Terrorism and Political Violence
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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 profile that characterizes those at risk for radicalization, Silber and Bhatt point to several common traits. Radicalized individuals are likely to be young, male Muslims from middle class backgrounds and male-dominated societies. They are often educated, second or third generation immigrants, or recent converts, and are not likely to have a criminal history. These individuals are often not considered radical or even devout Muslims.
The second stage, ‘‘self-identification,’’ is where the radicalization process begins for those with pre-disposing characteristics. The key driver at this stage is that the individual turns to Islam in response to a personal crisis. The crisis may be a specific event, such as losing a job, or the result of an ongoing situation, like discrimination or an identity crisis. This crisis challenges the individual’s previously held beliefs, and Islam is sought out to manage the crisis. During this exploration of religion, the indi- vidual is inevitably exposed to radical interpretations of Islam, such as the jihadi-Salafi ideology,17 which are easily found on the Internet, and bolstered by media reports of Western aggression in Muslim lands. As a new identity is being formed, the individual seeks out like-minded individuals. Together, these people become more religious and more extreme.
At the third stage of ‘‘indoctrination,’’ the individual wholly accepts the jihadi-Salafi worldview and condones violence against anything un-Islamic. Their increasing religiosity is politicized; all events are construed as proof that the West is waging a war against Islam. Accordingly, the person shifts from having individu- alistic self-serving goals to non-personal goals focused on protecting or avenging Muslims. People at this stage often withdraw from mosques, and together with like-minded individuals, hold private meetings with radical agendas.
The last stage, ‘‘jihadization,’’ is reached when individuals declare themselves to be ‘‘holy warriors or mujahedeen,’’18 and become committed to violent jihad. They might seek out para-military knowledge in jihadi training camps abroad. Alternatively, radicalized groups might organize training activities closer to home. Ultimately, a terrorist attack is planned: groups hold secret meetings in order to discuss practical matters, such as potential targets, dates, times, and modes of attack. They determine each member’s role, survey potential targets, and obtain materials.
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Model 5: Sageman’s Four Prongs
In contrast to other models depicting stages that occur in a sequential order, Sageman suggests that radicalization emerges from the interplay of four factors.19 Three of these factors can be considered cognitive, whereas the fourth is a situational factor.
One cognitive factor leading to radicalization is a sense of moral outrage, which is the result of perceiving events as moral violations. A specific example of this is the reaction to the invasion of Iraq, which intelligence agencies have concluded became the ‘‘primary recruiting vehicle for violent Islamic extremists.’’20 Another cognitive factor is the frame used to interpret the world. The specific frame used by contem- porary Islamist extremists is that the West is waging a ‘‘war against Islam.’’ This idea, whereby Western countries seemingly have a united strategy to confront Islam, has been recognized by security and intelligence agencies who have labeled it the ‘‘single narrative.’’21 The third cognitive factor highlighted by Sageman is a reson- ance with personal experience. These experiences are personal moral violations, such as discrimination or unemployment. These three cognitive factors can easily reinforce each other. Personal experiences can lead to moral outrage, and render a person sensitive to other people’s discrimination. All of these, in turn, can reinforce the perception of a conspiratorial, global attack on Islam.
In addition to these cognitive factors, Sageman emphasizes the interactions of like-minded people as crucial for radicalization to occur. This last factor, labeled ‘‘mobilization through networks,’’ involves validating and confirming one’s ideas and interpretation of events with other radicalized people. To fully understand this last factor, one must consider Sageman’s view that the current Al Qaeda-inspired wave of terrorism should be regarded as a social movement, not as a coherent strat- egy directed by a hierarchical organization.22 Mobilization, it must be noted, can occur through virtual networks—like the Internet—as easily as it can in person.
Other Models and Explanations
The five models chosen for review were not the only explanations of radicalization found in the literature. Certain explanations have been excluded from our review as they did not present specific models of radicalization, but rather explain terrorism at a higher, more general level of analysis. For example, Taylor and Horgan depict the processes underlying terrorist involvement using three broad categories of variables.23
First are ‘‘setting events’’ which refer to influences stemming from an individual’s past, second are ‘‘personal factors’’ which are the individual’s specific context, and third is the broader ‘‘social=political=organizational context.’’ Kruglanski and Fishman also offer an analysis of the psychology underlying terrorism, with a host of factors at the individual, group, and organizational levels.24 Finally, McCauley and Moskalenko describe twelve possible mechanisms of radicalization operating at the individual, group, and mass levels.25 Such broad explanations no doubt capture more realistically the complexity of radicalization; however these explanations were too general to directly compare with the more defined models reviewed above.
Among the models presented by Borum, Wiktorowicz, Moghaddam, the NYPD, and Sageman, descriptions of the radicalization process are wide-ranging both in structure
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and content. Taken independently, each model offers a valuable conceptualization of the radicalization experience. Taken together, however, certain commonalities emerge. These commonalities indicate where a consensus seemingly exists among terrorism experts regarding which factors are deemed important contributors to radicalization.
First and foremost, the models converge on the assumption that radicalization is a transformation based on social-psychological processes. All five models describe emotions, cognitions, and social influences that, when operating in the right order and combination, can lead someone to endorse and engage in terrorism. To be pre- cise, Wiktorowicz’s model stops short of predicting actual terrorism, with an end- point of joining an extremist group, but nevertheless portrays a radicalization process equivalent in other models. Among the many commonalities, the two psychological factors that recur most often will be examined next. These are relative deprivation and an identity crisis.
As relative deprivation is a factor often cited and debated in the terrorism litera- ture,26 it is no surprise to have it play an important role in these models. Borum and Moghaddam place relative deprivation at the initial stages of the radicalization process. In both models, people experience feelings of relative deprivation by com- paring their material conditions to that of other groups, and viewing their group’s disadvantage as an injustice. Although not explicitly stated, these feelings of relative deprivation are also incorporated into other models. Relative deprivation is implicit in Sageman’s third factor of ‘‘resonance with personal experience,’’ whereby moral outrage is confirmed by viewing injustices perpetrated against one’s group, or through personal experience, such as discrimination or unemployment. Such feelings of relative deprivation can also lead an individual to question his ‘‘certainty in pre- viously accepted beliefs,’’ which in turn precipitates the cognitive opening described in the first stage of Wiktorowicz’s model.27
The concept of relative deprivation originated, ironically, from a survey of atti- tudes among U.S. military personnel during the Second World War.28 The research- ers used relative deprivation to explain, among other findings, the perplexing discontentment among certain troops. At the time of the survey, many more promo- tions were awarded in the air force than within military police. Yet on the survey, more air force personnel complained about the lack of promotions as compared to military police. The researchers attributed the greater discontent to the salience of promotions within the air force: for those who did not get promoted, the many pro- motions were a constant reminder of their lack of advancement. The key to under- standing troops’ morale, then, was not the objective quality of their circumstances, but rather their circumstances relative to their chosen target of social comparison.
Personal deprivation was then applied to a group context, and thereafter discon- tent with personal circumstances—personal relative deprivation—was distinguished from discontent arising from comparing the circumstances of one’s group—or group relative deprivation.29 This distinction was a major theoretical development, and has led to important nuances. For instance, personal relative deprivation has been linked to more inward-oriented emotions, such as decreased self-esteem, delinquency, and depression, whereas group-based relative deprivation has been found to be a stron- ger predictor of collective action and prejudice toward other groups.30
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Despite its presence in many models, there has been substantial debate about relative deprivation as a factor for radicalization.31 The main point of contention lies in its poor predictive power regarding terrorism. Using demographic data to sustain their argument, many highlight that those who are radicalized to the point of engaging in terrorism do not appear relatively deprived; in fact, most come from the middle-class.32 This observation is not specific to terrorism though, and echoes the main criticism levied against relative deprivation theory and its prediction of any type of collective action. That is, the vast majority of people who potentially experience relative deprivation do not engage in collective action, while those who do engage in collective action do not appear to be neces- sarily deprived.33 Although these criticisms make it tempting to dismiss relative deprivation as a factor in the radicalization process, key specifications of the theory should be revisited first.
The experience of relative deprivation is subjective: it results from social com- parisons, not from an objective analysis of the situation.34 It is the perception of deprivation, and not actual deprivation that will motivate a person to action. Thus, referring to terrorists’ socio-economic status to either confirm or discount the pres- ence of relative deprivation can be misleading because it disregards the psychological dimension of relative deprivation. People can in actual fact be advantaged while experiencing group-based relative deprivation.35 Conversely, people can be com- paratively disadvantaged without experiencing their inequality as deprivation.36
Thus, to the extent that relative deprivation is considered a subjective psychological state, independent of the person’s socio-economic status, it should not be discounted as a factor for radicalization.
Rather, findings in social psychological research place relative deprivation as a likely contributor to radicalization. This is anchored in the robust findings across dozens of empirical studies that group-based feelings of injustice reliably predict collective action.37 However, two specifications must be highlighted here. First, it is the emotions elicited by the injustice—not only the cognitive awareness of the injustice—that predict collective action. Second, it is group-based relative depri- vation, as opposed to personal deprivation, that predicts collective action.38
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