Department of Sociology,
Delhi School of Economics.
There is no dearth of literature on terrorism and radicalization. The studies intensified especially after 2001, when the whole world was shaken apart by one of the worst acts of terror in recent history. It is after all a puzzling question as to what makes one take up arms against humanity itself, to be so engrossed in an ideology that one is ready to give up their own life for its’ sake; for a greater cause. People involved in these acts are spread across class, levels of education and their social surroundings. So it therefore becomes a pressing question as to what is so attractive about these organisations that they have enlisted such large amounts of people that can wreck havoc all across the world at both micro and macro levels. It, thus, becomes important to understand the commonalities that exist in the propagation of ideology as well as their different techniques of application for different sets of people. Only then can we tackle the problem at its’ roots.
This paper explores what the idea of radicalization is and how it is propagated. It claims that the social structures especially of the modern neo-liberal world have themselves become a tool in the hands of organizations to draw individuals particularly teenagers and young adults into a life of terrorism. This is being done through the spread of an ideology particularly through technology which enables them to attack the minds of these vulnerable individuals. These themes have been explored in this paper.
What is Radicalization?
Radicalization is “broadly defined as a process whereby individuals or groups develop, over time, a mindset that can-under the right circumstances and opportunities-increase the risk that he or she will engage in violent extremism or terrorism” (Bajpai and Kaushik, 2017, p.2). We also need to have a definition of extremism before we proceed ahead, Trip et al (2019) define it as “both to political ideologies and to methods through which political actors try to achieve their aims. Extremist political ideologies oppose the fundamental values of society and the principles of democracy and universal human rights by advocating racial, political, social, economic, and religious supremacy”(p.2). For them therefore radicalization is the acceptance of extremism.
Radicalization is not just a process linked to terrorism but as mentioned above also a product of certain structures. There is a heavy involvement of political agenda. There is involved a concept of a greater good or a larger cause. There is a glorification of death and sacrifice. This is a probable explanation of the willingness to die especially for suicide bombers. As the methods of radicalization have expanded with the growth of technology, it is becoming easier to spread out such deadly messages and this has even created a new problem of self radicalization leading to “lone wolf” attacks. This has become a major factor for the increased recruitment of violent terrorist groups (Behera, 2018, pp. 56-57).
The New York Police Department has identified four stages of radicalization in the context of Jihadi-Salafi ideology which had developed to specifically counter the Western influences. The first is pre radicalization where the individuals go about living their ordinary lives with no associations to any criminal activity or exposure to terror groups. The second stage is that of self radicalization wherein due to circumstances, both internal and external, they began to be drawn towards Salafi Islam. The third stage is that of indoctrination where the individual gets steadily involved very deeply into the doctrines and believe that they must do something to ensure the protection of this kind of Islam. The last stage is that of jihadization where they consider it their divine duty to take violent action in the name and protection of their ideology. (Fernandez, Asif & Alani, 2018, p.28). This definition can easily be applicable to a number of other ideologies where radicalisation takes place.
Ideology and Martyrdom:
The Oxford English Dictionary describes ideology as “a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.” To understand radicalization, one must understand the very basis of the same. It is an idea that leads one to certain kinds of behaviour. Acts of terror are no different for they are born first and foremost out of an idea based on theory that is an ideology.
A certain kind of ideology is propagated by these recruitment groups where they make one question their surroundings. They challenge their very world view (For instance, in the case of Islamic radicalization, they are made to question the very way and the basis on which the Western World functions and they are constantly told of the superiority of the propagated ideology). Thus, there is a motivation to change the current situation that is firmly against the interest and beliefs of the individual being radicalized. (Hafez & Mullins, 2015, p.967).
The rise of secularism in the Arabic World as a consequence of Western influence also has been used a means to convince the youth that their religion and their way of life is under threat, that is being snatched away from them. Some leaders have been instrumental in reaching out through various mechanisms to preach radicalization and violent Jihad to the youth and giving them reasons for carrying out the same. The intensity of ideology can make one embrace even death (Precht, 2007, p.30). What can be derived from here is that the amount of brain washing becomes so intense that even death seems like a plausible option if that is to be the dawn of a “better world” in their eyes. They of course do not see this as death but as a greater good for which they shall be remembered and revered. It is martyrdom for them; their God given duty in their eyes.
The idea of the link between martyrdom and ideology can be found in a literature review conducted by Campelo et al, of numerous studies conducted on youth in the age group of 12 to 25 years, living in a Western European country regarding radicalization and came up with some common grounds leading to radicalization. Psychiatric disorders were rare among the youth involved in terrorist activities. However, they found certain “psychological vulnerabilities” in such youth. There is presence of feelings of despair amongst them. Here comes ideology. Jihadi ideology promises them of a purpose, of motive which is meant to ease their pain. They talk about suicide intentionality. They exploit the suicidal tendencies in certain youth and translate them into death for a cause making them embrace the idea of martyrdom. For adolescents coming from dysfunctional homes, the feeling of belonging to an organization, a sense of purpose draws them to these groups. There is an element of friendship involved sometimes where a friend from a radical group becomes a role model for the young mind (pp. 7-9).
Last idea that can be talked about in this section is the role of an authority figure in terms of propaganda. Humans intuitively respond to authority figures. In the process of radicalisation, the individual is exposed to a figure portraying traditional authority who becomes a guide and philosopher for the individual. He is seen to lead them towards a greater path. They make one believe that their interpretation of the texts is the sole and true understanding and therefore this is the path their disciples must follow (Sabouni, Cullen, & Armitage, 2017, p.2). They style themselves in manners to seem appeasing to the young mind. Max Weber spoke of traditional and charismatic authority, such preachers seem to be a combination of both. Some examples of this are given by Precht(2007) which include al-Banna, Maududi, Qutb and Khomeini who have been responsible for major ideological influences in the 20th century and led hundreds of youth on the path towards radicalization (p. 30).
As mentioned above, radicalization does not seem to be limited to any particular kinds of individuals at least on the surface. Many studies have been conducted so as to decipher common links between those who are drawn to a life of terrorism but there is no common consensus towards any of the factors.
The social psychological approach to studying terrorism begins with the assumption that terrorists are same as other people in terms of psychiatry and therefore born out of social impulses. Webber & Kruglanski (2018), identified three major social factors that serve as a tool for terror organizations to expand their ranks. First, they talk of the individual motivation or their needs. There is an experience of humiliation or discrimination on some grounds in the radicalized individuals. It makes them feel less valued in the society. The second factor that they identify is something we just discussed at length, that is ideology. The justification of violence towards an established social model, indoctrination by authority figures etc. The third and the final factor that they had identified is group process or networking. They write that “without networks there would be a lot of angry young Muslims but no terrorists.” The radicalized youth have often come in contact with other individuals that have been indoctrinated by a similar ideology. This also convinces them that they are in the right direction and what they believe in is the truth giving them a sort of justification for the acts that they are going to commit. This also provides them with a “collective identity”. Hence a combination of these factors leads to as the authors put it “a varied number of experiences activate a quest for feelings of personal significance, and through connections to likeminded individuals, and an ideology that justifies violence, violent extremism becomes a viable and potent mechanism for earning feelings of worth” (Webber & Kruglanski, 2018, pp. 131-132).
Dr, Alex Schmid (2013) has approached the problem from a different direction. He looks at what makes certain youth of similar background and exposure resist this ideology rather than buying into it. Some of the reasons he wrote about included that the people who resisted such temptation were generally a part of pluralist but cohesive societies, had better ties to friends and families, were exposed to counter ideological narratives, understood religion in non violent terms and had means to let out their frustrations by means other than going down the terror route (p. 32).
Consider this in the light of the previous section and the stages of radicalization as defined by the New York Police Department. The leaders of the terror groups acted as leaders and friends to these youngsters. They targeted those who suffered a crisis of identity or had been through a painful event in their life. They had disturbed familial relationships. Putting these together with Schmid’s research we might be making progress here in a particular direction. That is the idea that social factors and the surroundings of people become a tool in the hands of terror organisations to prey upon the vulnerabilities born as a result of cracks in the social fabric.
Campelo et al (2018), write that modernity with all its’ benefits and progress has also brought a great deal of insecurity and uncertainty related to survival in the emerging socio-economic conditions. There is a lot of pressure on individuals to forge their own identity and reach a benchmark level of success for the sake of status and respect. Not being able to deal with the pressure of the social models where they live, these individuals turn to a system of fixed authority where they know their exact position and there is little room for individual choice in terms of gaining position. Further, by destroying the existing societal model, they hope to create a new society where they shall attain a privileged position (p. 11). A parallel can be drawn here to Fredrick Bird’s (1979) work on new religious movements. He wrote that in the traditional system, there were fixed rules that had to be followed set by the State, out of kinship, by religion or others and some people saw in these rules, a benevolent authority figure, guiding them through complexities of life. Now as industrialization and a new economy have disrupted that process, these individuals do not have a figure to owe moral authority to. They feel burdened by the pressure of making choices in the new liberal world order and face a dilemma between their position in the modern society as opposed to the traditional hierarchies. In Bird’s model, the new religious movements set to ease some of these conflicted feelings by being a place providing direction to these individuals a safe group which guides them through life and resolves their dilemma to some extent by giving them a particular path to walk on and an authority to be accountable to. (pp. 344-345).
What Bird has described is the sociological mechanisms that draws individuals towards certain kinds of groups. Exchange the idea of new religious movements with terrorist groups and we get the analysis of Campelo et al. Therefore, the social factors and disruptions have played into the hands of the leaders of these movements into drawing people towards becoming violent extremists. The type of environment that young people are growing up in has a huge impact on the direction their lives are going to take. One needs to monitor the environments and by extension the vulnerable individuals and provide them with the required help and counselling as soon as they can.
The Technological Revolution and Radicalization:
There would be little doubt in anyone’s mind, that the easy connectivity and wide availability of the internet services have had a multiplier effect on spread of propaganda. The very mention of methods of radicalization puts into one’s mind the images of the dark web. The individuals are carrying dangerous propaganda and ideology in their pockets, so to say, every minute.
The internet revolution led to the development of a new kind of global consciousness. Conversi (2012) writes that from a miniscule number of websites advocating extremism in 1996, ten years down the line the number of such websites had increased to 2300 (p. 1370).
The internet chat rooms and forums provide the benefit of anonymity to both the propagator and the indoctrinated. It has also provided a safe space to confide in to many individuals. (Meleagrou-Hitchens, Alexander, & Kaderbhai, 2017, 1237-1238). Once the individuals have been radicalized through ideology and as an outcome of the social circumstances, there next step is either to perform a lone wolf attack or alternatively they try to get in touch with others from Jihadi or extremist organizations. Here, the internet has a big role to play. There are websites that take them specifically to recruitment pages of these organisations. Groups like Al Qaeda rely less on the internet but more on the “tendency of the individual to seek out the websites and contact the organization, or in other words radicalize and indoctrinate themselves.” (Aly, Macdonald, Jarvis & Chen, 2016, p.8). Social media has played a similar role.
Alfredo, Carter & Cheong (2018) have described two models of radicalization. The top down and the bottom up models. The top down models involve designing the websites in certain ways that they provide the “nudge” to its’ visitors. (The nudge is a phenomenon used in economics and marketing to bring about, subtly, behavioural changes in individuals without them realising it and leading them to behave in certain ways. For instance, through advertisements, celebrity endorsements etc.). In this case too, nudge leads them to make certain choices they may not have ordinarily made. In cases of nudges people legitimately believe that this is what they truly want. Applying it to radicalization, youth with no relation to criminal activities are convinced that the violent terrorist methods are the only ways of survival (pp. 301-302). The bottom up approach described by them is something similar to what Google and Facebook do to everyone’s data. The advertisements that we see are always targeted specifically at us. Similarly, these websites filter through the user’s data to provide them with content specifically tailored for them. They describe it as “profiling.” Thus, they use predictive analysis to gauge the user’s behaviour and present their content in a way to seem appeasing to the user (pp. 305-309).
The role of social media itself is well known and there is no dearth of literature on it. Here, the author would like to apply the principles discerned above to the idea of social media. One, social media platforms are the best ways to create a space of anonymity. It has been found that there is a greater tendency of aggression and violence in individuals when they are given a guarantee of anonymity. They can flout social norms and expectations. It has been established that the sharing of controversial content is much more than uncontroversial content when there is a guarantee of anonymity ( Kaiping & Kizelcec, 2014). Thus, the fact that they would not be identified encourages propagators of extremist ideology to be more comfortable sharing such things online and the users also fins a safe space for the consumption and further dissemination of such content.
Secondly, as data models develop over time and data becomes the new oil, it becomes more and more easier for technologically well versed terrorists, to introduce more and more people to their world by analysing their personal information and tailor making strategies for them. People through the nudges described above can be made to behave in ways they never thought they would : Voting for a political party, purchasing a luxury item. And now this has expanded to an unprecedent scale with terror organisations using the same. This highlights further the need to control and regulate data and we need intensive discussions for the same but that is beyond the scope of this paper.
Thus, there is a compelling need to be careful and monitor social media and other websites checking for radical content. Intermediaries like the social media websites need to be held accountable to a certain extent. This however requires clear cut norms to be defined so that a balance can be maintained between freedom of speech and national and international security.
Tools of radicalization are born out of exploitation of certain gaps in the structures and the systems. Those gaps must be addressed and attempts must be made to provide a safe and secure environment particularly to adolescents and young adults who are more vulnerable to ideological manipulations. Counter ideologies relating to values of democracy and secularism, of pluralism, harmony and peace need to be propagated like never before given the exponential rise in radicalization in recent times.
Moreover, we need to come to terms with the fact that our social models are constantly failing. Counselling and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy need to be normalised. There needs to be greater screening at schools and an environment and safe spaces should be created by the State, at special centres, at schools and colleges so that these individuals do not have to go searching for them in dangerous places.
One needs to tackle discrimination, hate crimes and stereotyping to control the feelings of isolation that one faces. We can also use the nudge theory that they are using to propagate such social changes, to bring people towards an ideology of peace. Further, employment opportunities need to be expanded so that for one the feelings of isolation and lack of self worth is reduced and secondly the economic security keeps one away from falling prey to the organisations.
Finally, we need to conduct more and more research on the issue and address the gaps that exist in literature. Only by countering radicalization; by minimizing the numbers joining these organizations can we move towards a peaceful, safe and secure future.
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