What Makes a Terrorist?

June 28, 2016

On June 28, 2016, AGI hosted Alexander Ritzmann, a Senior Research Fellow at the Brandenburg Institute for Society and Security (BIGS) and a Senior Advisor to the European Foundation for Democracy (EFD), to address what makes a terrorist.

The seminar began with the understanding that in order to have an effective dialogue about terrorism, four main questions need to be asked:

  1. What makes a terrorist?
  2. Why is ISIS more successful than Al-Qaeda?
  3. How to counter ISIS?
  4. What comes next?

A myth exists of a poor, angry terrorist with a history of mental health issues. In the western world at least, those who commit violent terrorist actions are more likely to have more education, higher financial status than their peer group, and exhibit no evidence of mental health issues. Three factors are the most common that contribute to violent extremism. The first was relationships. Most terrorists are recruited or supported family members or friends. The second and third factors were moral outrage and timing. Networks use propaganda to convince recruits that their cause is worth fighting for, giving them a reason to join the violent terrorist movement. Recruits are often most likely to join networks at a vulnerable or unstable time in their life when a group can offer a new life, structure, and purpose. Right-wing ideologies have the ability to convince individuals that through radical beliefs and violence actions their problems will be solved.

Ideology is key for individuals and organizations committing violent terrorism, in which ideology itself is not only a facilitation tool but also an amplification tool. Concerning ideology, it is important to highlight the differences between Islam and Islamism. Islam is a religion. Islamism is an ideology based on one singular type and branch of Islam that is then used as a justification for the violence; individuals factor and combine politics into the religion. This distinction is necessary, as terrorism uses radical ideologies to justify the actions of those committing violence. Because with that distinction, it is clear to see that organizations such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda have this combination of politics and religion. The difference between the two organizations, and the reason ISIS has been more successful than Al-Qaeda, is that ISIS branched off from Al-Qaeda, sought territory, and wanted to establish the caliphate. ISIS also took advantage of Syria’s condition and civil war. Local grievances are at the core of ISIS ideologies and recruiting materials. ISIS also has power; it is the strong horse to Al-Qaeda’s weak horse, which is more desirable to recruits. ISIS also has a more effective propaganda strategy. Material comes from three or four key social media accounts. The release of material is followed by a “swarm,” where followers forward the information quickly.

Three types of people tend to share all three factors that makes them vulnerable to recruitment and therefore more likely to engage in terrorism. “Justice-seekers” are humanitarians who do not want to see their brothers being slaughtered in Syria and elsewhere, therefore join the fight to help or for revenge. “Adventurers” are often bored young men who see the organization as a way to become something great. Finally, the “followers” are young men whose friends have all left to join, so they decide to join as well.

To combat the messages of terrorist organizations, the international community can counter the narrative that these organizations are trying to accomplish, evaluate the actual cause of the rise of such insurgency groups, counter terrorist propaganda through social media and search engines like Google, and involve civil society. Civil society, rather than the U.S. Department of State or other bulky government organizations, can be most effective in reducing the legitimacy of ISIS’s narrative. Civil society can also be more effective in stopping people from joining a terrorist group. Concerned friends and family members are much more likely to call an NGO to help them reach their recruited loved one. When law enforcement is responsible for prevention, a fear of punishment is far more present than if someone were to deal with a social worker.

But while these counter-measures seem promising, there is still the issue that when it comes to addressing what is next. ISIS is losing territory, but their long-term actions, plans, and intentions are unknown, including how they might expand as an insurgency organization. But despite all of this, the only way to continue addressing terrorism is to not only be prepared for anything, but to also to take into account the mistakes that have been made from all sides and parties involved, including European countries and the United States, and try to use those lessons as a guideline for future counter policies and strategies.

Alexander Ritzmann is a Senior Research Fellow at the Brandenburg Institute for Society and Security (BIGS) in Potsdam, Germany and a Senior Advisor to the European Foundation for Democracy (EFD) in Brussels, Belgium. He is a subject matter expert on terrorism, extremist ideologies, radicalization, and democracy promotion. Mr. Ritzmann is representing the BIGS at the Radicalization Awareness Network (RAN) of the European Commission and the “European Expert Network on Terrorism Issues (EENeT)” which is hosted by the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA). He is teaching a course on Terrorism and Propaganda for master students at Potsdam University during the summer semester 2016.

From September 2012 to December 2015, Mr. Ritzmann worked as Senior Advisor MENA Region and Project Manager for the GIZ, the German Development Cooperation, based in Cairo, Egypt. He was a BIGS Fellow in 2010-2012 and an EFD Fellow from 2006-2010, living in Berlin, Brussels, Beirut, Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Washington, D.C., and working with policy makers, think tankers, and media. From 2007-2011 he was a non-resident Fellow at the American-German Institute, Johns Hopkins University, in Washington, D.C. From 2001 to 2006 Mr. Ritzmann was a member of the Berlin State Parliament, overseeing the state police and intelligence agency and focusing on homeland security and data protection issues. He received his master’s degree in political science from Free University Berlin in 2000.

Contact Ms. Elizabeth Caruth at ecaruth@aicgs.org with any questions.


AICGS R. G. Livingston Conference Room

1755 Massachusetts Avenue NW Suite 700 Washington, DC 20036 United States

AICGS R. G. Livingston Conference Room
1755 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Suite 700
Washington, DC 20036
United States