How useful is radicalization as an explanation for terrorism?

Posted on Posted in Analyses, Balkans & East Med, EU & NATO, Intelligence and Security, Middle East, n, Strategy & Defence, Terrorism, Organized Crime & Security

By Olga Aristeidou, International Relations Expert

Radicalization is one of the most controversial terms in the field of social and political sciences. It is usually used to describe the causes of homegrown terrorism, a phenomenon characterized by the fact that terrorists are born and/or grown up in the country which they plot to attack.[i] While for some analysts radicalization does not exist as a phenomenon, others believe that it cannot offer useful explanation for terrorism. Nevertheless, radicalization has been at the heart of policy agendas in many countries for the last decade. The skepticism of many academics arises from the fact that radicalization seems to be more a political than a scientific term.[ii] Thus, we argue that it is not a satisfactory explanation of terrorism, as it offers an over-simplified description and it tends to focus only in Muslims, ergo being quite a racist explanation.

First of all, it is necessary to identify when and why the phenomenon of radicalization began to preoccupy the academia and most importantly, the policy-makers. Following the attacks of Amsterdam in 2004[iii] and London in 2005[iv], the issue of homegrown terrorism came to prominence, firstly in Netherlands and subsequently in all the Western countries, with the authorities trying to devise counter-radicalization policies to prevent further attacks.[v] After 9/11 the focus was primarily on international terrorism and more specifically on Al Qaeda, but after 2005 there was a clear shift from the study of Al Qaeda to ‘home-grown terrorism’ and Europe’s ‘Salafi jihadist network’.[vi] The term ‘radicalization’ was not new though; it had been used informally before 9/11, but with a more general meaning. After 2004, it acquired a narrower meaning of “a psychological or theological process by which Muslims move towards extremist views.”[vii]

We shall emphasize that there is not an agreed definition on what radicalization is and this is one of the major causes of the controversies around the phenomenon.[viii] Countries have adopted different definitions of radicalization. Let us take for example the definitions used by the United States of America, Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Denmark. These five countries were selected for two reasons: Firstly, they are among the countries that have adopted a definition of radicalization, while others have not. Secondly, they define radicalization in a different way, thus they are suitable for comparison and further analysis.

According to a 2013 report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service, which was limited to the jihadist terrorism, radicalization is defined as “the process of acquiring and holding radical, extremist or jihadist beliefs. This activity is not necessarily illegal.”[ix] The Royal Canadian Mounted Police defines radicalization as “the process by which individuals- usually young people- are introduced to an overtly ideological message and belief system that encourages movement from moderate, mainstream beliefs towards extreme views.”[x] The British government defines it as “the process by which people come to support terrorism and violent extremism and, in some cases, then to participate in terrorist groups.”[xi] The Dutch AIVD (General Intelligence and Security Service) defines radicalization as “the (active) pursuit of and/or support to far-reaching changes in society which may constitute a danger to (the continued existence of) the democratic legal order (aim), which may involve the use of undemocratic methods (means) that may harm the functioning of the democratic legal order (effect).”[xii] Finally, the Danish Intelligence Service (PET) defines it as “a process by which a person to an increasing extent accepts the use of undemocratic or violent means, including terrorism, in an attempt to reach a specific political/ ideological objective.”[xiii]

The definitions presented above describe radicalization in a different way. This differentiation arises from the fact that some of the definitions connect radicalization with extreme beliefs, while others connect it with both beliefs and actions. On the one hand, the Canadian and American definitions reflect radicalization as a cognitive phenomenon[xiv], but on the other hand the British, Danish and Dutch definitions connect it not only with ideas, but also with means and actions. This is part of the controversy around radicalization, given that a person with ‘extreme’ beliefs but without putting them in practice could be considered as radicalized. It is also interesting that the US definition says that “this activity is not necessarily illegal”.

Furthermore, another area of debate stems from the word ‘radicalization’ itself. What is considered as radical and compared to what? As many analysts have pointed out, the meaning of the word ‘radical’ depends on what is considered as ‘mainstream’ in a particular society for a given period of time.[xv] This means that radicalization is actually a context-dependent term. Political, religious, historical and cultural factors may influence the characterization of an idea as radical or mainstream. For example, the principle of free speech is still considered as radical in North Korea, even if it is a mainstream belief in most countries.[xvi]

As the definitions differ and it is not clear what we consider radical, the two previous arguments create the most crucial question: Who can be considered radicalized? The answer is uncertain. A qualitative research conducted by the Research, Information and Counter- Terrorism Unit (RICU) found that there are many British Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Somali who reject the terrorists’ means, but sympathize their causes.[xvii] Can we consider those people as radicalized? The definitions may agree that not all radicals are terrorists, but they definitely disagree on the relationship between radicalization and violence.[xviii] It is not clear if a person has to adopt a violent behavior, apart from radical ideas, in order to be ‘labeled’ as radicalized.

As we have already mentioned, the main criticism of radicalization is that it is a political term and therefore it is used for political purposes. In its infancy “the radicalization discourse was circumscribed by the demands of counter- terrorist policy-makers rather than an attempt to objectively study how terrorism comes into being.”[xix] The aim was that radicalization could be a useful tool in identifying and explaining all these factors that lead a person to become a terrorist, so that policy-makers can reduce or even eliminate the risk of terrorism. This by itself is not a bad thought, but we it doubtlessly limits the study of terrorism, by just serving the policy-makers’ needs.

In addition, radicalization focuses mainly on how Muslims tend to support extremist ideologies and/or become terrorists. Psychological and theological factors are emphasized, as they offer a more comfortable ground.[xx] Moreover, radicalization seems to be in general depoliticized and as we claimed above, more associated with religious factors. Even if in some cases politics are acknowledged to be associated with radicalization, using phrases like ‘grievances against real or perceived injustices’, this is only due to the vast empirical evidence.[xxi] Consequently, it can be inferred that external political and social circumstances do not play a significant role in contemporary attempts to determine radicalization, hence creating even more questions about the explanatory usefulness of the phenomenon. However, it is unlikely that political and social factors have no influence on the process of radicalization and joining of terrorist groups.

Western media also play a significant role, along with the policy- makers, in attempting to identify the factors leading to terrorism. Media seem to “rely increasingly on a conventional wisdom of radicalization” which offers an easy way to deliver simple answers that all audiences can understand and hence, facilitate several policy responses.[xxii] Media also seem to give great emphasis on the different values and cultural properties of the western states and the Muslim societies. They frequently describe Muslims as people who cannot understand the liberal lifestyle of countries like the United Kingdom and this raises concerns over ‘community cohesion’.[xxiii] Further, the ‘Muslim culture’ (even the wearing of the hijab or arranged marriage) is presented as a threat to traditional British and in general western values.[xxiv]

The emphasis that is given at the different values and cultural properties between the western countries and the Muslim societies has significant implications. It is generally said that Muslims who have been born and raised in western countries, like the United Kingdom, cannot be easily assimilated into society and share the same values with the other members. This is why one of the measures that governments take is the assimilation of Muslims. For example, in 2008 the British Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills published a report entitled “Promoting good campus relations, fostering shared values and preventing violent extremism in universities and higher education colleges” which gave practical guidance on how to infuse the British values on all young people, in order to prevent extremism.[xxv] Nevertheless, studies have proven that “the threat is as likely to come from those who appear well assimilated into mainstream UK society, with jobs and young families, as from those within socially or economically deprived sections of the community.”[xxvi]

To sum up, radicalization is a controversial term, which tries to explain a complex problem, terrorism, in a very simplistic way, lacking clarity. There is no doubt that it tends to serve political purposes, without really filling a gap in terrorism studies. For all these reasons, the use of this term does not really help “to establish why people become terrorists or what the trajectory into terrorism might be.”[xxvii] Nevertheless, we cannot deny that the rationale behind radicalization is not wrong, ie the need to explain terrorism and try to prevent it. Nobody can deny that a person does not become terrorist overnight; the idea that there is a process behind this is right, but if we want to establish an effective counter- terrorism policy, we need a strong and clear explanation of the phenomenon. This is why it is necessary to distinguish between causes of terrorism and ‘background contributing factors’; the contributing factors that lead to radicalization are not causes for terrorism.[xxviii]


[i] King, Michael and Donald M. Taylor: “The Radicalization of Homegrown

Jihadists: A Review of Theoretical Models and Social Psychological Evidence”, Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 23, Issue 4, (2011), p. 603

[ii] Ragazzi, Francesco: “Towards “Policed Multiculturalism”? Counter- radicalization in France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom”, Centre d’ Études et de Recherches Internationales- Université Sciences Po, 206, (2014), p. 6

[iii] On 2 November 2004, the film director Theo van Gogh was murdered by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim terrorist. For more information see: Simons, Marlise: “Dutch Filmmaker, an Islam Critic, Is Killed”, The New York Times, Nov.3, 2004, Accessed 20th March 2016.

[iv] On 7 July 2005, four suicide bombers attacked London, killing 52 people and injuring hundreds more. For more information see: Rodgers, Lucy, Salim Qurashi and Steven Connor: “7 July London bombings: What happened that day?”, BBC, (3July 2015), Accessed 20th March 2016.

[v] Kundnani, Arun: ‘Radicalisation: The Journey of a Concept’, in Counter Radicalisation: Critical Perspectives, eds by Chris Baker-Beall, Charlotte Heath-Kelly and Lee Jarvis, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014), p. 16

[vi] Githens- Mazer, Jonathan and Robert Lambert: “Why Conventional Wisdom on Radicalization Fails: the Persistence of a Failed Discourse”, International Affairs, Vol. 86, Issue 4, (2010), p.889

[vii] Kundnani, “Radicalisation: The Journey of a Concept”, p.17

[viii] Neumann, Peter: “The Trouble with Radicalization”, International Affairs, Vol. 89, Issue 4, (2013), p. 874

[ix] Bjelopera, Jerome: American jihadist terrorism: combating a complex threat,(Washington DC: Congressional Research Service, 2011), p.2

[x] Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Radicalization: A guide for the perplexed (Ottawa: June 2009), p. 1.

[xi] HM Government, The United Kingdom’s strategy for countering international terrorism (London: Home Office, June 2009), p. 41

[xii] General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD report), From dawa to jihad: The various threats from radical Islam to the democratic legal order, (The Hague, 2004), p.13

[xiii] PET, “Radikalisering og terror,” Center for Terroranalyse (Denmark), October 2009, Accessed 15th March 2015.

[xiv] Neumann, ”The Trouble with Radicalization”, p. 875

[xv] Ibid, p.876

[xvi] Ibid, p.876

[xvii] Richards, : “The Problem with Radicalization: the remit of ‘Prevent’ and the need to refocus on terrorism in the UK”, International Affairs, Vol. 86, Issue 1, (2010), p. 144

[xviii] Sedgwick, “The Concept of Radicalization”, p.484

[xix] Kundnani, “Radicalisation: The Journey of a Concept”, p. 15

[xx] Ibid, p.16

[xxi] Ibid, p.16

[xxii] Githens-Mazer and Lambert, “Why Conventional Wisdom”, p.889

[xxiii] Ibid, p.890- 891

[xxiv] Ibid, p.891

[xxv] Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills: “Promoting good campus relations, fostering shared values and preventing violent extremism in universities and higher education colleges”, January 2008

[xxvi] Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), Report into the London terrorist attacks on 7 July 2005, (London: 2006), p.29

[xxvii] Richards, “The problem with Radicalization”, p. 145

[xxviii] Magnus, Ranstorp: Understanding Violent Radicalization: Terrorist and Jihadist Movements in Europe, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010), p. 29