Global Focus

Is there a violent extremist profile?

What research suggests about individuals who turn to extremist violence.

By James Salisi

His name was Islam Yaken, a young and educated man from a middle class family in Cairo, Egypt.  He had been dubbed as the “hipster jihadi”, a moniker people used to draw attention to the dissonance between his background and his path to extremist violence.  He was a law graduate and an aspiring personal trainer before he joined the Islamic State also known as ISIS or ISIL. Recently, The New York Times published a profile of Islam Yaken and his friends, all from similar middle class backgrounds. Yaken took a radically divergent path from them. In December 2014 the International Business Times reported that he was killed in suicide mission.

…how such a transformation could happen and what does research say on possible factors…


The fascination for his story may be traced to what the public perceive as a drastic change from a seemingly secular and modern lifestyle of going to gyms and aspiring to be a trainer to one of religious extremism. One is led to ask how such a transformation could happen and what does research say on possible factors that influence the process. Is there such a thing as a violent extremist profile?

 Process and Profiles: Individual Radicalization

Brian Jenkins, a terrorism scholar, defines radicalization as “the process of adopting for oneself or inculcating in others a commitment not only to a system of [radical] beliefs, but to their imposition on the rest of society.” The use of violence is the final stage of this process. The nature of this process is poorly understood and there are different theories and stages that researchers have described that explain how this happens.

 A study on a particular type of violent extremism could shed light on the radicalization process. In 2011, a report published by the United Kingdom Home Office found that “the empirical evidence base that makes an individual more vulnerable to Al Qa’ida-influenced violence is weak”. However, based on this limited evidence base they concluded that certain social, psychological and physical factors or situation make individuals more vulnerable to Al Qa’ida-influenced violent extremism.

 In terms of social factors, the report found individuals involved in violent extremism tend to be male, young to middle-aged, married and possibly with children. They tend to be educated to a similar level and have similar socio-economic status as the broader population in which they live. However, they may be working at a skill set lower than their educational attainment.

 The decision to use violence is spurred by multiple and varied reasons in Al Qa’ida-influenced violence. Popular notions that lead individuals to violent extremism such as deep religiosity and mental illness are not backed up by evidence. Neither deeply religious upbringing nor education is necessary for and individual to be involved in this type of activity. In fact, a large number of violent extremists influenced by Al Qa’ida were found to have a secular upbringing, according to the report. In addition, compared to the general population mental illness or personality disorder is not more pronounced or prevalent in these individuals.

 Social spaces such as Mosques and prison that act as meeting points for individuals to link up with and be influenced by extremist ideologies, increased surveillance and policing of public spaces that drive radicalization and recruitment to private spaces, and the Internet are some of the physical factors or situations that can make a person more vulnerable to Al Qa-ida-influenced violent extremism.

 Some theorize that people sympathize with violent radicalization and terrorism due to “grievances about social and health inequalities, discrimination, poverty, poor education, poor mental health and poor political engagement.” In contrast, a recent study on the association of violent radicalization with poverty, migration, poor self-reported health and common mental disorders among Muslims in England found evidence to the contrary. Kamaldeep Bhui, Nasir Warfa and Edgar Jones conducted a cross-sectional survey of men and women aged 18 to 24, of Muslim heritage to assess social, health and economic risk factors for sympathizing with violent protest terrorist acts. They found that young healthy people, educated and employed, and born in the UK were more likely to sympathize with violent radicalization and terrorist causes. Furthermore, “people with poor health, migrants, and older actually were more likely to condemn violent radicalization.” Lastly, discrimination, poverty, social and health inequalities, political engagement and attitudes to foreign policy in this population were deemed not relevant.

The nature of this process is poorly understood…


 There seems to be no specific profile of a potential violent extremist apart from being “a loner, having psychological issues and having experienced a drop in social standing prior to their illegal extremist activity” according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). They published preliminary findings from START’s Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) project. PIRUS is “a database of Islamist, Far Left and Far Right individuals who have radicalized to violent and non-violent extremism in the United States.”

 The START project also found some specific conditions and events that were common among certain ideologies.  For Islamists, group dynamics were common, those who radicalized in the United States were likely to have been actively recruited into an extremist group. A loss in social status at work or at school before radicalization was more common among Far Left Extremists.

In summary, there is no single profile of an individual prone to violent extremism. Several factors influence the radicalization process but they are not the ones that the public usually expects.

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