Radicalization in Terror Recruiting: It's Not That Simple

This undated photo features a man named as Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged leader of the Paris attacks.  Handout/Reuters/Corbis
This undated photo features a man named as Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged leader of the Paris attacks. Handout/Reuters/Corbis

On the night of Nov. 13, the terrorists of the Islamic State group committed yet another stunning atrocity, slaughtering scores of civilians in and around downtown Paris in multiple, coordinated attacks. By morning, media outlets around the world were reporting casualty counts and attack timelines. By midday, they were speculating on the how's and why's of the horror. And in the coming days, as French authorities released attackers' identities, the news turned to the making of nine terrorists.

"One of the terrorists," reports CNN, "... was identified as having been radicalized in 2010."



The alleged mastermind of the attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, "became radicalized during a stint in jail for petty crime," says CBS News.

Omar Ismail Mostefai was reportedly radicalized by an imam in Belgium.

A brother of two of the attackers expressed shock at their involvement: "I did not know that they had been radicalized," he said in a statement.

This focus on radicalization is reasonable. Common sense suggests that people who join radical groups hold radical viewpoints. Radicalization is the process by which people come to embrace increasingly extreme viewpoints, so it would seem a critical step in the journey toward joining a radical organization.

It follows that violent religious radicalization, in which the increasingly radical viewpoints are religious in nature and support the use of violence against civilians to achieve some religious end, would be a critical step toward joining a group like ISIS.

This understanding of how people become terrorists, set forth in the glut of research that followed the 9/11 attacks on the United States, guides law-enforcement anti-terror strategies, community outreach and public policy. It provides the basis for "de-radicalization" programs aimed at rehabilitating former members of terror groups. And according to Dr. John Horgan, professor at the Global Studies Institute and Department of Psychology at Georgia State University, it's a myth.

"Most people who have radical views never engage in radical behavior," Horgan says via email. "And many of those who engage in radical behavior, including terrorism, don't necessarily have even remotely radical views."

From his interviews with more than a hundred former terrorists, as well as his analysis of other interviews, autobiographies and accounts of those once involved in terror or militant activity, Horgan has come to see religious radicalization as a nonstandard path to terrorism involvement.

"There's no shortage of accounts from 'formers' who say that while they might have 'talked the talk,' they'll tell you that they didn't even understand it, let alone believe it," Horgan explains.

"The more formers I speak with," he says, "the more that story is emerging." 

"Reverse engineering violent extremism is fraught with problems, and the science of terrorist behavior is not yet able to reliably do that."
John Horgan, Global Studies Institute and Department of Psychology, Georgia State University

It's a point illustrated by British "jihadists" Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, who purchased "Islam for Dummies" and "The Koran for Dummies" before heading to Syria to join ISIS in 2014 (also supporting "the argument that the 1,400-year-old Islamic faith has little to do with the modern jihadist movement," points out Mehdi Hasan on New Republic).

According to terrorism experts in both academia and government intelligence, Sarwar and Ahmed aren't outliers. It seems many of those who carry out violence in the name of Islam know remarkably little about Islam.  

"There's no doubt that many are 'true believers,'" Horgan says, "but so many recruits are ideologically naive, and only acquire the lingo after the fact. In other words, they become 'radical' in their views after they've become involved in terrorism."

And yet "we've talked ourselves into the idea that to prevent terrorism, we have to first prevent radicalization. ... It's plausible and seems to make sense, but reality, as always, is more complicated than that," he says.

Research shows that the adoption of radical religious viewpoints are not reliable indicators of impending terrorist involvement. Terror-prevention strategies that focus on evidence of radicalization, like infiltrating mosques and Muslim bookstores to find out what's being discussed there, are likely putting significant resources into surveilling people who will never commit violent acts.

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Marchers in New York City condemn ISIS in the wake of the Paris attacks.
Pacific Press/Corbis

"What we should be focusing on is how ... people's behaviors change in the run up to becoming involved in terrorism, or leaving to become a foreign fighter," Horgan says.

Marked behavioral shifts like "withdrawal from routines, no longer hanging around with friends, personality changes, making implicit or explicit threats, erratic behaviors, etc." are somewhat more reliable signs of problematic radicalization than the adoption of radical viewpoints, according to Horgan's research.

None of these behaviors "can reliably signal radicalization," Horgan notes, but they "might suggest the potential for some problem taking hold."

Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty & National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, agrees that investigators can't rely on behavioral evidence. Patel told Salon's Justin Elliot in 2011 that outward signs of increased religiosity, like suddenly abstaining from alcohol use, as signals of a move toward violent extremism is simply not backed up by the body of terrorism research.

It's not that behaviors and viewpoints can't indicate terrorist leanings. They can. But the approach is based on hindsight, not science.

"Reverse engineering violent extremism is fraught with problems," Horgan states, "and the science of terrorist behavior is not yet able to reliably do that." 

It also dramatically oversimplifies the problem. Many current strategies treat radicalization as a "linear, 'conveyor belt' type of process — it's not," Horgan says.

The path to becoming a terrorist is far more varied and complex. Social, economic and political factors may contribute. Aimlessness, adventure-seeking, criminality or anger at world events may contribute. Horgan's research points to involvement of friends and family in a terror network as a common precipitating factor among recruits — what he calls the "just along for the ride" jihadists.

"I think radicalization has become a shorthand description of the ways in which people become terrorists," Horgan says, "and it's a deeply troubling one. It implies that having radical views is problematic behavior, which of course it is not."

It's constitutional behavior.

The view of radicalization as a common precursor to terrorism ultimately stems from the fact that actual terrorism is so incredibly difficult to predict, Horgan theorizes. If radicalization can predict terrorism, then it offers a far simpler approach to pre-empting the next attack. The dominance of this false connection has delayed uncovering more reliable, if more complicated, predictors of terrorist activity. 

"The most critical question in terrorism studies right now is the turn to violence — in other words, what distinguishes the mere radical from the potential terrorist," Horgan says. "Right now, we don't have good answers to that."