Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


UCare generously supports MinnPost’s Second Opinion coverage; learn why.

Researchers offer some insight into how terrorists become radicalized — and who might best intervene

An Islamic State fighter gesturing from a vehicle in the countryside of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, on Oct. 7, 2014.

Last Wednesday, in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks — and, coincidentally, on the same day as the horrific attack in San Bernardino, California — the British science journal Nature ran an article on what researchers are learning as they attempt to figure out how young Europeans become radicalized and decide to become terrorists.

“A mixture of sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists and psychologists, such researchers are drawing on information generated by police, judicial inquiries, and the media, and in some cases, on interviews,” writes reporter Declan Butler. “They also study factors at play in prisons and socially-deprived areas.” 

The insights these researchers have uncovered pertain to the radicalization of young Europeans, but they may also be helpful in understanding why such radicalization occurs in the United States as well.

Here are some of those insights as summarized by Butler:

Religion is not the trigger. The rise of jihad in Europe has led to an assumption that there is a radicalization of Muslims more generally across the continent. Yet research suggests that most extremists are either people who returned suddenly to Islam or converts with no Islamic background. … [As] many as one in four French jihadists is a convert. … Violent extremism emerges first, with a religious justification tagged on after.

Resentment is the common ground. It is difficult to make generalizations about how people become radicalized in Europe. … [M]any extremists come from broken families or deprived areas, lack education and are unemployed. A smaller number are well educated, have held jobs and have middle-class lifestyles. Some are in stable relationships and have young children. The characteristics that extremists seem to share are resentment directed at society and a narcissistic need for recognition that leaves them open to a narrative of violent glory. … Social factors can contribute to such frustrations.

‘Entrepreneurs’ drive terrorism. Most of those who get involved in jihadi terrorism in Europe are “misfits and drifters” — people who joined militant networks during life crises or through friends and relatives on the inside. … [But] the key actors in terrorist activity are a much smaller number of “entrepreneurs”. These seasoned, ideologically driven activities are part of transnational terrorist webs linked both to extremist groups throughout Europe and to armed groups in conflict zones. They are the ones who bring structure and organization to the disaffected majority, through recruitment and indoctrination.

You can read Butler’s entire article on Nature’s website.

Friends as preventive ‘gatekeepers’

A U.S. study published last October in the journal Behavioural Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression offers some insights into another aspect of radicalization — the all-important role that friends may be able to play in preventing it.

For the study, Michael Williams, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Center for Terrorism and Security Studies, and his colleagues interviewed more than 150 law enforcement experts, Muslim community leaders, and members of the public of different ages and faiths in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. They asked each interviewee this question: “Who would be the first to notice, and able to intervene, with individuals considering acts of violent extremism? 

As psychologist and journalist Christian Jarrett explains in his summary of the study for the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog, “a recurring point made by the interviewees was that the people best placed to notice a person sliding to extremism are his or her friends.” 

Adds Jarrett (with British spelling):

A typical observation was this, from a Pakistani-American father, who said of the (in)ability of clergy and family members to spot the early signs of extremism:

“… the priest will not know [if youth are getting involved in illegal activities], because when he [the youth] goes to church, or the mosque, or the temple, he’s the finest guy. He’s on best behaviours,” and “the family is the last one to know.”

Worryingly, the interviewees also noted that there is a disconnect between these “gatekeepers” (the friends of at-risk people) and the safety networks in the community. Indeed, many of the members of the public interviewed said they would be reluctant to reach out, not just to the police, but to any of the community safety networks about their concerns. The most popular reasons given were related to fear about getting a friend or family member in trouble; concerns about getting into trouble themselves; fear that the friend would get mad at them; and concerns about being identified. Interviewees rarely said that they didn’t think it would help (to report their concerns), or that they thought they could handle the situation themselves, or that they didn’t have time.

The study also found, says Jarrett, “that the more a person feared harming their relationship with the (hypothetical) at-risk friend in question, the more they voiced reluctance about the idea of raising the alarm.”

Although Williams and his colleagues stress that their findings must be considered preliminary, the results do suggest, they add, that empowering and supporting “gatekeepers” (the friends of the people at risk of becoming radicalized) could help.

“Help-seeking is a learned behavior,” the researchers write. “Therefore, it seems that the greatest barrier to vicarious help-seeking in [countering violent extremism] contexts is not whether associate-gatekeepers can be trained to help their associates get the help they need. Instead, it suggests that among the next steps — the next challenges — are to develop the curricula and protocols for how associate-gate- keepers should respond.” 

You can download and read the study in full at the Behavioural Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression’s website. You’ll find Jarrett’s summary of the study at the Research Digest website.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 12/09/2015 - 10:42 am.


    Much of this causation seems to have been previously placed on other anti-social groups without religious platforms. I do not recall, for example, Weather Underground invoking Allah, God, Jesus or Mohamed.

    Sometimes, the IRA did, because that cause was ultimately directed at “the Prods,” as well as at London’s politics. A better reference for this piece might be the Brixton Riot of 1981 (and 1995). The social/economic argument is better pressed there.

    It’s pretty difficult to honestly think of Jihad as social/economic uprising when its actors continue to invoke the extremities of Islam. Should we now also revisit the Branch Davidian Memorial? I don’t think so.

    The one true constant here seems to be that of “enclave,” truly historic in European society.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/09/2015 - 11:27 am.

    Getting kind of tired of this frankly

    Terrorism or radicalism isn’t an “infection” that some people are catching and it’s ridiculous to keep investigating it as if it is. The people who become radicalized are the common thread, and most obvious characteristic is a greater than usual degree of sociopathic tendencies. I don’t know why we dance around this fact and try to treat terrorists like some kind of victims of radicalism? Marginalism does not breed terrorism, we have hundreds of years of experience with marginalized groups that never produced terrorists.

    Conflicts arise for a variety of reasons but this kind of terrorism is NOT historically a typical response to inequality, poverty, oppression, or political marginalization.

    I don’t think comparisons to IRA or the Weather Undergound work out because neither group primarily and deliberately targeted “innocent” people. Government buildings were the primary target of WU and the IRA tended to target other militants and British officials, but I’ll concede that a certain amount of sociopathy had a role with the IRA.

  3. Submitted by Rick Prescott on 12/09/2015 - 12:19 pm.

    Actually, “infection” sums it up pretty well.

    I know that it’s tempting to dismiss science that doesn’t square with gut instinct, but there is increasing evidence that terrorism, like other societal maladies, spreads in a pattern which VERY MUCH looks like an infection. The notion is that every instance of terrorism (as an example of a social malady) makes it just a little easier for someone else to imagine committing such an act, and this increased imagination leads to an increased likelihood of taking the imagined action.

    In a recent article in the New Yorker (, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the work of Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter, using riots as an example. But it’s easy to see the wider application of the principles:

    “But Granovetter thought it was a mistake to focus on the decision-making processes of each rioter in isolation. In his view, a riot was not a collection of individuals, each of whom arrived independently at the decision to break windows. A riot was a social process, in which people did things in reaction to and in combination with those around them. Social processes are driven by our thresholds—which he defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them. In the elegant theoretical model Granovetter proposed, riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two. His qualms are overcome when he sees the instigator and the instigator’s accomplice. Next to him is someone with a threshold of three, who would never break windows and loot stores unless there were three people right in front of him who were already doing that—and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyone around him was grabbing cameras from the electronics store.”

    This is an elegant description of the process of radicalization. The spiritual leader of a terrorist group is the sociopath — with a threshold of zero. That person merely locates people with a threshold of one, those who are not necessarily sociopaths, but vulnerable to influence. From there, the idea creeps through people with progressively higher thresholds until someone who would not otherwise ever consider strapping on a suicide vest is ready to do so.

    The ideas spread gradually and predictably, just like a disease.

    The best thing we could do now, as a society interested in reigning in terrorism, is put aside the gut instincts which lead to hate and fear and vengeance and escalation and perpetuation. Real solutions will require real science, which often contains counter-intuitive ideas and courses of action.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/09/2015 - 02:40 pm.

      Psychology is a science

      Yeah, I was there when Lori Anderson announced that “love” is a virus… but that wasn’t (and isn’t) science. “As-if” disease models are metaphors, not scientific theories. Models based on social hysteria (i.e. riots etc.) don’t apply to the terrorist we’re seeing who spend weeks, months, and even years planning their attacks and then deliberately and calmly launch those attacks. Examining the individual psychology of a terrorist has nothing to do with gut reactions, it’s an obvious methodological avenue of research, one that disease models ignore.

      These disease (virus) models are cultural artifacts, they can have some limited applications but when you try to apply them to extreme behavior they collapse. Even in a totalitarian state like Nazi Germany the Nazi’s had to hide the reality of the concentration camps from their population because they knew they they couldn’t rely on ordinary people to act like SS troops, why? Because the difference Hitler and the average German was that Hitler was sociopath, not that Hitler picked up a Nazi virus somewhere… although he did get gassed once.

  4. Submitted by Steven James Beto on 12/09/2015 - 08:37 pm.

    The Power of Story

    Why not tell the story from their point of view? Shared stories are tools that lead to understanding, and the beginning of healing.

  5. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 12/15/2015 - 12:32 pm.

    Are radical Islamic youth any different from

    the immigrants of previous generations who joined gangs?

    If you look at past waves of immigrants dating back to the middle of the nineteenth century, you will see that there was always a subset of youth who formed criminal gangs. Most likely, they were estranged from their parents’ country and wanted to be “real Americans,” and yet they resented the way “real Americans” treated them. There were Irish gangs, German gangs, Italian gangs, Jewish gangs, Chinese gangs, and nowadays, Latino gangs. At the time I lived in Portland, there were Vietnamese gangs who terrorized business owners in what was then a predominantly Vietnamese neighborhood. Like their predecessors in other ethnic groups, they swaggered around, imagining that they were gaining “respect.”

    But youth from Islamic countries now have an additional way to stick it to their parents and to the established Americans. They can join ISIS or Al Shabab or any of the other foreign-based organized crime outfits (because that’s what they are, really, and they terrorize fellow Muslims for not adhering to their improvised and arbitrary interpretations of the Koran far more than they terrorize anyone else) and become REALLY notorious.

Leave a Reply