Understanding Radicalization Through the Lens of ‘Identity Vulnerability’

What drives Islamist extremism in the West? What accounts for the so-called Islamic State's ability to recruit from Western democracies? While others have argued that global migration and the refugee crisis are fueling radicalization, Christy Grace Provines from the 'MPOWER Project considers deeper implications and proposes a theory she calls Identity Vulnerability. 

Christy Grace Provines
September 29, 2017

Moussaoui Oukabir, Khuram Shazam Butt and Rashid Redouane, Salman Abedi, Ahmad Khan Rahimi, Said and Cherif Kouachi, Omar Mateen and a host of others are names crowding the headlines today. These young men are separated by citizenship, family ties and often miles of ocean, yet they claim a single religion, unite under one ideology, and chose parallel paths to notoriety through acts of violence against innocent civilians. Behind these acts lie a series of nuanced psychologies affecting each of their paths to radicalization, and the push/pull factors that influenced them and, ultimately, made violence a choice option.

These individuals’ diverse backgrounds disprove the fallacy that would-be terrorists come from poor, uneducated, and broken homes.  Similarly, the use of demographic targeting to identify at-risk individuals has not only received much criticism from activists and the public at large, but often proves faulty as a determinant of likely radicalization.  

Today’s generation of foreign fighter terrorists, often radicalized exclusively online and mobilized to violence either overseas or in their home countries, share a vulnerability in individual identity that leaves them seeking personal significance and a sense of belonging in unconventional ways. This void in self-image can open at-risk individuals to non-mainstream ideology and recruitment narratives like those of ISIS which create and validate grievance and provide a false sense of confidence and belonging, breaking down normal inhibitory mechanisms as a new group identity is formed. University of Maryland Professor and expert on radicalization, Arie Kruglanski, has distilled this process down to three main elements: Need, Network, and Narrative.  

Vulnerabilities to personal identity are a fragile base on which circumstantial indicators are layered to become part of an at-risk individual’s broader motivation set. These circumstances include concrete factors such as: socioeconomic opportunity or lack thereof, societal marginalization, and institutionalized oppression.  By studying these indicators and identifying where they most consistently overlap we have determined identity vulnerability is the core driver of attachment to radical ideology and terrorist network recruitment.

To do so, The ‘MPOWER Project looked at a database of 400+ Americans who were killed or arrested for terrorist-related activity originally developed by New America Foundation. Working with Peter Bergen, Vice President of New America’s Future of War and Fellows Programs, we extended the Foundation’s research by looking at additional indicators such as family circumstances, socio-economic status, history of mental illness, employment history, etc. to develop a theory called Identity Vulnerability.

Traditional, surface-level demographic indicators (age, ethnicity, gender, religion), and/or education level provide limited information into the psyche of at-risk individuals and only perfunctory insight into the motivations behind their behavior.  Alternatively, the theory of Identity Vulnerability considers radicalization through the lens of psychology, capturing not only the nuanced complexities of intention and motivation, but a deeper understanding of an individual’s state of mind, which can help in identifying those susceptible to radicalization and enable the use of more empathetic and effective preventive tactics.   


One of the things that has set ISIS apart from previous extremist organizations, including Al Qaeda, is the organization’s ability to mobilize hundreds of thousands of western recruits, both in terms of inspired attacks on their home soil and in terms of travel to fight in Syria.

While the U.S. And Western Europe share many social and cultural similarities, the problem of radicalization has manifested itself in vastly different ways and as a far more urgent threat in countries like the UK, France, Belgium, Germany and most recently, Spain.

In the West, Jihadist radicalization has come to be seen as a ‘second generation’ problem in expert circles.  Counterterrorism officials have long contemplated the difference in state of mind between first and second/third generation immigrants, often coming from conflict state in North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere.

The argument for Identity Vulnerability as a key driver and foundational motivator of attachment to extremist ideology is strong if/when the biased policies, socioeconomic and educational inequality, lack of opportunity and social support in the country of citizenship were to be evaluated-- but they rarely are.  More often than not, it is uncovered that the individuals behind an attack are second generation immigrants, living in the murky cultural and social circumstances between two worlds - claimed by neither their country of origin or their country of citizenship, also often their country of birth.

As in the case of Salman Ramadan Abedi, born and raised in Manchester and London, after years of western schooling and influence, Abedi was revealed to be the master-mind and lone suicide bomber at Manchester Arena on May 22. It was later uncovered that Abedi’s family had military and extremist ties to both fighting against the Gaddafi regime in Libya and to radical cleric, Abu Qatada, in London.

Ron Prosor, former Permanent Representative of Israel to the UN and former Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, cited the importance of understanding the circumstances and state of mind when trying to understand why second and third generation immigrants often seem to be more at-risk of radicalization. In a talk at Columbia University, he argued that these young men and women’s parents were focused on rebuilding their lives and providing basic needs for their families - that they’re focused on getting out out of the conflict country of origin and putting the infrastructure in place to survive in a new world. Second and third generations, on the other hand, who have ties to both cultures, are faced with the realities of prejudicial policies, of religious and cultural bias and often find that they aren’t fully claimed or accepted by either culture.

The Middle East

The subject of identity and the Middle East, which is a Western term dating from the beginning of the twentieth century, denotes two major identities - identity of birth and identity of state.  

It is easy for Western policy makers and academics today to regard the Middle East as a forgone hotbed for radicalization, often deliberately disregarding the western-created clash among identities that has culminated in decades of near continuous conflict and the conflation of social, governance and economic challenges within the region.

The argument should be made that the role of identity in radicalization within the region is informed by regional identity crises, deep sectarian divides inter- and intra-state and personal identity challenges spawning from oppressive policies and the lack of governance and rule of law.

Regional Identity Crisis and the Erosion of Borders

The greatest evil of colonialization came after the great powers had gone and the borders had been redrawn. World War I not only pitted Arab against Arab, but with the Sykes-Picot agreement, the created artificial borders in the Middle East without regard to ethnic or sectarian fault lines.  

Today, the region’s borders are being further eroded by the Syrian Civil War and attempts by ISIS to declare a caliphate.  These only promise to depress the region’s recovery and further dilute the ethnic and cultural identity of its citizens.

Sectarian Divide

A second driver of ongoing and reignited conflict in the region is the Sunni-Shia divide, which we have seen play out on several stages of conflict in the region: the Syrian Civil War, the expansion of ISIS, which has fractured Iraq and through geo-political tensions, and what some call a proxy war, between Russia and the U.S.

Unlike the previously discussed erosion of borders dating to the early years of the twentieth century, the Sunni-Shia divide represents deep religious similarities and differences that date back centuries. Shia identity, representing only 15% of the world’s Muslim population, is rooted in the events surrounding the killing of the Prophet Mohammed’s descendants in the seventh century and their oppression by Sunni majority thereafter. Sunni identity, on the other hand, brands itself as “true believers” with extremist factions viewing Shia as apostates.

These complex sectarian identities have played key roles in driving not only conflict on the ground in the Middle East, but in the export of extremist Sunni ideology, which has fueled the rise of religious fundamentalism, international calls to Islamist Jihad and ultimately, terrorism.  

Personal Identity

With intense national, ethnic and religious identity clashes at play, it’s easy to see how individual identity would also be impacted.  Possibly the most important personal identity challenges in the region come from pervasive violence and ongoing conflict for multiple generations.  For many, conflict has become an integral part of identity.

Deep-rooted and multifaceted Identity Vulnerability is exacerbated by local grievances and socioeconomic challenges. Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia are all examples of how lack of opportunity, governance, rule of law, and a weak cultural narrative create an environment that draws people in simply because of the semblance of structure and hope.


The drivers of radicalization are often very localized and specific to individual circumstances, therefore, It is important not to generalize or oversimplify the theory of Identity Vulnerability.  However, it is also apparent that deep motivators of basic human instinct and behavior, when considered through a psychology-based lens, cannot be overlooked.  

The theory of Identity Vulnerability serves as a foundational base through which local/regional, familial, societal and individual circumstances are then layered.  This confluence of an individual’s state of mind and circumstantial push/pull influences can help to explain why some individuals are more at-risk of attachment to extremist narratives and may be drawn to networks that provide perceived support, validation and purpose.  

This understanding should initiate a new approach to how counterterrorism policy and anti-radicalization programming is developed, emphasizing the power of preventive strategies that are human-centric.

Christy Grace Provines is a Co-Founder of The ‘MPOWER Project, an organization dedicated to anti-radicalization and the use of brand marketing and creative engagement messaging strategies to out-brand terrorism. Christy can be contacted at [email protected].