In recent months terrorism has once again become a much discussed topic, which means questions about the process through which a terrorist becomes radicalized return to the foreground too. A complex topic with many nuances and contradictions, where conclusions are yet to be drawn. What are the common misconceptions, who becomes radicalized and how can we tell?
First of all, let me define radicalization and radicals using a definition from a leading authority on terrorism:
The term “radical” applies to one who carries his theories or convictions to their furthest application. It implies not only extreme beliefs, but extreme [violent] action . Radicalization refers to the process of adopting for oneself or inculcating in others a commitment not only to a system of beliefs, but to their imposition on the rest of society. – Brian Michael Jenkins
When the radicalization of youth is discussed, especially if it is regarding western youth, a very distinct picture is painted. An underprivileged , uneducated loner, maybe mentally ill or unable, who unknowingly walks into the evil Muslim’s trap. Maybe those closest had noticed changes in him (or her), but it was unexpected and out of the ordinary. However, all this is at complete odds with what the research and data predicts. Terrorists and terrorist supporters are usually well-educated, middle or upper class and socially aware.
“The idea that being educated, more aware of societies ‘values’, its contradictions, double standards, and inequalities could lead toward the route of radicalization.” – Foreign Policy Journal
Next to this, they fit into society well and, though part of radicalization seems to be distancing oneself from friends and family, preceding radicalization they have no problems having an array of relationships. Their actions are not the actions of the mentally confused, but based on rational and educated decision-making which includes a full awareness of the outcome and destruction caused by terrorism. Of course the narrative of an oblivious or sick youngster being lured in is much more appealing and a lot less worrying. As it means nobody has to ask the hard questions: What is so terribly wrong with society that an educated, aware individual would want to commit acts of terrorism?
The above described demographic, though it tells us where to look for potential radicals, does not particularly narrow down who is radicalized and how this happened. The Montreal Gazette lists a number of tell-tale signs which, when present, suggest a person may be radicalized. These signs include conscious isolation, an unwillingness to associate with those who have alternative views and consumption of highly pornographic and/or violent material. I have two problems with these assertions. First, I feel that these so called radicalization signs may be present in your average problematic teenager and only point to the fact that the research on radicalization is highly inconclusive. Building on this, having extremist views and watching violent material does not necessarily mean that one intends to act violently in the name of those beliefs (if it did we would have a far larger problem on our hands).
Second, though the article speaks of a radicalized person as having a narrow and strict view of Islam, it seems that this sign built on ideological motivations could apply to anyone following a strict and particular doctrine. This is supported by the fact that there have been many non-religious terrorist groups, most known would be those belonging to the Leftist movements during the Cold War. The pie-chart here shows that, though it must be accepted that the overwhelming amount of deaths are caused by Sunni extremists, one cannot disregard that a large slice are caused by non-Muslims. Thus the fact that the radicalization is blamed squarely on Islam, seems not only inaccurate but would prevent the proper targeting of radicalization of non-Muslims terrorists.
Sources & Further Reading:
Academic Alan Krueger on terrorists’ disposition.
Academic David Rapoport on the four waves of terrorism
The Montreal Gazette considering radicalization warning signs
Foreign Affairs on deradicalizing terrorists
CBC News describing role of non-religious factors in radicalization