08/26/2014 03:06 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Preventing Jihadi Johns & Saving Future James Foleys: Research on Combatting Homegrown Terrorism & Radicalization

The British government is close to identifying the Islamic state militant responsible for decapitating American journalist James Foley. The gruesome video depicting Foley's murder provided authorities with critical information regarding the masked man who until now has been known only by his nickname, "Jihadi John." One of the most important clues is his accent. Linguists who studied the video said it appears he was educated in the UK and is likely from Southern England or London.

If "Jihadi John" is, as investigators suspect, a British citizen it raises an important question: why would a young man who grew up in the West become attracted to militant Islamism? What causes someone to become violently radicalized and perpetuate acts of terror against members of the society in which they were raised?

As Foley's death shows, these questions are not just academic, they are critical to developing counter-terrorism policies and preventing future Jihadi Johns. The problem of "homegrown terrorism" (the term commonly used to describe terrorist acts committed by Westerners or those raised in the West against members of their own society either at home or abroad) is not new. The 7/7/05 attack in London which killed more than 50 people was committed by militants radicalized in the UK.



There are numerous other examples of homegrown terrorism around the globe including incidents in Australia, Canada, Germany, Spain, and the US, just to name a few. Just this week former Foreign office minister Kim Howells warned that homegrown terrorists may be plotting an attack against world leaders, including President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, when they meet at the NATO summit in Wales in early September.


Authorities and policy makers have long struggled with how best to combat homegrown terrorism and prevent radicalization. In 2011, for instance, Cameron pushed for a policy to stop radicalization in universities by prohibiting extremist individuals and groups from speaking on campuses. The problem is that so many of these types of policies are untested because until recently empirical research in this area has been scant. In 1988, for instance, Alex Schmid and Albert Jongman summarized the feeling of most scholars when they wrote that terrorism is one of the "few areas in social science literature in which so much is written based on so little research."

Thankfully since that time there has been an increase in research on these questions. Not long ago, Dr. Anja Dalgaard-Nielsen, Director of Preventive Security Department at the Danish Security and Intelligence Service analyzed this research. Her review, entitled "Violent Radicalization in Europe: What We Know and What We Do Not Know" appeared in the journal Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. The article is both instructive and unique because she focuses solely on studies that base their conclusions on primary research (as opposed to anecdotal evidence, press accounts, etc...).

Among other things, Dalgaard-Nielsen finds that potential terrorists cannot be identified using a single socio-economic profile. Similarly, at the individual level, homegrown terrorists are not driven by just one or even a prevalent set of motivations. That said, it is possible to identify several key reasons why activists become radicalized. For instance, some are motivated by a search for meaning, others by a search for community, and still others by intellectual processes such as ideology, religion, and political grievances.

Another critical factor that drives radicalization is the existence of an influential peer group or a key individual (family member, respected peer, etc...). While the press and some policy makers have focused a good deal of attention on the terrorist organizations propaganda and increasing use of social media, the research suggests that this is "secondary to real-life relationships when it comes to violent radicalization." One sign that real-life radicalization is working is that the individual begins to increasingly isolate him (or her) self from everyone except the group or respected peer pushing them to become more radicalized.

As Dalgaard-Nielsen notes, this research isn't just important for academics, it is critical to understanding what types of counter-terrorism policies may help prevent future "Jihadi Johns" and what may not. For instance, these findings suggest that Cameron's focus on stopping radical individuals and groups from speaking at universities may not be the most effective way to combat homegrown terrorism. Similarly, policies aimed at terrorist web sites and social media activity may not be as effective in curtailing radicalization as often assumed.

When it comes to disengagement and preventive programs Dalgaard-Nielsen's work shows that the most effective are likely to use respected anti-violence voices within the individuals own communities to help change their thinking and allow them to see that non-violent action through democratic institutions can elicit long term change. As promising as the research reviewed in this article is, however, much more work in this area is needed.

After his murder, James Foley's parents talked about a touching letter they received from one of his former students. The student wrote about what a difference it might have made if, like him, the young jihadists had the benefit of having "had a Mr. Foley" in their lives.


Dalgaard-Nielsen's work shows the student may be right -- the empirical evidence suggests that influential anti-violence voices within an individual's own community and peer group may make more of a difference in preventing homegrown terrorism than previously believed. The research is promising, but more empirical studies are needed to test these findings and determine how they can be used to inform and assist policy-makers and counter-terrorism officials working on the ground.