risky business

One of the more futile pursuits in the field of terrorism studies is that of trying to determine why some people radicalize to violence and others don’t.  There have been many cases where some individuals in a given group (social, family, religious, etc.) go down the path to violence while others stay away.  We are still searching for this Holy Grail of determining factors.

Good luck with that as it is likely a fool’s errand.

I thought about this once again when I read an op-ed piece in the English-language version of the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet online.  The author notes that very few Turks living in diaspora communities in the West have gone to join ISIS and that this shows that the purported levels of this population’s alienation and exclusion must be lower than believed (see here for the article).

Did you see what the author did?  She equated high levels of alienation and exclusion with higher levels of travel to join terrorist groups.  And she is not the only one to do so. It is frequently claimed that alienation and exclusion (or disenfranchisement or lack of integration) are critical drivers leading to violent radicalization.

Oh if it were true.  Except it isn’t.

There are as many reasons for radicalization as there are people: each case must be judged on its own merits.  I can think of only one foolproof pre-existing condition – the potential radical must have a pulse (dead men don’t radicalize).  I am only being mildly facetious.

Even a cursory glance of the hundreds of cases in Canada over the past decade shows that there is no pattern and certainly no shortlist of contributing factors (age, occupation, education, family history, etc.).  In short, who is vulnerable to radicalization?  Anyone.  Yes, I mean anyone.  Given the right circumstances and the right person (radicalizer, recruiter, facilitator, mentor, spiritual guide…) at the right time, anyone can be led down the path.

So why do we keep asking why and how?  Is it just to satisfy curiosity?  Is it tied to a need to understand?  Is there any benefit to those seeking to identify people in order to take action (security/law enforcement, communities, health care workers, religious leaders…)?

I think these efforts are noble, if pointless.  It is highly unlikely that a model will be developed that produces reliable results (i.e. not too many false positives).  Security and law enforcement cannot afford to rely on imperfect models for two reasons: investigating false positives wastes resources and raises questions of improper state intrusion and mistakes arising from false negatives leading to successful attacks are not acceptable (no one wants to hear “But the model said….”).

So, paraphrasing US terrorism expert John Horgan, let’s stop asking “why” and focus on “how”.  I would go one further: let’s focus on reliable signs of radicalization to aid in early detection and prevention/disruption (shameless self promotion: a lot of this is covered in my book “The threat from within: recognizing Al Qaeda-inspired radicalization and violent extremism in Canada and the West”  which will be published by Rowman and Littlefield this fall).