Everything You've Been Told About Radicalization Is Wrong

Despite the rhetoric, scary YouTube videos don't turn people into terrorists

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev
FBI via Getty Images
Accused Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev
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If media accounts are to be believed, the accused Boston marathon bombers were "radicalized" by watching American-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki's YouTube sermons and reading Inspire, the al Qaeda magazine. To whatever extent it is true of the Tsarnaev brothers, this narrative follows a familiar path: one in which seemingly ordinary people are exposed to radical ideas, then adopt those ideas as their own, and then become violent. That theory was set out in a 2007 NYPD report called Radicalization in the West, which focuses exclusively on Muslims, and describes a four-stage progression – a "funnel," the report says – in which each step towards violence is intrinsically linked with increased religiosity. Though the intelligence community at the federal level has distanced itself from the NYPD's theory, it continues to dominate thinking in law enforcement. There's only one problem, according to critics: It's reductive and simplistic at best, and at worst is a thin justification for racial profiling of Muslims.

"Nobody watches YouTube or reads Inspire and becomes a terrorist. It's absurd to think so," says John Horgan, director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Pennsylvania State University. "YouTube videos and reading Al Qaeda magazines tends to be far more relevant for sustaining commitment than inspiring it."

The mistaken belief that the earliest stages of terrorism can be seen at "radicalization incubators" – Muslim bookstores, hookah bars, mosques, virtually anywhere Muslims congregate in person or online – has resulted in a focus on so-called "preventive policing," a policy whose stated aim is to prevent a terrorist attack before one happens. Since the theory says adopting radical ideas is the first step toward someone becoming violent, officials say they're justified in surveilling places where "radical" ideas might take hold.

According to Horgan, though, that's just not how it works. "The idea that radicalization causes terrorism is perhaps the greatest myth alive today in terrorism research," he says. "[First], the overwhelming majority of people who hold radical beliefs do not engage in violence. And second, there is increasing evidence that people who engage in terrorism don't necessarily hold radical beliefs."

Jamie Bartlett, head of the Violence and Extremism program at the think tank Demos, echoes these doubts. "The word 'radicalization' suggests a fairly simple linear path toward an ultimate violent conclusion," he says. Studies suggest that although there may be stages in the evolution of a terrorist, placing them sequentially on a line, as the NYPD's report literally does, is far too pat. The stages are fluid, not a simple trajectory, and it is virtually impossible to predict who will or won't engage in violence based solely on their beliefs.

"I have found that many young home-grown al-Qaeda terrorists are not attracted by religion or ideology alone – often their knowledge of Islamist theology is wafer-thin and superficial – but also the glamour and excitement that al-Qaeda type groups purports to offer," Bartlett notes.

When it comes to why someone chooses to engage in terrorism, Horgan says, "there are the bigger social, political and religious reasons people give for becoming involved" – for instance, anger over government policies or a foreign occupation. But that leaves out a key part of the story. "Hidden behind these bigger reasons, there are also hosts of littler reasons – personal fantasy, seeking adventure, camaraderie, purpose, identity," adds Horgan. "These lures can be very powerful, especially when you don't necessarily have a lot else going on in your life, but terrorists rarely talk about them."

Despite all this, law enforcement organizations have used the flawed logic of "radicalization" to justify investigating innocent Muslims in almost every part of their daily lives. Under "preventive policing," critics say cops and FBI agents aren't focusing on actual crime, but on protected first amendment activities – like the NYPD's surveillance of student and political groups, or reports "that the FBI has infiltrated mosques simply to learn about what was being said by the imam leading prayers and by those attending"  – without a clear reason to suspect criminality.

After the FBI abuses of the 1970s were discovered, former undercover FBI agent and ACLU senior policy counsel Mike German says reforms were put in place so agents needed "a factual basis for suspecting criminal activity" to conduct an investigation. When German was an undercover FBI agent in the 1990s, he says, "The attorney general's guidelines required me to have a reasonable indication of criminal activity before I could investigate someone." This restrained approach had the added benefit of minimizing unhelpful data. "Rather than limit my investigations, these restrictions helped me focus them properly on the few individuals who were intending to engage in criminal activity while at the same time protecting the rights of people to hold beliefs I found abhorrent."

For law enforcement to equate increased religiosity or radicalism with violence isn't only a bad investigative strategy and arguably unconstitutional – it fundamentally damages the character of society. "To be a radical means to reject the status quo, which in some cases propels society forward," says Bartlett. "Equating radicalism with terrorism can produce a dampening effect on free expression – either by government or by self-censorship."

There are no easy answers for why someone engages in violence against civilians, and the temptation to find them should be resisted. "I think it's time to end our preoccupation with radicalization," Horgan says. "Radicalization is not the issue. Terrorism is."

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