Youth Who Resist Joining Terror Organizations

Most researchers studying terrorist recruitment ask how they entice members who are willing to commit horrendous violent crimes in the name of Islam. Political scientist Kim Cragin and colleagues at Rand approach the topic from the opposite perspective – what are the conditions in which youth actually reject recruitment? Of interest to us in Israel is the fact that she conducted her study among youth in the Palestinian Authority.

youth who resist joining terror organizatins
Youth throwing stones behind cover of an ambulance. By Israel Defense Forces [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Their decision to study those who chose not to become terrorists excited me because when I studied the factors that led pregnant teenagers to carry their unintended pregnancy to term and keep the babies, what I found most instructive was interviewing those of their friends who had become pregnant but decided to abort rather than become teenage mothers. I had conducted a snowball sampling and the mothers gave me names of their never-pregnant friends, some of whom were, unbeknownst to them, these young women who had made an active decision to embark on a different path than what would have been their lot had they given birth. The “why not” provided valuable information on how to help girls who are at risk for unintended pregnancy to avoid that eventuality before the fact. I anticipated reading Cragin et al’s article for this very reason.

In this article I examine her study and its findings.  This will be followed by my own critique of her study.

Previous Findings on Motivations to engage in terrorist acts . . .

have been examined in other studies. Friends and family have been reported to be instrumental in influencing the growing attachment of an individual to an extremist group. Despair has been suggested as providing some motivation as well but, as we saw in the case of the Sbarro pizzeria suicide bombing, the terrorist’s mother admitted her son had had no problem with the Israeli occupation and was, instead, enticed by promises of Paradise. Anticipated personal gain, then, whether this is financial, spiritual or social, apparently can be a strong motivator. Others believe that engaging in terror will bring about the positive change in the social order they have been led to believe is their role. It is clear that such motivational factors will apply to many more individuals than actually decide to join a terrorist organization and carry out attacks.

Other studies on terrorists in Israeli jails point to the following:

  1. Suicide terrorists had fewer or weaker family ties than other kinds of terrorists, whether these were families of origin or of procreation.
  2. Suicide terrorists were more likely to come from middle class families and to be educated than to be poverty stricken and otherwise disadvantaged.
  3. Despair over difficult life conditions only led to radicalization when this was combined with the altruistic desire to do something positive for their community – and the specific positive outcome was defined by the extremist group, in this case, the Islamist group.

Cragin’s Study on Youth Who Resist Joining Terror Organizations

Cragin’s research team set out to personally administer questionnaires to 679 Arab youth (ages 18-30) in their homes in Hebron, Jenin, and Ramallah; 62 refused and 17 were interrupted before completing the survey. The final sample was 600. The dependent variables (term defined below the article) in this study were: attitudes toward suicide attacks against civilians, and willingness to engage in violent protests, both measured with a series of questions. The independent variables (term defined below the article) were:

  1. perceived in/effectiveness of violence (eg., participation in various forms of violent or nonviolent protest, or membership in political organizations)
  2. perceived costs of violence (eg., fear of reprisals by security forces)
  3. social ties (eg., quality of community ties, peers, family relations)
  4. religiosity
  5. economic conditions


  1. Any association with Hamas increased support for suicide bombings against civilians and willingness to participate in violent protests.
  2. Those who were less satisfied with their personal quality of life were less likely to support suicide bombings against Israeli citizens, being apathetic about the situation.
  3. No Arab living in the PA or Gaza felt safe or protected from sudden arrest or loss of freedom for oneself or family members –
    a. those who were afraid of future arrest of had a family member arrested in the past were less likely to support suicide bombings;
    b. however, those who were afraid of arrest or had a family member arrested in the past were more likely to engage in violent protests;
    c. detention as opposed to arrest had a less significant impact on attitude to violence.
  4. Parental influence was the most important social factor – more important than peers.
  5. Women were more likely to support suicide attacks against civilians and less likely to participate in violent protests than men.
  6. Those who felt shariah law should NOT be applied in the PA were less likely to support suicide bombings.


  1. Policies aimed to reduce radicalization of youth should focus on family interventions more than on peer groups – teaching parents how to discourage participation in violence.
  2. Trying to direct youth to express their dissatisfactions in nonviolent ways does not prevent radicalization.
  3. Fear only goes so far in preventing escalation of violence.
  4. Support for violence does not necessarily lead to willingness to commit violence and should not equate the two – need to better understand what keeps these two separate.

My criticism of this study:

I appreciate that this study began to ask what may turn out to be the most fruitful line of questioning: what keeps some youth from joining terror organizations? Here are some problems I found with the study:

  1. It looks like some of the research participants had already proceeded to a degree of involvement in violence and the data concerning them possibly confound the data of those who resist joining terror organizations.
  2. It is naive to suggest that parents are necessarily against their kids participating in violent protest. Look at the family of Shirley Temper, for example, where the parents are teaching their kids to perform for the camera by harassing soldiers and throwing stones (see video below).
  3. I want to know more about those less satisfied with life conditions who are called “apathetic” in this study – are they depressed? If so, that might affect their in/ability to mobilize themselves to either do something productive with their lives or even engage in violent acts. If they are depressed, their data are not useful to this study and, in fact, may skew the results and reduce the power of their analysis and the validity of the conclusions.
  4. I don’t see how the sample questions reported in the methods section (copied above) relate to the issue of “ineffectiveness of violent protest”. These particular questions do not seem to tap into belief in the usefulness or lack thereof of violent protest, the point Cragin et al were investigating. In private communication with Cragin, she clarified that this series of questions related to interviewees’ belief in the relative viability of violence versus negotiation for resolving problems with Israel and I wish she had provided sample questions that seemed more relevant to that issue.
  5. Their conclusion that support for violence does not necessarily lead to willingness to commit violence can be understand a few ways; which of these pertain is never made clear:
    a. Not willing to engage EVER in violence
    b. Not YET ready to engage in violence
    c. Willing to support others who engage in violence
  6. It does not discuss relation of the data to recruitment and induction mechanisms that may or may not yet have been applied to their sample of individuals.

The Most Important Finding: Parents May Be Instrumental in Helping Youth Resist Joining Terror Organizations

Mother of Sbarro pizzeria bombing said her son could not have done it for revenge but because of the promise of Paradise. For her to admit this means she probably did not approve of his actions and that he may have fallen victim to seductive recruitment manipulations. There are parents who have called the Israeli authorities and warned that their kid was about to commit an act and to pick him up (sorry, I can’t find the source for this information now) – these are also parents who do not want their children to be radicalized.

We need to identify those parents who are against the radicalization of their kids and help them learn how to keep their children from falling prey to the Islamist vultures out there looking for them.

Given Cragin’s findings, I think the most important line of study would be to identify what distinguishes between parents who want their children to join the violence against Israel and those who want their kids to resist joining terror organizations.

* * * * *

Dependent variable: The issue the study seeks to understand – the values of the dependent variable are expected to change in relation to the independent variables.

Independent variable: Aspects theory and previous research leads the researcher to believe are basic and stand alone, unaffected by the issue the study seeks to examine.

* * * * *

Cragin, K., Bradley, M.A., Robinson, E., & Steinberg, P.S.  (2015).  What Factors Cause Youth to RejectViolent Extremism? Results of an Exploratory Analysis in the West Bank. Rand Corporation. Retrieved from:
This article was originally published in Israel Diaries.

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