Individuals join terrorist groups for a variety of personal and political reasons. They may join because most of their friends have, or for the feeling that membership of the organisation brings benefits. For example, the group Islamic State (also known as Daesh, ISIS and ISIL) seeks to establish a new theologically driven state in the Middle East and promises fighters from all over the world better living conditions and pay than they might achieve in their home countries. The ability to travel across borders more freely because of globalisation and the economic resources available to Islamic State in the form of oil make this possible. Individuals may also join a terrorist organisation because they strongly empathise and identify with the group even if they are not directly affected by the cause. Global online media can facilitate this identification by giving a cause a global appeal. It is important to note that what motivates individuals to join and remain in transnational terrorist organisations is not necessarily the same as the wider goals of those groups.
A key way of understanding why individuals join and remain part of transnational terrorist groups is radicalisation theory. Radicalisation is understood to be ‘everything that happens before the bomb goes off’ (Neumann 2013). It suggests that there are pathways to becoming a radical or terrorist and that it is a dynamic and very individualised process. Because of its individual nature, there is no single terrorist profile in today’s transnational world, even in particular countries. Terrorists may be female, married, old, rich, have children – or not. Attempts to profile behaviours have therefore not been successful. The New York Police Department produced one of the early guides for ‘spotting’ radicalisation, which led to some seemingly bizarre characteristics (inability to grow pot plants, enjoying camping out) being identified as ‘signs’ of radicalisation (Silber and Bhatt 2007). The signs were problematic because they were so broad in their scope that almost everyone was potentially a suspect. What radicalisation research does show is that a quest for identity and greater significance in the world together with empathy for those who are suffering makes an individual more vulnerable to terrorist messages that appear to offer solutions (Silke 2008). Research also shows that an individual with friends or family involved with terrorism or supportive of terrorist views is more likely to join a terrorist organisation than someone with no connections at all (Wiktorowicz 2006). As a result, transnational lone-wolf actors are extremely rare despite their high profile and the media attention they receive.
At the group level, goals are also transnational. This is best illustrated by looking at Al-Qaeda and Islamic State. These groups utilise a global religious language to create an understanding of global politics that divides the world in two. On one side is the world of Islam. This is a place of goodness, where religious laws are upheld and Muslims are not oppressed. On the other side is the world of war where Muslims are oppressed by unjust and tyrannical leaders. They argue that, because of the global connection Muslims have with each other as a community of believers (Umma), all Muslims should join them in their fight against the ‘Oppressors’, regardless of where they live. They also argue that because the ‘Oppressors’ are everywhere and attack Muslims everywhere, their cause and fight is global. They refer to the ‘near enemy’ (local governments) and the ‘far enemy’ (governments of global powers) as possible aggressors against whom a member of their organisation might fight. This enables them to tap into local political grievances and give them a global religious veneer, or to highlight global incidents and claim that they are related to their local cause. What is notable is the degree to which such an understanding of the world replicates (or is replicated by) some Western governments’ thinking that also sees the world as ‘either with us or against us’.
It is important to note that the logic of worldwide oppression that shapes Islamic State and Al-Qaeda thinking is not representative of the bulk of the world’s Muslim population and is widely condemned by Islamic scholars. It is also important to note that while most of the coverage of terrorist events seems to focus on high profile events in Western states, the majority of those killed in terrorist attacks worldwide since 2001 have actually been Muslims, living in Muslim-majority countries. This is because of a range of factors. First, it is easier to target less well-protected and defended sites in poorer Muslim-majority countries. Second, ideologically, Muslims that resist jihadist violence are demonised as unbelievers by those groups and therefore become ‘enemies’ who can be killed. Finally, violent actions are often targeted to alter the relations between governments and citizens in the Muslim world and improve the strategic position of the terrorist group (Mustafa and Brown 2010).