“As we go forward, we need to find new ways to amplify the voices of peace and tolerance and inclusion -- and we especially need to do it online.  We also need to lift up the voices of those who know the hypocrisy of groups like ISIL firsthand, including former extremists.  Their words speak to us today… And they’ve warned other young people not to make the same mistakes as they did…  We need to lift up those voices.”

-Former President, Barack Obama February 18, 2015


Learning the reasons behind how an individual was radicalized and joined a terrorist organization is only the beginning to understanding this ongoing issue. More recently, there has been an increasing interest and focus on those who, essentially, “walked away” from it all. Defectors are individuals who have experienced the violence and inside operations of terrorist organizations and left because they rejected the goals and actions of the group. It has been made abundantly clear that a single factor cannot encompass the whole picture on why anyone would adopt violent extremist views, or why some chose to disassociate themselves from that life. The pathway to joining a terrorist organization generally looks the same for everyone, aside from some underlying factors that differ from person to person. The three phases of joining a terrorist group are as follows: involvement, engagement, and disengagement.



Involvement is a gradual process; multiple factors come into play when examining how and why an individual gets entangled in terrorism. This could include exposure to ideological teachings, influence from family and friends, or interacting with charismatic members within a terrorist group. Risk factors may include:

  • Dissatisfaction with current identity or activity
  • Limited alternatives and opportunities
  • Need for validation and approval of others
  • Acceptance of extremist views
  • Placing a premium on action
  • Positive expectations about involvement with specific individuals/groups


Someone does not need to be carrying out attacks to be considered to be engaging in terrorism. 'Terrorist involvement' can range from direct involvement, to ancillary and indirect activity. Direct involvement is the use of violence and fear. Ancillary and indirect activity would be providing funds for the organization, or recruiting others into the “cause”


Regardless of the reason, disengagement is when an individual no longer wants to participate in terrorist activity. When a person experiences disillusionment, they typically leave because the reality of things is not what they expected. This process differs from de-radicalization, which involves a change in ideology, attitudes, or beliefs. Disengagement is putting an end to terrorist behavior and participation, not necessarily abandoning their ideology. The disengagement process is not the same for everyone, however, there are five distinct stages that are found to be common.


There are certain factors that have been grouped into 'push and pull' factors which may help explain why individuals are more likely to disengage. Push factors are associated with difficulties of further engagement and commitment to the terrorist organization’s ideology and actions. They lessen the appeal of further involvement. Pull factors are what draws and attracts people towards a different life (that being life without violent extremism, i.e. miss family or the comforts of previous life). 


Harry Sarfo, 28, from Bremen, Germany joined ISIS in April 2015. He was attracted to the idea of uniting people under one flag. But he witnessed the horrific truth behind how ISIS treats civilians and their fellow fighters.

What were the push and pull factors of Harry deciding to leave?