A desire for a new identity and a taste for excitement and violence are among the factors that are attracting a growing number of educated teens and young adults from middle-class backgrounds in the U.S., Canada, and Europe to join the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), according to Jessica E. Stern, Ph.D. ’92, a fellow at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rightsat Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a lecturer in the Department of Government at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
“An important factor [for ISIS recruits] seems to be the desire to forge a new identity, an identity with dignity. I interviewed terrorists for many years and I can tell you that identity is often absolutely key,” Stern said in a Q&A with the Harvard Gazette on March 17. Stern, who has written extensively about terrorism and violent extremists, is on the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law and was a National Security Council staff member during the Clinton administration. She is co-author of a new book, “ISIS: The State of Terror,” to be released March 24. Studies of Westerners who join jihadi organizations have shown that the recruits “tend to be alienated or marginalized within their own societies; they may have had a bad encounter with police or distrust local authorities. They tend to disapprove of their nation’s foreign policies,” Stern said