Europe's high youth unemployment rate and limited economic mobility has long been cited as a major factor for young people becoming radicalized and joining terrorist organizations like the Islamic State militant groups. But in the wake of the fatal shooting at France's Charlie Hebdo magazine that saw two young gunmen kill 12 people, terrorism experts said certain personality traits, not employment status, have increasingly become a major focal point for Islamist recruiters hoping to radicalize young men and women.

“There really isn’t any one profile,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, a postdoctoral fellow at the Resilience Research Center at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, who has interviewed members of ISIS, the al-Nusra Front and other terror groups for his research. “You basically have any ethnic background that has been involved, from Afghanistan to Pakistan to white converts, all kinds of socioeconomic backgrounds. Some come from broken homes, some not.”

The idea that economic deprivation causes young Muslims to become enamored with terrorist groups was the prevailing theory in the 1980s, but the profiles of recent recruits and some terrorist leaders suggest that thinking has become outdated. Osama bin Laden was the son of a wealthy Saudi developer. His deputy and current al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is an Egyptian doctor and had a well-to-do upbringing. In recent years, Britain has become a breeding ground for extremism as young middle-class Muslims with college degrees and six-figure salaries have flocked to militant groups.

“Poverty has been around for many years. Unemployment has been around for many years and is not unique to only some people. It is all over, but people don’t commit jihad," said Dr. Wagdy Loza, a professor of psychiatry at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and creator of the Assessment and Treatment of Radicalization Scale, which measures how susceptible someone is to Islamic extremist ideology and committing terrorist acts. "People do that because of their characteristics. They are sold into the idea of jihad, of getting back.” 

A specific way of thinking or feelings of alienation can push young Muslims toward extremism, Loza said. “They are rigidly devout, they want some status, they want to look cool, they have some problems with their lives, they are unsatisfied with some perceived insults or frustration, they are aggrieved about something, they like the idea of carrying weapons, they feel victimized, they feel humiliated, so there is a host of factors which may differ from one [person] to another,” he said. “They have rigid thinking -- they see things as black and white, they think in unsophisticated ways, they think in extremes or absolutes, they are filled with anger [and] hatred, and some of these actions, like the guys who did this in France ... sometimes [give] them excitement, adventure.”

Loza was referring to Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, the French brothers who killed 10 journalists and two policemen in the attack on the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and Amedy Coulibaly, who seized a kosher supermarket in the French capital, resulting in the death of four hostages. All three suspects were of Algerian descent but born in France. They were killed in standoffs with French security forces on Friday.

The economic crisis in Europe, where unemployment is at 11.5 percent overall and 23.7 percent among youth, has fueled anti-immigrant sentiment, said Carolyn Dudek, a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. “Because you have the economic crisis that happened, particularly high youth unemployment, what happens is people look around and say, ‘Well, where’s the problem?’ and the perception for some is that ‘these immigrants are taking our jobs.’ The reality is nobody wants those jobs.”

About 2,000 Westerners are believed to be fighting with militant groups in Syria and Iraq, including 1,600 from Britain, France and Germany. Part of the challenge, especially in France, is that Muslims aren’t integrated into European society. “Let’s face it: They’re visually different ... and speak another language, so they’re perceived as outsiders,” Dudek said.

Many French-Algerians live in the suburbs of France, many of which are considered undesirable. “Because they’re kind of ghettoized, because they are of a lower socio-economic status, it [makes them] ripe for the picking for ISIS or Salafi Islam,” Dudek said. “Their community is on the Internet and social media. Young Muslims ... feel part of the [online] community and they don’t feel part of their community in France.”

While there is separation of church and state in Britain, France and other European countries, these nations are still culturally Christian, which is viewed as “part of being European,” according to Amarasingam. “Part of the problem is that [even with] the discourse of multiculturalism in Europe, the residue of Judeo-Christian heritage persists,” he said. The result is that some young Muslims become increasingly alienated from European society.

Multiculturalism, or acknowledging every ethnic and religious group in the belief that different cultures can live in harmony, is either virtually impossible to achieve, or governments are taking a halfhearted approach to the idea, according to Dudek. German Chancellor Angela Merkel branded the concept, which took root in Germany in the 1970s, as a failure in 2010. "We kidded ourselves a while. We said: ‘[Immigrants] won't stay, sometime they will be gone,' but this isn't reality,” she said, according to the BBC. "And of course, the approach [to build] a multicultural [society] and to live side by side and to enjoy each other ... has failed, utterly failed."

But more openness could help combat radicalization, said Amarasingam. “We don’t really understand the process well enough to talk about the deradicalization process,” he said. “We still have a long way to go to combat the narrative. Part of it is to be more inclusive of individuals in society.”