The Radicalization Process

There has been much research, writing, and theorizing about what causes or motivates people to become terrorists. The one consistent finding based on extensive empirical research is that there is no "terrorist profile" that can be used to predict who or even what type of person might become a terrorist. Research clearly rules out the early theory that participation in terrorist actions is associated with some sort of personality or mental disorder, that only "crazy" people commit horrible acts of terrorism. Studies have shown that the prevalence of mental illness among incarcerated terrorists is as low or lower than in the general population. Although terrorists commit horrible acts, they rarely match the profile of the classic psychopath. They are also not necessarily from a lower socioeconomic status or less educated than their peers.1

Social scientists, law enforcement organizations, and intelligence agencies all agree that terrorists are the product of a dynamic process called radicalization. Brian Jenkins, one of our country's most senior terrorism scholars, defines radicalization as "the process of adopting for oneself or inculcating in others a commitment not only to a system of [radical] beliefs, but to their imposition on the rest of society."2 The compulsion to use violence to impose their beliefs on the rest of society, or to punish others for their "evil" actions or beliefs is the final stage in the radicalization process.

The commitment to violence is what distinguishes a terrorist from other extremists. This process occurs over time and causes a fundamental change in how people view themselves and the world in which they live. The exact nature of this process is still poorly understood. Researchers have developed a number of different theories and conceptual models that seek to explain the process by which an individual becomes radicalized, but these theories have not been empirically tested. Most see three to five stages from beginning to end of the process, from initial exposure through indoctrination, training, and then violent action. However, different researchers conceptualize these stages differently and use different terminology to identify or explain them. There is broad agreement, however, that many people who begin this process do not pass through all the stages and become terrorists. Many people who become extremists stop short of the violence that is typical of militant jihadists.

Our focus here is on violent jihadism, and specifically on several aspects of the radicalization process about which there seems to be some consensus. While the researchers have not identified causes of terrorism, they have identified three vulnerabilities that may provide sources of motivation or make one more likely to endorse violence. These vulnerabilities are:

  • Perceived Injustice or Humiliation: Violent attack may be perceived as an appropriate remedy for injustice or humiliation.

  • Need for Identity: An individual's search for identity may draw him or her to extremist or terrorist organizations in a variety of ways. The individual may be searching for a purpose or goal in life that defines the actions required to achieve that goal. A violent act may be seen as a way to succeed at something that makes a difference. The absolutist, "black and white" nature of most extremist ideologies is often attractive to those who feel overwhelmed by the complexity and stress of navigating a complicated world. Without struggling to define oneself or discern personal meaning, an individual may choose to define his or her identity simply through identification with a cause or membership in a group.

  • Need for Belonging: Many prospective terrorists find in a radical extremist group not only a sense of meaning, but also a sense of belonging, connectedness, and affiliation. One researcher argues that "for the individuals who become active terrorists, the initial attraction is often to the group, or community of believers, rather than to an abstract ideology or to violence." 3

There is also some consensus on two factors that facilitated the radicalization process.. These are:

  • Spiritual Mentor: About 20% of the homegrown terrorists examined in one study had a spiritual mentor, a more experienced Muslim who gave specific instructions and direction during the radicalization process. Such a mentor might be associated with a mosque or be accessed via the Internet. The mentor keeps the radicalization process on track. About a quarter of the terrorists in one study had a perceived religious authority who provided specific theological approval for their violent activity. 4
     
  • Internet: The increased radicalization of American Muslims is driven in part by a wave of English-language websites designed to promote the militant jihadist doctrine. These websites are not run or directed by al-Qaida, but they provide a powerful tool for recruiting sympathizers to its cause of jihad, or holy war against the United States, according to experts who track this activity. Jihadist websites and chat rooms provide indoctrination and training to aspiring jihadists and enable them to establish contact with like-minded individuals in the United States or with terrorist groups abroad. "The number of [active] English-language sites sympathetic to al-Qaida has risen from about 30 seven years ago to more than 200 recently," according to the head of a Saudi government program that works to combat militant Islamic websites.5

Terrorism is not random violence for its own sake. It is violence guided by an ideology that provides the rules for one's behavior. "Ideology is often defined as a common and broadly agreed upon set of rules to which an individual subscribes, and which help to regulate and determine behavior."6 The rules often link behaviors to anticipated long-term positive outcomes and rewards. This is the basis for the suicide attacks that are characteristic of violent jihad. By fulfilling one's duty to God by killing infidels, one allegedly gains access to paradise.

The ideology that supports militant jihad is very different in its substance from other forms of extremism or terrorism such as white supremacy groups or eco-terrorism, but they all have four features in common. All terrorist movements are: 5

  • Polarized: They have an "us vs. them" mindset.

  • Absolutist: The beliefs are regarded as truth in the absolute sense, sometimes supported by sacred authority. This squelches questioning, critical thinking, and dissent. It also adds moral authority to framing us vs. them as a competition between good and bad (or evil).

  • Threat-Oriented: External threat causes in-groups to cohere. Good leaders know this intuitively. They persistently remind adherents that the "us" is at risk from "them." Because the "us" is seen as being good and right in the absolute sense, this works not only to promote internal cohesion but also opposition to all nonbelievers.

  • Hateful: Hate energizes violent action. It allows principled opposition to impel direct action. It also facilitates various mechanisms for moral disengagement, or dehumanization, which erode the normal social and psychological barriers to engaging in violence. This is an important point, as it is the active support for violence that distinguishes the simple extremist from the terrorist.

The section on The Militant Jihadist Terrorism Threat describes the threat. One empirical study of 117 homegrown jihadist terrorists in America and the United Kingdom has identified the following observable manifestations of the radicalization process. This may be useful for identifying how far along individuals are in the radicalization process. 4

  • At an early stage, one comes to trust only the interpretations of an ideologically rigid set of religious authorities. These role models and scholars one looks to as guides have a significant impact on how others interpret what their faith demands of them.

  • Also at an early stage, one adopts a legalistic interpretation of the Muslim faith. There are rules that must be followed, not just for practice of the faith, but also for virtually every aspect of one's daily life. For example, playing music, taking photographs, or women laughing in the street may be considered sinful. At the final stage of radicalization, these rules include an obligation for all believers to undertake violence against infidels in order to advance the faith.

  • As they radicalize, Muslims come to perceive a fundamental conflict between Islam and the West. The idea of loyalty becomes critical: they have obligations to Islam alone and cannot have any kind of duty or loyalty to a non-Muslim state. Even participation in the democratic process in one's own country violates religious principles that the rules are made by Allah, not by man.

  • This rigid interpretation of Islam leads to a low tolerance for any alternative interpretations or practices. After changing one's own beliefs and practices, one feels compelled to impose the newly found beliefs on other family members and close friends. Any deviation by others from this rigid interpretation is seen as a personal affront. This is usually expressed by telling others that they are not good Muslims, which can sometimes lead to violence. It causes some individuals to separate themselves from and come to hate other Muslims who previously had been an important part of their lives.

  • In the latter stages, radicalization usually includes political as well as religious beliefs. Radicals believe the Western powers have conspired against Islam to subjugate it politically and corrupt it morally. They want to restore the caliphate that once united the Muslim world and ruled according to Allah's dictates.

Remember that in the United States, expression of radical or extremist views is not illegal. It is illegal only when it reaches an advanced stage of supporting or engaging in an act of violence or other illegal behavior. For an individual who holds a U.S. Government security clearance or some other position of public trust, however, a stricter standard of allegiance to the United States applies. Advocacy of militant jihadist views as described in The Militant Jihadist Terrorism Threat is clear evidence of an absence of loyalty to the United States and is grounds for denial or revocation of a security clearance or access to other sensitive information or installations.

References
1. Randy Borum, "Understanding Terrorist Psychology," in Andrew Silke, ed. The Psychology of Counter-Terrorism. Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2010.
2. Brian Michael Jenkins, "Outside Experts View," preface to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Laura Grossman, Homegrown Terrorists in the U.S. and U.K.: An Empirical Examination of the Radicalization Process. Washington, DC: FDD's Center for Terrorism Research, 2009.
3.  Martha Crenshaw, "The Subjective Reality of the Terrorist: Ideological and Psychological Factors in Terrorism," in Robert O. Slater & Michael Stohl, eds., Current Perspectives in International Terrorism. Hampshire, UK: Macmillan, 1988, p. 59.
4.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Laura Grossman, Homegrown Terrorists in the U.S. and U.K.: An Empirical Examination of the Radicalization Process. Washington, DC: FDD's Center for Terrorism Research, 2009.
5. Randy Borum, ibid., p. 9.
6. Randy Borum, ibid., pp. 10-11.
7. Donna Abu-Nasr & Lee Keath, "200 Web sites spread al-Qaida's message in English, The Washington Post, November 20, 2009.

 

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