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).


2 thoughts on “risky business

  1. Steve Carter

    Apologies for commenting on ALL of your posts so far, but I’m really interested in the subject matter. You are correct in pointing out that there is no “holy grail” of causality when it comes to why some individuals radicalize and some do not. Nor is there likely a primary reason which can be identified. However, I would (humbly) question your dismissal of the belief that “alienation and exclusion (or disenfranchisement or lack of integration) are critical drivers leading to violent radicalization”. Maybe I’m misunderstanding what you mean by “critical driver” but I think it’s entirely possible that something can be a critical driver without making it the sole or even primary factor in radicalization. In the case of ISIS, there are so many countries/regions exporting foreign fighters that many particular factors must be considered. I think what you’re reacting against (and rightly so) is the attempt to create a large net to catch all the fish… it’s impossible. A model to do so, as you point out, will be destined to fail. Heaven help the ambitious analyst that attempts it! But I would say that there is still a place for factors (such as alienation, such as anti-modernism, such as second or third generation nostalgia for the religious and cultural ideals of their ancestral land/religion, etc.) to be considered within the broader scope of analysis on the subject. However, they should merely be secondary to your correct observation that we should primarily focus on “how”, especially for those of us in intelligence/law enforcement. Your post has made me reflect on my own biases and assumptions (and I thank you for it). For example, when the plot to shoot up Halifax Shopping Centre was foiled, I thought to myself “what is the difference between these individuals and radicalized individuals who want to conduct domestic or foreign terrorism?” My preliminary thoughts were “anger at modern society and values” and “social alienation” and “martyrdom for a perceived cause”. Although I still believe (humbly) that critical drivers exist and should be considered, we should take them off the pedestals that our very human need to understand (“why”) has put them on. Asking “how” and looking for the “reliable signs” injects much-needed objectivity and focus. Emphasis on the “why” will have us chasing our tails and therefore softens any counter-radicalization strategy. So your shameless promotion of your book has caught my attention. That’s very exciting news indeed and I look forward to adding it to my library. I hope some of this makes sense – it’s late and I am still very much a student of the subject. Thanks for letting me explore it further in these ramblings!!

  2. pkgursk Post author


    First, thanks for being fan#1! I’m not sure whether you get a prize, but I do appreciate the feedback.
    Your argument is a good one. I am learning that trying to keep a blog to approximately 450 words and yet still saying something intelligent is a challenge. Of course alienation and anger and all that exists. And they undoubtedly play some role in radicalization. But I fear that the conviction that they are both necessary and sufficient does not pass scrutiny. So, what do we do with them?
    I guess the point of the blog was that “it ain’t that simple”.
    Again, thanks for the feedback, even if you thought you were rambling!


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