There are few identifiable patterns in who is most susceptible to radicalization; it is, scholars agree, a highly individualized process. In my reporting on radicalization, for instance, many of the youth that joined ISIS came from homes where there was no father, or where he was a weak presence. Fields’s father reportedly died before his birth in a car accident, but scholars say this alone doesn’t predispose someone to radicalization and extremism. Plenty of terrorists come from happy or intact families, and plenty of non-terrorists come from broken ones.
Still, what’s known about Fields shows he had some of the known risk factors. There is evidence that people with mental-health problems are more susceptible to being radicalized. Fields, it seems, fit the bill. His mother repeatedly called 911 on her son, then barely a teenager, who was physically violent with her and once threatened her with a 12-inch knife, according to police records described by The Washington Post. The same report says that in 2011, she told police that she wanted him hospitalized for assessment, and that in 2010 she told them that Fields was on medication to control his temper. Weimer, Fields’s high-school teacher, told the Associated Press that Fields had confided having been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
The aggression toward family, especially mothers, is also something Koehler says he has observed in his work. “I have seen that in ISIS radicalization where they’ve been aggressive against their mothers,” Koehler says. “It’s part of the process of de-pluralization. These groups will try to draw a line between the group and ideology, and the biological family. They have to do that so that the recruit can join the new spiritual family, to turn the recruit against the family because otherwise they can step in and interfere in the radicalization. And kids, teenagers, don’t know how to cope with that kind of tension.”
Another sign is fascination with a warrior myth. “It’s very common,” says Koehler. “The ISIS fan boys dream of being Muslim warriors. Warrior hero culture is essential to understanding that specifically male aspect of radicalization.” Arno Michaelis, a former white supremacist and author of Life After Hate, wrote that, “Since I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with the idea of being a warrior.” Fields tried to become a warrior, joining the Army in 2015, and then flunking out in a matter of months after failing to meet basic training requirements. He then worked as a security guard.
There’s one other thing that is the same between jihadi and white-supremacist radicalization: identity. Radicalization is simultaneously an intensely individual and intensely collective process. What draws a person to an extremist ideology, be it jihadism or neo-Nazism, grows out of a unique cocktail of that person’s experiences, frustrations, hopes, and needs. But what keeps them there and propels them toward the final, violent stage comes from a community that first reels them, keeps them engaged, and pushes them toward action. “In my experience, there is no radicalization without a group context,” says Koehler. “It happens within the interaction between individuals. It is impossible to get to the stage of using violence without other people to support you, to push you forward.” There are no true lone wolves, in other words, not in radical Islam, not in white supremacy.