Radicalization of Momin Khawaja

Project Details


Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko (Bryn Mawr College) will focus on a particularly well-documented case of self-radicalization, the case of Momin Khawaja. The documentation includes an extensive email history in which Khawaja's radicalization can be tracked in real time, without the usual biases of retrospective reports of thoughts and feelings long in the past.

The theoretical starting point for this project is McCauley and Moskalenko's past work on mechanisms of radicalization, as presented in the 2013 book, Friction. The researchers identified the following factors as relevant to the radicalization process based on systematic review of a wide array of case studies across the extremist ideological spectrum:

Individual-level mechanisms of radicalization

1. Personal grievance (Chechen Black Widows)

2. Group grievance (including "lone-wolf" terrorists: Ted Kaczynski, Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar)

3. Slippery slope ("Jihadist Next Door" Omar Hammami)

4. Love (Red Army Faction, Brigate Rosse)

5. Risk and Status (Abu-Musabal-Zarqawi

6. Unfreezing (9/11 bombers)

Group level mechanisms of radicalization

7. Group Polarization (Weather Underground)

8. Group Competition

  • vs. state (condensation: Weather Underground from SDS)
  • vs. non-state groups ('outbidding': PFLP to Jihad)
  • vs. faction within group (fission: IRA)

9. Group Isolation/Threat (underground group, cult, squad in combat)

Mass level mechanisms of radicalization

10. Jujitsu Politics (AI Qaeda vs. U.S.)

11. Hatred (Neo-Nazis)

12. Martyrdom (Sayyid Qutb)

For the Khawaja case history, the researchers will look for these factors at work, as well as looking more broadly for the importance of news events, internet materials, and charismatic figures or leaders as inspiration for radicalization. Special attention will be given to the distinction between Khawaja's radicalization in belief in Canada vs. his radicalization in action in London and Pakistan.


The great difficulty in using psychological ideas to understand radicalization is that researchers typically have little access to the interior life of terrorists. Events and actions are more easily ascertained, but the thoughts and feelings of terrorists are more difficult to assess. Especially this problem arises in trying to understand lone-wolf terrorists. Group-based terrorists often produce texts and public statements which, however biased, offer insight at least into what the terrorists want their publics to believe about their motives and goals. Lone-actor terrorists are usually less obliging in this regard (Anders Breivlk is a notable but non-American exception).

But there is one case of a terrorist who loved to write, who left an almost daily record of emails and blog entries as he self-radicalized to the point where he left the country to seek a militant organization that could provide means and opportunity for jihad. Momin Khawaja provides for researchers perhaps the best-ever real-time record of thoughts and feelings leading up to terrorist action. These materials run to the hundreds of pages of email and blogging, hundreds of pages of court transcript, dozens of pages of interview notes, and three chapters of timeline history that Thomas Quiggin put together himself.

These materials and Quiggin's personal experience with Khawaja provide what the PIs believe is the best-ever opportunity to trace the radicalization of an individual who, if not a lone-wolf terrorist, was clearly a self-radicalized terrorist. 


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