A Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence led by the University of Maryland

European Converts to Islam: An Evolving Threat?


European Converts to Islam: An Evolving Threat?

Investigators: 

Project Details

Abstract: 

Using newspaper reports and interviews with scholars, security experts, mullahs and imams, journalists, diplomats, government officials, and converts, this project assessed the phenomenon of Muslim converts in Europe and the potential terrorist threat posed by this population.

Primary Findings: 

The project identified at least 48 converts with European citizenships who had a confirmed role in the plotting and/or execution of terrorist attacks in 10 European countries between 1990 and 2010. Although in absolute numbers jihadi converts are a very small group, they constitute a significant subgroup of Europe's jihadi terrorists because many of them had important operational and leadership roles in major terrorist attacks. Their significance also stems from the fact that converts tend to be less physically visible than Muslims of immigrant origin in many European societies. Although the radicalization process has not been the same for all individuals, it might still be possible to understand the circumstances under which European converts turned to violence. Some converts were radicalized because they became victims of abuse or discrimination; for others, radicalization was the result of political grievances; there were also cases of individuals being radicalized by partners or relatives. Finally, the inspirational preaching of radical imams can function as an additional mechanism of individual radicalization. European governments must carefully choose strategies and policies for dealing with jihadi converts, if they are to avoid a threat to European security.

The researchers warn that a harsh security response could possibly push more converts to radicalization in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. While investing more in intelligence-gathering is certainly an option, a successful counter-radicalization strategy should focus on the de-stigmatization of converts. As a minority within a minority community, European converts to Islam have been vulnerable to exclusion and discrimination. Therefore, the researchers recommend that European governments promote inter-religious dialogue, enforce legislation on equality and non-discrimination, and take measures to combat Islamophobia; working with Muslim communities and their leadership is a precondition for implementing any policies to tackle the radicalization of converts.

Methodology: 

This study employed analysis of comparative data, collected through personal interviews. The lead investigator contacted converts for interviews through convert organizations, Islamic charities, mosques, Islamic educational centers, and existing personal contacts in Great Britain, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, and Russia. Through interviews, data were collected on demographics and background of individual converts, motivation behind conversion, attitudes toward political violence, and variables leading to the radicalization of Muslim converts. Also, the study relied on Islamic literature and interviews with Muslim da'is (missionaries), family and relatives of converts, ulema and imams, security experts, academics, and government officials.

Timeframe

Project Period: 
June 2009 to May 2011