Decades before he murdered four people outside the Houses of Parliament, Khalid Masood was a schoolboy from well-to-do Tunbridge Wells named Adrian Russell Ajao. Investigators may never learn the true motives for his attack. But one of the few facts known for certain is that Masood’s case fits into a broad but poorly understood trend: Muslim converts in the West are much likelier than their native-born co-religionists to engage in terrorism, or travel abroad to fight for jihadist organisations like Islamic State (IS).
In Britain, converts make up less than 4% of Muslims but 12% of home-grown jihadists. About a fifth of American Muslims were raised in another religion, yet two-fifths of those arrested on suspicion of being IS recruits in 2015 were converts (see chart). In France, Germany and the Netherlands, converts are around four times as likely as lifelong Muslims to go to fight in Syria and Iraq.
Terrorism experts have many theories, none of them conclusive. Surveys by John Horgan of Georgia State University show that converts seem more willing than native Muslims to radicalise. Some argue that this is because of their “double marginalisation”, by both bewildered non-Muslim friends and sceptical native Muslims, leaving them vulnerable to the overtures of radicals. According to defectors from IS, recruiters particularly prize new converts because they are harder for intelligence services to trace.
Others note that many conversions to Islam in the West occur in prison. Peter Neumann of King’s College London provocatively contends that jihad “has become a counter-culture—the most bad-ass way of going against society.”
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SOURCE: The Economist