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The Game Theory of Terrorism

How ISIS Radicalizes Others

A name on letter box reading "Amimour" is seen at the entrance of an apartment building where Samy Amimour, one of the attackers identified by the police, grew up in the Parisian suburb of Drancy, France, November 17, 2015. Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters

At what point does an extremist become a violent extremist? As the world—wakened by the recent terrorist attacks in Baghdad, Beirut, Paris, and now in California and London, too—struggles to defeat the Islamic State (also called ISIS), the answer is more important than ever.

For his part, U.S. President Barack Obama has tried to solve the puzzle by introducing a new ingredient to the counterterrorism recipe. In February 2015, he gathered the world’s top experts for a summit on countering violent extremism, a new strategy designed to address the process of radicalization—in particular, ISIS’ apparently unmatched ability to recruit across linguistic, cultural, and geographic boundaries through social media.

Countering violent extremism is different in approach from the one that analysts and policymakers took with al Qaeda. Where they once hunted down operatives and leaders in the top echelons of terrorist organizations, they now also look for

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