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Discussion Point: The End of Radicalization?

The following is the second in a series of thought pieces authored by members of the START Consortium. These editorial columns reflect the opinions of the author(s), and not necessarily the opinions of the START Consortium. This article and those that will follow it are penned by scholars who have grappled with complicated and often politicized topics, and our hope is that they will foster thoughtful reflection and discussion by professionals and students alike.

Horgan_John Jonathan Githens-Mazer recently characterized the study of radicalization as "observing a moving target through the wrong end of a microscope".1 Extending his idea, we might also wonder what, if any difference it might make if we looked at it through the right end of the microscope? What if we had a completely different instrument at our disposal in the first place? Or perhaps the problem is less with the instrumentation and more with the target itself - that of 'radicalization'?

In the flood of research that followed the 9/11 attacks, radicalization quickly became the latest holy grail of national security research. Discussions range from attempts to understand what communities can do to stem its flow to what the neurobiological correlates of radicalization might be. Other questions more broadly include: What causes it? How can we measure it, model it, anticipate it and eventually stop it? Is radicalization the same thing as terrorism?

It often seems so, given how synonymously these terms are used. And policymakers and practitioners wrestle with such questions as: How do we deal with radicalization without making matters worse? Should we think about 'counter-' radicalization, 'anti-' radicalization or, heaven forbid, 'de-' radicalization?

I propose that it is time to end our preoccupation with radicalization so that we can effectively regain a focus on terrorist behavior. Radicalization is, I believe, a deeply flawed, conceptually misleading and problematic paradigm both for understanding the development of the terrorist, as well as developing counterterrorism policies.

The Problems with 'Radicalization'

The starting point for explaining the dissatisfaction surrounding the term lies in the unclear and inconsistent relationship asserted between radicalization and terrorism. When terrorism became too difficult to predict, we turned our focus to radicalization. After all, a lot more people are radicalized than will ever become involved in terrorism, so, the assumption goes, it is easier to detect radicalized individuals. Rooting out radicalization has become a proxy for pre-empting terrorism.

But this logic, compelling as it was, faces some serious obstacles. It appears to be generally accepted wisdom that not everyone who holds radical beliefs will engage in illegal behavior. Though the consequences of terrorist atrocities are far-reaching, they continue to be perpetrated by very few individuals. A defining characteristic of terrorism, as Marc Sageman has regularly argued, is its continued low base rate of involvement. Though those individuals may claim to represent a broader constituency, they remain few and far between.

However, a more challenging issue has begun to emerge. There is evidence that not all those who engage in violent behavior necessarily need to possess radical beliefs,2 an argument carefully supported by such research as that of Kilcullen's3 thesis on how counterinsurgency and counterterrorism breed 'accidental' guerillas. A lingering question in terrorism studies is whether violent beliefs precede violent action, and it seems to be the case that while they often do, it is not always the case.

In fact, the emerging picture from empirical studies of terrorists (including over a hundred terrorists I have interviewed from multiple groups) is repeatedly one of people who became gradually involved with a terrorist network, largely through friends, family connections, and other informal social pathways but who only began to acquire and express radical beliefs as a consequence of deepening involvement with a network. One result of this is the strong likelihood that counter-radicalization efforts may well be targeted at individuals who will likely never engage in terrorism regardless.

Of course, that does not mean that we should ignore the expression of radical beliefs (and associated behavioral signals).4 They may indeed signal an individual's growing commitment to an insider group. The key issue as far as terrorism is concerned, however, is the focus on behavior. Sometimes these signals may be easier to detect than others.

The British Home Office's Report of the Official Account of the Bombings in London on 7th July 20055 carries an observation that is frequent in terrorist investigations: "He appeared perfectly normal to those around him". Describing the pre-event behaviors of one of the bombers, Shehzad Tanweer, his mother recalls how he "came down to the kitchen in his pyjamas, had a bowl of cereal and told his mother the trip to London had been put back because the car had broken down and he was now going that evening" (p.25).

On the other hand, there are instances where detectable changes in behavior precede involvement and engagement in terrorism. One example is Andrea Elliott's6 compelling case study of Omar Hammami, the Alabama-born boy who became a notable figure in Al Shabab's efforts to overthrow the U.S.-backed Somali government. Elliott traces the gradual transformation that characterized Hammami's trajectory from Muslim to Salafi to terrorist: "He and his friends ordered their lives around a strict code: they could not look at women, listen to music, be photographed or sleep with their backsides facing Mecca.

No one in the group was more dogmatic than Hammami. He insisted on eating with his bare right hand, as the prophet had, and wearing his pants above the ankle, a popular look among Salafis." However, these changes tend to appear more significant in hindsight and perhaps should be more accurately described as 'observed' changes rather than 'observable' (and hence 'detectable') changes.

While in this case, heightened religiosity was observed and the individual eventually became a terrorist, this and other case studies do not account for the untold number of individuals who have a religious awakening of some kind but never accept violence as legitimate or behave in violent ways.7

The confusion between radicalization and involvement in terrorism represents a fundamental challenge associated with explaining motivation ? how we describe it and how we understand it.8 Radicalization, for the most part, implies the acquisition of certain beliefs that embrace a willingness to support what terrorists do, but for some it represents shorthand for involvement in terrorism (or at the very least, a "willingness" to become involved). It further suggests a type of 'habituation' process, which in turn implies the existence of a particular time in which this escalation can be prevented.

Furthermore, for those for whom the term radicalization does not necessarily imply actual involvement in terrorism, there is an understanding that use of the term radicalization really means (implicitly) violent radicalization. As a consequence, and to cite an understatement from Mark Sedgwick9, it is unsurprising that radicalization continues to be "a source of confusion" (p.490).

There have been significant attempts to redress this confusion. Moskalenko and McCauley10, for example, carefully distinguish 'radicalism' from 'activism', equating the latter to "readiness to engage in legal and non-violent political action." Radicalism is the more dangerous problem, they argue in that it is the "readiness to engage in illegal and violent political action." However, this distinction may not be sufficient. 'Activism' often has positive connotations. In the context of human rights or environmental concerns, being an 'activist' hardly denotes a problem except to those uninterested in addressing these kinds of problems.

Such distinctions are not merely academic because they have profound implications for policy and the development of counter-terrorism initiatives. Sedgwick traced the prominence of "radicalization" in the English-speaking press, and though it steadily increased after 1999, following the Al Qaeda-inspired bombings in London in July 2005, the use of the term rose dramatically. Its popularity, however, never resulted in its widespread acceptance by scholars. Because it is understood in a 'variety of different ways' (Sedgwick's description), it can deliver potentially significant implications for policy.11

There is a very good reason why we need, to paraphrase the metaphor of Githens-Mazer, refocus our microscope away from radicalization. In our preoccupation with radicalization, we still know far less about aspects of the terrorist 'arc' of involvement (from initial involvement and recruitment to subsequent engagement, to eventual disengagement) than we should by now. We still know relatively little on the specific psychological and social dynamics that propel individuals to take action on behalf of such groups (and what sets them aside from those who seek to remain involved, but not in this particular way).

In essence, it is ironic that we focus on those issues that are more resistant to actual behavioral change, and thus, we ignore those issues that are far less resistant to imaginative interventions.

There are several further troubling issues that come with our preoccupation with radicalization. Presumably, we would be less likely to talk about 'de-radicalization' if we had less of a focus on 'radicalization'. This may not be such a bad thing. Let alone the fact 'de-radicalization' programs continue to remain resistant to evaluation of any kind, and that not all terrorists are necessarily radical, as well as the deeply troubling fact that de-radicalization programs are often aimed at detained terrorist suspects we must wonder for whom precisely the notion of de-radicalization might be applicable?

The harsh reality is that most terrorists who disengage from militant activity do so without necessarily having to change their fundamental beliefs. This raises several important questions, notably surrounding the risk of recidivism, but this is notably lower than the rates commonly found in general offender populations. Just like the problem of overly focusing on radicalization, the recent concern with de-radicalization, which brings with it unfeasible and na?ve expectations, has been at the expense of a systematic exploration of terrorist disengagement.

In our rush to assume that we have to change the way people think we have lost sight of the daily reality of terrorism, which is that just like the recruitment process, people can and do leave all the time without necessarily changing their fundamental views or beliefs. A change in beliefs can, but does not have to, precede a change in behavior. We have barely begun to scratch the surface of this issue, despite the phenomenal practical implications.

None of this should be interpreted as a call to ignore the processes that give rise to radical beliefs. I do believe, however, that we have a serious problem in terrorism studies. We have lost focus, lost specificity and lost the ability to prioritize our problem set. As a result, and unless we regain that sense of prioritization, I think that the practically-oriented questions that are within our abilities to answer will remain out of reach.

Dr. John Horgan is Director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at the Pennsylvania State University where he is also Associate Professor of Psychology. He is a member of START's Executive Committee.

Note: I am grateful to my colleagues at ICST for commenting on an earlier draft. All errors are my own.

1 Tweet from @githensmazer on 26 May 2012.
2 Horgan, J. (in press). The Psychology of Terrorism 2nd Edition. London: Routledge.
3 Kilcullen, D. (2009). The Accidental Guerilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One. NY: Oxford University Press.
4 Moskalenko, S. and McCauley, C. (2009). 'Measuring Political Mobilization: The Distinction Between Activism and Radicalism,' Terrorism and Political Violence 21, 240.
5 Report of the Official Account of the Bombings in London on 7th July 2005, to the House of Commons. 11 May 2006. London: Stationery Office.
6 Elliott, A. (2010). 'The Jihadist Next Door'. New York Times Magazine. 27 January.
7 Further, studies demonstrate that neither increased religiosity or literalist interpretations of one's faith equates to an increased propensity to use violence. After conducting over 2000 interviews in the Muslim community in the United States, Akbar Ahmed estimates that 30-40% of the Muslim population carries a literalist interpretation of Islam, while Pew Poll data indicates that 8% of the Muslim population in the United States believes that suicide terrorism and other violence in defense of Islam is often (1%) or sometimes (7%) justified, yet data on actual terrorist incidents planned or executed suggests that something on the order of 1 in in 10,000 Muslims (0.01%) in the United States have engaged in terrorist activity. These disparate figures strongly suggest that neither religiosity nor ideational justification for violence in defense of religion is an operationally useful predictor of terrorist behavior. For more, see: Ahmed, Akbar. (2010). Journey into America: the Challenge of Islam. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press., and "Muslim Americans: No Sign of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism" released on August 30, 2011 by the Pew Research Center, accessed at http://www.people-press.org/2011/08/30/muslim-americans-no-signs-of-growth-in-alienation-or-support-for-extremism/.
8 See the classic text on this issue by R.S. Peters (1958). The Concept of Motivation. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Peters explains that there may be lots of different accounts of motivation for any given behavior, depending on the frame of reference, purpose of explanation etc.
9 Sedgwick, M. (2010) 'The Concept of Radicalization as a Source of Confusion', Terrorism and Political Violence 22, 4, 479?494
10 Moskalenko, S. and McCauley, C. (2009). 'Measuring Political Mobilization: The Distinction Between Activism and Radicalism,' Terrorism and Political Violence 21, 240.
11 Moskalenko and McCauley's distinction however is important for other reasons, however, and may be especially important for understanding how these issues of involvement and engagement are conceptualized in multiple jurisdictions (e.g. especially in the UK, where there is a long history of legislation to deter activities that constitute 'incitement' of some kind).