Domestic Terrorism, Cyber-Radicalization, and American College Students

Domestic Terrorism, Cyber-Radicalization, and American College Students

Marie Wright, Ph.D., CHS-V

Western Connecticut State University
181 White Street
Danbury, CT 06810
Cell phone: 203.982.7838
Home phone: 203.264.7299
Work phone: 203.837.9344

The Forensic Examiner - April, 2016


Since 9/11, there has been an increase in domestic terrorism inspired by the Global Salafi Jihad ideology. Some of the individuals who undergo radicalization are U.S. college and university students. Radicalization is promoted on the Internet in ways that appeal to the young and impact those who are searching for their identities, their places in life. Radicalization is complemented by the open environment of higher education, where college- and university-based organizations can become forums for the presentation of radical messages in a way that connects with students. This article describes the four-stage radicalization process, explains why students are particularly vulnerable, and offers suggestions for implementing an effective response.


  1. Readers will learn the descriptions of major prison gangs and their distinct characteristics.
  2. Readers will learn about the growing frequency of prison gangs.
  3. Readers will learn basic laws and rulings that have influenced the growth of prison gangs
  4. Readers will learn basic interventions that have been successful in controlling prison gangs.

KEY WORDS: Domestic terrorism, Global Salafi Jihad, Jihadist, Radicalization, Salafi Islam


The terrorist threat to the United States is changing. Since 9/11, there has been a shift in the operational terrorist threat from core al-Qaeda to smaller cells, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in Pakistan and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) (Straw, 2010), and there has been an increase in domestic terrorism inspired by militant Islamist ideology.

What motivates individuals, particularly those born or living in the United States, to carry out autonomous jihad (holy war) is the Global Salafi Jihad ideology (Sageman, 2003; Silber & Bhatt, 2007). This ideology, which was first decreed by Usama (Osama) bin Laden in his 1998 fatwa (interpretation of Islamic law), is a violent Sunni revivalist adaptation of Salafi Islam.

Salafi Islam calls for the creation of a Muslim state that is governed by sharia (strict Islamic law) (Sageman, 2003). It promotes a literal interpretation of the Qur’an, and its goal is to establish a “pure” society that adheres to the social practices that existed in Arabia during the seventh century (Silber & Bhatt, 2007). Salafists believe that only a recreation of the practices of the devout ancestors will return Islam to the dominant religious force it was centuries ago (Sageman, 2003).

The Global Salafi Jihad ideology calls for a worldwide, violent overthrow of all societies that are not committed to this philosophy, and it imposes an individual obligation on all Muslims to fight and defeat the “far enemy,” specifically Americans (Sageman, 2003).

Becoming radicalized to the Global Salafi Jihad ideology is an evolutionary process. Prior to 9/11, this process often took years; however, within the decade prior to 2007, the pace of radicalization has accelerated (Silber & Bhatt, 2007), and the gap between thought and action has narrowed (Straw, 2010). What once took years could take just a few months today.

Its participants are continuing to get younger, too. Between the two time periods of 2001-2005 and 2006-2009, the average age of terrorist group leaders decreased from 32 to 30; the average age of terrorist group members decreased from 27 to 23; and the average age of “lone wolves” (self-radicalized Islamist extremists who are not affiliated with any particular group) decreased from 30 to 23 (Straw, 2010).

The radicalization process begins when an individual is exposed to, and begins to explore, a militant Islamist ideology (United States Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, 2008).

Stages of radicalization

Both the FBI and the New York City Police Department have identified a four-stage radicalization process through which ordinary individuals can be enticed to adopt a violent Islamist extremist mindset (FBI Counterterrorism Division, 2006; Silber & Bhatt, 2007).

Stage 1: Pre-Radicalization

This is the starting point for individuals before they are exposed to the ideology of Global Salafi Jihad. These individuals, who are primarily male Muslims between the ages of 15 and 35, are impressionable and are searching for their purposes in life. During this stage, it is difficult to determine whether an individual is becoming radicalized because the events are indiscriminate, and the indicators are subtle or non-existent (FBI Counterterrorism Division, 2006; Silber & Bhatt, 2007).

Stage 2: Self-Identification

This stage often begins with a crisis that challenges an individual’s previously held beliefs. The individual is at a crossroads, possibly coping with the loneliness of social alienation, the loss of a job, or the death of a family member. During this time, the individual begins to explore the tenets of Salafi Islam, gradually moves away from his former life, and establishes connections with other like-minded individuals (Silber & Bhatt, 2007).

The journey begins online, where anyone can instantly locate a plethora of militant Islamist websites, violent video games, online forums filled with radical anti-Western rhetoric, and propaganda-filled audio and video messages from extremist Islamic leaders. The Internet is the individual’s primary source of information about Salafi Islam, and it provides a portal that connects him to others who are searching for answers (United States Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, 2008).

The individual also begins to attend a Salafi mosque on a regular basis (Silber & Bhatt, 2007), and seeks guidance from the imam (Muslim cleric) to better abide by every tenet of the religion. An extremist imam can use his knowledge of Salafi Islam – and his ability to provide a theological justification for terrorist attacks – to expedite and progress the individual’s level of radicalization (FBI Counterterrorism Division, 2006). Ultimately, the individual will change his behaviors and physical appearance to better associate with his new identity (FBI Counterterrorism Division, 2006), giving up gambling, smoking, and drinking; growing facial hair; and wearing traditional Muslim attire (Silber & Bhatt, 2007). See Supplement 1 for further indicators of radicalization.

By the end of this stage, the individual is more prone to accept and adopt a radicalized ideology that justifies or supports violence against those whose beliefs are contrary to those of Salafi Islam; does not yet see himself as an active participant in their jihad (FBI Counterterrorism Division, 2006).

Stage 3: Indoctrination

During this stage, the individual’s religious beliefs become progressively more extreme as they transition from the ideology of Salafi Islam to that of Global Salafi Jihad. In the past, this evolution was guided almost exclusively by a self-taught, charismatic Islamic leader who provided a distorted perspective of Islam in order to radicalize his followers and create a jihadist mindset (Silber & Bhatt, 2007). Over the past several years, though, cyber-radicalization has supplemented, and in some cases started to replace, face-to-face radicalization (United States Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, 2008).

The individual devotes much time to militant Islamist websites and radical online forums, where he connects with like-minded extremists who reinforce and legitimize his beliefs and growing level of commitment to Global Salafi Jihad (United States Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, 2008). During this stage, the individual and his group often begin proselytizing, preaching the superiority of Salafi Islam and advocating the destruction of Western society (FBI Counterterrorism Division, 2006). As the individual and his fellow members become increasingly cohesive, they progressively adopt the beliefs of the most radical members, becoming more isolated from those outside of the group (Sageman, 2003).

During this time of group bonding, members often engage in recreational activities, such as white-water rafting, camping, martial arts training, or firearms practice (Silber & Bhatt, 2007). Paintball games that simulate combat environments are particularly popular; they are used to practice military tactics. These activities help to solidify the group’s cohesiveness and further define the individual’s extremist identity (Silber & Bhatt, 2007; FBI Counterterrorism Division, 2006).

As the individual forms his new identity, Global Salafi Jihad becomes more than an ideology; it becomes a personal cause.

Worldwide conflicts are viewed as conspiratorial attacks against Islam by nonbelievers, and humanity is perceived as having only two sides: “true” Muslims who strictly follow the tenets of Salafi Islam (“us”), and everyone else (“them”). The individual’s sole purpose becomes the creation of a “pure” global Islamic society, and his “us vs. them” perspective enables him to morally justify jihad in order to achieve that objective (Silber & Bhatt, 2007).

As the individual begins to envision the goal of militant jihad, he withdraws from the Salafi mosque that he frequented during the self-identification stage. This withdrawal may be triggered because the individual no longer feels the mosque is radical enough, or fears that continuing to worship at the mosque could result in increased surveillance, which would interfere with his terrorist intentions (Silber & Bhatt, 2007).

By the end of this stage, the individual has fully accepted the militant viewpoint that justifies, supports, and encourages worldwide violence against all disbelievers of Salafi Islam, and has concluded that his participation in militant jihad is required to further the cause (Silber & Bhatt, 2007).

Stage 4: Jihadization

This is the attack stage, during which the individual sees himself as a mujahid (holy warrior) and becomes involved in the operational planning for jihad. Whether the individual independently searches for opportunities to conduct a terrorist attack, or accomplishes this by being part of a collective group, the intent is the same: to kill nonbelievers of Salafi Islam, particularly Americans and their allies, in order to establish a global Muslim state governed by sharia (Silber & Bhatt, 2007). Planning, preparation, and execution of the operational activities can occur quickly, and are sometimes completed in just a few weeks.

The individual actively searches the Internet to gather information on potential targets, formulate a mode of attack, obtain instructions for building weapons, receive instructions on military tactics, and find reinforcing spiritual justification for an attack, all the while maintaining contact with other extremists, who encourage and challenge each other’s call to action (United States Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, 2008).

The individual also receives help from other operatives, particularly group members, as he plans and prepares for an attack. Their assistance may include travel planning, providing false documents, acquiring funds (possibly through fraud, embezzlement, or theft), developing attack plans, conducting surveillance activities, stealing or purchasing materiel, and developing an explosive device (Silber & Bhatt, 2007; FBI Counterterrorism Division, 2006).

Typically, the individual or the leader of the individual’s group will travel overseas to a training camp that is located in a terrorist region, such as Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Yemen, or Somalia (Silber & Bhatt, 2007). Such travel not only provides the individual with additional exposure to military jihadist tactics, but also reinforces his radicalized mindset and his conviction to die for the cause.

Before the attack, the individual may draft a last will and testament or make a video to further strengthen his resolve to commit suicidal jihad and ensure that his death has meaning (Silber & Bhatt, 2007). By the end of this stage, a terrorist attack will occur.

Supplement 1: Warning Signs of Radicalization

Radicalization is at the heart of terrorism. The process can be difficult to detect because it is complicated and changeable; however, those who are familiar with an individual who is becoming radicalized will see dramatic modifications in that individual’s personal behaviors. The following changes should act as warning signs (Lajeunesse, 2010):

  • Adopting a more religious lifestyle and terminating certain secular behaviors, particularly smoking, drinking, and gambling.
  • Wearing traditional Muslim attire and praying five times daily.
  • Expressing criticism toward those who are not living their lives in accordance with the Global Salafi Jihad ideology.
  • Terminating all associations with family members, friends, or acquaintances who do not abide by the tenets of Global Salafi Jihad.
  • Withdrawing from the mosque that was frequented in the past, believing that the imam and the Muslims in attendance are not devout (militant) enough.
  • Increasing online or in-person communication with others who subscribe to the Global Salafi Jihad mindset.
  • Watching terrorist videos, and listening to propaganda-filled audio messages from extremist Islamic leaders.
  • Adopting strong anti-Western and anti-Semitic views, and advocating the belief that the U.S. is at war with Islam.
  • Engaging in -raising activities for non-local Islamic charities.
  • Embracing the notion that women are inferior, avoiding social contact with women, demanding that women wear modest attire and head coverings, and believing that men have the right to beat women.
  • Advocating for the death of all non-believers of the Global Salafi Jihad ideology, including other Muslims who are seen as apostates.
  • Believing that the only form of government is one that is governed by sharia; all others must be destroyed so that a “pure” Muslim state can be reestablished.
  • Participating in paramilitary exercises with other like-minded extremists.
  • Expressing a desire to travel overseas to a terrorist region, such as Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Yemen, or Somalia.
  • Making vague and suspicious comments before traveling abroad, such as, “I’ll be gone for a while and might not be back,” or “I have something important to do and may not return.”

The radicalization process and higher education

The Global Salafi Jihad movement poses a specific challenge to higher education because some of the individuals who are becoming radicalized are college and university students. In the beginning stages of radicalization, there is no clear-cut, overt indication that these individuals are beginning to develop a jihadist mindset; in fact, they appear to be nothing more than typical, middle-class university students who spend time together in social groups. It is precisely this demographic Islamist extremists find so appealing. They refer to these students as “clean skins” – ordinary individuals with U.S. citizenship or residency, with no criminal or terrorist history, who can hold legitimate travel documentation (Straw, 2010; Silber & Bhatt, 2007). Salafi jihadists understand that U.S. law enforcement agencies face legal and constitutional obstacles to monitoring U.S. citizens, and that there is greater propaganda value in having U.S. citizens attack their own country (Donalds, 2007). They also understand that intelligent people who are recruited to a cause are more likely to be dedicated to that cause, since injustice and indignity are more powerful motivators than poverty or ignorance (Donalds, 2007).

U.S. colleges and universities are filled with intellectually bright, curious, and impressionable students, many of whom already question society’s values in addition to their own personal beliefs (FBI Counterterrorism Division, 2006). It is not uncommon for religious conversions to occur, and in the open environment of higher education, radical groups can thrive.

According to the FBI Counterterrorism Division (2006), there are four conversion types:

  • “Faith Reinterpreters” – Muslims who, after a period of introspection and assessment, choose to modify their religious beliefs and follow a more extremist form of Islam.
  • “Protest Converts” – Those whose dispossessions (e.g., ethnic, economic, political, racial, legal, or social deprivations) negatively impact their attitudes and beliefs toward others, and cause them to turn to a more militant religious ideology for explanation and vindication.
  • “Jilted Believers” – Individuals whose dissatisfaction with their current faith leads them to change religious beliefs.
  • “Acceptance Seekers” – Those searching for stronger interpersonal relationships and who find comfort in the solidarity of extremist groups (FBI Counterterrorism Division, 2006).

Individuals have a tendency to seek out other like-minded individuals with whom to establish a social group (Silber & Bhatt, 2007). For students struggling to understand themselves, their religion, and their place in society, college- and university-based organizations can become forums for conveying radical messages in a way that resonates with the students (Silber & Bhatt, 2007). Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than with the Muslim Students Association (MSA), the largest and most influential Islamic student organization in North America (Investigative Project on Terrorism, 2008).

The MSA was established in 1963 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Its founders were members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a “rigidly conservative and highly secretive Egyptian-based organization dedicated to resurrecting true Islamic governance based on sharia law” (Investigative Project on Terrorism, 2008). With its motto, “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope” (Federation of American Scientists, 2010), the Muslim Brotherhood provided the ideological foundation for Global Salafi Jihad. As of 2010, more than 175 MSA chapters exist on U.S. college and university campuses (Table 1).

Although the MSA has gained legitimacy on U.S. campuses as a benevolent group dedicated to helping Muslim students advance their faith, in reality, it has promoted extremist Islamist ideologies on college and university campuses throughout North America (Investigative Project on Terrorism, 2008). For example, one book increasingly cited for discussion is Kitab al-Tawhid (The Book of Monotheism), the foundational book for militant Islamist ideology (Silber & Bhatt, 2007). This book was written by Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the eighteenth century founder of Wahhabism (Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2010). An ultra-conservative orientation within Salafi Islam, Wahhabism is the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia (Anonymous, 2010b), and it embraces the ideology of Global Salafi Jihad.

Responding to the threat of domestic terrorism

U.S. college and university campuses are uniquely open environments where there is a continuous exchange of students (Vest, 2006). This variability in the student population means that the level of extremism on campus can fluctuate over time, and it can be disproportionately affected by the presence of a few like-minded individuals (Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills, 2008).

Even one intensely resolute individual can have an impact on the level of extremism at a particular college or university (Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills, 2008). In this milieu, there are unquestionably small groups of college and university students who are becoming radicalized in the United States. The academic community can address the threat of radicalization on our campuses in the following ways:

1. Promote and reinforce the values of openness, free debate, and inquiry (Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills, 2008).

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of the academic environment is its inherent openness to the exploration of diverse ideas. The ability to debate, discuss, and directly challenge ideas is essential to higher education. By providing an open and vibrant environment for intellectually rigorous and thought-provoking dialogue, academic institutions can provide a setting where individuals can challenge those who espouse militant extremism (Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills, 2008). Actions that are contradictory to the values of higher education, such as actively policing students or aggressively censoring student activities, will likely cause those who are considering jihad to conceal their actions earlier, making it even harder to detect an impending domestic terrorist attack (Straw, 2010; Sims, 2007).

Promoting intellectual inquiry and debate is a responsibility of academic administrators, faculty, and staff. To this end, every U.S. college and university should have well publicized and readily accessible policies and procedures that enforce an acceptable code of conduct and address the right of free speech in a variety of settings, including public forums, demonstrations, and protests.

2. Break down the separation between different student groups (Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills, 2008).

The danger in allowing segregated communities to develop on campus is that in such an environment, existing attitudes and beliefs of the group members tend to be reinforced so that there is little opportunity for dissent, independent thought, or the attenuation of radical preconceptions (Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills, 2008). Academic institutions can combat radicalization and create opportunities for interfaith and intercultural dialogue by encouraging students to become involved in activities that promote interactions between different groups, such as campus arts events and community volunteer activities (Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills, 2008). College and university administrators need to balance all requests for separate facilities from religious and cultural groups against the need for an integrated campus community (Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills, 2008).

3. Ensure that all personnel are aware of their roles in preventing violent extremism (Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills, 2008).

Faculty and staff need to recognize the behavioral indicators of radicalization, while avoiding stereotyping or profiling (Straw, 2010). Those indicators, described above in the self-identification, indoctrination, and jihadization stages, become increasingly apparent during the radicalization process. Common sense is an effective benchmark: any non-normative behaviors, such as advocating violence as an acceptable course of action (Straw, 2010), should be reported to college or university administrators, and if necessary, to law enforcement. This means that faculty and staff must have the confidence to report suspicious behaviors to administrators at the institution, and the academic institution must have the processes in place, and the willingness, to relay that information to the police (Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills, 2008).

A partnership should exist between an academic institution and the local police. Law enforcement can offer support and guidance in developing incident response strategies and procedures, and can also offer training to help faculty and staff recognize and respond to potentially violent extremist behaviors (Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills, 2008).


The security of our nation is impacted by our ability to recognize and respond to the radicalization process. The pace of those becoming radicalized to the Global Salafi Jihad ideology has accelerated, and the average age of the participants is consistent with that of traditional college and university students.

The academic community plays an important role in identifying and responding to the warning signs of radicalization. The values of higher education – to share ideas, to encourage open debate and discussion, and to engage in constructive disagreement – are what enable us to try to logically persuade those who espouse the extremist ideologies that are the enemies of rational thought (Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills, 2008).


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About the Author

Marie Wright, Ph.D., CHS-V, is a Professor of Management Information Systems at Western Connecticut State University. She received her Ph.D. in Information and Control Systems from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She has authored more than three dozen articles on information systems security, published in journals such as Computer Fraud & Security, Computers & Society, Data Security Management, The Forensic Examiner®, Network Security, and Review of Business, and she is the co-author of Information Security: Contemporary Cases (Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2007). She is a member of the American College of Forensic Examiners Institute®, American Board of Information Security and Computer Forensics, American Society for Industrial Security, Association for Computing Machinery, Beta Gamma Sigma National Honor Society, Computer Security Institute, Information Systems Security Association, InfraGard Connecticut, and the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Publisher Dr. Robert O'Block, American College of Forensic Examiners.