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Abstract

After the London bombings in July 2005, the concern of terrorism scholars and policy makers has turned to “home-grown” terrorism and potential for political violence from within the states. “Radicalization” became a new buzz word. This article follows a number of reviews of the literature on radicalization and offers another angle for looking at this research. First, it discusses the term “radicalization” and suggests the use of the following definition of radicalization as a process by which a person adopts belief systems which justify the use of violence to effect social change and comes to actively support as well as employ violent means for political purposes. Next, it proposes to see the theories of radicalization focusing on the individual and the two dimensions of his/her motivation: whether that motivation is internal or external and whether it is due to personal choice or either internal (due to some psychological traits) or external compulsion. Though not all theories fall neatly within these categories, they make it possible to make comparisons of contributions from a variety of different areas thus reflecting on the interdisciplinary nature of the study of terrorism in general and radicalization as a part of it.
INTERNATIONAL STUDIES
INTERDISCIPLINARY POLITICAL AND CULTURAL JOURNAL, Vol. 17, No. 1/2015
[9]
ARTICLES
Asta Maskaliūnaitė
*
EXPLORING THE THEORIES OF RADICALIZATION
ABSTRACT: After the London bombings in July 2005, the concern of terrorism
scholars and policy makers has turned to “home-grown” terrorism and potential
for political violence from within the states� “Radicalization” became a new buzz
word� This article follows a number of reviews of the literature on radicalization
and offers another angle for looking at this research� First, it discusses the term
“radicalization” and suggests the use of the following denition of radicalization
as a process by which a person adopts belief systems which justify the use of vio-
lence to effect social change and comes to actively support as well as employ violent
means for political purposes. Next, it proposes to see the theories of radicalization
focusing on the individual and the two dimensions of his/her motivation: whether
that motivation is internal or external and whether it is due to personal choice or
either internal (due to some psychological traits) or external compulsion� Though
not all theories fall neatly within these categories, they make it possible to make
comparisons of contributions from a variety of different areas thus reecting on
the interdisciplinary nature of the study of terrorism in general and radicalization
as a part of it�
KEY WORDS: radicalization, theories, terrorism, ideology, grievance, threat
Introduction
September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States serve as
a benchmark in the discussions of the post-Cold war era of inter-
national relations and of the new impetus for the terrorism studies,
*
Baltic Defence College,12 Riia St�, Tartu, Estonia, asta�maskaliunaite@
baltdefcol�org
9–26, DOI: 10.1515/ ipcj-2015-0002
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until then a rather marginal eld of investigation on the edge of
a variety of disciplines, such as sociology, political science, interna-
tional relations, psychology or criminology� Overnight the research-
ers already working in this eld became celebrities, numerous oth-
ers have joined their cohorts forming legions of brains probing the
“whys” and “therefores” of this event, or exploring, together with
the security services and the policy makers, the ways to prevent
new such from happening� Terrorism became the trendiest topic�
Between the pressures of policy makers to advise on what they
should do given the magnitude of the threat and the demand of the
public for answers on “why do they hate us,” the researchers kept
following the long tradition of spilling more ink than the terrorists
spill blood in trying to explain the phenomenon�
These attempts more often than not focused on remote places,
with the West implicated in their internal dynamics through its for-
eign policy, historical legacies and cultural disagreements� With the
European attacks, on March 11, 2004 in Madrid and July 7, 2005 in
London, the emphasis of research shifted� “Radicalization” became
a new buzz word and it is within Western societies and their inte-
grated or non-integrated immigrant communities that the birth of
a terrorist was sought� The importance of ‘radicalization’ only grew
with the start of Syrian civil war and the inux of ‘foreign ghters’
with European passports into it� It will undoubtedly gain even more
prominence with the attacks in France 7-9 January, 2015�
Yet, while most researchers and policy makers agree that ‘rad-
icalization’ is a problem, there is less agreement as to what ex-
actly the word entails� In this article, I will outline the main trends
in the vast eld of radicalization studies. Attempts at synthesizing
this literature have already been made and in greater length than
the article proposed here, however, they tend to focus on quite
exclusively on the relatively new research on Islamist radicaliza-
tion forgetting the rich theoretical and empirical
1
heritage of the
studies of terrorism prior to September 11 attacks� The paper is
1
Admittedly, theoretical works on terrorism outnumbered those based in
empirics both before the September 11 attacks and after them (Silke, Research
on Terrorism� Trends, Achievements and Failures) (Silke, The Devil You Know:
Continuing Problems with Research on Terrorism) (Silke, The impact of 9/11 on
research on terrorism), yet, there were always notable exceptions, such as Do-
natella Della Porta’s seminal work on the Leftist terrorists in Germany and Italy
(Della Porta) or the insider accounts, autobiographies of former terrorists, give
a great insights into both a decision making process attached to joining the terror-
ist organizations and the internal functioning of such organizations�
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Exploring the Theories of Radicalization
divided into four sections. The rst section discusses the concep-
tual framework of radicalization and explores the different ways
to conceptualize it� The other sections discuss various hypotheses
regarding why people “radicalize”: the psychological traits based
explanations; coercion and ‘manipulation’-based explanations;
the explanations centring on grievance; and nally those of ra-
tional choice�
This, of course, is not the only way to approach radicalization�
For example, Alex Schmid (Schmid) in his study of radicalization
literature starts from micro, meso and macro- level explanations of
it� Randy Borum distinguishes between explanations in ‘individual,
group, network, organization, mass movement, socio-cultural con-
text, and international/interstate contexts’ (Borum 14), later focusing
on the social movement, social psychology and conversion theories�
Similarly, Anja Dalgaard-Nielsen (Dalgaard-Nielsen, Studying vio-
lent radicalization in Europe� Part I� Potential Contribution of Social
Movement Theory) and (Dalgaard-Nielsen, Studying violent radical-
ization in Europe� Part II� The potential contribution of socio-psycho-
logical and psychological approaches) puts potential social science
contributions into two blocks: social movements and psychology/
social psychology� The literature review by Minerva Nasser-Eddine
and her colleagues focused on the ve theoretical frameworks, such
as rational choice, structural or societal theory, relative deprivation,
social movement theory and psychological theories� (Nasser-Eddine)
My choice for classifying theoretical approaches into the four previ-
ously mentioned clusters is based on internal/external and rational/
compulsion types of motivators for ‘radicalizing’, with the individual
at the centre of the enquiry�
Two limitations were set here, with the individual processes in
focus, the group dynamics and related explanations of radicaliza-
tion are only briey explored within the given framework. Secondly,
due to the lack of space, the actual policies devised using these
theories will be only briey mentioned in the text, their deeper
analysis and evaluation is a task for another paper�
Radicalization. What is in the Word?
Many books on terrorism start with the lament that there is
no unied and universally acceptable denition of terrorism, and
the experts in the area take this problem to be one of the major
obstacles for the development of the eld. (Stampnitzky) The term
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‘radicalization’ is not exempt from such problems� In the most gen-
eral way, the interest in radicalization is subordinated to the inter-
est in stopping acts of terrorism� Therefore, in the most general
sense we can see radicalization along the lines described by Peter
Neumann as “what goes on before the bomb goes off�” (Neumann)
Yet there are denitions that are even more general than that, e.g.
McCauley and Moskalenko see it as “development of beliefs, feel-
ings, and actions in support of any group or cause in a conict.”
(McCauley and Moskalenko 4)
Though historically, ‘radicalism’ and its derivative ‘radicali-
zation’ have a much broader meaning
2
, in the context of current
studies and policy-making radicalization tends to mean a pathway
to terrorism, gradual slide into extremism, fundamentalism or,
even more generally, a movement towards justifying violence and
nally personally engaging in it. Most denitions thus agree that
radicalization is a process, what they do not agree upon is where
that process leads� E�g� the European Commission expert group
on radicalization sees radicalization as “socialization to extremism
which manifests itself in terrorism” (European Commission Expert
Group 7), similarly the US Department of Homeland Security sees
it as a “process of adopting an extremist belief system, including
willingness to support or use violence as a method to effect social
change.” (Homeland Security Institute) Other governmental deni-
tions see it as a pathway towards terrorism (e.g. UK denition: “the
process by which a person comes to support terrorism and forms of
extremism leading to terrorism” (House of Commons Home Affairs
Committee))
The conation between these terms, however, can sometimes
lead to misunderstandings and result in policies that not only lack
utility, but can result in the opposite of the intended effects� For
that purpose one has to be clear what is meant by radicalism, fun-
damentalism, and extremism�
The traditional denition of radicalism, such as the one given
in the Oxford dictionary, sees it as “representing or supporting
an extreme section of a party�” According to Mark Sedgwick, such
a denition, by opposing the “radical” and “moderate,” raises the
question of what is moderate, while at the same time assuming
2
I�e� nineteenth century ‘radicals’ would be viewed quite positively today of-
ten as ghters for the expansion of rights, most often reformists while sometimes
revolutionaries, yet always attached to what could be called a progressive agenda
of promotion of democracy and empowerment of various social groups�
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Exploring the Theories of Radicalization
that what is moderate is self-evident in a with-us-or-a-against-us
sense� (Sedgwick 482) McCauley and Moskalenko make a some-
what clearer distinction of “radicalism” vis-à-vis “activism” where
the former would indicate willingness to engage in illegal ac-
tions and the latter seeking social or political change through
legal activities� (McCauley and Moskalenko, Measuring Political
Mobilization: The Distinction Between Activism and Radicalism
240) Daniela Pisiou argues forcefully for retaining the term radi-
calism with two of its historic characteristics – going to the roots
and sweeping change thus presenting the following denition of
the phenomenon: “political ideology, with the objective of induc-
ing sweeping change based on fundamental or ‘root’ principles�”
(Pisiou 23) This denition emphasizes the “fundamentalist” as-
pect of the phenomenon, a wish for a “sweeping change,” but does
not focus on the potential for violence in particular or illegal action
in general�
Fundamentalism as a term is less often used in connection to
the outcomes of radicalization� Adoption of fundamentalist beliefs,
however, is associated with a phase of radicalization� The concept
itself comes from the sphere of religion and, more precisely, the
Protestant movement in early twentieth century US, character-
ized by “premillennialism and the verbal inerrancy of the Bible”
as well as being rooted in the “generalized antimodern and anti-
liberal mentality�” (Carpenter 5) Currently, the term is used much
more widely and not only in the religious, but also in the political
settings, meaning here a strict, uncompromising attitude and an
unwavering attachment to a set of beliefs� It is, however, again not
necessarily violent and does not, in most cases, lead to imposing
such beliefs on others by way of force�
Extremism is the third term often used in connection to radi-
calization� According to Alex Schmid, “extremists strive to create
a homogeneous society based on rigid, dogmatic ideological tenets;
they seek to make society conformist by suppressing all opposition
and subjugating minorities” (Schmid 9)� While in general it can be
understood more in line with fundamentalism as being a strict, un-
compromising, intolerant position, for those talking about radicali-
zation, extremism is often understood as being against democratic
norms, human rights, equality and tolerance�
The basic concern with regards to radicalization is the issue
of people turning to violence. Yet, some denitions may result in
a wrong focus for policies and/or research� E�g� if we take seri-
ously the denition of radicalization into extremism and accept
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that extremism is against democratic norms, all forms of extrem-
ism should be proscribed and governments should not engage in
attracting the so-called non-violent extremists and asking for their
help in the ght against their radical counterparts. (Schmid) (Pisiou)
(Sedgwick) The UK program of countering violent extremism was
often criticized along these lines, instead of stopping radicalization,
the opponents claim, the program only creates a breeding ground
for terrorism by distinguishing between violent and non-violent ex-
tremists and using the latter to “identify” the former� As according
to the given denitions of extremism rejection of democratic norms
is at the core of this phenomenon, such programs cultivate this
breeding ground and are thus counterproductive�
For the purposes of this article, radicalization will be dened as
a process by which a person adopts belief systems which justify the
use of violence to effect social change and comes to actively support
as well as employ violent means for political purposes� From this
denition it appears that radicalization is a process, often a slow and
gradual one, the nal result of which is a person engaging in a vio-
lent campaign to effect social change. It identies two different stages
of radicalization – endorsing beliefs and acting upon them – without
giving a temporal preference to them and without claiming that one
is necessary for the other� One can adopt radical beliefs and not act
upon them, and vice versa, one could act without even holding some
deep and inalterable beliefs. At the same time this denition is gen-
eral enough so as to accommodate different types of radicalization
to different types of radicalisms� In the next sections I will look into
the four clusters of theories identied in the introduction and assess
what they have to say about the process of radicalization�
Radicalization Process. Assessment of Theories
According to Peter Neumann, after the attacks of 9/11 talk
about “root causes of terrorism,” probably the major concern in
the eld, was suddenly associated with justication for the kill-
ing of the innocent and thus became a statement of a political
bad taste (Neumann 4)� While there were political statements
about poverty breeding violence
3
and attempts to establish a list
3
US President George W� Bush famously linked poverty and terrorism in his
speech in March 2002, stating “We ght poverty because hope is an answer to
terror” (Bush)�
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Exploring the Theories of Radicalization
of possible causes of terrorism (Richardson), the major focus was
on the measures directed to physically preventing and stopping
the attacks or militarily dealing with terrorist bases (the war in
Afghanistan being the prime example of this)� Neumann argues
that it was through the introduction of term “radicalization” that
it became possible again to talk about the roots of terrorism and,
consequently, to treat the causes rather than symptoms of this
phenomenon� The research on radicalization can thus build
4
on
a rather vast number of investigations on the origins and devel-
opment of terrorism linking individual psychology investigations,
social movement analyses and theories arguing for understand-
ing of structural conditions that lead to the appearance of violent
political actors�
In the introduction, I suggested that theories of radicalization
can fall into four broad categories according to the level of personal
choice that they allow and according to whether the incentives/
constraints for joining come from the “outside,” i�e� the environ-
ment, or the “inside,” of the individual him/herself� These crite-
ria and theories grouped accordingly are shown in Table 1� I will
analyse them in counter clock-wise sequence starting from the top
right corner�
Table 1� Theories grouped along two dimensions
Choice Compulsion
Internal Rational choice Psychological traits
External Grievance Coercion/motivation
Psychological Traits
The idea that those who engage in violent political activity in
general and terrorism in particular are insane or somehow oth-
erwise psychologically abnormal resurges now and again in me-
dia depictions of terrorist attacks, but has long been discarded
by researchers and consequently policy makers as groundless�
Research on the violent Leftists of the 1970s has already shown,
and later studies have conrmed, that those engaged in terrorist
activities were not notably different from other politically active
4
As Richard English writes, “history has far too often been ignored in analy-
ses of, and responses to, terrorism; and certainly the post-9/11 period has wit-
nessed a frequently amnesiac debate on the subject” (English 57)�
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people� For example, as Franco Ferracuti writes, “Psychiatric
studies have not identied any psychopathological character-
istics common to the Italian left-wing terrorists” (Ferracuti 60)
that were under examination in his study, and the same ndings
were conrmed in case of (West) German leftist terrorists (ibid.).
Though certain “personality disturbances” are quoted in such
studies (see, e�g�, Post 27) the general message is that those who
engage in terrorist activities are “more like us than we ordinarily
care to admit” (Rubenstein 5)�
Nevertheless, the efforts to try nd some common traits in the
“terrorists” have not stopped and proling of potential terrorists,
while frequently criticized,
(Bongar) (Moghaddam) (Huq)
is still ac-
tively sought, especially in law enforcement, and is usually applied
along three strands: racial-physical, psycho-pathological, and so-
cio-economic characteristics. (Rae) The racial-physical proling is
here especially problematic as it is discriminatory, borders on rac-
ist and works by criminalizing entire communities� Yet, these types
of proling have not been completely eliminated from the law en-
forcement attempts to nd terrorists. E.g. the NYPD report on radi-
calization identies such individuals as “particularly vulnerable” to
step on the ladder that leads to terrorist attacks: “fteen to thirty-
ve year-old male Muslims who live in male-dominated societies”
especially as part of Muslim diaspora in the West and particularly
if they belong to middle-class families and/or are students (NYPD
24) This particular report has been criticized for its exactly this at-
tempt to turn entire communities into suspects, (Muslim American
Civil Liberties Coalition) and (Huq 46) the appeal of such catego-
rizations is still palpable in their continuous resurgence in policy
papers� (German)
The psycho-pathological or simply psychological proling of
who can eventually be “radicalized” enough to commit violent acts
has fared a little better� One of the most prominent investigators in
this area is Jerrold Post, whose theories on terrorist psycho-logic
and the notion that there are “people with particular personality
traits and tendencies are drawn disproportionately to terrorist ca-
reers” (Post 27) has been quite inuential in the policy circles of the
US and elsewhere�
Anja Dalgaard-Nielsen identies three paths of potentially
fruitful investigations into individual psychology that could help
determine the factors leading to radicalization: psychodynamic
approaches, identity theory and cognitive approaches� (Dalgaard-
Nielsen, Studying violent radicalization in Europe� Part II� The
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Exploring the Theories of Radicalization
potential contribution of socio-psychological and psychological ap-
proaches 5) The rst rely on narcissism,
5
paranoia
6
and absolutist
7
hypotheses and are linked to the Freudian tradition of psychoanal-
ysis and the linkage of violence to past traumatic events, childhood
experiences and other subconscious dynamics�
8
Identity theory focuses on the formative stage a person’s life and
argues that for young people in search for identity, ideologies might
assist in identity formation and “joining terrorist groups can act as
a strong ‘identity stabilizer’, providing the young adult with a sense
of belonging, worth and purpose�” (Dalgaard-Nielsen, Studying vio-
lent radicalization in Europe� Part II� The potential contribution of
socio-psychological and psychological approaches 7) This theory,
linked to that of social networks which will be explored in more
detail later, has been used to explain the involvement of the 7/7 at-
tackers in London in terrorism� Finally, the cognitive theory links
cognitive capacity and violence, and hypothesises the potential
linkage between “cognitive style and individual’s disposition to join
a terrorist group” (Dalgaard-Nielsen, Studying violent radicaliza-
tion in Europe� Part II� The potential contribution of socio-psycho-
logical and psychological approaches 8)�
The usefulness of these explanations, however, has been no-
toriously low� “Terrorists” have been found to be physically and
mentally similar to other people who do not engage in violent activi-
ties. Thus, no matter how tempting psychological proling could be
with regard to potential terrorists, the success of such endeavours
5
Parental neglect in childhood leads to development of unhealthy self-image
and morality as result of which individuals “narcissistic grandiose fantasies, ex-
alting the self or submerge him or herself into a group and thus let a strong group
identity replace the damaged self-identity” (Dalgaard-Nielsen, Studying violent
radicalization in Europe� Part II� The potential contribution of socio-psychological
and psychological approaches 6)�
6
Individuals suffering from paranoia are said to be dealing with “socially
unacceptable feelings through projection,” idealize the in-group and demonize
the out-groups� (Dalgaard-Nielsen, Studying violent radicalization in Europe�
Part II� The potential contribution of socio-psychological and psychological ap-
proaches 6)�
7
Absolutist or apocalyptic individuals in this context are “uncompromising
moralists” often with “weak identities” easily susceptible to conspiracy theories
about the attempts of out-groups to destroy the in-group and thus “legitimising
the use of violence in ‘self-defence’�” (Dalgaard-Nielsen, Studying violent radical-
ization in Europe� Part II� The potential contribution of socio-psychological and
psychological approaches 6)�
8
E�g� Volkan links joining terrorist organizations to childhood trauma:
(Volkan)�
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is dubious and the vast variety of individuals involved in organiza-
tions supporting and enacting terrorism is too wide to lead to any
generalizable results�
Coercion/Motivation
While the theories looking at the psychological traits try to nd
such personal characteristics which make an individual more like-
ly to join terrorist groups, the investigations into compulsion or
motivation look at external actors: charismatic leaders, rebrand
preachers, radical clerics or intellectual gurus, and assess their
role in recruiting new members for terrorist organizations� These
theoretical approaches can be linked together as one looking at
the process of attraction to organization/acts from below, others
from above� Yet, even these theories start from the criticism of gen-
eral inadequacies of terrorist psychological proling and look at
the possibilities of nding other ways to explain people’s engage-
ment in violent political acts� The researchers working in this area
suggest looking at the dynamics of psychological manipulation in
order to assess the radicalization process�
An article by Trujillo et al� suggests two types of recruitment
to terrorism� First is self-recruitment, where a group of friends
gets radicalized mainly using internet “to exchange knowledge and
practices and reinforce ideological positions” (Trujillo, Ramirez y
Alonso 723-724)� The second type of recruitment is an outcome
of “the process of systematic directed and conscious psychological
manipulation, very similar to that produced by sectarian or totali-
tarian groups” (Trujillo, Ramirez y Alonso 724) This type of investi-
gation sees similarities in the behaviour of individuals attracted to
terrorist organizations and those engaged in religious sects led by
a charismatic leader�
These theories have also been quite popular in the law enforce-
ment circles, as they allow focusing on a number of charismatic,
probably quite visible individuals whose elimination should then
lead to disappearance or at least weakening of the terrorist groups�
9
The importance of leaders has been emphasized in other contexts
as well, e�g� William Zartman in his examination of the dynamics
of intrastate conict emphasizes the role of political entrepreneurs
in mobilizing people around certain grievances in the build-up to
9
This is one of the motivations provided for the use of targeted killings of
terrorist leaders�
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Exploring the Theories of Radicalization
civil war� (Zartman) In social movements theories, some emphasis
is also put on movement entrepreneurs especially when it comes
to recruitment of new members for the movement organizations�
(Dalgaard-Nielsen, Studying violent radicalization in Europe� Part
I� Potential Contribution of Social Movement Theory 8)
Yet, it is unclear how much of the leader’s role is due to psy-
chological manipulation or pressure and how much of it is simple
persuasiveness that leads people to follow such leaders and nally
also to engage in terrorist acts. Trujillo and his colleagues nd evi-
dence to suggest that at least in case of the group they analysed
it was manipulation and psychological pressure at work� Thus it
could be taken as one path to terrorism though, as the researchers
themselves admit, not the only one�
In addition to the importance of the leader, two more types of
pressure could be added here: peer pressure exercised in the tight-
ly knit groups of close friends that join the cause together as is
often examined in the social networks approach; second, so-called
“slippery slope” radicalization (McCauley and Moskalenko, Friction.
How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us 35-48), when a per-
son reluctantly moves from legal activism to more and more radical
forms, eventually engaging even in violent acts� These two paths
exemplify what has been termed “involvement without radicaliza-
tion” which has to be considered if we want to have a fuller picture
of how people end up committing terrorist offenses�
Grievance
Grievance explanations are among the most popular when it
comes to evaluating political violence in general and terrorism in
particular� As collective action is associated with the desire to en-
act some social change or right some social wrong, and political
violence is understood as an extreme form of such collective action,
grievance explanations seem to be the most obvious place to start�
These explanations usually focus on structural level aws and the
way these encourage individuals to engage in political action and
its extreme forms� Perceived injustice has been seen as one of the
strongest motivators to join social movements, but also for joining
violent groups�
Grievances explanations are also among the oldest ones when it
comes to theorizing about why people revolt or engage in other acts
of political violence� Ted Gurr’s study Why men rebel (Gurr) with its
focus on relative deprivation has not lost its appeal even forty years
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after its publication� In the recent re-publication of the work, the au-
thor admitted to using the term grievance as a synonym for relative
deprivation in the later works (see, preface to the edition) and argued
forcefully for its continuing relevance� Theories on terrorism have
also long focused on structural conditions that imbue the individu-
als with a sense of injustice prompting them to action�
A number of structural conditions have been said to contribute
to the sense of grievance� Tore Bjørgo suggests examples such as
“civil war or deep-rooted conicts, invasion and occupation by for-
eign military forces, economic underdevelopment, bad governance
and corruption penetrating the state at all levels, rapid moderniza-
tion or technological developments like the rise of internet and so-
cial media” (Bjørgo 39) Lack of political opportunities is often added
to such a list as well as social exclusion, disaffection of a religious-
ethnic minority, wrongful foreign policy, etc�
Another important aspect to note in the theories talking about
grievance is the distinction between personal and group grievanc-
es� While both may be present in the motivation for engaging in po-
litical violence, the grievance of the group with which the individual
associates him/herself is more prevalent� According to McCauley
and Moskalenko, individuals engaged in terrorist action often ex-
hibit high levels of altruism, strong reciprocity and group identi-
cation (McCauley and Moskalenko, Friction. How Radicalization
Happens to Them and Us 26-29) thus linking the structural con-
ditions that produce grievance with the individual psychological
traits that help translate them into action�
A major criticism of grievance-based explanations is the so-
called specicity problem (Pisiou 40, Schmid 26). The factors that
are supposed to inuence an individual’s decision to support violent
action or engage in it are quite widespread across social groups and
societies, yet only a tiny minority of individuals actually do actively
support/perpetrate such acts� At the same time, the lists of poten-
tial grievances are so long that they become unhelpful as more and
more circumstances have to be added to them for them to have any
explanatory value� E�g�, lack of political opportunities should cre-
ate grievances in non-democratic states, yet, there are many such
states which do not face terrorist violence while there are many
democracies which do. In this case, the democracies get classied
as those which offer fewer political opportunities for young people
(e�g� Italy in the 1970s) or those which support autocratic govern-
ments abroad (e�g� Britain or the US today)� The diaspora groups in
different countries may suffer different hardships, discrimination,
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21
Exploring the Theories of Radicalization
economic or social marginalization, but again, terrorism is much
less pervasive even in such difcult circumstances. Fewer diaspora
communities give birth to even fewer terrorists� In other words, the
conditions that could potentially produce terrorism are much more
widespread than the terrorism itself and grievance explanations
have a hard time accounting for this “lack�”
Rational Choice
The most promising theory of radicalization so far links the pro-
cess to a series of rational choice decisions� This type of analysis
sees engagement in terrorism as a part of cost-benet analysis that
an individual conducts with regard to any serious activity� E�g� for
Martha Crenshaw a group chooses terrorism after it assesses costs
and benets of such action taking a decision that is collectively
rational� (Crenshaw) Ronald Wintrobe in his article “Can suicide
bombers be rational?” argues that suicide bombers are also per-
fectly rational individuals and that suicide bombings can be seen
as a kind of rational activity that is “an extreme example of a gen-
eral class of behaviour in which all of us engage�” (Wintrobe 2)
The rational choice theorists are therefore interested in behaviour
rather than in psychological traits� They assume that individuals
are rational and make choices based on (though maybe not always
explicit) calculation of costs and benets. Daniela Pisiou takes this
approach to analyse Islamist radicalization in Europe and suggests
that becoming an engaged Islamist radical can be seen as an “oc-
cupational change process�” Individuals choose to follow a “career in
terrorism” as they choose any other career, evaluating its downsides,
but also the “reward, standing and recognition” (Pisiou 55) that it
conveys� Standing, similarly to social prestige, is one of the most im-
portant reasons for joining� A sense of heroism and a type of elitism
are also linked to this factor� Recognition depends on perceived sup-
port and approval from the referent community or social surround-
ing that are given to the perpetrated actions and reward can be both
material gain, but also emotional satisfaction� (Pisiou 85-106)
The rational choice approach to radicalization also has links to
social network theory. In its rst perceived phase of radicalization,
the probing in Pisiou’s terminology, chance encounters mean a lot,
but much of the consequent engagement in radical political action
depends on the entry into social networks that support and pro-
mote such engagement� Later these network help maintain a focus
on action and make it difcult to leave the organization/group.
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Asta Maskaliūnaitė
22
This tendency has been observed in various underground political
groups, where over time the primary motivator for continuing en-
gagement becomes loyalty to the group members rather than any
great belief in the action itself� (Della Porta)
The rational choice approach does not offer a panacea from all
the ills that trouble radicalization research� A number of issues
still remain e.g. the specicity problem, why actually only some
people choose to become terrorists� (Pisiou 49) Are there any per-
sonal characteristics that induce some and not others to choose
such an occupation? The social networks approach helps answer
this question, but it then raises a doubt as to how rational that
choice is� If a group of friends decide to become, say, jihadis, and
two out of ve are very committed to this idea while the others have
some doubts, yet just decide to follow their friends, on what level
can we talk about the rationality of the choice? Is it rational for
them as a group? Or is it rational for all the individuals involved?
One answer again is that it could be rational for all the individu-
als involved, but their values are different – for those who want to
get engaged, it is the political action that is valuable and for those
who follow them without much convincing, it is the solidarity factor
that is key� Though such detours to other frameworks may explain
a lot, the parsimony of theory does suffer in the process�
The question also remains as to what the policy implications of
this model are. While looking for terrorist traits leads to proling,
coercion hypotheses to attempts at elimination of terrorist leaders
and grievance explanations to focus on the socio-economic con-
ditions, where does the rational choice take us? One possibility
would be to increase the costs and lower the benets for joining the
terrorist organizations, yet this suggestion lacks precision� Daniela
Pisiou’s recommendations after using the model focus on “decon-
structing radical interpretative frameworks” and countering radical
frames (Pisiou 164)� This sounds like a proposal to develop better
strategic communication, yet we have not seen much result from
this approach over the last ten years of concentrated effort�
Conclusions
Radicalization is currently on the top list of priorities of policy mak-
ers, law enforcement agencies and researchers working on the issues
of political violence and, especially, terrorism� A number of analyses of
this vast literature have appeared over the last years, trying to assess
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23
Exploring the Theories of Radicalization
what we know about this phenomenon� This article presents another
attempt to systematize this knowledge, looking at the phenomenon of
individual radicalization through four types of approaches: individual
psychological traits, coercion and motivation, grievance and ration-
al choice� A number of different theories or parts of those theories
work within this framework� Somewhat less attention was paid here
to group dynamics as an explanation of radicalization, though it was
mentioned in all parts in connection to individual processes�
To summarize, what we note from these theories are the follow-
ing features of radicalization:
1) It is understood as a gradual process� Here, I focused rather
exclusively on this process as it looks for an individual, but simi-
lar processes can be observed in groups and even entire societies
(McCauley and Moskalenko, Friction. How Radicalization Happens
to Them and Us)�
2) It is a process that can stop at any particular step� An indi-
vidual who adopts quite radical political/religious beliefs does not
necessarily act on those beliefs and does not necessarily move from
a legal political action to an illegal one�
3) At the same time, it is a process that can take a number of
different routes� Motivations for engaging or not engaging in ter-
rorist activities differ and circumstances in which people become
engaged in radical actions differ as well�
4) An enormous variety of factors that may inuence individu-
als’ adherence to a terrorist organization make proling of poten-
tial terrorists an impossible task, yet, given that the radicalization
more often than not is facilitated by social networks, observing the
formation and dynamics of such networks could be a useful way of
identifying potential offenders�
5) There is more evidence to suggest that engagement in ter-
rorist activities as a result of radicalization is a process based on
rational choice than an outcome of processes beyond individual’s
control� Yet, such factors as peer pressure and the “slippery slope”
have to be taken into account�
6) Social networks are of a crucial importance when “decid-
ing” to engage in violent action� Evidence both from older (such as
Red Brigades or ETA) and contemporary groups suggests that deci-
sions to engage in violent activity are easier taken when a group of
friends takes such a decision together� (Sageman) This factor also
helps to understand different levels of motivation behind the join-
ing, as some members of a group might be less enthusiastic about
violence while others are more so�
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24
7) Few theories quote ideology as the most signicant factor in
radicalization� In fact, none of the serious theories treat it as some-
thing determining engagement in violent action even if it can serve
to provide justication for it. Rather, the shape of political activity
is determined by what Tilly and Tarrow would call “repertoires” of
action in the given community or the existing outlets for frustration
(Tilly and Tarrow)�
10
The discussion above, hopefully, has shown that there is much
we already know about radicalization� Even if it might not be pos-
sible to prole a potential terrorist and to identify each and every
individual who might have an inclination to join ISIS, Al Qaeda or
FARC we have a better understanding of the processes that may
lead to this engagement�
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... There are multiple approaches to define radicalization and extremism (Lösel, 2021;Maskaliūnaitė, 2015;Schmid, 2013). Often, radicalization is understood as a process in which 4 views and attitudes are adopted that legitimate the use of violence to achieve social or political goals. ...
... Often, radicalization is understood as a process in which 4 views and attitudes are adopted that legitimate the use of violence to achieve social or political goals. Non-violent alternatives are increasingly discarded to achieve these goals and violence is increasingly preferred over non-violent means (Borum, 2011;Doosje et al., 2016;Koehler, 2016;Maskaliūnaitė, 2015). This process can be slow and gradual but also happen in a short time without adhering to a strict step-by-step process (Koehler, 2016;McCauley & Moskalenko, 2017). ...
... This process can be slow and gradual but also happen in a short time without adhering to a strict step-by-step process (Koehler, 2016;McCauley & Moskalenko, 2017). Extremism describes the verbal and/or active opposition of democratic values including equality, liberty, pluralism, free speech, or tolerance of others (Doosje et al., 2016;Maskaliūnaitė, 2015). Extremism is often marked by absolutistic and dogmatic black and white worldviews as well as suppression of individuals holding different views (Backes, 1989;Schmid, 2013). ...
Thesis
The threat of extremist violence has led to an increase in research and preventive measures against radicalization in recent years. However, despite the large number of prevention programs, little is known regarding their effectiveness. For successful prevention, knowledge on which protective factors strengthen resilience is also necessary. Therefore, this dissertation sets out to analyze if and how prevention programs work, and which protective factors can be found in the context of radicalization in general and more specifically in a largely understudied field in radicalization research: left-wing extremism. Additionally, the dissertation takes into special consideration whether sports programs, which are a popular tool to prevent crime as well as promote positive development, are successful and which mechanisms enable the effects. The dissertation includes three main articles complemented by additional work on the topic. One methodological focus of the dissertation comprises systematic reviews and meta-analyses, although it offers a methodological variety by also drawing on primary data for left-wing extremist violence. Overall, the meta-analyses revealed positive effects for prevention programs on radicalization as well as sports programs for crime prevention. However, both reviews showed the need for more empirically sound evaluation research as well as longitudinal designs. A similar finding was made for protective factors, which are often examined with cross-sectional designs only. Furthermore, the study found certain overlaps between protective factors against radicalization and general crime and delinquency but also context-specific effects. The analysis on left-wing extremism showed the importance of extremist networks and violence legitimating attitudes as risk factors for committing violence as well as the protective influence of perceived legitimacy and procedural justice especially exhibited by the police. Implications of the findings as well as limitations of the presented research are discussed.
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This innovative new book aims to put society's fight against terrorism into a comprehensive crime prevention perspective with a clear, understandable theoretical foundation, developing a general model for the prevention of crime which is, in this book, applied to terrorism.
Book
Since 9/11 we have been told that terrorists are pathological evildoers, beyond our comprehension. Before the 1970s, however, hijackings, assassinations, and other acts we now call ‘terrorism’ were considered the work of rational strategic actors. ‘Disciplining Terror’ examines how political violence became ‘terrorism,’ and how this transformation ultimately led to the current ‘war on terror.’ Drawing upon archival research and interviews with terrorism experts, Lisa Stampnitzky traces the political and academic struggles through which experts made terrorism, and terrorism madeexperts. She argues that the expert discourse on terrorism operates at the boundary – itself increasingly contested – between science and politics, and between academic expertise and the state. Despite terrorism now being central to contemporary political discourse, there have been few empirical studies of terrorism experts. This book investigates how the concept of terrorism has been developed and used over recent decades. https://www.cambridge.org/gb/academic/subjects/sociology/political-sociology/disciplining-terror-how-experts-invented-terrorism?format=PB
Book
This book brings together leading international experts in the world of terrorism research and counterterrorism policy-making. It has three clear areas of focus: it looks at current issues and trends in terrorism research, it explores how contemporary research on terrorism is focused and conducted, it examines how this research impacts in terms of counterterrorism policy and practice. This is essential reading for all students of politics and security studies and scholars with an interest in terrorism and policy-making.