Global & Disaster Medicine

Trends in the Draw of Americans to Foreign Terrorist Organizations from 9/11 to Today


Williams, Heather J., Nathan Chandler, and Eric Robinson, Trends in the Draw of Americans to Foreign Terrorist Organizations from 9/11 to Today. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018. Also available in print form.

“……..Key Findings

Terrorist Recruits in the Present Day

  • The historic stereotype of a Muslim, Arab, immigrant male as the most vulnerable to extremism is not representative of many terrorist recruits today.
  • Recruits are more likely to be Caucasian/white or African American/black, and to have been born in the United States.
  • Recruits are more likely to be younger and less educated.
  • Recruits are more likely to have converted to Islam as part of their radicalization process.
  • Although they are still primarily male, recruits are increasingly likely to be female.
  • Perhaps most important, recruits are at present more likely to be drawn to or influenced by ISIL rather than al Qaeda or its affiliates during their process of radicalization and journey to terrorism.


  • A more thorough inquiry into this topic would benefit from the cooperation of law enforcement, and particularly the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which may be aware of additional cases that should be included and may have additional information regarding recruits’ conversion to Islam, educational background, and past criminal history. A research project done in collaboration with law enforcement could also gauge whether some of the increases or decreases in arrests could reflect a change in the posture or priorities of law enforcement.
  • A more precise inquiry into how FTOs inspire terrorist actions would also consider the date when an individual began radicalizing, or at least when a law enforcement investigation was opened; ideally, it would probe the sequencing of the radicalization process of individuals in fine biographical detail. Incorporating these dates and data points would better reflect events that inspired an individual to conduct a terrorist act.
  • Research efforts should consider whether to include the entire population of domestic terrorists inside the United States (e.g., individuals connected to white supremacists, sovereign citizens, militant environmentalists, revolutionary organizations, etc.). Doing so would require careful attention to definitions and coding criteria, as there is no universally set definition of terrorism.
  • Focusing more on the motivation of actors — and resisting the temptation to label an attack as terrorism simply because the individual involved may have been Muslim or had a Middle Eastern background — could help us better understand, and therefore combat, the threat of terrorism in the United States……..”

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