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In current international and domestic politics, radicalization is the process of political choices that grow from a sense, by individuals (i.e., self-radicalization) or groups in a society, that peaceful methods have brought no political dividends in terms of goals they consider legitimate. Radicalization is the primary process that recruits terrorists.

Today, "Happiness is martyrdom" can be as emotionally contagious to kids in a forlorn urban African neighborhood or to a lost youth on the Internet as "Yes, we can." That is a stunning and far-reaching development that we must learn to steer in the right direction. Scott Atran


Many people think first of Islamism as the basis for radicalization, but that can be a dangerous assumption, as in the initial attribution of the Oklahoma City bombing to jihadists rather than a self-radicalized right-wing American. Nevertheless, some of the research in Islamic radicalization actually describes more general patterns. A New York City Police Department study found four steps in the process of becoming a terrorist:[1]

  • "Stage 1: Pre-Radicalization
  • Stage 2: Self-Identification
  • Stage 3: Indoctrination
  • Stage 4: Jihadization", or the commitment to action

Not all individuals go through this sequence, but those that pass through all four stages are most likely to be involved with planning or carrying out terrorism. The study emphasized there have been major changes, even in Islamist radicalism, since the 9-11 Attack; "home-grown" radicalization is much more the norm than is a foreign-directed team.

Leaderless resistance was first espoused not by Islamist radicals, but,as a means of opposing a Communist takeover of the United States; the work of Col. Ulius Louis Amoss in 1962, which cites the Committees of Correspondence. Louis Beam gave wider attention to Amoss' writings.[2] Tom Metzger of the White Aryan Resistance spoke of a similar approach.[3]

Radical Islam

Radicalization, at least with respect to radical Islam, is changing. Where al-Qaeda was a core of operations, but its direct capabilities have been degraded. "The threat today is from a Salafist viral social and political movement, for which al-Qaeda has been a symbol, that abuses religion in the name of defending a purist form Sunni Islam, and which is particularly contagious among Muslim youth who are increasingly marginalized — economically, socially, politically — and are in transition stages in their lives, such as immigrants, students, and those in search of friends, mates and jobs." [4] Still, there are well-educated but not necessarily well-trained self-radicalized threats (e.g., Nidal Hasan, the accused shooter at Fort Hood).

Colonel Brian Drinkwine, while at the U.S. Army War College, wrote that "A centripetal force that holds the greater al-Qa’ida system together is a shared hatred of apostasy and the West amongst its core members." In al-Qaeda doctrine, apostate nations are the near enemy, such as Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, and were bin Laden's original priority. Ayman al-Zawahiri convinced him to focus on the "Crusader" enemy — the United States and Israel — as a better rallying point, but the apostate regimes "are openly blamed for causing poverty and corruption, allowing the spread of Western influences at the expense of Islam, and exercising social and political repression."[5]All is relative; Takfir wal-Hijra is an organization that considers al-Qaeda too moderate and in a state of apostasy. Abu Basir al-Tartusi, an al-Qaeda supporter, considers those who do not support global jihad to be committing the type of apostasy associated with Al-wala’ wa’l-bara’.

Exploiting these theological arguments is one approach to countering the legitimacy of radicalization.[6]


Not all self-radicalization is Islamist, as seen in several "lone-wolf" attacks by Americans angry with government. Some have been true suicide attacks, such as flying a small aircraft into an Internal Revenue Service building in Austin, Texas,[7] where others were "suicide by cop" — attacks with firearms, in situations where the attacker had no realistic chance of survival. It is a reasonable assumption, for example, that the guard force of the Pentagon Building cannot be overcome by one man with pistols.[8] In the cases of the Pentagon and the attack on the IRS building, U.S. officials hastened to say these were not "terror", but the applicability of the term is controversial.


Globalization has been a theme of demonstrators who have destroyed property and disrupted global economic meetings. At a deeper level, concern about globalization contributes to the threat to culture, as discussed in Jihad vs. McWorld. Anti-globalization has been a theme in some of the recent U.S. domestic attacks.

U.S. culture wars

While the 9/11 attack caused the greatest number of casualties, there has been, in the U.S., a considerable number of shootings and bombings directed at abortion providers. Eric Rudolph, now serving life without parole in "Supermax" prison, began by attacking abortion clinics, but escalated to bomb the Atlanta Olympic games.

Radical environmentalism


"The widespread notion," as articulated by Samuel Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order "...is woefully misleading. Violent extremism represents a crash of traditional territorial cultures, not their resurgence. Individuals now mostly radicalize horizontally with their peers, rather than vertically through institutional leaders or organizational hierarchies. They do so mostly in small groups of friends — from the same neighborhood or social network — or even as loners who find common cause with a virtual internet community. The Qaeda movement is largely a diaspora phenomenon of people who enlist, rather than are recruited, outside their country of origin.

In-person social networks

"Entry into the jihadi brotherhood is from the bottom up: from alienated and marginalized youth seeking out companionship, esteem, and meaning, but also the thrill of action, sense of empowerment, and glory in fighting the world's most powerful nation and army... Our data show that a reliable predictor of whether or not someone joins the Jihad is being a member of an action-oriented group of friends."

Urban gangs, in the U.S., share many characteristics with jihadist networks.

"The boundaries of the newer terrorist networks are very loose and fluid, and the internet now allows anyone who wishes to become a terrorist to become one, anywhere, anytime. More and more, terror networks are intertwined with petty criminal networks: drug trafficking, stolen cars, credit card fraud, and the like. This development is in part an unintended consequence of two of our successes: financial policing forced would-be terrorists" to use informal value transfer systems "...and disruption of their organizations meant that terrorists would have to find new clandestine means for acquiring weapons and managing logistics.

"Although lack of economic opportunity often reliably leads to criminality, it turns out that some criminal youth really don't want to be criminals after all. Given half a chance to take up a moral cause, they can be even more altruistically prone than others to give up their lives for their comrades and cause. This is one indication — and our research reveals others — that economic opportunities alone may not turn people away from the path to political violence. (Indeed, material incentives, whether "carrots" or "sticks," can even backfire when they threaten core values, as our recent research has shown for Israel, Palestine, Indonesia, and Iran).

Online radicalization

Marc Sageman has suggested that popular jihadist Internet Imams, like Anwar al-Awlaki, are important not because they brainwash, command, or even guide others to actions and targets. [9] Rather, according to Atran, popular radical Imams serve as "attractors" whose message and presence draws into line a searching soul who has already pretty much chosen his own path. Nidal Hasan, for example, sent over a score of email messages to Awlaki but received only two back, with no operational implications.[10]

Others dispute this. Challenging Sageman's book Leaderless Jihad, David Tucker, of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, writes that he depends on two interrelated arguments:

  • web sites presenting Jihadist propaganda or bomb-making instructions and other operational advice are not the engine driving extremist Islam. Sageman points out, for example, that bombs built only with instructions from web sites have either not exploded or have had limited effects (p. 113)
  • Propaganda on web sites, according to Sageman, does not have “intrinsic power to influence people into taking arms against the West.” Such images, Sageman claims, “merely reinforce already made-up minds” (p. 114)." [11]

The separate issue is what to do about online media. One study speaks of techniques such as filtering, but this is easier said than done. [12]

Preventing and deescalating radicalization

  • Therefore, a coherent program to counter extremist violence should focus on peer-to-peer efforts, not elders trying to teach youth about moderation or the Qur'an. It will take mobilizing the purpose-seeking, risk-taking, adventurous spirit of youth for heroic action.

It does not overemphasize technology, an emphasis that Atran said led to failures such as the Christmas Day bombing attempt. "Computers, and the stochastic models and algorithms they use, are not particularly well suited to pick up the significance of the almost unimaginable psychological effort it took for one of the most respected men in Nigeria to swallow his pride and love of family and walk into an American embassy to say that his son was being dangerously radicalized."

"On the military side, career advancement in the armed forces privileges operational prowess and combat experience, which are necessary to gain victory in battles. But different abilities also may be necessarily for winning without having to fight, or for ending a war in Lincoln's definitive sense of destroying enemies by making them into friends." Sun Tzu observed, over two thousand years ago, that the greatest general wins without fighting. "Soldiers continue to be trained and rewarded as operators and combat organizers, but they are not as adequately trained for the political mission they are now being asked to carry out, which requires cultural and psychological expertise at being social mediators, managers and movers."

Local vs. global

A serious problem in our cooperation with intelligence and military counterparts in several countries — for example, Morocco, Egypt, Uzbekistan —is that they have trouble even recognizing they have homegrown problems of radicalization that are not due to the West or to some nebulous "Jihad International." "We're winning against Al Qaeda and its associates in places where antiterrorism efforts are local and built on an understanding that the ties binding terrorist networks today are more about social connections than political or ideological." Atran wrote that "using knowledge friendship, kinship and discipleship has been very successful in Southeast Asia, and shows promise for Afghanistan and Pakistan."[13] The Senate Foreign Relations Committee also recommends, as part of U.S. strategy, the understanding that I outlined, although I believe that more research is needed there to support that recommendation.[14]

Turkey, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, treats jihadi terrorism more as an issue of public health and community responsibility than as a criminal or military matter. Al-Qaeda has made a practice of co-opting local grievances. The Taliban and Somalia's Islamic Courts Union are focused locally, not globally, and this focus can conflict with that of al-Qaeda. In Somalia, for example, al-Qaeda-linked organizations such as al-Shabaab, but these may conflict even with Muslim traditions there.

Al-Qaeda has made a practice of intermarrying external activists with locals, but Al-Qaeda in Iraq offended local customs by doing so.


Also in Iraq, where misconduct by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison became a tool of radicalization, a subsequent program, conducted by Major General Douglas Stone (U.S. Army) returned terrorist suspects to the community. Stone said "...detainees gravitated toward the insurgency because they were underemployed, undereducated, and in need of supplemental sources of income. To address these social problems and to promote good citizenship, we now offer detainees an array of voluntary programs to help serve as a deterrent to insurgent activity...By prioritizing population protection inside our detention centers,” Stone said, “we are ensuring that violent extremists remain isolated – both physically and ideologically. With their marginalization, we can begin to reintegrate the vast majority of detainees who are moderate back into society in a safe and secure manner.” [15]

Abu Ghraib abuses were one example of radicalization in prison. A study funded by the UK, Australia and the Netherlands is being conducted by the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation, to obtain the experiences of 15 nations in prison deradicalization. [16]

Community outreach

Community outreach programs in the UK used street leaders to reach out within Muslim communities. [17] There has been concern, however, that some of these leaders were Salafist or Wahhabite, and gained legitimacy although displacing al-Qaeda.

Consider the parable told by the substitute Imam at the Al Quds Mosque in Hamburg, where the 9/11 bomber pilots hung out, when Marc Sageman and I asked him "Why did they do it?"

"There were two rams, one with horns and one without. The one with horns butted his head against the defenseless one. In the next world, Allah switched the horns from one ram to the other, so justice could prevail."

"Justice" (adl in Arabic) is the watchword of Jihad. Thunderously simple. When justice and Jihad and are joined to "change" — the elemental soundbite of our age — and oxygenated by the publicity given to spectacular acts of violence, then the mix becomes heady and potent.

Young people constantly see and discuss among themselves images of war and injustice against "our people," become morally outraged (especially if injustice resonates personally, which is more of a problem abroad than at home), and dream of a war for justice that gives their friendship cause. But of the millions who sympathize with the jihadist cause, only some thousands show willingness to actually commit violence. They almost invariably go on to violence in small groups of volunteers consisting mostly of friends and some kin within specific "scenes": neighborhoods, schools (classes, dorms), workplaces, common leisure activities (soccer, study group, barbershop, café) and, increasingly, online chat-rooms.

Scott Atran

"In the United States, there have been fewer Islamic radicalizations than in Europe, although it has increased. "Success at home is greatly facilitated by the fact that the overwhelming majority of Muslim immigrants into the United States, unlike in Europe, become rapidly and thoroughly integrated into mainstream American society. Immigrant Muslims generally buy into the American dream and succeed in education, in the economy, and in maintaining a strong, composite sense of both Muslim and American identity."[4]

"Our data show that most young people who join the jihad had a moderate and mostly secular education to begin with, rather than a radical religious one. ... That's a big reason so many who are bored, underemployed, overqualified, and underwhelmed by hopes for the future turn on to jihad with their friends. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer (at least for boys, but girls are web-surfing into the act)..." Equal opportunity, indeed, has moved to include atypical terrorists such as 46-year old blonde, green-eyed U.S. born women. [18]


Al-Qaeda, well before 9/11, used mass media as a means of radicalization. As Osama bin Laden put it, "rhetoric and satellite propaganda can be on equal footing with unmanned bombers and cruise-missiles." [19] Indeed, Marc Lynch observed
Media became even more central to its strategy after the loss of its Afghan base, when Al-Qaeda metamorphosed into the more virtual, diffuse organization that Peter Bergen memorably labeled "Al-Qaeda 2.0." The global arena of contention, the absence of a physical territory, and an environment constricted by Western and Arab counter-terrorism operations made the media the premier site of its political action.

The media have also become a vital forum for internal arguments about the jihad's direction. Arguments over doctrine and strategy that might once have been private matters, carried out face to face in secretive hideouts, are now by necessity public. The decentralized, diffuse nature of al-Qaeda, the growing difficulty of private communications, and the goal of persuading mainstream and jihadist publics alike all force these arguments into the public sphere. Some of these arguments are tactical, as in the disputes broadcast on M-Jazeera between Zarqawi and his jihadi mentor, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, about the taking of hostages. Still others debate doctrinal issues, such as the Qur'anic justification for terror or whether Muslim adversaries of the jihad can be declared non-Muslims.[20]

Research in radicalization

Research in radicalization is relatively new. Scott Atran testified "there is a deep lack of Field-Based Scientific Research on Pathways to and from Political and Group Violence. [4] Billions of dollars are spent on physical force protection, but "only fractions of that are spent on understanding the pathways to and from violent extremism, which maybe even more important for keeping our country safe and our service men and women out of harm's way."

Appropriate research is interdisciplinary. "We then begin to explore the nature of the conflict with leaders, community members, and youth. We follow up with an experimental design — which allows ready replication of initial results or falsification of our hypotheses — to understand pathways to and from violence."

Atran believes "social scientists should not be directly embedded with military units in theater." Some military leaders, such as David Kilcullen, do have advanced training in social science, although they are not academic researchers. Just as interdisciplinary approaches are useful in social science, it may be useful to have soldiers that have a solid understanding of social science, using an interdisciplinary mix of military and social science concepts.

"Ever since the Vietnam War, there has been mutual antipathy and antagonism between most academic social science — at least at the outstanding universities — and U.S. military operations and military-related policymaking. But unlike the case with the Vietnam War, many social scientists today believe that violent extremism is a danger that needs to be dealt with. Training and rewarding soldiers for being culturally knowledgeable and socially savvy — which goes beyond learning a language or studying a checklist of cultural preferences and habits — could be so much more effective for achieving our country's political and military mission. Moreover, involvement of top social scientists in deliberations such as these, and in publicly transparent field projects, could help heal the divide between some of our best thinkers and policymakers and operators.


  1. Mitchell D. Silber and Arvin Bhatt (2007), Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat, New York City Police Department
  2. Louis Beam (February 1992), "Leaderless Resistance", The Seditionist (no. 12 (Final edition))
  3. Louis Beam, Anti-Defamation League
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Scott Atran (10 March 2010), Pathways to and From Violent Extremism: The Case for Science-Based Field Research, Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee, Senate Armed Services Committee
  5. Brian Drinkwine (January 26, 2009), "The Serpent in Our Garden: Al-Qa'ida and the Long War", Carlisle Papers, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, p. 41
  6. Drinkwine, pp. 42-44
  7. "Tax Protester Crashes Plane Into IRS Office", Wall Street Journal, 19 February 2010
  8. Mary Pat Flaherty, Theresa Vargas and Michael E. Ruane (6 March 2010), "Parents warned police of Pentagon shooter's bizarre mental state", Washington Post
  9. Marc Sageman (2008), Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century, University of Pennsylvania Press
  10. Juan Zarate, "The Fort Hood Attack: A Preliminary Assessment," testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee (November 19, 2009), http://csis.org/files/ts091119_zarate.pdf
  11. David Tucker (January 2010), "Jihad Dramatically Transformed? Sageman on Jihad and the Internet", Homeland Security Affairs VI
  12. The Challenge of Online Radicalisation: A Strategy for Action, International Center for the Study of Radicalisation, 10 March 2009
  13. Scott Atran (December 13, 2009), "Op-Ed Contributor: To Beat Al Qaeda, Look to the East", New York Times
  14. Al Qaeda in Yemen and Somalia, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 20 January 2010
  15. Samantha L. Quigley (2 June 2008), "Lessons Learned at Abu Ghraib Drive Current Detainee Policies", American Forces Press Service
  16. De-radicalisation and Disengagement in Prisons - Lessons from 15 Countries, International Center for the Study of Radicalisation
  17. Robert Lambert (2-3 November 2009), Al‐Qaida Influence in Muslim Communities in London: Role of Street Leaders, CENS‐WISI Workshop on Radicalization and De‐Radicalization: Global Lessons Learned, University of Warwick
  18. Carrie Johnson (10 March 2010), "JihadJane, an American woman, faces terrorism charges", Washington Post
  19. Gilles Kepel, The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), quoted by Marc Lynch in "Al-Qaeda's Media Strategies
  20. Marc Lynch (1 March 2006), "Al-Qaeda's Media Strategies", National Interest (magazine)