis," is sometimes associated with "losing confidence in the Christian vision."[28] Actually, this is not a new phenomenon: the notion of Gott ist Tot (God is dead) was a concept put forth by Friedrich Nietzsche as early as 1882. A decline in Christianity and a widening spiritual void results in the deteriorating of identity for at least some Westerners. Seeking identity and feeling "a need to belong"[29] may eventually lead them toward Islam. As explained by Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist who converted to Islam while in Taliban captivity and became a fierce critic of the West, she chose to become a part of "the best and biggest family in the world"[30] (i.e., Muslim ummah).

Actually, this is not a new phenomenon: the notion of Gott ist Tot (God is dead) was a concept put forth by Friedrich Nietzsche as early as 1882.

In the current global political environment, radical interpretations of Islam are serving as an "outlet of rebellion"[31] against the existing order and realities. This draws a striking parallel with the period of the Cold War when disappointed Westerners, especially young people, turned toward radical leftist ideology. In other words, according to Khosrokhavar, "some of the converts believe in the utopian role of Islam in the same fashion as the middle-class leftist youth in the 1960s and 1970s believed in Marxism or communism. Islamic terrorism partially feeds on the exhaustion of leftist ideologies that mobilized part of the youth in Europe...."[32] The potential of radical Islam as a tool of anti-establishment, anti-state and anti-societal defiance and militancy[33] remains one of the most common causes of conversion among the profiled violent converts.

In the current global political environment, radical interpretations of Islam are serving as an "outlet of rebellion" against the existing order and realities.

Adventurism, machismo, and a need to overcome an inferiority complex lead some personalities—primarily young men with no bright life prospects—to drift toward radical Islam, where they can find a whole variety of benefits: new likeminded friends, self-confidence, a feeling of superiority toward "ordinary" fellow citizens, and an adrenaline rush. As noted by Olivier Roy, a prominent scholar in the field of political Islam and Islamism, "they (converts) are people who feel devalued, despised and by becoming terrorists they suddenly become supermen, heroes."[34] Not surprisingly, the conflict areas in the Muslim world, such as Afghanistan, Waziristan, Kashmir, Chechnya, Bosnia, Iraq or Somalia, serve as a magnet for young and disenfranchised converts.

This set of reasons, drivers, and motivations is obviously incomplete and illustrates only some of many possible variations, ranging from technical to spiritual. Any examination of motivations for conversion should include such issues as resistance, revenge, grievances, propensity to violence, cultural influences, personal relationships, and many others, but the limited scope of this article must leave more detailed analysis for the future. Again, what is important to note is that it is impossible to establish a universal motivational pattern for conversion to radical Islam. In the words of Gen. Wesley Clark, answering a CNN anchor's question about why a U.S. soldier who was a convert to Islam assaulted his fellow servicemen in Iraq in March 2003, "you can't imagine what the motivation could be. What could he be thinking?"[35]


There are multiple ways people convert to Islam and move into violence. Each convert has his or her own unique conversion and radicalization trajectory, yet it is still possible to identify some the most common paths and tools that enable such a conversion.

The Internet
Tools such as email, chat rooms, Facebook and other social networks, blogs, and websites are huge enablers of conversion and radicalization (C&R), providing access to sources of knowledge, indoctrination, and guidance—not to mention contact with likeminded believers. This last point is crucially important, since contacts are often used to "hook" recruits. An absence of direct physical contact can help create an initially friendly environment that emboldens neophytes who otherwise might abstain from certain decisions.[36] Two early American jihadist converts, John Walker Lindh and Adam Yahee Ghadan, started their C&R trajectory through the Internet.

Preaching facilities and congregation communities controlled by radical imams have produced hundreds of radical converts in Europe and the United States. Affiliation with such hubs becomes a starting point for C&R. For instance, two French brothers, Jerome and David Courtallier, converted and radicalized in the Brighton mosque in the United Kingdom. They later plotted an attack against the American Embassy in Paris in 2001.[37] Fritz Gelowicz and Daniel Schneider of the Sauerland cell attended radical gatherings in the notorious Multikulturhaus center in Neu-Ulm, Germany.[38] Mosques and similar facilities are very attractive to alienated and disgruntled Western Islam neophytes.

Personal relationships can be enablers of C&R. Many future converts learned a radical version of Islam through contacts with "native" Muslims, including people they met in school or college; on sports teams or fitness clubs;[39] or through other common interests, to include friends, marriage, or other partnerships and relationships. Germaine Lindsay, a 7/7 suicide bomber, was converted and radicalized by his ethnic Pakistani schoolmates. By the same token, Russian convert Pavel Kosolapov learned radical Islam from his Chechen neighborhood friends. Jason Walters from the Hofstaad network was converted by his convert father and then became radicalized through Moroccan friends, eventually converting his younger brother, who also joined the network. Many violent converts, such as Jack Roche from Australia and Willie Brigitte from France, converted first due to their marriage to Muslim women (a mandatory step to formalize relations in accordance with Islamic tradition), and then radicalized. Some female converts, like Jill Courtney from Australia and Egle Kusaite from Lithuania, were converted and rapidly radicalized by their Muslim boyfriends.

Travel and study
Examination of convert profiles indicates that some were converted during travels to the Midle East or South Asia. A trip that often began with natural curiosity about another country, culture, and traditions eventually led to conversion. Problems came when the conversion stage was rapidly altered by radicalization after the "newborn" Muslims turned to education in the religious schools (madrassa) controlled by radical Islamist centers throughout Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, and Pakistan. American convert Carlos Leon Bledsoe, also known as Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, began shooting at a U.S. Army recruitment center in Arkansas, killing one person and injuring another, shortly after completing a brainwashing study in a Yemeni madrassa.[40]

Prison conversion and radicalization is increasingly being recognized as a real problem.[41] Muslim inmates constitute a substantial portion of the European prison population: for instance, in the United Kingdom, Muslims make up about 11 percent as of 2008.[42] Many correctional facilities in Europe and the United States already have been called "radicalization incubators,"[43] that are controlled by the radical Muslim gangs and visiting radical preachers who openly proselytize Islamism. Many experts believe that prison's confined environment and "captive audience" make non-Muslim inmates, especially those who want to break the cycle of their criminal history, more psychologically susceptible to conversion offers.[44] Richard Reid, commonly known as the "Shoe-Bomber," was converted and radicalized behind bars. Two American homegrown terrorist cells consisting of converts, the L.A. Prison Cell and the Synagogue plot group, originated from prison.[45]

Historically, expeditionary warfare and other forms of overseas operations in Islamic-dominated lands resulted in the conversion of some deployed personnel.

Military Backgrounds and Violent Conversion

It is hard to establish a definite link between military service and conversion to violent strains of Islam. However, certain violent converts definitely were influenced by their military experience, which played a vital role in their conversion and radicalization trajectories, whether radicalization came before or after conversion. Table 1 lists some potential attitudes and motivations specific to individuals with active or past military service, and shows how they might influence C&R.

Historically, expeditionary warfare and other forms of overseas operations in Islamic-dominated lands resulted in the conversion of some deployed personnel. For instance, French General Jacques-Francois Menou, a commander of Napoleon's troops in Egypt, converted to Islam upon his marriage to a local woman. Dozens of German officers with the Ottoman army during World War I converted as well. Russian experience in Afghanistan (1980s) and Chechnya (1990s) indicates dozens (if not hundreds) of servicemen not only converted, but also joined the other side.[46] Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm led to military converts among military people once stationed in the Gulf. (Included in this group are John Allen Muhammad, who became the Beltway Sniper, and U.S. Army Capt. Josef Yee, a Chinese-American chaplain later accused of smuggling sensitive papers out of Guantanamo Bay.).

The post-9/11 military operations in the United States' Central Command Area of Responsibility also produced scores of military converts from the United States and other countries. For example, in May 2004, 37 South Korean soldiers converted in Seoul's mosque prior to their departure to Iraq. Contributing to their conversion was apparently the training they received in language and culture in preparation of deployment.[47] In another case, in July 2007, two American service members (a male and a female) stationed at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan converted to Islam and then married.[48] By May 2005, there were four known cases of conversion in the American military in Iraq.[49] One of these Muslim converts, Pvt. George Douglas, changed his name to Mujahid Mohammad and stated that one of his reasons for conversion was his admiration for the "bravery of people of Fallujah."[50]



Resistance and Revenge

Certain grievances and negative perceptions related to service in military or civilian life (example: perceived bad treatment from superiors or fellow servicemen) might precipitate an individual to seek revenge. Islam offers potential for a person to partake in resistance and revenge, at all levels, from the global down to individual, particularly on an R&C track.

Propensity to Violence and Adventurism

It is believed that the nature and conditions of military service increase natural aggressiveness. Some individuals who served in the military and were affected by its adventurism or became addicted to the adrenaline rush might trade sides after they leave military service. Violent jihad might also appeal to individuals seeking to appear more brave. These personality characteristics could also lead an individual to become a mercenary fighter. This is largely an R&C track too, as is the one above.

Cultural Influence

The nature of modern conflict, including the blurred lines between combat and military operations other than war (MOOTW), results in broad and diverse interaction between deployed troops and the local population. Such contact might result in the conversion of some personnel who adopt the cultural environment they have been immersed in. Most such conversion cases are "normal"; however, some converts may radicalize eventually, depending on circumstances. This is mostly a C&R track.

Personal Relationships

This is a subset of the previous category. Islam requires conversion of a non-Muslim partner in the case of marriage. Again, in some cases such a conversion may be an initial stage for radicalization. This is also a C&R track.


Most individuals who convert to Islam are responding to a combination of two or more of the patterns mentioned in this table.

Table 1. Attitudes that Might Affect Military Veteran's C&R

Note: This matrix is incomplete and currently under further development. The causes shown in Table 1 are limited to the military pool only; beyond that domain, a much broader set of drivers and motivations can be found. is safe to anticipate that jihadist ideologues will try to convert military members as a vehicle to undermine military morale, integrity, and cohesion.

Douglas's quote might be interpreted as sympathy for the Iraqi insurgency and indicates how easily a convert transcends from a purely religious sphere to a political one. The bottom line here is that protracted overseas campaigns in certain areas of the Islamic world will most likely lead to the conversion of some servicemen. And the concern is that certain individuals from within the pool of military converts may pass beyond mainstream, peaceful, legitimate, spiritual conversions into politicized, violent strains of Islam.

My archive on violent converts to Islam indicates that a number of them had a military background. Table 2 lists some violent Islamic converts and gives details of their military service and their involvement in terrorism.

...militant Islamist leaders regard conversion both as a type of psychological operation tool as well as a strategic communication tool.

Given this record, it is safe to anticipate that jihadist ideologues will try to convert military members as a vehicle to undermine military morale, integrity, and cohesion. Zaghloul al-Naggar, one of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders, said proselytizing activities by his movement during the first Gulf War led to the Islamic conversion of "20,000 U.S. servicemen."[51] However irrational and exaggerated that claim, the statement clearly indicates the potential of propaganda targeting. The story of U.S. Army Spec. Bowe Bergdahl, who was forced to convert in Taliban captivity, also illustrates that militant Islamist leaders regard conversion both as a type of psychological operation tool as well as a strategic communication tool.[52]

Conversion among military members is of concern because conversion to another religion in most cases involves an ultimate change of identity. Change of identity often results in a shift of loyalty. In the military, such a shift may have far-reaching implications for the system, particularly if the change remains unnoticed.

Name (Nation)

Military Service, Record

Patterns of C&R/R&C and Nature of Violent Activity

Lionel Dumont (France)

Legionnaire in the French Foreign Legion, 13th Demi-Brigade, Djibouti

Converted while in real service. Fought in Bosnia on the Muslim side; led a terrorist-criminal gang in France in the 1990s; arrested in Japan in 2004. Believed to be a high-value AQ sleeper asset.

Pavel Kosolapov (Russia)

Cadet in the Strategic Missile Forces Academy, Rostov-na-Dony; was discharged from grad course for alleged barracks larceny

Was converted by Chechen friends upon his return after dishonorable discharge. Currently is believed to be a chief of the subversive service of the "Emirate of Caucasus" although no independent verification for that charge is available.

Hiroshi Minami (Japan)

MSgt in the 1st AB BDE, JGSDF

Upon his retirement, decided to help "freedom-fighters to resist government atrocities against civilians" in Chechnya. Was converted on the spot. Performed as a foot soldier. Missing in action, most likely killed in action.

Matthew Stewart (Australia)

Royal Australian Army, served in East Timor in 1999, 2000.

An obscure case. Most likely, converted due to cultural influences during his service overseas. Was displayed in some AQ/Islamist propaganda videos. Current whereabouts unknown.

Willie Brigitte (France)

Sailor drafted in the French Navy. Had a bad service record, deserted twice during his three-year term. Probably faced perceived racism during service due to his Afro-Caribbean origin.

Pattern of conversion unclear, most likely came after service and via marriage (was married three times, all three times to Muslim women). Ended up as an operative of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, was detained in Australia for a terror plot, now serving terms in jail.

Table 2. Military service converts who engaged in violence.

Note 1: This list is being developed and law enforcement converts may be added. Yasin Abu Bakr, leader of Jamaat al-Muslimin in Trinidad and Tobago, served as a police officer. Martine van der Oever, a female member of the secondary ring of the Hofstaad network, was a police employee as well.

Note 2: Some violent converts had no military service record, but came from military families. Daniel P. Boyd (the Raleigh jihad group) comes from a Marine officer's family. Jason Walters (second-in-command of the Hofstaad) is a son of a former U.S. Air Force airman who served in the Netherlands in the 1980s and is a convert himself. Simon "Sulaymam" Keeler, a British jihadist activist, has a stepfather who is a serviceman or civil servant in the Royal Air Force.

Note 3: U.S. converts are not listed here. However, notable U.S. violent converts with a military background include: Ryan Anderson, Paul Hall (. Hassan Abu Jihaad), Seyfullah Chapman and other associates from the Virginia Jihad Network; Hassan Karim Akbar (Mark Fidel Kloos); Bryant Neal Vinas (joined Army in 2002, dropped out from the recruitment center in Fort Jackson, S.C.).

Additional Observations

Some other observations are relevant in the discussion of conversion and radicalization. The first is related to the factors that enable C&R. The first four of the five factors listed above (Internet, mosques, relationships, and travel and study) are obviously linked to globalization. Globalization, both in its technological and human dimensions, trumps geography, leading to intensifying interaction between civilizations. Air transportation squeezes physical distance, making travel take mere hours, instead of weeks and months as was needed in the not-so-distant past. The Internet makes communication even faster.

Migration changes demography. One does not necessarily need to travel away from Europe any longer to explore and contact another culture—it might be found next door or just around the corner, in the London suburbs, in the Paris banlieues, in Milan, or in the Hague. The openness of Western culture makes it easy for Muslims to proselytize others while Islam deflects penetration with strict and prohibitive safeguards.

Are they blindly lured and recruited, or do they cross the threshold voluntarily?

...Did they succumb to peer-pressure...? Or did they come to Islam already prone to hatred and violence?

The "dark side" of globalization makes it important to assess the phenomenon of conversion in general and its violent dimension in particular. Increasingly, terrorist cases linked to converts illustrate the "globalized" nature of today's world. The March 2010 "cartoon" plot involved a cell whose members originated from Algeria, Libya, the Palestinian territories, Croatia, and the United States; three of the seven detainees were converts; the cell was based on both sides of the Atlantic—in Ireland and the U.S.—and the cell's target was a cartoonist in Sweden.[53] In another example, Sergey Malyshev, an ethnic Russian convert from Belarus who fought in Chechnya on the rebels' side, was arrested in 2005 in Spain for his role in a recruitment ring that consisted mostly of Pakistanis and was linked with the Iraqi insurgency.[54]

A second observation has to do with the vague nexus between conversion and radicalization. As was noted by Jean-Louis Bruguiere, a French anti-terrorism judge, "the converts are undeniably the toughest. Nowadays the conversions happen more quickly and the commitment is more radical."[55] Michael Taarnby, an Islamist expert from the Danish Institute for International Studies, echoes him: "It's striking, the number of converts engaged in terrorist activities."[56] The question as to why some converts prefer extreme violent interpretations of Islam is one of the toughest to answer. Are they blindly lured and recruited, or do they cross the threshold voluntarily? Did they succumb to peer-pressure, internal group dynamics, a leaders' charisma? Or did they come to Islam already prone to hatred and violence, just comfortably embedding their rejection and prejudice in a pre-existing extremist resistance ideology? Identifying the "missing link" that bridges the gap between conversion and radicalization leaves a broad field for future research.

Summarizing this section, it is necessary to keep in mind that violent conversion is a very nonlinear, complex, and obscure process, as is illustrated by hundreds of personal stories. The centerpiece of each story, however, is a specific problem or problems suffered by an individual. The need to combat the problem causes a reaction, and conversion to Islam is viewed as a solution. In other words, at a certain point, existing long-term causes meet trigger factors, as in the classical "precondition–precipitance" equation by Martha Crenshaw.[57] When conversion is offered in a package with radical ideology, it may lead "newborn" Muslims up a ladder of violent conversion.


This section examines the value of violent converts in the global jihad movement (GJM). It also touches briefly upon two related aspects associated with converts, their role in the so-called "war of ideas" and female suicide terrorism.


Understanding the place and role of violent converts in the context of homegrown terrorism underlines their multiple levels of utility for the global jihad movement. This utility, which is both practical and symbolic, may be broken down along several functional activity lines, as detailed below.

Direct action
This category includes straight involvement in terrorism, insurgency, and in some cases, associated organized crime. Converts may operate in the violent domain either as members of the ordinary rank and file ("muscle") or as leaders. They might operate in their native environment (the West), conflict zones in the Muslim world, or elsewhere. The scale of their terrorist involvement may vary from high-profile to low-tech and amateurish. Converts involved in direct action include hand-picked, high-profile AQ operatives (such as Lionel Dumont), "expendables" chosen for one high-visibility attack (like suicide bomber Germaine Lindsay), "foot soldiers" fighting in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, or homegrown jihad wannabes who try to commit mostly low-tech attacks in their homeland. Several examples of all kinds of these activities have been discussed in this article. In addition, a selected specific segment—female suicide terrorism—is examined in more detail later in this section.

Ideological support for terrorism
This domain encompasses converts involved in different forms of justification or defense of Islamist terrorism and violent extremism. This support may include participation in Islamist propaganda efforts, proselytism, recruitment and indoctrination of new followers, and related activities. One notable example of an individual engaged in ideological support of terrorism is Trevor William Forest, or Abdullah al-Faisal, a British–Jamaican convert imam, who preached religious and racial hatred across the U.K. Muslim community, until he was legally banned.[58] The role of converts in the "war of ideas" is elaborated further in this chapter.

Materiel support for terrorism
Many converts have been accused of being engaged in different forms of material and technical support in the context of the GJM, such as fundraising, providing supplies, and sharing expertise. For example, Raphael Gendron, an ethnic French convert and information technology specialist, was maintaining a website of the Malika al-Aroud Islamist network, which was used for jihadist propaganda and recruitment.[59] Some converts are active in Islamic charities, which are controlled by the radical centers.

Intelligence Support
Another way converts contribute to the movement is through "classic" espionage. As was mentioned earlier in this article, two U.S. servicemen were convicted this decade for their attempt to act as AQ "moles." Another example of how converts may be used for spying is Madhuri Gupta, an Indian diplomatic service employee in Islamabad, who allegedly was recruited by the Pakistani intelligence services.[60]

Structural Dimension

In recent decades, converts have been spotted in the ranks or outer circles of major terrorist, insurgent, political extremist, and criminal groups. These groups include AQ, the Taliban (both in its Afghani and Pakistani branches), Jemaah Islamiyeh, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Moroccan Combat Islamic Group, Al-Shabab in Somalia, and People against Gangsterism and Drugs in South Africa. Converts were also identified in different elements of insurgencies in Iraq, Kashmir, Chechnya, and the Niger Delta. Only two organizations with more than 100 members are known to consist solely of converts—the RSM in the Philippines and the JAM in Trinidad and Tobago. Otherwise, violent converts were embedded in small numbers into groups made up mostly of "native" Muslims.

However, even at the lowest organizational levels, the convert-related structural dynamic is disturbing. Violent converts increasingly represent a substantial percentage of members in grassroots, self-radicalized, autonomous cells and groups scattered across the Western urban environment. Most of these structural units are an amalgam, i.e. consisting of "native" and convert Muslims. However, some are made up exclusively of converts (such as the "Miami Six" or "Synagogue plot" groups). To further complicate the landscape, many violent converts demonstrate their willingness and ability to operate as "lone wolves" without formal affiliation with any group. Such a dynamic poses obvious implications for Western security services and law-enforcement agencies.

Operational Dimension

Small groups and loners embedded into increasingly multicultural, diverse, and fluid Western communities are not easily distinguished from moderate Muslims. That difficulty poses a key security challenge from the standpoint of profiling, detecting, penetrating, and dismantling terrorist groups. This fact was openly discussed by Dennis Blair, then the director of U.S. National Intelligence, and Robert Mueller, the Director of the FBI.[61] Such scattered and low-key groups of likeminded and "action-oriented friends"[62] with an unpredictable internal dynamic, no formal hierarchy, and loose outside connections are a real concern for security efforts. If such cells keep a low profile and look and behave "traditionally," they produce few warning indicators prior to an act of terrorism. An example of such a low-profile group that blended into its community is the 7/7 terror cell, which consisted of three members of Pakistani descent and a convert. defeats Sun Tzu's paradigm of penetrating the intent of the enemy's army commander. Instead of an army, there are hundreds of decentralized "platoons"...well-blended into their environment.

The current threat from such small groups in some ways is comparable to the challenge of sleeper cells of the Cold War period, and trumps the meaning of strategic intelligence in combating terrorism. Equally, it defeats Sun Tzu's paradigm of penetrating the intent of the enemy's army commander. Instead of an army, there are hundreds of decentralized "platoons" (groups, cells and lone wolves), well-blended into their environment. The threat posed by "white-skinned, blue-eyed, hard-to-detect" converts (a dream of the late terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarkawi)[63] in such an environment grows even greater.

Female Suicide Terrorism
The use of women as suicide bombers is not unique in the context of Islamist terrorism; women have been used in Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Chechnya, Russia, and other areas. However, the use of converts in this role is a relatively new, but potentially very dangerous trend. It is directly related to a steadily growing pool of Western women who are converting to violent interpretations of Islam. In spring 2010, two American female converts were detained for their alleged role in the "cartoon plot," and an Australian woman was imprisoned in Yemen for her suspected ties to AQ in the Arabian Peninsula. One fear about this new use of female converts is that they will emerge as willing suicide executioners.

As indicated as early as September 2005, "it is no longer if but when—when will we have Caucasian converts to Islam... American or Canadian female suicide bombers? It is only a matter of time."[64] This scary prediction materialized just two months later, when Muriel Degauge, the first known convert "she-bomber," committed her attack. She was one of up to 47 female converts (most from Germany, Belgium, and Denmark) who reportedly were targeted by recruiters for suicide missions in Iraq and Pakistan.[65] Although such reports could not be verified from independent sources, the alarming truth is that many women converts fall under the influence of radical Islamist ideology, subsequently becoming more susceptible to brainwashing, and eventually aimed at suicide missions.

A study of the profiles of Muriel Degauge and Egle Kusaite,[66] another female convert who apparently had agreed to a suicide mission before she was arrested in Lithuania in 2009, reveals some striking parallels between the two women. Both experienced crises in their pre-conversion period. Both were converted and radicalized by their Muslim male partners. Neither had ever been to the Muslim world; their C&R stories took place entirely in Europe. Though Degauge eventually travelled to Iraq and detonated her explosive belt next to an American military convoy, she was the only victim of her attack. However, the next she-bomber may choose a less complex and much more effective method (from the standpoint of the media-political effect) and act in a crowded public place in a European city.

War of Ideas

Analysis of the strategic communication projected by different segments of the GJM indicates its leaders increasingly appreciate the chance to exploit converts for their propaganda value. This is demonstrated by the frequency with which converts appear in jihadist propaganda videos and Internet forums, and other tools of intelligence support.

Many converts are involved in "soft" propaganda and operate legally, both in public and on the Internet.

Converts are skillfully used by jihadist entrepreneurs to send messages to different Western target audiences. Adam Yahyee Ghadan, working for AQ, addresses primarily the American middle class, trying to turn it against the U.S. government's foreign policy. For instance, his speech aired by Al-Jazeera in early October 2008 was devoted to an unfolding financial crisis in the United States. At the other end of the social spectrum, convert Eric Breinninger (before he was killed in Pakistan in April 2010) was messaging his peers among lower-class, disenfranchised, German youth urging them to join the ranks of the Taliban. The media images of Breinninger, posing in military fatigues, traditional Arab scarf around his neck and a Kalashnikov rifle in his hands, created a very appealing message to those unstable "angry young men" back in Europe, who felt themselves alienated and deprived of life potential. In the same manner, U.S. convert Omar al-Hammammi (presumably killed in 2011) used to recruit disenfranchised young Americans, including Islam neophytes, to join fighting the ranks of the al-Shabab Islamist movement in Somalia.

However, the propaganda utility of converts is not necessarily limited to recruiting others for battle. Many converts are involved in "soft" propaganda and operate legally, both in public and on the Internet. One eloquent example is the above-mentioned British journalist, Yvonne Ridley. Her activities include waging a controversial political activism campaign for the release of the convicted AQ terrorist Aafia Siddiqi, praising Chechen terrorist Shamil Basayev as a freedom fighter, and supporting the Kashmiri insurgency.[67]

Suffice it to note that those providing intelligence support likewise represent a very diverse pool of characters, including hate-preaching imams, AQ "political officers" (like Ghaddan), drifters (like Ridley) and swingers. The latter are former far-left or far-right political activists who converted to Islam and joined the radical Islamists on the politico-propaganda front. Included in this group are Israeli leftist, pro-Palestinian activist Tali Fahima and former neo-Nazi leaders David Myatt and Ahmed Hubert (from the United Kingdom and Switzerland, respectively).

As a final observation, the use of turncoat Westerners for propaganda purposes by GJM bears yet another resemblance to a Cold War pattern. The growing role of converts as high-value assets in the intelligence support field prompted EU officials to note the trend for the first time in 2010, when they stated: "Western converts are increasingly being used by Islamist terrorist groups for propaganda and recruitment purposes. Native speakers have appeared in videos produced by terrorist organizations and disseminated on the Internet, broadcasting messages to potential recruits in EU Member States in their own language."[68]

In sum, it is important to underline the following key points relevant to violent converts to Islam.[69]

Violent Muslim converts represent a rising trend and expanding subset within the domains of homegrown terrorism and the global jihadist movement. This trend is indivisible from the entire issue of homegrown terrorism and should be treated as a "big threat within a great threat." Converts create a "third element" of homegrown terrorism beyond radical, second-generation Muslims and legal and illegal Muslim, noncitizen migrants.

Violent conversion is a multifaceted phenomenon without universal patterns for conversion and radicalization of its actors. The highly diverse and very individual internal motivations behind C&R represent the most complex segment of this phenomenon.

From the operational standpoint, converts are difficult to detect, scattered, and hard to profile, and as such they pose a sustained security challenge.

...the role of converts is steadily increasing in intelligence support and propaganda efforts aimed at the Western public.

Converts provide value for global jihad in the domains of operations, support, and propaganda. In particular, the role of converts is steadily increasing in intelligence support and propaganda efforts aimed at the Western public. Thus, converts are forming a promising potential recruitment pool and are regarded as an essential force multiplier by the entrepreneurs of global jihad.

As the AQ core may further decline following the successful elimination of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, the center of gravity of the jihadist effort may shift even more toward the West and the homegrown terrorist pool that is gradually expanding there.

The role of converts in terrorist activities is evolving. The next generation of violent converts is likely to be more action-oriented and consist mostly of young people, including scores of female converts. As a protracted, global, socio-economic crisis results in growing frustration in the West, the number of Western violent converts to Islam is likely to continue to rise. The problem may continue to gradually move from its previously peripheral position to the very epicenter of the homegrown terrorism domain. ethical values surrounding the issue of violent converts should not be allowed to stand in the way of developing effective strategies to counter this phenomenon.

Violent converts should be clearly distinguished from moderates, who represent a majority of the converts to Islam and should not be treated with any prejudice. However, to combat the threat from violent converts effectively, first the threat should be recognized as such and properly identified. The political sensitivities and post-modern ethical values surrounding the issue of violent converts should not be allowed to stand in the way of developing effective strategies to counter this phenomenon.

Being an indivisible part of homegrown terrorism, the phenomenon of violent converts still requires special consideration from the standpoint of devising and employing proper counterterrorism policies and practices. To be countered effectively, the trend of rising numbers of violent converts still has to be studied and understood. In this regard, one of the most relevant ways to combat the problem is through scholarly research. This article represents an attempt to provide an initial overview of the problem, and is the first in a series of planned publications on violent converts to Islam.

About the Author(s): Jahangir Arasli works with the Partnership for Peace Consortium's Combating Terrorism Working Group (PfPCTWG). A version of this article is slated for publication as a chapter of a forthcoming book titled "The Dangerous Landscape: Twenty-First Century Terrorism, Transnational Challenges, International Responses". Learn more about the CTWG and other CTFP affiliates on our Resources page.


[1] For example, the issue of violent converts was rarely mentioned in Europol's "EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Reports" (TE-SAT) that were issued before 2010. (These reports are available at the agency's website: However, the TE-SAT 2010 did address the issue, noting that converts were being used by terrorist organizations, as will be detailed later in this article.

[2] Farhad Khosrokhavar, "Jihadism in Europe and the Middle East," in Thomas Olsen and Farhad Khosrokhavar, Islamism as Social Movement (Aarhus, Denmark: Centre for Studies in Islamism and Radicalization, Department of Political Science, Aarhus University, 2009), 41; accessed February 1, 2010;

[3] This definition is compiled from a variety of sources that address the issue of religious conversion.

[4] I am introducing this notion of CRA loop or a "conversion ladder" for the first time in this essay.

[5] An example of such a "gray area" case is John Allen Muhammad, the "Beltway Sniper," who killed at least 10 people in the Washington, D.C, area in 2002. He was a Gulf War vet who had converted to Islam ("Muhammad a Gulf War Vet, Islam Convert,", January 26, 2004, accessed April 19, 2010,

[6] For more details on the Roubaix Gang, see: "Roubaix Gang," Global Jihad, accessed June 21, 2010, On Lionel Dumont, see Jim Frederick, "Japan's Terror Threat,", May 31, 2004, accessed June 21, 2010,,9171,644220,00.html.

[7] Jeffrey Cozzens, "Islamist Groups Develop New Recruiting Strategies," Jane's Intelligence Review (online), February 1, 2005,

[8] In simple terms, I define the global jihad movement (GJM) as  loosely knit but strongly motivated, rooted in radical and politicized interpretations of the Muslim faith. The long-term goals of the GJM are vaguely defined and ultimately irrational. However, on the operational and tactical side the GJM is quite rational, a combination that makes the GJM a threat of  worldwide magnitude. The early organizational nucleus for GJM was Al-Qaeda (or Al-Qaeda Central), which struck a blow for GJM by launching the 9/11 attack. Currently, the GJM is based on loosely connected small groups, cells, and individuals that share radical Islamist ideology and a joint vision of the enemy, which includes the United States, Israel, Western civilization in general, and moderate Muslims.

[9] Brendan Bernhard, "White Muslim: From LA to New York ... to Jihad" (Hoboken, NJ: Melville House Publishing, 2006), 12.

[10] Isabel Teotonio, "Toronto 18," The, June 22, 2010, accessed July 1, 2010,

[11] Other sources report a different number of terrorist-related incidents. For examples of other estimates, see Jena Baker McNeill, James Carafano, and Jessica Zuckerman, "30 Terrorists Plots Foiled: How the System Worked," The Heritage Foundation, April 29, 2010, accessed May 13, 2010,; Germain Difo, "Ordinary Measures, Extraordinary Results: An Assessment of Foiled Plots Since 9/11," American Security Project, May 2010, accessed May 29, 2010,; and Bryan M. Jenkins, Would-Be Warriors: Incidents of Jihadi Terrorist Radicalization in the United States Since September 11, 2001 (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2010).

[12] Manuel Roig-Franzia, "Army Soldier Is Convicted In Attack on Fellow Troops," Washington, April 22, 2005,

[13] All data below is compiled from information produced by different news agencies between 2001 and the present.

[14] Christopher Jasparro, "Madrid Attack Points to Sustained Al-Qaeda Direction," Jane's Intelligence Review (August 2004), 31. The conversion of Trashorras to Islam is still disputed though by those who argue he was involved in the conspiracy purely as a criminal seeking profit.

[15] Craig Whitlock, "Trial of French Islamic Radical Sheds Light on Convert's Role," Washington Post, January 1, 2006.

[16] Yassin Musharbash, Marcal Rosenbasch and Holger Stark, "The Third Generation: German Jihad Colonies Sprout Up in Waziristan," Spiegel Online, April 5, 2010, accessed May 13, 2010,,1518,687306,00.html

[17]  "Pakistan: Two British Converts Killed in Drone Attack," Islam in Europe, December 17, 2010, accessed March 4, 2011,

[18] "Canadians Enrolled for Jihad in Pakistan: Report,", January 17, 2011, accessed June 6, 2011,

[19] Based on data posted on February 12, 2001, on the website of the РОСИНФОРМЦЕНТР (The Russian Information Centre,, in Russian). That website is currently defunct.

[20] Mairbek Vachagaev, "Killing of Said Buryatsky Unlikely to Deter North Caucasus Insurgency," The Jamestown Foundation–Eurasia Daily Monitor 7, no 48, March 11, 2010, accessed March 17, 2010,

[21] "Moscow Airport Bomber Converted by Russian Imam: Report," ABC-CBN News, January 28, 2011.

[22] "Philippines Terrorism: The Role of Militant Islamic Converts," The International Crisis Group, Asia Report #110, December 19, 2005, accessed November 3, 2007,

[23] Chris Zambelis, "Jamaat al-Muslimeen: The Growth and Decline of Islamist Militancy in Trinidad and Tobago," The Jamestown Foundation–Terrorism Monitor 7, no 23, July 30, 2009, accessed August 11, 2009,

[24] I plan to reveal the unified profiles of violent converts in a future publication.

[25] For more about Abdul Qader's profile and the fuel tank plot, see Gordon French, "Guyana ‘Shocked' by Terror Plot to Blow Up JFK Airport," Caribbean Net News, June 4, 2007, accessed January 19, 2009, His story disproved a common misconception that terrorists are always poor and socially deprived.

[26] "Nicky Reilly: Profile of a Failed Suicide Bomber,", October 15, 2008, accessed November 8, 2008,

[27] Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the main electoral slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is Al-Islam huwa al-Hall or Islam is the Solution.

[28] Michael Nazir-Ali, "Extremism Flourished as UK Lost Christianity," The Telegraph, January 7, 2008, accessed October 15, 2008, For more on this subject, see: "Islamic Radicalism in Europe Reflects Spiritual Void," Islam in Europe, September 16, 2007, accessed May 23, 2008,

[29] The "need to belong" concept is elaborated by a French–Lebanese philosopher, Amin Maalouf. See Amin Maalouf and Barbara Bray, In the Name of Identity: Violence and a Need to Belong (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2001).

[30] Hannah Bayman, "Yvonne Ridley: From Captive to Convert," BBC News, September 21, 2004, accessed September 20, 2007,

[31] Jumana Farouky, "Allah's Recruits,", August 20, 2006, accessed November 29, 2007,,9171,1229125,00.html.

[32] Farhad Khosrokhavar, "Jihadism in Europe and the Middle East," 37.

[33] Pamala L. Griset and Sue Mahan, Terrorism in Perspective (London: Sage Publications, 2003), 119.

[34] Cited from Grim's Hall blog, October 31, 2005, accessed March 3, 2010,

[35] "101st Attack: The Investigation,", March 24, 2003, accessed October 31, 2009,

[36] For more details on jihadist recruitment via the Internet, see Daniel Williams, "Terrorists Seek Next ‘Jihad Jane' on English-Language Web Sites," Bloomberg Businessweek, April 19, 2010, accessed April 27, 2010,

[37] An initial motivation for conversion of both brothers was to curb drugs addictions. When visiting a mosque, they were hooked and consequently indoctrinated. For details, see: Anthony Barnett, Martin Bright, and Nick Paton Walsh, "UK Student's ‘Key Terror Role'," The Guardian, October 28, 2001, accessed September 18, 2007,

[38] Roland Strobele, "Southern German Towns Become Hub of Jihadism," World Politics Review, September 17, 2007, (accessed March 28, 2008).

[39] Scott Atran, "Who Becomes a Terrorist Today?," Perspective on Terrorism, 2, no. 5: (2008)

[40] Joseph Abrams, "Little Rock Shooting Suspect Joins Growing List of Muslim Converts Accused of Targeting U.S.," Fox News, June 2, 2009, accessed June 3, 2009,,2933,524799,00.html.

[41] For in-depth analysis of prisons as fertile grounds for conversion, see "Recruitment and Mobilization for the Islamist Militant Movement in Europe," The European Commission, December 2007, accessed June 16, 2009, _on_mobilization_tactics_en.pdf,  39-44.

[42] Richard Ford, "Prisoners Convert to Islam for Jail Perks," The Times Online, June 8, 2010, accessed June 12, 2010,

[43] Mitchell D. Silber and Arvin Bhatt, Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat (New York: New York City Police Department, 2007), 20.

[44] Ibid., 39.

[45]For more information about the Synagogue plot group, see  Joseph Abrams, "Homegrown Terror Suspects Turned towards Radicalism in U.S. Prisons," Fox News, May 22, 2009, accessed May 27, 2009,,2933,521215,00.html.

[46] There is a distinction in the patterns of conversion in Afghanistan and Chechnya. In the former case, most of those who converted were held in captivity by the mujahedin; the Russian military's staunch ideology and tough security control provided sufficient safeguards to prevent conversion via interaction with the local population. In Chechnya, in addition to converts among prisoners of war, many soldiers converted and consequently switched sides via contacts with the Chechen population. The nature of the Chechen conflict, ("war among the people," as Sir Rupert Smith puts it), with its geographical and linguistic proximity to mainland Russia to increase the rates of C&R  as well as R&C. 

[47] "South Korean Soldiers Convert to Islam before Iraq Tour," The Daily Times (Pakistan), May 29, 2004,

[48] "Two U.S. Soldiers in Afghanistan Convert to Islam - Paper," Reuters, July 26, 2007,

[49] Hamid Abdullah, "American Soldier Converts to Islam in Fallujah Mosque," Watching America, May 28, 2005,

[50] Ibid.

[51] "Egyptian Cleric Zaghloul Al-Naggar: Our Way of Dealing with US Military Is by Preaching Islam," Middle East Media Research Institute, January 8, 2010,

[52] In much broader terms, conversion to Islam is an inherent program point for many Islamist movements worldwide, such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Hizb ut-Tahrir (HUT) and Tablighi Jamiat (TJ). In some places in the world, the conversion campaign by Islamists takes an overtly violent form, as is illustrated by the atrocities of the Boko Haram group in Nigeria.

[53] For details, see Jonathan Adams, "Jihad Jane and 7 Others Held in Plot to Kill Swedish Cartoonist," The Christian Science Monitor, March 10, 2010, accessed March 12, 2010,

[54] Hayder Mili, "Al-Qaeda Caucasian Foot Soldiers," The Jamestown Foundation – Terrorism Monitor 4, no. 21, November 2, 2006, accessed October 12, 2007,

[55] Mark Trevalyan and Jon Boyle, "Al Qaeda Exploits ‘Blue-Eyed' Muslim Converts," New Zealand Herald, October 16, 2005, accessed June 14, 2009,

[56] Ibid.

[57] For more information, see Martha Crenshaw, "The Causes of Terrorism," Comparative Politics 13, no 4 (1981), 379-99.

[58] Margaret Ryan, "Cleric Preached Racist Views," BBC, February 24, 2003, accessed May 3, 2010,

[59] "Belgium: Al-Qaeda Cell Sentenced," Islam in Europe blog, May 10, 2010, accessed June 5, 2010,

[60] Though the mentioned episode does not involve terrorist actors, it still illustrates the utility of converts for intelligence purposes.

[61] "Intel Chief: Small Groups are Key Terror Challenge," CBS News, April 21, 2010, accessed May 31, 2010,; and "Home-Grown, Solo Terrorists as Bad as Al-Qaeda: FBI Chief," AFP, April 15, 2010, accessed May 4, 2010,

[62] Scott Atran, "Who Becomes a Terrorist Today?

[63] Hayder Mili, "Al-Qaeda Caucasian Foot Soldiers."

[64] Debra D. Zedalis, "Female Suicide Bombers," 59-60, in Cindy D. Ness (ed.), Female Terrorism and Militancy: Agency, Utility and Organization (London, New York: Routledge, 2008), and "Symposium: The She Bomber,", September 9, 2005, accessed June25, 2010,

[65] Karla Cunningham, "The Evolving Participation of Muslim Women in Palestine, Chechnya, and the Global Jihadi Movement," 95, in Cindy D. Ness (ed.), Female Terrorism and Militancy: Agency, Utility and Organization (London: Routledge, 2008).

[66] For more about Kusaite, see: "Potential Suicide Bomber Charged in Lithuania," Baltic Report, May 4, 2010, accessed May 19, 2010,

[67] Information about Ridley's views and activities can be found on her webpage:

[68] "EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report - TE-SAT 2010," EUROPOL, 2010, accessed May 31, 2010,, 44.

[69] Some of these findings were reported by the author in the meetings of the Counterterrorism Working Group in Tbilisi, Georgia (April 2007) and Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany (September 2007); and in the 12th Annual Conference of the Partnership for Peace Consortium of Defense Academies and Security Studies Institutes in Warsaw, Poland (June 2010).

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