Effectively combating terrorism in the West will require a more robust understanding of the radicalization process, and a better appreciation for the strategies and tactics that might be used to counter – and potentially reverse – violent radicalization.
By Alex Wilner for ISN Insight
Terrorism begins and ends with the radicalization process. At some point, individuals who contemplate killing in campaigns of political violence come to accept that murder in the name of a particular cause or ideology is both feasible and just. As Brian Michael Jenkins, terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, explains: “Terrorists do not fall from the sky. They emerge from a set of strongly held beliefs. They are radicalized. Then they become terrorists.”
The radicalization process
When individuals adopt extreme political, social or religious ideals that condone, legitimize and endorse the use of political violence, terrorism is a potential – and often likely – outcome. Radicalization is the process by which individuals are introduced to and come to accept particular beliefs, ideologies and worldviews that facilitate violent behavior. It is a personal (and at times interpersonal) process that entails psychological and intellectual transformations, in which mental, emotional and cognitive changes take place. The result is an individual both motivated and prepared to pursue politically-driven violence.
To a certain degree, radicalization in the West is nothing new. For decades, violent ethno-nationalists, separatists and right- and left-wing groups have used violence, including terrorism, in the name of their ideology and in the hope of reaching their socio-political goals. But today, it is primarily Islamist radicalization that concerns policymakers, given Islamist terrorists’ willingness and ability to conduct indiscriminate, mass-casualty attacks against civilians. After having adopted extremist Islamist beliefs, some western nationals – including naturalized immigrants, first-, second- and third-generation immigrants and Muslim converts – go on to orchestrate acts of violence against their fellow citizens. Perpetrators often take their lead from global developments and purposefully tie their acts of violent defiance to reflect perceived international grievances. Homegrown Islamist terrorists target fellow nationals in hopes of affecting change in their government’s local, regional and international policies.
A preponderance of Islamist terrorism (both foiled and successfully carried out) in Europe, North America and Australia over the past decade has involved westerners inspired by militant Islamist ideologies. Until recently it was commonly assumed that Islamist terrorist attacks in the West would be perpetrated by individuals who had been radicalized, recruited and trained “over there” and dispatched “over here” to wreak havoc. Islamist terrorism was primarily about foreign operatives dispatched on foreign orders. The 9/11 attacks, for instance, were conducted by 19 men from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon, though some were recruited in Hamburg, Germany, and others received their training in the US.
Today, however, it is far more likely that an Islamist terrorist attack in the West will be at least partially (and oftentimes entirely) orchestrated by westerners. British nationals, for instance, were involved in the 7 July 2005 attacks on London’s public transportation system, the foiled 2006 liquid-bomb plot, the 2007 Glasgow Airport bombing and foiled London car bombing, and the 2008 Exeter Bombing. In Spain, of the nearly two dozen individuals convicted of participating in the 2004 Madrid train bombings, roughly one-third were Spaniards (though most of the cell’s leaders were foreigners). In Germany, most of the major Islamist terrorist attacks uncovered, foiled or successfully carried out in the past five years – i.e., the Sauerland Cell (2007); the Hamburg group planning “Mumbai-style” attacks across Europe (2010); the Frankfurt airport shooter (2011); and the Dusseldorf Cell (2011) – have involved German citizens and/or long-term German residents, while a reported 220 individuals from Germany have trained in foreign terrorist camps.
In Europe more broadly, a 2006 study of over 200 Islamist terrorists carried out by Edwin Bakker of Leiden University found that over 90 percent were residents of a European country and that more than one-third were born and raised in Europe. In the US, according to a 2010 RAND report, of the nearly 50 cases of recruitment and radicalization to Islamist terrorism that occurred between 2001 and 2009, the vast majority involved American citizens. And in Canada, all suspected and convicted Islamist terrorists arrested and jailed since 2004 have been Canadian nationals. In most of these cases, the attacks planned and carried out were independently, autonomously and domestically organized with limited foreign assistance.
Security officials find it critically important to understand why some western citizens come to sympathize with radical Islamist narratives, legitimize the use of violence and organize acts of terrorism both at home and abroad. While understanding what drives radicalization is challenging, it is essential to develop counterstrategies to combat it. The “reasons” for violent radicalization are many and varied. Some experts posit that personal crises, characteristics and circumstances influence an individual’s path toward violence. Others hold that socio-political, economic or historical grievances play a role. Still others offer psychological and cultural/religious explanations.
For now, there is little consensus. As Lorenzo Vidino of the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich warns, “radicalization is a complex and highly individualized process, often shaped by a poorly understood interaction of structural and personal factors.” Different people radicalize for different reasons and in different ways. But even then, profiles, root causes, individual characteristics, personal qualities and environmental or structural precursors are neither sufficient nor necessary for radicalization to occur. Nor do these factors properly explain the cognitive and emotional transformations that are inherently involved in radicalization.
That the radicalization process is intrinsically unique to each and every case complicates the manner in which states respond. Questions abound. What policies and tactics do we need to counter radicalization at home and abroad? How will we know when our counter-radicalization policies are working effectively? And what lessons do historical cases of radicalization and counter-radicalization offer us? Unless and until these and other questions are adequately answered, homegrown radicalization and terrorism will continue to threaten western states in the near and distant future.
Dr Alex Wilner is Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich. He is a former post-doctoral fellow with the Transatlantic Post-Doc Fellowship for International Relations and Security (TAPIR). His current research applies deterrence theory to counterterrorism and transformative learning theory to radicalization. He recently co-edited a volume, Deterring Terrorism: Theory and Practice, and is preparing a book manuscript on the subject of deterring terrorism. Published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)