Politics Why people held captive by terrorist groups sometimes convert to Islam

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There are signs that the couple held in Afghanistan for five years may have converted to Islam. Here's why terror hostages sometimes convert in captivity.

Joshua Boyle and Caitlan Coleman sit with their children before leaving Pakistan for Canada. play

Joshua Boyle and Caitlan Coleman sit with their children before leaving Pakistan for Canada.

(Screenshot via YouTube/HBwoodTV - Media Collections)
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  • Given their statements and attitudes after their release from captivity, it is likely that Caitlan Coleman and Joshua Boyle, the couple who were held in captivity for five years in Afghanistan in Pakistan by a Taliban-affiliated group, converted to Islam during their ordeal.
  • Several prominent terror hostages like James Foley, who was beheaded by ISIS in 2014, also converted as a hostage.
  • Experts say that the unique combination of a need to survive, end-of-life self-reflection, and exposure to religious ideas helps explain why voluntary conversions occur in terror hostage situations.


Caitlan Coleman and Joshua Boyle, the couple who were recently rescued after being held hostage by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network in Afghanistan and Pakistan for five years, most likely converted to Islam during the course of their captivity.

Even though they have not addressed the issue publicly, and experts say that under the intense emotional stress that people in hostage situations experience, it is not uncommon for people to reevaluate their core spiritual or ideological beliefs.

The couple's statements reveal they might have joined several other former hostages who converted to Islam during captivity

After being rescued by Pakistani security forces earlier this month, Coleman, Boyle, and the three children they had in captivity flew back to Toronto, where days later, Coleman gave an interview to the Toronto Star in which she declined to say whether she had converted to Islam. But Coleman has continued to wear a hijab and abaya, traditional Islamic garb for women, and Boyle has maintained a cropped beard that is closely associated with Islamic expressions of faith. In addition, Boyle's statements to the media have often included allusions to Islamic ideas and phrases.

"In the final analysis, it is the intentions of our actions, not their consequences, on which we will all eventually be judged," Boyle said to the media in Toronto on October 15, according to ABC News.

This sentiment is expressed in a number of Islamic hadiths, or sayings of the prophet. Boyle has also used the Islamic phrase "Alhamdulillah," or praise God in Arabic, in a video the family released before they were sent home from Pakistan.

This would not be the first time hostages of Islamist terrorist groups have converted voluntarily during captivity. Tourists Johan Gustafsson of Sweden and Stephen McGowan of South Africa were captured by Al-Qaeda militants while in Mali in 2011, and both reportedly converted to Islam in captivity. After their release six year later, McGowan held on to his faith, and said he had converted of his own accord.

“I’m a God-fearing person so I do believe," McGowan told Eyewitness News after his release earlier this year. "They did not force me to enter into Islam. I see many very good things in Islam, many things that I like."

James Foley, the journalist kidnapped and eventually beheaded by the terrorist group ISIS in Syria, also reportedly converted to Islam voluntarily before his death in August 2014.

Stephen McGowan with his wife at a media event in Johannesburg, South Africa in August, 2017 play

Stephen McGowan with his wife at a media event in Johannesburg, South Africa in August, 2017

(Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

Experts say that in the harrowing conditions of captivity, physical and emotional self-preservation drives most hostage behaviors

Arie Kruglanski, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, said that because of the link between motivation and cognition, the best way to explain hostage conversions in these situations is to think of them as survival mechanisms.

"The dynamic of this is very interesting because you are motivated to survive," Kruglanski said. "So it's the motivation to survive, to be saved, to be spared by the captors that drives their beliefs, and their beliefs are adjusted with those of their captors because similarity of beliefs presumably leads to liking and sympathy.”

Kruglanski stated that in a situation like the one Coleman and Boyle were in, when fear is the primary motivator for people's cognition, the ideas religion presents can help people deal with their fear more easily.

"They are definitely in a state of fear," he said. "And under those conditions, their cognitive system is very heavily influenced by that motivation. So the chances are that they were not at that point particularly motivated by their desire for the truth. They were primarily motivated by their fear, by their desire to save their life. Once [they] adopted the religion, the religion can lead to a great deal of comfort because it provides certainty, it provides answers to almost all existential questions."

Max Taylor, a forensic and legal psychologist at University College London, noted that the emotional fragility that people in hostage situations exhibit leaves them more open to ideas that might ease their suffering.

"It would not seem to me to be unreasonable to suggest that what you're looking at is a conversion that has something to do with people dealing with the emotional vulnerability that PTSD causes," Taylor said. "That vulnerability is manipulated."

While it might seem counterintuitive that hostages would accept the religious beliefs that their violent captors claim to espouse, Kruglanski says that in the context of the captive situation, the redemptive narrative of Islam may have been the only one available for captives to use to make sense of their predicament.

"Just the fact that he had the religion might well have helped him adjust to the prison situation, and take a more metaphysical point of view that the religion supplies, that there is God, there is justice, and so forth and so on," he said.

Following their release to freedom though, many hostages like McGowan or Coleman and Boyle retain the religious views they developed while in captivity. Taylor says that while the freed captives may have had a negative association with their captors, it is possible to separate that association from their newfound religion.

"[For] some of these guys who continue to retain their religious commitment, it may be that ... the emotional involvement is already such that you can’t let go of it," Taylor said. "You might be able to shed the periphery, or the individuals who got you to that point, but you can't shed that core emotional solution to your problems."

In the video Coleman and Boyle released from Pakistan immediately after their capture, Boyle seemed to do just that.

"There are good Muslims, there are bad Muslims, and there are those who are not Muslim, they are pagan," Boyle said to the camera. "The criminals who held us, they were not good Muslims, they were not even bad Muslims, they were pagan."

Kruglanski added that, in fact, hostages' new spiritual beliefs can be strengthened as a result of life after captivity.

"Upon release, that person can face a great deal of dissonance," he said, referring to the clash between their previous identities and their newly-acquired religion. "In an effort to rationalize the fact that he or she converted to Islam, to harmonize that, they actually come to believe that point of view with even greater force. It's called in psychology 'dissonance reduction.'"

As Taylor noted, this dissonance reduction is necessary because, in many cases, the fact that a profound spiritual experience played a role in helping captives survive the lengthy trauma of captivity makes it difficult to cast it aside after being released.

Brain Jenkins, senior advisor to the president of the RAND Corporation and a terrorism expert, said his experience in the military with soldiers going into battle has given him a unique window into the psychological state of individuals who fear that death might be imminent.

"People facing death, people whose focus is concentrated either because of combat experience or captivity... this is an occasion where examining one's own soul is not unusual," Jenkins said.

"People who realize that they may be murdered at any moment, are certainly going to think about things that we ordinarily don't get up and think about every morning, and are going to think about them in a very very different way. And so the fact that this might lead to some fundamental shifts in their spiritual thinking, in how they view their relationship with God, whatever god that may be, all of these are front and center in a very compelling way. At this point you're beyond psychologists, you're into theologians that can address this."