Caption:OTTAWA, CANADA - OCTOBER 22: Police tape blocks Wellington St. at Sussex near the National War Memorial where a soldier was shot earlier in the day, just blocks away from Parliament Hill, on October 22, 2014 in Ottawa, Canada. Officials are investigating multiple reports of shootings and suspects after at least one gunman shot a Canadian soldier and then entered Canada's Parliament building. (Photo by Mike Carroccetto/Getty Images)
Who was Michael Zehaf-Bibeau?
03:18 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Like many "lone wolf" terrorists, Ottawa gunman was alienated drifter who converted to Islam

Conversion to militant Islam is often about seeking identity, purpose or adventure

Some countries have tried "de-radicalization" programs to help prevent violence

But with resources stretched thin, the focus is often on increased law enforcement

CNN  — 

Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the 32-year-old gunman who attacked the Canadian Parliament and killed a soldier last week, had a familiar profile. It is that of a young man alienated from mainstream society, with few friends, without a steady job, drifting from one place to another – often with a history of petty crime and drug abuse.

Then comes the conversion to or rediscovery of Islam, and the adoption of a jihadist mindset, fed by media and online coverage of the West’s involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by the well-oiled propaganda machine of groups like ISIS.

Whether these young men acting alone (and they are almost always men) should be better described as “lone-wolf” terrorists or deranged criminals is debatable. “There is no single, universally accepted definition of terrorism,” says the FBI.

In many cases, their conversion to militant Islam is about seeking identity and purpose, or even a sense of adventure. Few of these men have a deep understanding of Salafism, the deeply conservative brand of Islam that’s the philosophical underpinning of groups like al Qaeda, and jihad; their writings are often incoherent. Frequently they see radical Islam as a form of redemption from past misdeeds, one that also feeds an existing animosity toward authority and a sense of being “on the outside.” They blame “kuffar” (nonbeliever) societies for corrupting them in the first place.

Analysis of the backgrounds of dozens of young men who have embraced militant Islam and eventually planned or carried out an act of violence shows that many have had troubled upbringings – although there is no evidence they are more likely to come from poor than comfortable backgrounds. They get into drugs and petty crime in their late teens or early 20s and often cut contacts with their families. Some fall under the sway of radical preachers; many become radicalized online.