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The End of Radicalisation?

24 Jul 2013
Short Read by Alex P. Schmid

For almost ten years the main “root cause” of terrorism has been sought in the radicalisation of individuals – especially Muslim youth in Western diasporas and converts to Islam. This conventional wisdom has recently been questioned by two leading researchers in the field of terrorism studies. Following the Boston Marathon bombings, in an interview with Rolling Stone, John Horgan said: “The idea that radicalisation causes terrorism is perhaps the greatest myth alive today in terrorism research”.  Not much later, Marc Sageman suggested that “[t]he notion that there is any serious process called ‘radicalisation’ or indoctrination, is really a mistake”.  Usually, established wisdoms in the field are challenged by outsiders, not insiders. The criticism from insiders like Horgan and Sageman is thus unusual. What is going on?

First, we have to remember that radicalisation as an alleged key to the understanding of the cause of terrorism was brought into the discussion in 2004, not by members of academia but mainly by public officials in the European Union and subsequently the United States. Their funding has steered much academic research in the direction of violent radicalisation. By focusing almost exclusively on the vulnerable individual turning terrorist either by recruitment or self-radicalisation via for example the internet, the role of alternative – and perhaps more uncomfortable – explanations in the search for root causes of terrorism has been neglected. It is not so that individuals do not matter, in the end all history is biography, but the more researchers tried to find individual variables on radicalisation, the more they found. Many types of individuals, not just losers and misfits, have embraced terrorism, and there is not one pathway to terrorism, but there are many. As a consequence, profiling individuals on a trajectory to terrorism turned out to be nearly impossible. True, some vulnerable individuals were radicalised and then engaged in terrorism; however many others were first recruited and only then radicalised. Yet others who engage in terrorism were never radicals and, most importantly, most radicals never turn to terrorism.[1]

In other words, explaining the turn to terrorism by looking at the many possible push and pull factors operating on vulnerable young people produces too many “false positives” to be of much use, let alone to have predictive value. Hence the despair about the usefulness of the concept of radicalisation, which turns out to be a much more normal process than previously thought: when a political system becomes blocked on some burning public issue, radicalisation can be a rational, individual or collective response.

What has been left out of much of the debate on radicalisation is the search for causes at levels other than the micro-level of the individual. The meso-level of analysis has been under-explored, for instance, looking at radicalised communities like refugee populations or people under foreign occupation or local dictatorships. This is equally true for the macro-level – ill-considered foreign policy choices caused by the radicalisation on the side of some of those responsible for countering terrorism in the “global war on terror”. Such meso- and macro-level analyses have been largely excluded from mainstream debates on the causes of terrorism. As a result, too much explanatory weight has been placed on micro-level causes – vulnerable individuals who might succumb to the temptation of using terrorism as a mode of conflict waging. Consequently, it appeared that under that weight, radicalisation as a key concept might collapse. Does that mean that radicalisation as an explanatory concept should be dumped into the dustbin of useless concepts? In the view of this writer, we cannot do away with it. The concept remains useful and indeed indispensable, if we:

  • See it as a process that can affect conflict parties on both sides in a confrontation;
  • Remain aware of the fact that radical opinions do not necessarily lead to political violence or terrorism;
  • Detach radicalisation to some extent from radicalism and link it more to the process of growing commitment to, and engagement with, (violent) extremism;
  • Apply it not only to individuals and small groups but also to larger groups; and
  • Analyse radicalisation not only on the micro- but also on the meso- and macro-levels.

Prof. Anne Speckhard, who has interviewed more than four hundred terrorists, extremists and people who know or knew them in a dozen different settings, found that there are “four essential elements to concocting the lethal cocktail of terrorism”:

  • A group with political motivations willing to use terrorism to try to achieve its aims;
  • An ideology that is used to justify intentionally targeting and killing civilians to create terror and thereby advance the group’s political goals;
  • Some level of social support from the constituency that the group purports to represent; and
  • Psycho-social vulnerabilities within individuals that motivate them to join and activate into terrorist groups.

Within such a broader framework, the pressure for explaining radicalisation processes rests not just on the fourth element. What John Horgan and Marc Sageman said in newspaper interviews should therefore be taken with more than a grain of salt. Yes, radicalisation has been a problematic concept but when re-conceptualised as indicated above it can be resuscitated to lead a useful second life.

[1]  Cf. Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko. Friction. How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us. Oxford: University Press, 2011.