Skip to main content

The appeal of Islamic radicalism

By Ken Ballen, Special to CNN
April 24, 2013 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Police say the dead suspect, <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/21/us/tamerlan-tsarnaev-timeline/index.html'>Tamerlan Tsarnaev</a>, is the man the FBI identified as Suspect 1. He was killed during the shootout with police in Watertown, Massachusetts, on April 19, 2013. He is pictured here at the 2010 New England Golden Gloves. Police say the dead suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, is the man the FBI identified as Suspect 1. He was killed during the shootout with police in Watertown, Massachusetts, on April 19, 2013. He is pictured here at the 2010 New England Golden Gloves.
HIDE CAPTION
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
Suspects tied to Boston bombings
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ken Ballen: The alleged Boston Marathon bombers were influenced by Islamic ideology
  • Ballen: The Tsarnaev brothers fit the profile of many young men who turn to radicalism
  • He says young men who convert to Islamic extremism often have deep personal crisis
  • Ballen: Ideas drive the radical Islamist movement; ideas can also defeat it

Editor's note: Ken Ballen, a former federal prosecutor, is president and founder of Terror Free Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization that investigates the causes of extremism. He is the author of "Terrorists in Love: True Life Stories of Islamic Radicals."

(CNN) -- There are many unanswered questions about the motivations of the alleged Boston Marathon bombers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. But it is becoming increasingly clear that they were inspired by faith in a radical Islamist ideology. Dzhokhar has told investigators that, among other things, he and his brother wanted to defend Islam, while Tamerlan's social media accounts are replete with clips by extremist clerics.

As the investigation continues to unravel the seeming paradox of how two apparently normal young men could commit acts of violence, classmates, neighbors and relatives of those who knew them have expressed surprise and disbelief.

I have interviewed over the past seven years more than a hundred radical extremists, including numerous al Qaeda and Taliban members, and it appears the Tsarnaev brothers fit the profile of many young men who turn to radicalism.

Ken Ballen
Ken Ballen

Young men—and they are almost always between the ages of 16 and 30—who convert to the radical Islamist cause come from a variety of socioeconomic and family circumstances. Before their conversion (and even often after), to all outward appearances they resemble their peers and seem like any other young men. What changes them?

While their friends, the Internet, or clerics may provide the spark or ostensible reason for radicalization, almost all these young men have some kind of deep and often hidden personal crisis in their lives that propels them to seek the all-encompassing, comprehensive answers that the radical Islamist ideology offers.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



This belief system can elevate lost individuals into a greater collective, convincing them that they are carrying out the will of God for their own glory and the redemption of Muslims everywhere.

Imbued with that conviction, the young men believe they are serving the cause of God, performing good deeds in the world, and that their own lives suddenly have meaning. They consider themselves at last on the correct path in life.

Repeatedly in my interviews, the surface reasons these men joined the cause, such as perceived American hostility to Islam or the American involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan, often masked a personal sense of alienation and individual crisis that gripped their lives, from a failed love affair or family conflict to not being able to relate to their peers.

Bomb suspect says brother was mastermind
Suspects' mom: Their protector is God

The radical Islam cause provides the relief from their crisis. It serves as the easy outlet to unleash their demons. They can now achieve a greater glory. Their lives now matter. They can become overnight heroes, featured in the media, endowed with fame and celebrated among their small, closed circle—either online or among fellow believers.

Whether the Tsarnaev brothers were self-radicalized through the Internet or by other individuals in the United States or overseas, they tapped into a belief system that feeds on vulnerable young men. It is this radical interpretation of Islam and its ideology—which demonizes nonbelievers and creates an exclusivist community—that poses an all too real danger and cannot be defeated by force of arms alone.

I met many young men who ended up leaving the radical movement. The reason each of them left centered on their own realization that al Qaeda and others were engaged in corruption or deception and did not represent true Islam.

As we search for the most effective responses to Islamist radicalism, we would do well to remember that the answers ultimately must come from those who follow the faith.

The United States can play a constructive role. The radical Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, whose sermons can be found on the Internet, is still influential. U.S. authorities killed al-Awlaki with a drone strike in Yemen in 2011. If the United States put in effort to expose the fact that the cleric had been arrested for soliciting prostitutes -- a violation of Islamic precepts -- his standing among young men looking for an example of Islam could be diminished.

Ideas drive the radical Islamist movement. Ideas can defeat it.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ken Ballen.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
Michael Werz says in light of the spying cases, U.S. is seen as a paranoid society that can't tell friends from foes.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Eric Liu explains why in his new book, he calls himself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)
John Bare says hands-on learning can make a difference in motivating students to acquire STEM skills.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Karl Alexander and Linda Olson find blacks and whites live in urban poverty with similar backgrounds, but white privilege wins out as they grow older.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
ADVERTISEMENT