01 January 2010

Radicalization is Not Just About Religion

Radicalization is a process not an event. Adopting a violent extremist ideology is rarely, if ever, “caused” by just one person, place or incident. It is often not even driven by purely religious motives. There are multiple paths that can lead one into terrorism. We need to accept the fact that there is some complexity here if we are going to make any substantial long-term progress in countering violent extremism. Major Nidal Hasan, the alleged Fort Hood shooter and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the alleged Christmas or “Underwear” bomber are both recent reminders that we need to keep working at the problem.

Quintan Wiktorowicz has done some of the most compelling empirical fieldwork in the study of Islamist radicalization based on dozens of interviews with affiliates of a militant group just outside London, England. He uses the lens of Social Movement Theory to understand the process. He finds that those who came to be radicalized first revealed an openness to new worldviews (cognitive opening), then came to view religion as a path to find meaning (religious seeking), eventually found the group’s narrative and ethos to “make sense” (frame alignment), and ultimately, through a process of socialization, became fully indoctrinated into the movement, and incorporated it as a central feature of their identities (Wiktorowicz, 2005).

Cognitive openness and a “seeker” mindset are very common in young people who are trying to figure out who they are, where they fit, and what ultimately will define them. In a sense, however, it is when they are most vulnerable to ideological influence. When you’re looking for answers, looking to belong, and looking for meaning – and someone comes along with clear-cut absolute answers, shows how you fit among a larger collective, and offers you truth and purpose – it becomes easy to bypass critical thinking.

Sometimes, people develop grievances on their own, then seek likeminded others for affiliation or affirmation. Other times, the political “grievances” of violent extremists are the consequence, rather than the cause of their militant alignment. People may experience personal crises or hardships on their own that increase their vulnerability, but recruiters, spotters, and other influencers need only smell a hint of openness, then they “explain” the individual’s problem as a mere symptom of a larger injustice – one for which violent action against wrongdoers is the “right” and necessary course of action.

In either case, we need to be clear that radicalization typically develops from an interaction between a (often motivated) seeker and inspirational figures within the radical movement. Those who “become radicalized” – in general - are not passive victims of brainwashing or aggressive outreach. The process evolves through social transaction – sometimes on the Internet, other times individually or in small groups – but each is providing something that the other wants.

As the investigations progress, it may turn out to be true that both Hasan and Abdulmutallab had some correspondence with or connection to Yemeni Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki (pictured at right) , but that does not mean that al-Awlaki is the sine qua non of these attacks. Preliminary reports seem to suggest that, if contact did occur, then it was the actors themselves – not al-Awlaki - who did the outreach.

In my next post, I will outline a few key “take-home” messages on understanding radicalization based on what we are learning from the Hasan and Abdulmutallab investigations.

-Randy Borum