In discussions about fighting terrorism, the word “radicalisation” is often used, yet its meaning remains unclear. Focusing only on intellectual radicalisation risks assuming that radical ideas are a proxy for terrorism or a crucial precursor when we know this is not the case. Different paths and processes of engagement in terrorism act differently for different individuals at different times and circumstances.
This article examines the difficulties in defining radicalisation and radicalism and concludes that radicalisation, especially participation in terrorism, is best understood as a collection of distinct processes. It then discusses several potentially exciting theories, such as social movement theory, social psychology, and conversion theory, that could encourage future research into these processes. Further, the article describes potential frameworks for comprehending how the processes may assist terroristic activity.
Radicalisation has been arguably the most common foundation for understanding micro-level shifts toward violence during the past decade. Nonetheless, the concept has evolved into more than just a dominant police paradigm; it has also become a holistic government strategy that includes vigilance, security, vulnerability, and civic engagement. With the introduction of this approach came a slew of analysts, consultants, and professors claiming “expert” knowledge of individual conversions to political violence. Relevant researchers on terrorism and extremism have yet to agree on a clearly articulated understanding of this notion. However, the term’s meaning and bounds are hotly debated around the globe.
The definition of radicalisationby McCauley and Moskalenko (2017) is “greater preparation for and commitment to intergroup conflict and violence.” Hafez and Mullins (2015) defined radicalisation as a “gradual ‘process’ including indoctrination into an extreme belief system that lays the groundwork for violence but does not guarantee it.”
However, Alex Schmid (2013) reassessed radicalisation to improve the consistency and objectivity of discussions around this concept. According to him,
“an individual or collective (group) process whereby, usually in a situation of political polarisation, normal practices of dialogue, compromise and tolerance between political actors and groups with diverging interests are abandoned by one or both sides in a conflict dyad in favour of a growing commitment to engage in confrontational tactics of conflict-waging. These can include either (i) the use of (non-violent) pressure and coercion, (ii) various forms of political violence other than terrorism or (iii) acts of violent extremism in the form of terrorism and war crimes. The process is, on the side of rebel factions, generally accompanied by ideological socialisation away from mainstream or status quo-oriented positions towards more radical or extremist positions involving a dichotomous world view and the acceptance of an alternative focal point of political mobilisation outside the dominant political order as the existing system is no longer recognised as appropriate or legitimate.”
Although the term “radicalism” and its subsequent derivative “radicalisation” historically has had a much broader meaning, in the context of contemporary studies and policymaking, the term “radicalisation” typically refers to a path that leads to terrorism, a gradual slide into extremism or fundamentalism, or, more generally, a movement toward justifying violence and eventually engaging in it. The great majority of definitions agree that radicalisation is a process; nevertheless, they disagree on where this process will go after it is complete.
For instance, the European Commission’s expert group on radicalisation describes radicalisation as “socialisation to extremism that emerges as terrorism” (European Commission Expert Group 7). In contrast, the United States Department of Homeland Security describes radicalisation as “the process of acquiring an extreme belief system, including the readiness to advocate or use violence as a means” (US Department of Homeland Security). Institute for Homeland Security Studies According to some official definitions, it is a path that leads to terrorism. For instance, in the United Kingdom, it is defined as “the process through which an individual comes to support terrorism and forms of extremism that lead to terrorism” (House of Commons Home Affairs Committee).
People in representative democracies have the freedom to voice views that go to the core of issues (precisely what the word “radical” denotes) and the right to advocate for significant changes to political, economic, or social systems. Many of the concepts European “radical groupings” proposed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were ultimately incorporated into the conventional conception of political liberalism (widening the franchise, redistributing property, freedom of the press, etc.).
This is likely why liberal constitutions protect the rights of individuals to defend radical or unusual opinions and limit free speech only when it incites violence, is offensive or is vulgar. The rules that govern the realm of thoughts are opposed to the laws that govern the world of actions. Individual conduct is rigorously watched, especially when it involves the illegal use of violence against non-combatants that is not state-sanctioned.
Individuals and organisations who use violence without discrimination confront justifiable objections in open societies. For instance, the experts commonly use “radicalisation” while discussing Salafists and the ultraconservative Islamists. These groups are notorious for their relentless proselytising and support for ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Since Salafists are affiliated with both of these terrorist organisations, this is the case. Radicalisation, however, is not contained in one aspect or region of the globe. It is seen in all types of terrorism, including leftist, rightist, anarchist, ethno-nationalist, and religious terrorism.
Prior research and analysis support the assumption that there is no one causal pathway or explanatory theory that applies to all types of individuals. According to Walter Laqueur (2003), the search for a “universal theory” of terrorism is erroneous since “many terrorists exist, and their traits change over time and between nations.” The same seems to be true of the radicalization process.
Despite this, a variety of efforts have been made to articulate a fundamental sequence of stages, events, or obstacles that may apply to both cross-group and within-group kinds. How do individuals come to accept violent extremist beliefs (radicalise), translate them — or not — into reasons or imperatives for using terrorist action, and choose (or not) to participate in violent and subversive behaviour in the service of these ideologies? This seems to be the driving question for these initiatives.
To be clear, the great bulk of what has been written so far on “radicalization” into violent extremist ideas (particularly those supporting terrorism) is conceptual rather than factual. While the exact processes and sequencing of these changes are controversial, it is certain that various pathways and mechanisms function differently for different people. We may be able to design better-informed policies and procedures to curb and prevent the spread of violent extremism if we have a more sophisticated understanding of how this process unfolds inside and among organisations.
For decades now, the international community has worked to adopt impartial standards in times of conflict that prohibit the use of particular types of violence and weaponry by setting limits aimed to safeguard certain people and objectives. However, the neutrality of these regulations has traditionally benefitted the more powerful, leaving those with less power with few options for circumventing them. This explains why, after WWII, the greatest amount of victimisation has happened during non-international wars.
Consider also that the lack of international law to offer adequate procedures for the peaceful settlement of disputes has all too often left protagonists with no choice but to resort to violence and, as a result of power imbalance, to violate the rules on the limits to violence. At a summit of chiefs of state in the Americas in 1961, President John F. Kennedy clearly said that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”
Thus, in the absence of effective mechanisms for peaceful conflict resolution and the rule of law that applies equally to all protagonists, the alternative is violence—and, more often than not, violence in violation of international humanitarian law and human rights law, which falls under the definition of terrorism.
Borum (2012) has sought to describe the driving elements that drive radicalisation, particularly militant Islamist radicalisation in Europe, by looking outside of the existing radicalisation paradigm.
Background factors or personal struggles with religious identity, experience with discrimination, etc. Trigger Factors or specific events that could provoke antipathy or activism; finally, Opportunity Factors include the individual’s degree of access and exposure to extremist ideas, such as physical and virtual spaces where she/he is likely to meet like-minded people. (ibid). Additionally, in developing a functional explanation for political radicalisation, McCauley and Moskalenko (2017) describe it as “a stronger readiness for and commitment to intergroup confrontation.” They outline the process using the Pyramid Model, with the base of the pyramid consisting of all persons who sympathise with the terrorists’ stated goals. All individuals who wanted the “Brits out” in Northern Ireland were part of the Irish Republican Army’s support base.
As with the staircase model, the pyramid’s higher levels are associated with decreasing numbers but increasing radicalisation among individuals regarding their views, attitudes, and behaviours as we go from the base to the apex. It was previously stated in this article that the process of radicalisation differs amongst persons.
McCauley and Moskalenko go even farther, describing how radicalisation occurs at several levels, including the individual, the group, and even the masses. Individuals may become radicalised for a number of reasons, including personal victimisation, political grievances, and joining a radical organisation, either via an existing membership with the group of a loved one or by a prolonged process of self-radicalisation. Even though self-radicalisation has been heavily debated, the presence of a group dynamic has been demonstrated to be critical for radicalisation, and an increasing number of psychological studies have shown the deadly potential of self-radicalisation.
Milgram’s 1963 experiment sought to ascertain the conditions that might persuade someone to do ”evil’. The experiment required volunteers to shock a person who answered a question incorrectly. As the number of incorrectly answered questions increased, so did the shock voltage until a lethal voltage was administered. Although no genuine shocks were administered, the individuals were unaware of this. The majority of participants gave what they thought were lethal quantities of electricity. While the experiment’s primary goal was to understand the concept of obedience in humans, it also helped explain how people could transform into radicals simply because an authoritative figure promised them significance within a group. This provided them with enough motivation to disengage from the evil they were committing morally.
Further talking about the legitimacy or non-legitimacy of radicalisation, for decades now, the international community has endeavoured to develop impartial rules in times of war that restrict the use of certain forms of violence and armament by establishing limitations designed to protect specific persons and purposes. However, the neutrality of these restrictions has historically favoured those with more power, leaving those with less power with few choices for evading them. This explains why, following World War II, the highest number of victims have occurred in non-international conflicts.
Moreover, the lack of international law to provide proper processes for the peaceful resolution of conflicts has often forced protagonists to resort to violence and, as a consequence of a power imbalance, to breach the norms about the boundaries of violence. It has always been easier for nations to proclaim self-defence and legitimacy, whereas aggrieved groups have found it more challenging to make the same claims. A significant example is an Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Regardless of the nature of the violent action, it is legal when carried out by Israel, with the rare exception of perhaps excessive use of force. Nevertheless, it is almost always terrorism when carried out by the Palestinians. Utilising violence to instil fear in a population has been a constant throughout history. Despite what contemporary politicians claim, terrorism, as we have come to call it, is not new, nor are its responses.
Nevertheless, regardless of whether terrorism is illegitimate or not, there are three critical qualities that, when combined, distinguish terrorism from other violent social engagements. First, a violent act is considered terrorist when its psychological effects on a specific population or social aggregate, in terms of widespread emotional reactions such as fear and anxiety, are disproportionate to its actual or potential material consequences, in terms of physical harm to both people and property (Aron, 1962). Second, for such violence to impact, it must be systematic and unexpected, often directed at targets selected for their symbolic value within a dominant cultural framework and within a particular institutional framework (Thornton, 1964; Walter, 1969). Third, the injury of such targets is utilised for communicating signals and threats, making terrorism a tool for communication and social control (Roucek, 1962; Crelinsten, 1987).
Even though there is reason to believe that various state and non-state actors initiate radicalisation in reactions to oppression, hatred, bigotry, and discrimination, classifying the workflow as legitimate or illegitimate would be reducing a comprehensive and multifaceted problem to strict binary functions. Leaders of violent extremist groups, for instance, may exploit Muslims’ perceived marginalisation across the globe. However, there is a heated intellectual and political debate on whether the perceived marginalisation of Muslims throughout the globe as a source of extremism is or just an interpretation of extremist goals. Human rights abuses and the perception of international hostility may radicalise diaspora groups for sure.
Several social scientists have identified legitimacy as a crucial issue in the study of terrorism. According to Martha Crenshaw, legitimacy is “a significant obstacle in conceptualising terrorism and, indeed, any kind of political violence.” Often, legitimacy is at stake in conflicts between governments and terrorist organisations; in these circumstances, one side disputes the legitimacy of the other. Crenshaw identifies far-left terrorists “Consider actions against the state to be morally permissible and question the state’s legitimacy. Frequently, right-wing terrorists “deny the validity of protest and believe that violence in the service of order is sanctioned by the significance of the status quo.” Lastly, impacted states claim legitimacy: a state under terrorist attack is often required to “maintain and defend its legitimacy while delegitimising the terrorist threat” (Crenshaw, 1983).
States and terrorist organisations must explain their use of force or violence to obtain legitimacy and show a genuine commitment to democratic values and objectives. Given these conditions, which are necessary but inadequate for establishing legitimacy, it should be clear that legitimacy claims are not just challenging to prove but also defensible once established. A state’s legitimacy crisis might be caused by a single act (denying its citizens the right to a fair and open trial) or a sequence of interconnected actions. Ultimately, this crisis may culminate in a challenge to the existence of a state or government; this challenge may take the form of substantial civil disobedience (as happened in France in May 1968), or it may be more violent.
According to the literature in the social sciences, terrorism has been utilised in response to analogous situations. In contrast, legitimacy is a challenging and complex term with legal, political, and moral ramifications. After establishing legitimacy as a crucial aspect in the struggle between governments and terrorist organisations, so, it is not unexpected that social scientists avoid discussing the issue.