Following the Paris attacks and the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, radicalization has once again come to the fore as a topic of great intrigue. Even though it is now apparent that these violent episodes were linked to international terrorism, the precise nature of the suspects’ paths to radicalization still remains a mystery. Broken up into three parts, this blog post will examine the radicalization process, the sources of radicalization, and ways in which it can be mitigated in order to prevent future attacks.
What is radicalization?
Radicalization is defined as the process of adopting for oneself or inculcating in others a commitment not only to a system of radical beliefs, but also to their imposition on the rest of society. The exact process, however, is not set in stone. It is unique to each person and varies from group to group. The extent to which people are radicalized hinges on their desired end goal, whether it is to achieve a sense of belonging, vent their thoughts in discussions with other like-minded individuals, or commit an act of terrorism, among other things.
How does it happen?
While the radicalization process is still poorly understood, the general consensus among experts and researchers is that there are three to five stages, though the conceptualization of these stages and the terminology used are not uniform across the board. Fathali M. Mogaddam, an Iranian psychologist and professor of psychology at Georgetown University, conceptualized the radicalization process as the “staircase to terrorism.” Comprised of a ground floor followed by five more floors, each floor represents a stage in this process. The decision to remain at a particular stage or continue upwards depends on the individual’s perception of how many choices are available to them. As the individual ascends the staircase, the perceived number of choices dwindles, until the only possible outcome is the destruction of others, oneself, or both.
Other Models of Radicalization
Other experts and scholars have created similar models to explain the process of radicalization. Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist and counter-terrorism consultant, devised a four-stage process to better understand the path to becoming a suicide bomber for al-Qaeda. According to his model, the radicalization process begins with a sense of moral outrage followed by a specific interpretation of the world, in which the sense of moral outrage is given a broader context (i.e. Islam vs. the West). In stage three, global issues begin to resonate with personal experiences, which ultimately leads to the final stage of joining a terrorist cell.
Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko, on the other hand, have created a model that details the process of political radicalization, which applies to Islamist extremist groups as well as US domestic extremist groups. Organized in three levels, it consists of a total of 12 mechanisms. The individual level focuses on how individuals join an already radicalized group. The group level focuses on how an existing group becomes more radical over time. And the mass public level focuses on radicalization in and through inter and intra-state conflicts. While each mechanism alone can push individuals towards radicalization, it is often the case that a combination of mechanisms contributes to their radicalization.