The Problem with Radicalization (by Douglas Weeks)

Monday, May 30th, 2016

The advent of ‘new terrorism’ studies that began in the 1970’s remains as robust as ever. Exacerbated by 9/11, 3/11, 7/7, the Arab Spring, the rise of the Islamic State, the two Paris attacks, and more recently the San Bernardino attack to name but a few, terrorism research is here to stay. Couched under the banner of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) governments around the globe have sought to manage risk and build resilience through securitization and engagement. Convinced that radicalization is the ultimate evil, an enormous amount of research has focused on radicalization and ‘Islamic radicalization’ in particular. However, despite years of research, what is known about radicalization is defined more by what it is not rather than what it is.

Early approaches to radicalization research generally focused on looking for some abnormal social structure or psychological illness as a means to explain cause and effect. In other words, those that are labelled radicals, extremists, or terrorists were largely believed to have experienced some mal-adjusted social environment or have some form of psychological illness which could be categorized into any number of clinical diagnoses. Researchers focused on both the group and individual levels as a means to explain why these so-called social or psychological deviants became radical and more critically why they engaged in terrorism.

In 2011 Borum provided two summary assessments of the spectrum of social and psychological research from around the globe on radicalization research. In the first, he explored a variety of social science theories as a means to explain the radicalization process. Borum’s conclusion was that “most of what has been written so far about “radicalization” into violent extremist ideologies (particularly those that support terrorism) is conceptual, rather than empirical.[1]

In his second study, Borum provided an assessment on the conceptual models that existed and the state of empirical research. Borum found that “These frameworks are based primarily on rational, conceptual models which are neither guided by theory nor derived from systematic research.”[2] Before concluding, Borum debunked the notion that those that are considered radical or extreme were “all crazy” and offered that no single profile or personality type explained radicalization or violent extremism.[3]

A similar study of studies was published by Schmid in 2013. Schmid focused on radicalization, deradicalization, and counter-radicalization, and highlighted what was generally accepted as fact about radicalization. Schmid’s overview of radicalization confirmed Borum’s earlier assessment that there was no social or psychological abnormality that could be confidently applied to those labelled as radicals, extremists, or terrorists. Instead, Schmid argued that “both extremism and radicalism can only be properly assessed in relation to what is mainstream political thought in a given period.”[4]

Both Borum and Schmid’s studies offer a collective understanding about the current understanding of radicalization, extremism, and violence. Both are comprehensive and base their conclusions on a compilation of assessments from around the globe. However, Borum and Schmid’s summary assessments on radicalization arguably say more about what radicalization is not rather than what radicalization is.

Another critical assessment of radicalization came from Sageman in 2014. Sageman made a number of critical and deriding observations about the state of terrorism research. Tracing the emphasis and evolution of terrorism research in the new millennium, Sageman takes on pretty much all camps stating “the rush of newcomers into the field had a deleterious effect on research” and that “The voice of true scholars is drowned in this hysterical cacophony of political true believers”[5] Assessing the role of the Intelligence community and academia Sageman’s summary assessment is that “we have a system of terrorism research in which intelligence analysts know everything but understand nothing, while academics understand everything but know nothing.”[6] Despite Sageman’s rather elitist view of terrorism research he closes his tirade stating “we still don’t know what leads people to turn to political violence”[7]

The irony of all this appears to be that after some fifteen years of what some call ‘neo-jihadist terrorism’ research since 9/11 and an additional 30 years of research in what others call ‘new terrorism,’ the answers to why individuals radicalize and an even smaller percentage engage in violence are still being sought. Despite the amount of funding that has been infused into this subject and the vast number of individuals from numerous disciplines trying to find the holy grail that answers this question, perhaps the reason that it has gone unanswered is that it is being overthought.

One of the many conclusions that two of the most respected terrorism researchers, Bruce Hoffman and Martha Crenshaw, observed when conducting early terrorism research was the normalcy that they found in their subjects. Hoffman’s characterization of those he interviewed was that they were “apparently otherwise normal people.”[8] Similarly, writing as early as 1981, Crenshaw noted “that the outstanding common characteristic of terrorists is their normality.”[9]

Despite the evidence that radicals, extremists, and terrorists do not suffer from social or psycho pathology and that some of the most respected terrorism researchers in the world have noted the normalcy of those they engage with, there remains an unremitting but unspoken theme in academia, government, and society that these individuals must somehow be broken. The blame can be directed in many directions, not the least of which is the media, but the fact remains that while there is outward acknowledgement that there is no pathology present, there remains a collective yet unspoken mindset that these individuals are somehow damaged goods. Until there is a move away from trying to conveniently pathologize and categorize these individuals into categories in ways that allow us to make sense of them, the notion of radicalization will remain unanswerable. More importantly, developing more effective counter-radicalization and counter-terrorism strategies will also be impossible. That is not to suggest that these individuals should be excused in society or that their actions are not despicable, only that until they are acknowledged as the same as us the problem will continue.

[1] Randy Borum, “Radicalization into Violent Extremism (I): A Review of Social Science Theories,” Journal of Strategic Security 4 No.4 (2011), p. 15.

[2] Randy Borum, “Radicalization into Violent Extremism (II): A Review of Conceptual Models and Empirical Research,” ,” Journal of Strategic Security 4 No.4 (2011), p. 37.

[3] Ibid, p. 55.

[4] Alex Schmid, Radicalisation, Deradicalisation, and Counter-Radicalisation: A Conceptual Discussion and Literature Review, The Hague: International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, 2013.

[5] Marc Sageman, “The Stagnation in Terrorism Research,” Terrorism and Political Violence 26 No.4 (2014), p. 566.

[6] Ibid, p.576.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, New York: Columbia University Press, 2006, p. xv.

[9] Martha Crenshaw, “The Causes of Terrorism,” Comparative Politics 13 No.4 (1981):p. 390