Terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda have for years relied on foreign recruits and lone-wolf supporters to bolster their ranks. Jamal Ahjjaj, an imam at As-Soennah Mosque in The Hague, told the Washington Post that converts are “the most vulnerable because they do not yet fully understand Islam.” The imam noted that “sometimes there are people — the wrong people — waiting outside the mosque to greet them.”
CEP’s Extremist Converts resource has identified 131 American, Canadian, Australian, and European converts to Islam from diverse backgrounds who have become or attempted to become extremist propagandists or recruiters (13), foreign fighters (53), or domestic terrorists (74). Analysis of the profiles finds that:
- At least 79 (60 percent) were 25 years old or younger at the age of conversion
- At least 37 (28 percent) pledged allegiance to, or allegedly acted on behalf of, ISIS
- At least 27 (21 percent) reportedly had prior criminal records, while at least 11 (8 percent) reportedly converted to Islam while in prison
- At least 24 (18 percent) were influenced indirectly or directly by deceased al-Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki
- At least 23 (18 percent) allied themselves with al-Qaeda or its affiliates
- At least 18 (14 percent) had a history of drug use
- At least 17 (13 percent) served or aspired to serve in their countries’ military
- At least 14 (11 percent) had disciplinary problems in high school or dropped out before graduating
U.S. & Canadian Extremist Converts
CEP has identified dozens of U.S. and Canadian converts to Islam who have attempted or succeeded in launching domestic terror attacks, joining terrorist movements abroad, or financing acts of terror. Notable examples include Adam Gadahn, a former senior operative in al-Qaeda and U.S. convert from California who served as a translator and propagandist for al-Qaeda, as well as John Georgelas, a U.S. convert to Texas who became what Atlantic reporter Graeme Wood described as the “most important and prominent” American in ISIS’s ranks.
CEP has to date identified 79 American cases and 11 Canadian cases in which susceptible converts either attempted or succeeded in becoming foreign fighters (37), domestic terrorists (53), or propagandists (3). Of these, 54 (60 percent) converted at or before the age of 25.
European & Australian Extremist Converts
In May 2015, the Washington Post reported that as many as one in six Europeans joining ISIS are converts to Islam. In France, the ratio of converts among those joining ISIS is even higher: about one in four, according to European intelligence officials and terrorism experts. Of these foreign fighters, a considerable number were teenagers. (Source: Washington Post)
Prominent examples of European and Australian extremist converts include British-born Sally Jones and Australian-born Musa Cerantonio, both of whom have become high-level advocates for ISIS. On May 22, 2017, British-born convert Khalid Masood carried out a vehicular and stabbing attack in the heart of London, resulting in the deaths of at least four people.
CEP has documented 41 cases in which recent converts have either attempted or succeeded in becoming foreign fighters (16), domestic terrorists (21), or propagandists and recruiters (10) for extremist and terrorist groups. Of these cases, 25 (61 percent) converted at or before the age of 25.