International Journal of Criminology and Penology
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Terrorism and Political Violence
ISSN: 0954-6553 (Print) 1556-1836 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ftpv20
The Radicalization of Homegrown Jihadists: A Review of Theoretical Models and Social Psychological Evidence
Michael King & Donald M. Taylor
To cite this article: Michael King & Donald M. Taylor (2011) The Radicalization of Homegrown Jihadists: A Review of Theoretical Models and Social Psychological Evidence, Terrorism and Political Violence, 23:4, 602-622, DOI: 10.1080/09546553.2011.587064
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/09546553.2011.587064
Published online: 09 Aug 2011.
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The Radicalization of Homegrown Jihadists: A Review of Theoretical Models and Social
MICHAEL KING AND DONALD M. TAYLOR
Department of Psychology, McGill University, Montréal, Québec, Canada
This article attempts to consolidate theorizing about the radicalization of Western homegrown jihadists. Five major models of radicalization are reviewed. The common- alities and discrepancies among these models are identified and analyzed in the con- text of empirical evidence in the field of terrorism research and social psychology. Three psychological factors emerge as contributors to radicalization: group relative deprivation, identity conflicts, and personality characteristics. Avenues for future research concerning the radicalization of homegrown jihadists are suggested, focus- ing on research that may not only be practical for counter-terrorism, but also feasible given the challenges of research with radicalized individuals.
Keywords deprivation, homegrown terrorism, identity, jihadists, narratives, radicalization
His family members describe him as being a ‘‘class clown’’ in that ‘‘all the teachers loved him—his jokes cheered up the class.’’ He was the ‘‘funny guy’’ with ‘‘a sense of humor’’ who was ‘‘very animated’’ and ‘‘did anything to get attention.’’
—Excerpt from the psychiatric report regarding Zakaria Amara’s amenability for treatment1
Belying this pleasant depiction of his personality, Zakaria Amara pled guilty on October 8, 2009 to recruiting people, organizing and leading a terrorist training camp, creating a remote-control detonator, and purchasing three tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer destined for bombing targets in Canada.2 At some point in his life, between joking in the classroom and building a detonator, Amara underwent a transformation generally referred to as radicalization. The now widespread use of the term ‘‘radica- lization’’ in scholarly articles, government documents, and the popular media makes
Michael King is a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology at McGill University, where his research focuses on the psychological processes involved in radicalization and the legitimacy of terrorism. Dr. Donald M. Taylor is a professor of psychology at McGill University, specializing in intergroup relations. His research focuses on the conditions under which members of disadvantaged groups accept their situation, take individual action, or instigate collective action.
Address correspondence to Michael King, Department of Psychology, McGill University, 1205 Dr. Penfield Avenue, Montréal, Québec H3A 1B1, Canada. E-mail: michael.king@ mail.mcgill.ca
Terrorism and Political Violence, 23:602–622, 2011 Copyright # Taylor & Francis Group, LLC ISSN: 0954-6553 print=1556-1836 online DOI: 10.1080/09546553.2011.587064
it essential that this transformational process be well understood. Many theories purport to describe the exact stages involved in the radicalization process, yet para- doxically, very little empirical data exists on the psychology of those who become radicalized. The present article is a review of these theories, and the current state of empirical, social psychological research that supports them.
Scope of This Article
Radicalization as a process is not, by definition, specific to any particular national, political, religious, or ideological group. However, the term radicalization in its current form is most often used to describe a phenomenon that leads to home- grown terrorism. In contrast to transnational terrorism, where people plot to attack a foreign country, homegrown terrorism is characterized by perpetrators who are born and raised in the very country they wish to attack. Radicalization leading to homegrown terrorism has drawn much attention in the past decade, since an increasing number of terrorist acts in Western countries have been attrib- uted to local groups, often unconnected to Al Qaeda, but very much inspired by Al Qaeda.3 Indeed, autonomous homegrown groups were responsible for 78% of the jihadi terrorism plots in the West from 2003 to 2008.4 These include successful plots such as the Madrid train bombings in March 2004, and the assassination of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, in addition to foiled plots as uncovered by the arrests of the ‘‘Toronto 18’’ in Canada, the ‘‘Vollsmose group’’ in Denmark, and the ‘‘Benbrika group’’ in Australia. Consequently, several Western security agencies now place homegrown jihadists among the top threats to their national security.5
The present article focuses on homegrown radicalization: the process whereby individuals are radicalized in the Western country they currently inhabit, a phenom- enon mostly associated with Western Europe and North America. Accordingly, models describing radicalization that are only applicable to non-Westerners living in non-Western countries are excluded from our analysis. Because the current threat to Western countries is from terrorism stemming from Al Qaeda inspired ideology,6
the present review will be limited to homegrown radicalization leading to terrorism perpetrated under the guise of violent jihad. Having delineated the scope of our analysis, the process of radicalization can be defined, for the purposes of the present article, as follows: the psychological transformations that occur among Western Muslims as they increasingly accept the legitimacy of terrorism in support of violent jihad against Western countries.
Purpose of This Article
The goal of the present article is to consolidate theorizing about the process of radicalization. Much has been written about this process. Within this vast literature are several full-scale models that in a coherent manner purport to describe the entire radicalization process. These few attempts at modeling radicalization tend to be iso- lated; that is, they make no reference to each other. The present article attempts to bring together the various stages, mechanisms, and factors referred to in these mod- els while also drawing from the wider literature on terrorism.
We first briefly review five major models of radicalization, and then analyze their commonalities and differences. These commonalities and discrepancies are then
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situated in the context of empirical evidence in the field of terrorism research and social psychology. Because radicalization involves mainly a shift in attitudes and beliefs about one’s own group, and its relationship to other groups, our analysis will rely heavily on social psychological research in order to evaluate the soundness of claims included in the various models. Social psychology, the study of individuals in their social environment, may be uniquely positioned to assess and inform theories of radicalization.
In conducting this review, our intention is not to designate one particular model of radicalization as superior to the others, nor is it to propose an entirely new model. Rather than an end-point, our review should be considered a beginning. It is above all an acknowledgement of the fragmentation of theorizing about radicalization, with two underlying goals. First, we attempt to identify the major underlying themes among current models of radicalization, and to separate themes that have empirical support from those that do not. Second, we suggest avenues of future research derived from these empirically supported themes that may not only be useful for counter-terrorism strategies, but also feasible given the unique challenges of conduct- ing research with individuals who have undergone radicalization.
Five Radicalization Models
Just as jihadists have varied throughout history, so have explanations of their radi- calization.7 Accordingly, the conception of a terrorist group has shifted. Initially a terrorist group was conceived as individuals who were foreign born, foreign trained, and covertly entering a Western country. The current conception is that of second- and third-generation immigrants, born in Western countries, who become radicalized and plan terrorism against their homeland. From inspection of the five models of radicalization reviewed next (see Table 1), this conceptual shift is evident. Although each of the five models applies to homegrown radicaliza- tion, two of these models, those by Borum and Moghaddam respectively, include factors evocative of situations in non-Western countries. The other three models, designed by Wiktorowicz, the New York Police Department, and Sageman, include factors often associated with the multicultural challenges faced by many Western countries.
Model 1: Borum’s Pathway
In an FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Borum outlines a prototypic psychological pathway along which an individual develops an ideology that justifies terrorism.8
Four stages are proposed. At the initial stage, ‘‘it’s not right,’’ the individual judges his or her condition to be undesirable. At the second stage, ‘‘it’s not fair,’’ the indi- vidual compares his or her condition to the more desirable conditions of others, and judges this inequality as illegitimate and unjust. Some will blame a specific other group for the illegitimate conditions of their own group; this subset of people will have reached the third stage, ‘‘it’s your fault.’’ Once an outgroup has been targeted as responsible for the illegitimate situation, this outgroup is vilified and dehuma- nized. At this fourth stage, people generate negative stereotypes about the outgroup, and apply these stereotypes to all outgroup members. Violence becomes legitimized as it is directed towards an evil group that is wholly responsible for all perceived injustices.
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Model 2: Wiktorowicz’s Theory of Joining Extremist Groups
Wiktorowicz outlines a specific trajectory of radicalization based on an ethnographic case study with members of the Al-Muhajiroun movement. Based in the U.K., Al-Muhajiroun is a transnational Islamist organization that promotes a worldwide Islamic revolution.10 It has gained much notoriety because of its official intention of using military coups to restore an Islamic state wherever Muslims live, including Britain.11 In his description, Wiktorowicz never uses the term ‘‘radicalization’’ per se, instead referring to four processes that lead a person to join an Islamic extremist group.12 These four processes are denoted as: cognitive opening, religious seeking, frame alignment, and socialization.
The first stage, ‘‘cognitive opening,’’ is often the result of a personal crisis that ren- ders a person receptive to ideas that were likely to be discounted prior to their crisis. The crisis can be instigated by events in any domain of a person’s life, such as a job loss, experiences with discrimination or victimization. According to Wiktorowicz, a crisis might also be precipitated by discussions with a member of an Islamic extremist group.
In the second stage, ‘‘religious seeking,’’ the person’s receptiveness—which began in the first stage—is directed towards religion. This religious seeking and receptive- ness renders the person likely to give consideration to worldviews promoted by extremist Islamic groups. Through debate and exploration of this Islamist worldview, the individual arrives at the third stage, ‘‘frame alignment,’’ whereby the person
Table 1. Models of radicalization
Author Type of model Stages or factors
Borum 2003 Linear, progressive
1. Social and economic deprivation 2. Inequality and resentment 3. Blame and attribution 4. Stereotyping and demonizing the enemy
Linear and emergent
1. Cognitive opening 2. Religious seeking 3. Frame alignment 4. Socialization
1. Psychological interpretation of material conditions
2. Perceived options to fight unfair treatment 3. Displacement of aggression 4. Moral engagement 5. Solidification of categorical thinking 6. The terrorist act
NYPD (Silber & Bhatt) 2007
Linear 1. Pre-radicalization 2. Self-identification 3. Indoctrination 4. Jihadization
Sageman 2008 Non-linear, emergent
1. Sense of moral outrage 2. Frame used to interpret the world 3. Resonance with personal experience 4. Mobilization through networks
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regards their worldview as coinciding with his own views. For this to occur, the radicalized individual must sustain a certain deference to the religious expertise of the people promoting the Islamist worldview.
In the last stage, ‘‘socialization and joining,’’ the individual officially joins the group, embraces the ideology, and adopts the group identity. Ideology and group identity are maintained through interactions with other members of the movement, while simultaneously retreating from mainstream society. By this stage, the group ideology has been internalized, and the individual’s identity has been reformulated. Although face-to-face interactions are more potent, socialization can also occur over the Internet, via, for example, private chat rooms.13
Model 3: Moghaddam’s Staircase to Terrorism
Moghaddam uses the metaphor of a staircase to describe the radicalization process.14
At each of the six stages, or floors of the staircase, specific factors can potentially influence the individual towards further radicalization. As such, Moghaddam’s model can be viewed as a decision-tree, where the individual’s reaction to factors at each stage may or may not lead the individual to the next stage, bringing them closer to legitimizing terrorism.
At the ground floor of the staircase, Moghaddam points to feelings of deprivation as the initial factor on the path towards radicalization. Not necessarily based on objective circumstances, these feelings are the result of a subjective interpretation of the intergroup situation. People who compare their group to other groups, and perceive that their group is relatively deprived, are likely to move up the staircase.
People who experience these feelings of group-based deprivation will be moti- vated to improve their group’s status. The subset of people who choose to fight what they perceive to be unfair treatment find themselves on the first floor ofMoghaddam’s staircase. At this stage, two societal factors will influence how people choose to address their group’s low status: social mobility and procedural justice. If legitimate possibilities to move up the social hierarchy exist, people are less likely to engage in radical action. Additionally, if people view decision making as fair, with opportunities to participate in the decision making process—as in liberal democracies—people are less likely to radicalize. Without social mobility or procedural justice to rectify their illegitimate status, discontent leads people to the next floor.
On the second floor, discontent is channeled towards a target. Here, instead of focusing on the real causes of injustice, displacement of aggression can occur. The West, mainly the United States, is blamed for the deprivation of the group. A por- tion of those who readily displace their aggression might start considering radical options to counter the injustice. These people climb the staircase to the third floor. People this far along are mostly young men who, with like-minded others, begin to morally justify terrorism. Together, they share their grievances, which fulfills a need for affiliation, and radicalize each other, which leads the group towards isolation. People at this stage maximize the differences between themselves and the external enemy. This differentiation enables them to sidestep inhibitory mechanisms that are innate to humans, an evolutionary guard we have inherited to limit intraspecies killing.
Those who continue on the radicalization path reach the fourth floor, where they officially join a terrorist group. In this group, the solidification of categorical thinking
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takes place; the ‘‘us vs. them,’’ ‘‘good vs. evil’’ mentality is consolidated.15 At this stage, the individual acquires a specific role in the terrorist group, such as fund-raiser, recruiter, or bomb-maker. Those who reach the fifth and last floor are those who are willing to commit a terrorist act. During this last stage, conformity and obedience are psychological motivations that facilitate violence.
Model 4: The NYPD’s Radicalization Process
The Intelligence Division of the New York Police Department (NYPD) proposes a four-stage model of radicalization.16 To develop their model, Silber and Bhatt analyzed five prominent homegrown terrorist cases in North America and Western Europe. Their model was then applied to three American homegrown terrorism cases, and two groups of extremists based in New York. In all of these cases, Silber and Bhatt report a consistent trajectory of radicalization, involving the presence of four identifiable stages.
The model’s first stage of ‘‘pre-radicalization’’ refers to an individual’s world prior to their entry into the radicalization process. Although there is no specific psychological pro
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