by Jon Atack

Radicalization is Extreme Propaganda

Radicalization is the process of causing someone to adopt fanatic, radical positions on political or social issues through propaganda and thought reform.

Radicalization - Exploitative Techniques

Grievances Lead to Radicalization

It is a mistake to think that radicalization applies only to Islamist terrorists, just as it is a mistake to believe that suicide bombings all have a religious motivation – there are many terrorist groups driven by purely political objectives.

There are pathways that lead to radicalization, beginning with a personal grievance – for instance, the Chechnyan “black widows”, suicide bombers who had lost their husbands. Muslims who have been slighted for their belief also fulfill this criterion: anti-Muslim prejudice makes radicalization all the more likely.

The first step may also be group grievance, where a group feels under attack – all separatist terrorists have experienced this. Kurds may support the PKK, because of attacks upon their fellow Kurds. In cultures that are under siege, there is no need for radicalizing thought reform techniques. The realities of daily life are enough. For instance, Tamils in Sri Lanka were denied the right to vote, so some joined the Tamil Tigers and became terrorists. Nothing can justify terrorism, but we need to work for a more fair, equitable world if we are to stop radicalization.

Romantic and family attachments can also influence radicalization. Some groups originate as extensions of family or friend networks, and a pretty face can be used to recruit just as easily as into a cult.

Cultural Isolation

In the West, second generation offspring of Muslim parents often feel isolated from their roots and are prey to radical groups that apply thought reform techniques to instill new beliefs and behaviors. Sometimes they are rebelling against their parents’ moderate beliefs.

The “slippery slope” addresses gradual radicalization through retreat into a like-minded group and withdrawal from the larger society. Resentment is amplified slowly, and the recruit is encouraged to bond with fellow-believers while disparaging outsiders. This may begin with something as laudable as charity towards the victims of prejudice but can escalate into “dispensing of existence”, where outsiders are perceived as demonic and evil, without human rights.

Status is achieved by participation in the cause. Killing an enemy in war is viewed differently from murder in almost all societies. Killing an enemy is praiseworthy, and increases the status of the perpetrator. Risk-taking becomes a positive activity in a radical group. In groups that perform suicide bombing, a high status attaches to successful bombers and their surviving families. In some parts of the world, billboards have shown images of smiling “shahida” or “martyrs”.

Existing concerns and beliefs are put aside for transformation as a member of the group, which, in effect, becomes a larger self – a set of values to be defended at all costs. “Unfreezing” of existing beliefs leads to changing of beliefs and then the “refreezing” process, where the new concerns and beliefs become central to a new sense of being and purpose.

Belonging to a group often means accepting all of the values of the group, whether they are understood or not. Recruits submit to the higher authority of the leader or doctrine and demand purity – compliance with that authority.

Polarization will happen, once group values have been accepted: you are either with us, or against us. There is no longer any middle ground. Those who disagree are the enemy. This argument is used to justify the murder of “enemy” children.

Isolation strengthens the bond to the group in line with Hassan’s BITE model – control of behavior, information, thought and emotion will take place as an aspect of separation from the society beyond the group. Access to conflicting information is completely cut off: the media is under the control of hostile forces, anyone who disagrees with the leader is diabolic. Thought-stopping will prevent true believers from even listening to criticism.

Provoking Competition

Competition can also escalate into radicalization. This is seen in left-wing groups that compete to show that their doctrine is more pure than that of rival groups.

Ju-jitsu politics indicates the use of provocation to make governments act against minorities and create oppressive legislation that will ultimately strengthen the radicals’ cause. This strategy is aimed at isolating moderates to cause social polarization. Al-Qaeda wanted First World countries to invade Muslim countries, to support their effort to create a united opposition. Their numbers grew from less than 500 at the time of 9/11, into tens of thousands after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. They want westerners to believe that all Muslims are militant Wahhabis and persecute them, so that there are even more persecuted Muslims, now eager to join the cause.

An “Us and Them” mentality is fundamental to all cults; it is essential to terrorist groups. Opponents are seen as demons or even vermin – just as in genocides.

It is Not a Mental Illness

Extensive investigation has shown that terrorists do not suffer from mental illness. Ariel Merari has provided a significant survey of the psychology of suicide bombers in the Israel-Palestine conflict. He did find a higher proportion that is usual of dependent and avoidant personality types, but suicide bombers in Palestine come from a community that needs no radicalization. His book “Driven to Death: Psychological and Social Aspects of Suicide Terrorism” gives a lot more detail.

In contrast, western terrorist recruits are often from moderate Muslim families and have a university education. They have fairly normal personality profiles. Marc Sageman challenges conventional wisdom about terrorism, observing that the key to mounting an effective defense against future attacks is a thorough understanding of the networks that allow these new terrorists to proliferate in his book “Understanding Terror Networks“.

Some experts prefer to avoid any suggestion of thought reform, but fail to explain what they mean by “radicalization”, which most certainly contains elements of manipulation and the use of undue influence.

It is important that psychological and social research into terrorism continues. It is equally important that real grievances are addressed. At Open Minds, we want to teach students to understand the methods used to induce fervor and devotion by life-destroying cults of every type.

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Radicalization Resources

The Quilliam Foundation – a counter-extremism organization Families for Life – a UK organization helping families combat extremism
Radicalization Research – an archive of research and information on radicalization
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