- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Understanding the Path to Radicalization

| Spring 2010

A spate of recent terrorist plots-each originating from within the United States-has changed U.S. focus on how to respond to terrorism. In addition to attempting to dismantle a terrorist network i cript> n a distant country, the U.S. must also determine how to de-radicalize domestic threats. But before the U.S. can address de-radicalization, the following question must be answered: Why do individuals and communities radicalize? Several Belfer Center fellows and associates address this question in their research.

"What [former CIA case officer Marc Sageman] discovers is that terrorists are most likely to be motivated not by disadvantage but by a sense of moral disgust. . . . It is sparked when the individual reacts to stories of Muslim suffering around the world with moral outrage. Some of those who feel outraged will progress to the second stage, in which they interpret that suffering in the context of a wider Manichaean war between Islam and the West. Of those who take that view, a minority will progress to the third stage, in which their smoldering resentment will be fueled by bad personal experiences in western countries. . . . Of those who undergo these three stages, fewer undergo the fourth, in which the individual joins a circle of friends which becomes like a family closed to the outside world. . . . They read, listen to and watch only material which stokes their view of the world and prepares them for action and, in some cases, the murder of innocents."

-Azeem Ibrahim (International Security Program fellow), "Tackling the Real Causes of Islamic Extremism," The Scotsman, January 6, 2010


"The path to jihadism is the result of many factors, including political outrage against what the jihadis perceive to be the injustices of their own governments or the actions of distant governments against fellow Muslims, subjection to torture, peer pressure, economic deprivation, or even religious alienation. For jihadis, these invariably translate into a desire to affect political change by appealing to Islamic principles of social justice. They thus reject the nation-state and its secular processes, believing them to be a continuation of imperialism. They even reject the authority of the religious establishment, perceiving it to be an extension of the state apparatus. Instead, the jihadis rely on their own interpretation of Islamic teachings as a vehicle of self-empowerment and advocate that jihad is the individual duty of every believer. They believe that they are fighting a defensive war against their own regimes and the Western governments that support them."

-Nelly Lahoud (ISP/Initiative on Religion in International Affairs associate)


"Despite living in very similar circumstances, some individuals become radicalized, while the vast majority of people living around them do not. As such, it is critical to focus on what factors lead to sympathy with the actions of radical groups which represents the first stage of radicalization. My research with Mark Tessler indicates that in the Arab world there are two strong predictors of passive support for terrorism, defined as individuals who approve of terrorist actions against the U.S.: having a negative judgment about their own government and a negative judgment about U.S. foreign policy. While the vast majority of these sympathizers will never carry out a terrorist act, they comprise the pool of potential recruits for terrorist organizations and are the portion of the population that is more likely to offer indirect support to local terrorist groups."

-Michael Robbins (Dubai Initiative fellow)


"If we look at the people involved . . . in some of the plots you mentioned, their profiles are so diverse. . . . Researchers and governments are really struggling to find the common profile. Some of them come from very well-todo families. Some come from very disenfranchised backgrounds. We have first and second-generation immigrants. We have people with Ph.D.'s. I think we are coming to the conclusion that it's impossible to profile at this point in time. . . . [T]he common denominator for a lot of people is buying into this victimization and humiliation narrative. For very different reasons, very different people buy into this sort of narrative."

-LorenzoVidino (ISP/RIIA fellow), "Globally, Nations Grapple With Deradicalization," NPR's "Tell Me More," January 21, 2010

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Maclin, Beth. Understanding the Path to Radicalization.” Belfer Center Newsletter (Spring 2010).

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