Posts Tagged 'radicalization'

What causes extremist violence?

This question has been the subject of active research for more than four decades. There have been many answers that don’t stand up to empirical scrutiny — because the number of those who participate in extremist violence is so small, and because researchers tend to interview them, but fail to interview all those identical to them who didn’t commit violence.

Here’s a list of the properties that we now know don’t lead to extremist violence:

  • ideology or religion
  • deprivation or unhappiness
  • political/social alienation
  • discrimination
  • moral outrage
  • activism or illegal non-violent political action
  • attitudes/belief

How do we know this? Mostly because, if you take a population that exhibits any of these properties (typically many hundreds of thousand) you find that one or two have committed violence, but the others haven’t. So properties such as these have absolutely no predictive power.

On the other hand, there are a few properties that do lead to extremist violence:

  • being the child of immigrants
  • having access to a local charismatic figure
  • travelling to a location where one’s internal narrative is reinforced
  • participation in a small group echo chamber with those who have similar patterns of thought
  • having a disconnected-disordered or hypercaring-compelled personality

These don’t form a diagnostic set, because there are still many people who have one or more of them, and do not commit violence. But they are a set of danger signals, and the more of them an individual has, the more attention should be paid to them (on the evidence of the past 15 years).

You can find a full discussion of these issues, and the evidence behind them, in ““Terrorists, Radicals, and Activists: Distinguishing Between Countering Violent Extremism and Preventing Extremist Violence, and Why It Matters” in Violent Extremism and Terrorism, Queen’s University Press, 2019.


Islamist violent extremism and anarchist violent extremism

Roughly speaking, three explanations for islamist violent extremism have been put forward:

  1. It’s motivated by a religious ideology (perhaps a perversion of true Islam, but sincerely held by its adherents);
  2. It’s motivated by political or insurgent ends, and so the violence is instrumental;
  3. It’s the result of psychological disturbance in its adherents.

In the months after the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, Marc Sageman argued vigorously for the first explanation, pointing out that those involved in al Qaeda at the time were well-educated and at least middle class, were religious, and showed no signs of psychological disturbances. There was considerable push back to his arguments, mostly promoting Explanation 3 but, in the end, most Western governments came around to his view.

In the decade since, most Western countries have slipped into Explanation 2. I have argued that this is largely because these countries are post-Christian, and so most of those in the political establishment have post-modern ideas about religion as a facade for power. They project this world view onto the Middle Eastern world, and so cannot see that Explanation 1 is even possible — to be religious is to be naive at best and stupid at worst. This leads to perennial underestimation of islamist violent extremist goals and willingness to work towards them.

It’s widely agreed that the motivation for Daesh is a combination of Explanations 1 and 2, strategically Explanation 1, but tactically Explanation 2.

The new feature, however, is that Daesh’s high-volume propaganda is reaching many psychologically troubled individuals in Western countries who find its message to be an organising principle and a pseudo-community.

“Lone wolf” attacks can therefore be divided into two categories: those motivated by Explanation 1, and those motivated by Explanation 3, and the latter are on the rise. Marc Sageman has written about the extent to which foiled “plots” in the U.S. come very close to entrapment of vulnerable individuals who imagine that they would like to be terrorists, and take some tiny initial step, only to find an FBI agent alongside them, urging them to take it further. (M. Sageman, The Stagnation in Terrorism Research, Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 26, No. 4, 2014, 565-580)

Understanding these explanations is critical to efforts at de-radicalization. Despite extensive efforts, I have seen very little evidence that de-radicalization actually works. But it make a difference what you think you’re de-radicalizing from. Addressing Explanation 1 seems to be the most common strategy (“your view of Islam is wrong, see the views of respected mainstream Imams, jihad means personal struggle”).

Addressing Explanation 2 isn’t usually framed as de-radicalization but, if the violence is instrumental, then instrumental arguments would help (“it will never work, the consequences are too severe to be worth it”).

Addressing Explanation 3 is something we know how to do, but this explanation isn’t the popular one at present, and there are many pragmatic issues about getting psychological help to people who don’t acknowledge that they need it.

Reading the analysis of anarchist violence in the period from about 1880 to around 1920 has eerie similarities to the analysis of islamist violence in the past 15 years, both in the popular press, and in the more serious literature. It’s clear that there were some (but only a very few) who were in love with anarchist ideology (Explanation 1); many more who saw it as a way (the only way) to change society for the better (Explanation 2) — one of the popular explanations for the fading away of anarchist attacks is that other organisations supporting change developed; but there were also large numbers of troubled individuals who attached themselves to anarchist violence for psychological reasons. It’s largely forgotten how common anarchist attacks became during these few decades. Many were extremely successful — assassinations of a French president, an American president, an Austrian Empress, an Italian king — and, of course, the Great War was inadvertently triggered by an assassination of an Archduke.

Western societies had little more success stemming anarchist violence than we are having with islamist violence. The Great War probably had as much effect as anything, wiping out the demographic most associated with the problem. We will have to come up with a better solution.

(There’s a nice recap of anarchist violence and its connections to islamist violence here.)

Radicalization — it’s just a phase he’s going through

All of the discussion of radicalization in the past few weeks seems to assume that it’s a one-way process.

But if it’s a process with a large personality component (and evidence suggests it is); and if it’s a phenomenon associated with adolescence and young adulthood (which are times of attitudinal change anyway); and if the data fits models of infection by disease (and they do), then it seems plausible that, for many people, radicalization is a phase they go through. Such people will not be obtrusive because they never act on their (temporary) beliefs, and eventually cease to hold them. If radicalization can be a temporary phenomenon, then there’s de-radicalization, but there’s also post-radicalization; the first extrinsic, but the second intrinsic.

What’s the practical relevance? If some people “get over” their radicalization, then it argues for more gentle responses during the infected period. Actions such as interviews by security services with radicalized individuals and their relatives (a practice of MI5, and soon to be possible in Canada via bill C-51), and pulling passports may indeed have negative consequences if they make infected individuals become more entrenched (and less likely to become cured).

Of course, there are risks to a more gentle intervention strategy (and government departments are allergic to risks). But, for countries with exit controls, perhaps it’s better to rely on these than to act more explicitly; and at least the discussions about strategy should keep the possibility of cure in mind.

Multiculturalism’s role in radicalization

The children of immigrants have, historically, had two choices:

  1. Assimilate into the culture, retaining vestiges of their original culture (typically foods, celebrations, and perhaps a bias towards marrying cultural cognates);
  2. Remain part of an enclave of their original culture.

Option 1 is by far the most common. Option 2 only works when the original culture is itself highly organized, and it carries high risks for the immigrants. This option has often been followed by the Jewish diaspora (with obvious downsides, including periodic expulsions from European countries, and worse), but there are other examples. Note the wisdom of the formal Amish mechanism of rumspringa, which provides a choice point for young people to commit to the culture, or not.

In historical immigrations, these choices are clearly differentiated and there is little midde ground.

The invention of the idea of multiculturalism created the opportunity to move to a new country, assimilate (apparently), and preserve the culture of origin (apparently). This sounds like a great idea (“best of both worlds”) apart from one simple fact: it doesn’t work.

The set of those who have been radicalized in Western countries and either carried out attacks there, or made their ways to the Middle East is almost entirely made up of the children of immigrants. Many of these individuals have been studied and interviewed, and there is one clear pattern: feeling like they didn’t belong in either their original culture (their parents often being glad to have escaped it at some level and so having moved away from it), nor in the “new” culture in which they have grown up. Not feeling like they fit into the culture in which they grow up is, of course, a common teenage pattern — but most teenagers don’t have such a ready-made explanation for why they feel as they do. Multiculturalism, because it creates the apparent space to avoid commitment to one culture or the other, must bear some of the responsibility for radicalization. (This may also be part of the explanation for why engineers are so over-represented in the ranks of the radicalized — a tolerance for ambiguity may help those growing up between two cultures to navigate the difficult years of adolescence and young adulthood. Most engineers I know are more comfortable with black and white settings than with ambiguity.)

Of course, this can only be part of the explanation. One of the pitfalls for those who seek an explanation for radicalization is that, for every individual who becomes radicalized, there are 99 others who experienced apparently identical life trajectories (sometimes even siblings) without becoming radicalized, often without seeming to feel even the faintest pull towards radical ideologies.Personality must, therefore, play a huge part, and this is often underappreciated.

Religious does not equal stupid

A range of people, from David Brooks to Peter Bergen, have responded to the rhetoric associated with the Countering Violent Extremism Summit held in Washington this week. They point out that the motivation for Daish (aka ISIL [nobody knows why the U.S. White House, alone in the world, insists on this acronym] or ISIS) cannot be understood in terms of the American middle class and its aspirations: jobs, relationships, family, economic prosperity. Islam did not come boiling out of the deserts of Arabia in the 7th century because of the lack of economic opportunity in the sphere of camel raising.

But behind these misunderstanding lies a deeper one. Many of the elites in government and industry in Western countries think that people who have religious beliefs are either: stupid for believing something so self-evidently wrong; or devious and cunning in pretending to have religious beliefs as a tool for exerting power (in the best traditions of post-modernism). Now of course they don’t necessarily think this explicitly, but the language being used in much of the discussion of radicalization and its causes makes it fairly obvious that they do think this implicitly. In other words, one or other of these two views informs the way they frame the problem of islamist radicalism to themselves.

Why do sane young men (and women) give up a lifestyle in the West that, while often not perfect, is much better than third-world conditions and the prospect of death in Syria? Holding either of these misconceptions distorts the view of the problem, and of the West’s opponents, to the point of delusion. If you think your opponents must somehow be intellectually stunted to believe what they do, you are never going to understand why other people find these beliefs attractive, and so will never be able to craft a strategy to defend against islamist propaganda that has any chance of working. If you think your opponents are hypocritical and opportunistic (not believing their own message) then you will equally never be able to craft a working defence. The temptation is to think (again implicitly) that radicalization must somehow be a kind of mental illness; perhaps we’ll begin to see “solutions” with that flavour rather than the current socio-economic flavour, coming into vogue soon.

I don’t have a solution. But the evidence so far (and I’ve done some empirical work in this area) is that socio-economic explanations for radicalization do not go very far; and that de-radicalization programs (or early-stage counter-radicalization strategies) that start with this assumption are even less useful. A more nuanced, and more realistic, view of our opponents and their motivations is desperately needed.

[Added later: The weekend news programs, which were filled with post mortems on the Countering Violent Extremism meeting, were great examples of the misconceptions I suggested in this post. Farid Zakaria actually made the claim that ISIS were faking their apparent beliefs to gain power. For a IMHO more realistic view, this article from the Atlantic: What ISIS Really Wants.]

Radicalization as an infection

There are many ways to think about radicalization, but there’s one that fits the data fairly well, and has actionable consequences, but is being almost entirely ignored — modelling radicalization as an infection.

The research work didn’t model radicalization directly (how could you?) but rather how postings on particular jihadist topics spread in web forums. The relevant paper is:

Jiyoung Woo; Hsinchun Chen, An event-driven SIR model for topic diffusion in web forums, Intelligence and Security Informatics (ISI), 2012 IEEE International Conference on , vol., no., pp.108,113, 11-14 June 2012.

They showed that the data fit well with a standard model called the SIR model (Susceptible-Infected-Recover) and they computed the parameters for the infection rate and the recovery rate. In other words, they showed that it made sense to consider some of the participants to be susceptible to infection by radical ideology, some fraction of these were then infected and espoused this ideology and then some fraction of these recovered and no longer held radical ideas. These fractions could be estimated empirically from the data.

But the important thing that’s being ignored in the current world situation is that there is a recovery rate! People do become radicalized, yes, but not all of them, and the vast majority of them move from being radicalized to no longer being radicalized.

We don’t notice many of these people. They move to a mental place where they would be willing to carry out some kind of jihadist action, but they don’t actually do it before the spell wears off and they are no longer radicalized. Only a few become radicalized and act on it.

Even people who go quite far down the road towards action, perhaps travelling to Syria and participating in violence, may still become disillusioned. Not everyone who returns to the West from the Middle East does so to try and carry out an attack. Many, perhaps most, have had a disease, have recovered from it, and want to get on with their lives.

The risk of a draconian response to returnees is that we may push them back into violence (“If I’m going to be treated as a violent extremist, I might as well act like one”).

Of course, this doesn’t make the job of the intelligence services any easier, at least in the short term. But emergencies tend to create blinkered views of the problem, and I think that this might be happening.

More thwarted attacks in Canada

Some things in life happen because of a lot of little decisions over time — if you don’t brush your teeth you’re going to get cavities; others happen very quickly — you might see a TV program about a hobby only once and it becomes something that you do through your whole life. Radicalisation is more like the latter than the former.

As a rule of thumb, in Western countries about 1 in 10,000 Muslims becomes a violent extremist. So that means that 9,999 people in the same families, suburbs, schools, work environments, with the same access to government services, and with the same neighbours don’t become radicalised. Right away, that’s a pretty strong signal that the causes of radicalisation are not macro causes, but much smaller ones, related to individual personalities and life journeys. The problem isn’t with any government’s international policies, or with it’s domestic policies, or with its social support system; it’s about the accidental events. Which means that there isn’t a lot to be done about it via the heavy hammers of government programs.

It also means that finding people who have become violent extremists is difficult. There is an advantage to a global brand like al Qaeda: it encourages wannabees to get in touch with it, providing an opportunity for intelligence and law enforcement to notice. Canada’s record at finding Islamist violent extremists before they carry out attacks has been good, much better than its record at finding those who’ve been blowing up hydro towers and banks precisely because these other violent extremists don’t need to communicate outside of whatever their small group is.

We’ll wait to see if Nuttall and Korody really did ‘self-radicalise’ without any contact with someone who was already radicalised, and whether the security services got onto them without a tipoff from someone who knew them — if either of these, that will be a first for Canada.

Radicalisation as infection

I’ve argued in previous posts that the process of radicalisation is one that depends largely on properties of the individual, rather than on grand social or moral drivers — personality rather than society — and that it depends on the presence of an actual person (already radicalised) who makes the potential ideas real.

There is an alternative. Woo, Son, and Chen (J. Woo, J. Son, and H. Chen. An SIR model for violent topic diffusion in social media. In Proceedings of 2011 IEEE International Conference on Intelligence and Security Informatics, ISI 2011, July 2011) show that radicalisation behaves a little bit like an infection (at least in the domain of ideas which they measure from forum postings). They show that the SIR (Susceptible-Infected-Recovered) model of disease transmission fits the data fairly well. In this model, members of a population begin in the susceptible state; they become infected with some probability A, and then recover with some probability B. After they’ve recovered they are no longer susceptible.

For the data they looked at, A was of the magnitude of 10^-4, so about 1 in 10,000 becomes infected. Once infected, B varied depending on the intensity of the topic from around 0.65 to 0.96. In other words, the probability of a ‘cure’ is well above a half, sometimes virtually certain.

This model suggests some interesting probabilities. First, it suggest that radicalisation is a state that can cure itself; in other words, we shouldn’t necessarily assume that once radicalised means always radicalised. Second, there may be a greater pool of people who pass through the stage of being radicalised but do not get it together to actually act on it before the fever breaks — perhaps because they don’t get the right training or the right opportunity at the time when they would exploit it if they could.

The numbers work out about right. There are around a million Muslims in the U.S. but the number who have (attempted to) carry out attacks is in the small number of dozens.

Language learning as a model of radicalisation

The Canadian Prime Minister said today, in response to the arrests for the planned Via Rail attacks, and perhaps to the Boston Marathon bombings as well, that these are not a reason to “commit sociology”. I think he’s exactly right. As I said in the previous post, I’m dubious that levels of dissatisfaction with societies, or even with religions, play a major role in radicalisation — it’s a much more individual-specific process. This is why only a tiny fraction of people in exactly the same social, religious, and even family setting become radicalised.

I’m also deeply skeptical that anyone becomes radicalised via the Internet. Our survey results indicated that variations in access to the Internet, or to mass media channels that have a frankly jihadist orientation have no correlation with attitudes on radicalisation-relevant subjects or dissatisfaction of any kind. I’m convinced that it always takes contact with a person, perhaps only one and perhaps only once, for radicalisation to happen.

Here’s where the analogy with language learning comes in. I learned French (in Australia) the same way I learned Latin (declensions, conjugations, agreement). I read French well and could speak it after a fashion. But the first time I heard French radio and then met people who actually spoke French, there was a kind of click in my brain and something changed about the way I used and learned French. I don’t think this is just autobiography; as I mentioned in the last post, learning languages via TV programs doesn’t work nearly as well as you might expect it to.

I’m fairly convinced something similar happens with radicalisation. An individual can watch the videos, talk the talk, fantasise the actions, but unless/until they make contact with someone who has actually done something, there isn’t any danger. Once this happens, of course, radicalisation can proceed very quickly indeed, which explains (I guess) the several cases where apparent changes have been very swift.


(Yes, it is spelled like that.)

The events of the past ten days have revived interest in the process of radicalisation. Why and how do people move from apparently normal to wanting to blow other people up, especially for a goal that most of them would be hard put to explain coherently?

There are plenty of grand theories of radicalisation. Often they are derived from and supported by the narratives of those who have become radicalised, been arrested, and then interviewed. The trouble with building theories this way is that they fail to explain all of the apparently identical people in the same situation who didn’t become radicalised. From a population of 10,000, maybe 1,000 will turn out to demonstrate in favour of some apparent injustice; of these, maybe 100 will find out more and acquire ideas supporting violent extremism, and of these 10 will even consider actually doing something. Even then, only a couple of these will get very far down the path to planning and carrying out an attack. So what makes the difference? Which ones never get beyond vague feelings of support? The grand theories have little to say about what doesn’t cause radicalisation.

By the way, many of you probably filled in an Islamist back story for the previous paragraph. But it’s important to remember that violent extremism is also used by animal rights supporters, anti-globalisation protesters, anarchists, right-wing ideologues, and others. So explanations of radicalisation have to work for these other groups too.

What is becoming clear is that the explanations for radicalisation have a small ball component, that is they derive from the personalities and immediate social settings of the people involved (family, rather then social group). Many teenagers and young adults feel out of place in society as they grow up. If you’re the child of an immigrant, especially one whose parents didn’t manage to settle cleanly in their new country, it’s easy to blame the “out of place” feeling on the society rather than on yourself. Even for those who aren’t children of immigrants, there’s a certain attraction to this extrinsic view. If there’s nothing wrong with you, there must be something wrong with the society around you. Narratives that play to this are naturally attractive, whether Islamist, or anarchist.

Overwhelmingly, also, those who radicalise are men; and, if they have post-secondary education, it tends to be in engineering and the hard sciences rather than in the humanities and social sciences. Both of these suggest a lack of nuance in thinking socially.

Although it might be conceivable for an individual to self-radicalise, this seem extremely difficult. It’s not obvious, but it’s really hard to learn a foreign language by watching TV, and something similar seems to be true of visiting jihadist web sites. Those who have become radicalised seem to need to be involved with a small group (2 is enough, but 5 is better) to amplify each others thoughts. And there seems to be a need for some kind of mentor figure, preferably an actual person, although here it’s just possible that an online figure can serve.

We have a paper coming out (eventually — the Dec 2012 issue still to appear) in the Canadian Journal of Political Science reporting on the results of a survey of attitudes in the Islamic community in Canada. These results make it fairly clear that dissatisfaction, broadly defined, has little to do with radicalisation. People don’t come to support violent extremism because they’re unhappy with government programs; nor, much, because they’re unhappy with the morality of society around them. Explanations have more to do with them as individuals than about society as a whole.

Google Ideas and Extremism

Google’s think/do tank (!!) is sponsoring a summit on extremism. See the post by Jared Cohen, its director, here.

The problem is that, like many such discussions, it’s based on the autobiographies of a number of people who became extremists — the idea is to look for commonalities in such biographies as hints about the process and/or drivers of extremism.

BUT it ignores the very large number of people from apparently identical backgrounds who didn’t join gangs, or the IRA, or jihadist groups! Such people are counterexamples to almost all explanations of what happens with radicalization, and yet they are often/usually ignored in the discussion.

So Google asks:

“Why does a 13-year old boy in a tough neighborhood in South Central LA join a gang? Why does a high school student in a quiet, Midwestern American town sign on neo-Nazis who preach white supremacy? Why does a young woman in the Middle East abandon her family and future and become a suicide bomber?”

But just as important are questions like: why did the 13-year old boy’s best friend and classmate NOT join a gang, etc.

This summit’s approach is called, in the research community, “sampling on the dependent variable”. Google should know better.

Review of Burton’s “Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent”

Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent, Random House, 2008.

This book describes Burton’s experiences working in counterterrorism within the U.S. State Department in pre-9/11 days (which is presumably why he is free to talk about it). His working career covered roughly from the Achille Lauro to the first World Trade Center bombing and aftermath. He tells a good story and there are lots of bits of interesting background that I don’t recall making it into the public gaze at the time.

The main thing that struck me is that the U.S. national security apparatus seems too thin at the top; that is, there is somehow an inability to focus on more than a few issues at a time. In the context of this book, it seems as if, given the Soviet threat, there wasn’t enough attention to go around to also focus on the threat from terrorism. As a result, terrorist groups and their state sponsors seemed to have been able to get away with more than they should have. In other words, it doesn’t sound like the problem dealing vigorously with terrorism during the 80s was resources, or even willpower, but simply attention. One gets the same feeling today when the U.S. government seems unable to pay enough attention to Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, al Qaeda; rather it seems to oscillate between them.

This may just be an illusion looking in from the outside. But I can’t help but think that there’s a bottleneck because of the limited attention of the President, National Security Advisor, and maybe Secretaries of Defence and State. Not enough delegation of enough power to get things done — understandable when blowback can escalate issues quickly, and perhaps still the aftermath of Iran-Contra.

The other striking thing is that terrorist movements of the time seemed to have substantial numbers of the psychiatrically troubled among their ranks. This is in sharp contrast to the argument made by Marc Sageman about al Qaeda (and perhaps more broadly). Sageman argues that, for this group at least, members were psychologically stable. The difference is important in the discussion about radicalization. If Islamist groups tend to recruit stable members then the threat will tend to be of one kind; if they tend to recruit less stable members, other kinds of threats may be more important. I haven’t seen more recent research examining this issue; nor have I seen it addressed explicitly in the radicalization literature.

Followup: I just finished “By His Own Rules”, the biography of Rumsfeld, and it supports my contention. It doesn’t sound like anything of importance happening in the DoD without Rumsfeld somehow being in the loop, even if it was only hearing about it. What a bottleneck, and what a waste of a leader’s time! It sounds as if Gates is a little better, but I don’t think the system allows real delegation of actual power.

I wasn’t impressed by the biography. Rumsfeld is obviously a puzzle: toweringly competent in some ways, but flawed in others. This book doesn’t begin to explain the contradictions, and spends far too much time documenting the Iraq invasion, rather than Rumsfeld.

“Whatever it is, I’m against it”

I’ve been reading Bobbitt’s new book “Terror and Consent” which has a lot to say about the adversarial setting, obviously with an emphasis on its role at a state level. I thoroughly recommend this book.

One of the points he makes suggests a new line of attack. He argues that, over the past five centuries, terrorism has taken the form of the state it opposes. Today, that means that this century’s terrorist groups, for which al Qaeda is a prototype, will tend to be globalized, multinational, and inclined to privatise and outsource.

But this means that, over a long period of time, there have always been those who oppose the existing state in an active, terror-based way, regardless of what that state was like, how honorable or moral it was, or what opportunites there were to change the situation from within. It is this group of people I mean to suggest in the title (which is a quotation from Groucho Marx).

Work has been done on understanding radicalization, but from the perspective of “understanding” — grievances, social issues or whatever. But Bobbitt’s framework suggests that there’s a more general form of, for want of a better word, radicalization whose drivers we don’t understand but are seemingly independent of the social context.

Of course, it’s not obvious that it would have been the same people acting as terrorists in all of these periods. But the fact that we don’t know shows that there’s something to be learned. If some people join terrorist groups for reasons that are deeply unconnected to the reasons why such groups exist, there is a whole new class of opportunities to detach or subvert them.