Threats of terrorism originating from youth within Western countries have increased in the recent past. This article seeks to understand the growing phenomenon of extremism among youth born and raised in Western countries. It specifically attempts to synthesize various studies within the framework of Uncertainty-Identity Theory to provide a general assessment on why and how young people born and living in prosperous and relatively peaceful Western countries elect to join or associate with extremist groups, such as Al-Qaida and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). I argue that the roots of radicalization and terrorism do not lie in the individual but in the macrosocial environment that shapes the Western countries in which these young people live.


On July 7, 2005, Khaled Kelkal, a British national, planned and coordinated a series of terrorist attacks in central London targeting civilians using the public transport system. On April 15, 2013, two brothers, Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar, who were permanent residents in the U.S., bombed civilians at the Boston Marathon. On January 7, 2015, the Kouachi brothers, French citizens, committed terror attacks at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris (Lynch, 2013). Unlike other terror attacks committed by transnational extremists, who plan and travel to Western countries to carry out the attacks, these special cases involved youth born and raised in the Western countries they targeted.

Studies by Hafez and Mullins (2015) show that threats of terrorism originating from the youth within Western countries have increased in the recent past. There have been nearly 200 known cases of homegrown jihadists in the U.S. alone in the last decade and many more in other Western countries. Furthermore, a report by the Center for Counterterrorism research estimates that more than five thousand people from Western countries traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Scholars have made attempts to understand why young people born and living in prosperous and relatively peaceful Western countries join or associate with extremist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Earlier research on terrorism focused on international terrorists and the groups they identify with (Bizina and Gray, 2014). The studies also sought to understand the individual dynamics that influence one into becoming an extremist—this type of research hinged on the premise that people turned to terrorism because of some personal predisposition. The assumption underlying much of this research was that most terrorists had some common characteristics that can be figured out through psychometric analysis of large quantities of biographical data on terrorists (Hudson, 2010). Thus, this kind of research aimed to find the standard profile of a terrorist.  For instance, Russel and Miller (1977) carried the earliest research that attempted to sketch a terrorist profile. Using data compiled on over three hundred known terrorists from eighteen Middle Eastern, Latin American, West European, and Japanese groups, they presented the profile of a terrorist as a single male, aged 22 to 24, with at least some university education, most often in the humanities. Additionally, other researchers reported personality pathology findings, claims that did not stand up to empirical scrutiny (Segeman, 2014). These attempts to reveal the terrorists’ personality and draw conclusions from their demographic makeup failed resoundingly and were abandoned.

The realization that there was no standard profile of a terrorist prompted a shift in terrorism research from the ‘why’ question to ‘how’ people join or come to identify with a terrorist organization (see Taylor, 1988; Reich, 1990; Silke, 2003; Horgan, 2005).  Nevertheless, the focus was still on the transnational terrorist networks, which constituted a clear majority of extremists’ threats to Western countries (Wilner and Bubouloz, 2013).  However, with the rising threat of terror attacks by youth born and raised in Western countries, the depiction of a terrorist as a transnational striking at the Western values from abroad is slowly fading. Unfortunately, we know little about the factors that drive young people to become jihadists. I argue that the roots of radicalization and terrorism do not lie in the individual but in the macrosocial environment that shapes Western countries in which these young people live. Therefore, this study seeks to understand this growing phenomenon of extremism among the youth born and raised in prosperous Western countries. It specifically attempts to synthesize studies within the theoretical framework of Uncertainty-Identity Theory to provide a general rubric on why the youth join or identify with extremist groups such as ISIS. I begin by examining the tenets of the uncertainty-identity theory and then discuss the process of radicalization with ISIS as a case study.

Life conditions and the production of uncertainty

Uncertainty-identity theory posits that reduction of self-uncertainty is the primary motivation for social identity processes and group behaviors. The theory ascribes specific forms of group attachment, self-definition, and group structure to individuals striving to reduce feelings of uncertainty through group identification, self-categorization, and prototype-based depersonalization (Hogg, 2006). It builds on the premise that individuals have an overwhelming need to locate their self-concept within a social context in order to gain a firm grasp of their identity. For instance, Hogg (2006) points out that when individuals are uncertain about who they are and do not know what to think, feel or do, they are more likely to identify with groups with prototypical attributes that can reduce their uncertainty.

According to Hogg (2007), the uncertainty-identity theory has three premises: (1) People are motivated to reduce feelings of uncertainty about or related to themselves; (2) identifying with a group reduces self-uncertainty because the group’s attributes are cognitively internalized as a prototype that describes and prescribes one’s own attitudes, feelings, and behavior, and fellow group members consensually validate these attributes; (3) Highly entitative groups that are distinctive and clearly defined are most effective at reducing self-uncertainty.

Studies show that homegrown terrorists (a term used to refer to terrorists who attack their country of citizenship) are mostly second and third-generation immigrants and new converts to Islam.  Although these young people are often well educated, are native speakers of languages in the Western countries where they live, have no prior affiliation with radical Islam, and in most cases, were not necessarily brought up observing or practicing religion (Belarouci, 2009), studies have shown that they are a vulnerable demographic (Lyons-Padila, 2015). Some of the reasons that induce uncertainty include marginalization, economic deprivation, and weak religion.

Writing about the marginalization of immigrants in various western countries, Vidino (2007) pointed out that although first-and second-generation immigrants may appear to have integrated well compared to their parents or grandparents, they harbor deep-seated feelings of marginalization and resentment. Marginalized people experience feelings of significant loss and may be looking for opportunities to affirm a sense of identity and self-worth. Buuiis (2009) noted that most of the first-and second-generation immigrants in Britain want to be active participants in society, and it is precisely for this reason that they are more sensitive to exclusion. Therefore, marginalized immigrants are more likely to be attracted to groups that offer a clear sense of inclusion and purpose and the opportunity to restore a sense of self-worth. ISIS recruitment documents such as Dabiq magazine often highlight this marginalization. They invoke the humiliation and suffering of Muslims living in Western countries and the need for Muslims to live in a Caliphate (in this case, a place of protection), which resonates with young people experiencing uncertainty.

Studies have shown that first and second-generation Muslim immigrants, despite their education, have lower labor force participation, employment, and occupational attainment (Cheung, 2014). Gurr’s (1970) theory of relative deprivation, which defines deprivation as a person’s belief that he or she is receiving less than deserved, shows that economic deprivation can lead to frustration and contribute to violence. Freytag and colleagues’ (2011) tests on this theory found out that indeed poor socio-economic development can lead one to join a terrorist organization. First and second-generation Muslim immigrants feel that they do not have equal access to employment opportunities compared to other citizens.  It appears that these feelings increase their uncertainty and make them susceptible to recruitment by terrorist groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

Although studies indicate that religion is not the primary motivator for joining violent extremist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda (Roy, 2015), there is evidence that weak religion among the new converts and the first- and second-generation immigrants not raised to observe Islam contributes to the sense of uncertainty in their lives. I use weak religion in its literal manifestation, distinguished from Scott Appleby’s idea of weak religion, which describes “works that presents religion as a dependent variable in deadly violence, the primary source of which is secular in origin” (Appleby 2015: 34). If anything, home grown terrorists are more likely to gravitate towards stronger interpretations of religion, particularly those that seek to bind them into a community of practice. Thus, the link between weak religion and extremism is a significant strand in the study of terrorism as young people with a shallow understanding of their religion become targets of terrorist recruiters. For instance, ISIS recruiters target the newly converted and the first- and second-generation Muslim immigrants in the West because they are aware most of these people do not have a theologically grounded understanding of Islam. As noted above, ISIS promises them a home in the caliphate to experience a more fulfilling practice of Islam.

Writing about Western jihadists who have converted to Islam, Wood (2017) noted that uncertainty about life could be triggered by how the social environment reacts to these young people in the event of a tragedy or crisis in personal life, such as the loss of parents or the inability to attain success in the fields chosen or glorified by one’s parents or authority figures. Of course, many people in life face personal tragedies every day, but they do not necessarily join extremist groups. However, what matters here is not the personal tragedy, but the kind of support one receives from society. Feelings of isolation, neglect, and rejection heighten one’s uncertainty about their position in society.

Feelings of uncertainty persist if the inducing context remains. Those who are less tolerant of uncertainty are motivated to lessen the feelings (Rokeach, 1960) to render their world predictable and be in control of their own behavior by identifying with a group.  For instance, one can argue that radical Islamist ideology conferred the Tsarnaev brothers (involved in the Boston bombing) an avenue for reducing the uncertainty induced by the confusion they felt when their parents divorced, and the subsequent abandonment of the teenagers in America, and the rejection from the community (Reitman, 2013).

Reducing self-uncertainty through group identification

Uncertainty-identity theory posits that feelings of uncertainty are solved by identifying with a group (Hogg, 2007; Hogg, 2012) through self-categorization (Hogg, 2006). This identification allows individuals to confer the characteristics of a social group to themselves; in other words, the group provides them with a social identity—a shared reality and definition of who one is, how one is located in the social world, what one should think, do, and feel, and how one will be perceived and treated by others. The significance of this social identity stems from the fact that human beings organize their lives into various kinds of social groups with prototypical attributes that “describe members’ perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, values, feelings, and behaviors” (Hogg, 2007: 79). Categorizing individuals as group members changes how other people view them. In other words, other people will potentially view them not as unique individuals possessing their own attributes but rather as prototypical group members.  This categorization reduces uncertainty because it confers a person with a group identity that directs him on how to behave and socialize with others.

Uncertainty does not motivate people in the same way as feelings of uncertainty are not uniform to every individual; some variations determine a person’s relative position to uncertainty and the reduction of uncertainty (Hogg, 2007). For instance, an individual can experience more uncertainty for losing a job as opposed to breaking up with a friend, while another will experience more uncertainty after breaking up with a friend than for losing a job. (Hogg, 2007) argued that feelings of uncertainty about or related to self are likely to have the most significant motivational force “because the self is the critical organizing principle, referent point, or integrative framework for perceptions, feelings, and behaviors.” Therefore, if uncertainty matters to an individual, it will motivate his or her behavior.

If the uncertainty is extreme, the individual will be motivated to identify or join a totalistic group with ideological orthodoxy, intolerance, violence, and extremism (Hogg, 2005, Hogg, Adelman and Blagg, 2010). We will now examine how they identify with these groups.

Why Extremist Groups Appeal to Western Jihadists

Not every group is best equipped to reduce uncertainty through identification (Hogg, 2005). Only entitative and groups that are relevant to self-definition can.  Hogg (2007) defines an entitative group as one with some clearly defined boundaries, uniform structure, unquestionable membership criteria, common goals, and shared fate, which makes it “groupy.” Under uncertainty-identity, when individuals experience uncertainty, especially self-uncertainty, they are likely to identify more strongly with high entitative groups (Hogg and Blaylock, 2012) because they view these groups’ attributes inalterable. Therefore, such groups provide them with prescriptive social identity and a sense of self.

Totalistic groups are highly entitative, and they include terrorist organizations such as ISIS, which has a rigid and hierarchical structure with a clearly delineated chain of legitimate influence and command, and substantial intolerance of internal dissent and criticism. The group is also ethnocentric, and it seeks to fight out-groups (Hogg, 2007). Lifton (1989) identified eight characteristics of such groups, namely: milieu control (control of communication), mystical manipulation, demand for purity, cult of confession, sacred science, loaded language, humans subordinate to doctrine, and dispensing of existence. Studies by Barron and Maye (2017) show that the ideology of ISIS is consistent with the above characteristics.

When self-uncertainty is strong, individuals are more likely to identify strongly with extreme or totalistic groups. Other related groups like the militaries in the Western countries do not meet the above-described characteristics. Furthermore, the young people who join those groups are merely running from the Western environment where the militaries are apart. To be a soldier is to fight for people one can identify with and have faith in them. Arguably, those who join ISIS feel that they can identify more with the extremist organization than their birth countries. ISIS provides them with an immutable social identity and a sense of self. Therefore, totalistic groups do a better job at reducing or fending off persistent and intense or extreme uncertainty induced by factors such as marginalization, economic deprivation, civil conflicts, unemployment, and relocation, among others.

Uncertainty and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)

There is no universally agreed-upon definition of terrorism or terrorist groups. Every country has its criteria of designating groups as terrorist organizations. This article follows (Gibbs, 1989) definition, which describes terrorism as illegal violence or threatened violence directed against human or nonhuman objects provided that it: (1) was undertaken or ordered to alter or maintain at least one punitive norm in at least one particular territorial unit or population; (2) had clandestine features that were expected by the participants to conceal their personal identity; (3) was not conventional warfare; (4) was not undertaken or ordered to further the permanent defense of some area. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is a classic example of a group perpetuating the kind of terror Gibbs (1989) describes.  

ISIS is perhaps the most successful extremist group with supporters in different parts of the world. It seized vast chunks of Iraq and Syria, declaring itself a state and governing territory for several years and counting. The group began in 2004 as al Qaeda in Iraq, before rebranding as ISIS two years later. In 2014, ISIS declared a caliphate—a state governed by an absolute Islamic leader.  Besides the territory ISIS controls in the Middle East, the group also directs and inspires acts of terrorism worldwide. CNN’s running count indicates that ISIS has carried out 143 attacks in 29 countries, excluding Iraq and Syria, and has killed at least 2,043 people.  Despite this, tens of thousands of men, women, and children from the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe immigrated to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS (Wood, 2017). Why would people with seemingly comfortable lives choose to identify with a group that has killed civilians around the world? As noted earlier, these people join ISIS because of the uncertainty they experience in western countries. Therefore, they identify with ISIS, a totalistic group, to reduce the uncertainty (Hogg, 2007). ISIS furnishes them with a sense of identity; for instance, the men become Mujahedeen (fighters) with a prescribed behavior on what to think, feel, or do, thus providing a moral compass and rules for living that pervade an individual’s life (Hogg, Adelman and Blagg, 2010).

Consistent with the observation that the majority of homegrown terrorists are second and third-generation immigrants and new converts to Islam, studies have revealed aspects of these populations lived experience that induces uncertainty, for instance, economic deprivation (Lyons-Padila, 2015), marginalization (Wilner and Dubouloz, 2010), weak religion (Appleby, 2000), and identity crisis (Roy, 2015).  These young people are the most disadvantaged as they have a higher rate of unemployment, poor health, poor educational attainment, poor relationships with police, high incidences of imprisonment, and poor prospects all around (Samad, 2004). Studies show that they are at a stage of life where they are seeking an identity while looking for approval and validation. They are searching for causes that can be religiously and culturally justified, that provide them a way to identify who they are, and that provide a clear call for action” (Baker et al. 2007). The uncertainty in their lives coupled with ISIS’s high machinery for propaganda and recruitment leads them to identify with ISIS in order to reduce the uncertainty. ISIS is a high entitative group with specific attributes, which provide group identity that clearly defines self from uncertainty.

ISIS is a well-defined group with an extremist ideology, that is, to form an Islamic state on the prophetic model that acknowledges no (physical) boundaries (Bunzel, 2013). This ideology is rooted in a particular interpretation of Islam. Consistent with research that religion and religious ideas provide complete and generally accepted ideas that address both daily uncertainties and existential uncertainties, ISIS’s declaration of a caliphate (an Islamic state headed by an absolute leader) tightened its boundaries, affirming its identity as an extremist group (McGregor, Haji, Nash, and Teper, 2008).

The Sharia law, which is applied throughout the caliphate, prescribes what members can or cannot do. It further serves as a reference for prototypical group attributes. One’s behavior is determined or mediated by Sharia law. Although this can limit one’s freedom, individual freedom does not matter a lot to those seeking to identify with a group to reduce uncertainty. The group is intolerant and violent to out-groups, and its moral absolutism is grounded in the literal interpretation of Islam. It embraces ideological orthodoxy, which serves as a powerful motivation for dehumanizing out-group members.

Of course, not every youth who experiences feelings of uncertainty identifies or joins ISIS. A lot depends on the context inducing uncertainty, and no two contexts are alike. For instance, Muslims from France to Germany to Belgium, and Netherland created what is often referred to as “parallel societies” in European countries (Baker et al., 2007) because policies that encouraged multiculturalism allowed for numerous Diasporas to be created along with ethnic considerations, thus religious communities did not have to intermingle (Kepel, 2010). On the other hand, France encouraged a policy of assimilation anchored on secular values, which alienated communities keen on observing and practicing their religion. Although both contexts create uncertainty, they do not motivate a person’s behavior in the same way.  Whether one decides to join or identify with ISIS depends on additional factors such as being recruited and the need for cognitive closure, among others. Cognitive closure is a need for a sense of shared reality (Kruglanksi, Pirro, Manneti, and De Grada, 2006). In times of uncertainty, people get attracted to groups with a solid sense of shared reality.  Newly converts to Islam who have little knowledge about the Islamic religion may be high on the need for cognitive closure, and this amplified need for closure can quickly endear them to groups such as ISIS that confer members with a firmly rooted sense of shared reality. When ISIS declared a caliphate, many groups and people affiliated with al Qaeda shifted their allegiance to ISIS because it is a more homogenous group in terms of attitudes, conservativism, and group norms. These attributes are highly preferred by individuals high on the need for cognitive closure (Kruglanski et al., 2006).


Whereas earlier research on terrorism was mainly conducted in psychology and focused on the perpetrators’ personality, the social psychological research on terrorism discussed in this study looks at how groups have a profound impact on an individual’s identity.  The study has attempted to synthesize results of uncertainty-identity theory research and examined the process of radicalization. It has explored the “group centrism” of ISIS as an extremist group and attempted to understand why the second and third immigrant youth identify with this group. We found out that the environment in which individuals live induces uncertainty. Under uncertainty-identity theory, people experiencing feelings of uncertainty are likely to identify with a group because groups provide them with a sense of identity – gives them a sense of who they are, what they should think, feel or do.

This study acknowledges that uncertainty alone may not lead one to identify with ISIS. Often, uncertainty creates ripe conditions, making the first and second-generation Muslim immigrants vulnerable to the ISIS recruitment machinery.  This study’s main limitation is perhaps the lack of comprehensive and reliable data on terrorism to test the theory. Most of the data sets available to scholars are secondary, mostly from journalists and Jihadi websites. Journalists describe the perpetrators’ identities, focusing primarily on the leaders of the terrorist groups and the organizations that conduct these attacks. These stories, however informative, are not designed to be analytical in a manner that advances our understanding of how people identify with groups like ISIS.  Although policy think tanks compile biographical databases on terrorists, they are not large enough for a comprehensive study. Furthermore, most governments classify such information making it quite difficult to obtain unless one has unique access to police or intelligence files on terrorists around the world. Perhaps, researchers can attempt to test the theory in a laboratory using other totalistic groups that are not necessarily violent. Although the ISIS case discussed in this paper is hardly sufficient to qualify as scientifically representative of religious terrorist groups, the study enables us to understand how extreme uncertainty can drive young people to identify with extremist groups. This study encourages us to look at people’s lived experiences in order to understand what motivates them to join extremist groups.


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