Must radicalisation precede terrorism?

There is an interesting debate going on with respect to the relationship between radicalisation and violent extremism.  The current model, and the one I believe is accurate for the most part, is that radicalisation precedes violent extremism.  In other words, an individual who engages with terrorist groups or carries out crimes that we can qualify as terrorist in nature must first adopt the ideology underpinning the use of violence for political, religious or ideological ends.  I think that this is the usual sequence of events.

Of course in many cases the process of radicalisation is enhanced after someone hooks up with likeminded individuals within an extremist group.  This should not be hard to see as the environment of group membership serves to strengthen and widen violent radical views.  When everyone in your circle shares the same outlook it stands to reason that your views are confirmed.  It is also important to note that in these circumstances there is little or no opportunity for counter-messaging.  Outside ideas are banned and there is no debate on whether the path chosen is the correct one.  In essence, there is no competition for alternative information.

But what if people can become part of extremist groups without having undergone any real radicalisation process beforehand?  This is what is being suggested in a recent article in Foreign Policy on some of the Belgian bombers.   The article actually dwells more on inconsistencies in their worldview, showing how supposedly Islamist extremists were into drugs, drinking and even homosexuality, three behaviours that groups like Islamic State always put forward as evidence of the evil and debauchery of the West.  The author, Simon Cottee, cites renowned terrorism scholar John Horgan who says that “there is evidence that not all those who engage in violent behavior necessarily need to possess radical beliefs. A lingering question in terrorism studies is whether violent beliefs precede violent action, and it seems to be the case that while they often do, it is not always the case.”

I think that Professor Horgan is right and that in some cases there is no obvious radicalisation process before acts of terrorism.  I would maintain, however, that these are rare exceptions and not the rule and that we are not on the cusp of a paradigm shift in our imperfect understanding of radicalisation.  I also think that there are two aspects that need to be put into context so that we don’t go off in an unhelpful direction.

First we have to remind ourselves that radicalisation to violence is always an individual process.  People start from a dizzying number of backgrounds and each finds his or her own path to ideological extremism.  Some undergo profound transformations in which they become all but unrecognisable to friends and family while others will keep some of their previous habits in their new lives.  Some will get to extremism in a straight line but others will meander or even take a step or two back.  I suspect that this is what is happening with some of the Belgian extremists.  The fact that they still use drugs or drink alcohol is not the tip of a new trend necessarily but perhaps just a case of individuals who cannot let go of old ways.

Secondly, we have to acknowledge that there are people who love violence and seek to engage in it wherever they can.  If the best outlet for your violent urges happens to be a local extremist cell, so be it.  You don’t have to undergo a prior radicalisation process to fill your need to kill.  In instances like these, I would argue that we are seeing groups like IS take advantage of people they find useful regardless of their ideological bent. These individuals are not violent extremists: they are merely criminals.   IS can benefit from the same result – i.e. death, fear and destruction – carried out by individuals doing its bidding but who don’t really care about the group’s ultimate goals.  It amounts to a cheap victory for the extremists.  Should more simple crooks crop up with terrorist groups we will need to modify our approach.  We’ll have to wait and see.

I have always been wary of bold new claims in terrorism research.  Our collective knowledge on this scourge is still very inadequate and needs much more work.  I look forward to more scholarly input as well as contributions by former practitioners in the future.  But I am not ready to throw out our current views on the relationship between radicalisation and terrorism.  That case has not been made in my opinion.



By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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