Why are so many jihadists converts to Islam?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Sept. 7 2007 5:15 PM

The Convert's Zeal

Radical Islamism has become a magnet for some of the world's angriest people.

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If that list doesn't suffice to make the case that radical converts represent a real danger, the example of Dhiren Barot, an Indian-born British-raised convert from Hinduism known as Issa al-Hindi, ought to clinch it. Barot carried out the surveillance of the New York Stock Exchange and the Citigroup Building in New York City and the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. Intelligence officers I spoke with described the reams of material he supplied as some of the highest-quality work they had ever seen. Barot, fortunately, is now serving a 30-year sentence in a British jail.

One might have thought that terrorist organizations would be leery of converts and worry that they were unreliable or even suspect them to be moles. The opposite has been true. According to French sociologist Olivier Roy, 10 percent of al-Qaida's soldiers in the global jihad are converts, and in France the number might reach 25 percent. Roy takes this as an indicator of the group's globalized nature, "because a convert is not motivated by his or her culture at all. He is not motivated by the political life of his or her country. He's motivated by joining something global. Al-Qaida is made of born again [Muslims] and converts who join the global jihad. One day they go to Bosnia and another to Chechnya, or to Kashmir, or to Afghanistan, or to Fallujah."

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Moreover, the phenomenon of conversion plays an important part in al-Qaida's cosmology. When the group's propagandists talk about its ultimate victory, the conversion of the Christian West is often mentioned as a major milestone.  When the organization wants to show it is on a roll, it also may refer to the current growth in conversions. In a video that aired on Dec. 13, 2001, Bin Laden claimed that the 9/11 attacks had been "understood by both Arabs and non-Arabs. … In Holland, at one of the centers, the number of people who accepted Islam during the days that follow the operations were more than the people who accepted Islam in the last 11 years." Bin Laden also relayed a report he had heard regarding an Islamic educator in America who claimed, "We don't have time to keep up with the demands of those who are asking about Islamic books to learn about Islam." Having so many converts in its ranks is clearly a mark of achievement.

Bin Laden's boasts of mass conversions are mostly bluster. But while good data is hard to come by, scholars and clerics suggest that the numbers are up significantly in the United States and Europe. According to a German government study cited in Der Spiegel, between mid-2004 and mid-2005, 4,000 Germans converted to Islam—about 13 times the rate just three years earlier. A sociologist quoted in the article says some see conversion to Islam as a dramatic act that makes them "stand out from the crowd." Though negligible in the larger scheme of things, the chance that a convert will turn jihadist is much greater than that of someone born Muslim. That suggests that for those who turn violent, the act is more a matter of standing against the crowd rather than standing out from it. Radical Islamism seems to have become the magnet for some of the world's angriest people who feel the universe is out of joint and must be changed. For these converts, it is an ideology of revolt that is more attractive because of its crystalline hatred of the status quo than its theology.

The "zeal of the convert" may be a cliché, but it is a true one that helps explain the presence of so many former non-Muslims in jihadist terror—and why terrorist leaders find them so useful. Another reason is that whether they have formal profiling programs or not, Western law-enforcement officials are inevitably going to be less likely to suspect someone who looks like one of their own. (Fortunately for the Germans, Fritz Gelowicz had distinguished himself as a radical years ago and had run-ins with the law.) Abu Musab al-Zarqawi understood this and called for the creation an army of "white-skinned" mujahideen. It appears that may be happening without any help from the Iraqi jihad's dead emir.

Daniel Benjamin is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. A former director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council staff, he has co-written  The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting it Right.