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Abandoning Radicalisation

A Conceptual Analysis Into the Usefulness and Necessity of the Concept of ‘Radicalisation’

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Radicalization and Terrorism Series


Ebba Sophie Verdú


October 2019


85 pages


It seems nearly impossible to discuss ‘terrorism’ today without the concept of ‘radicalisation’ making an appearance in the conversation. Given the enduring obsession with the term, it becomes easy to forget that that this concept has not always been a defining feature of the terrorism field. There is general agreement that it did not appear in academia, policy-making circles and the media until about 2004. The reason for its conception is largely understood as a response to the tense political climate following the September 11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, NY. After 9/11 it became very difficult to talk about and explore the reasons and motivations behind terrorism without being branded sympathisers or supporters of the perpetrators. With the development of ‘radicalisation,’ discussing the causes and motivations of terrorism became more palatable and acceptable. Furthermore, the 2004 Madrid train bombings and the 2005 London bombings brought about the realisation for policy-makers that they could not bomb their way to victory. If they wanted to ultimately defeat terrorism, they had to dry up the supply of recruits scrambling to join the cause by targeting their hearts and minds. The so-called ‘home-grown’ nature of the threat brought with it a new sense of urgency to the War on Terror and the focus on the threat shifted. The lens was turned away from the terrorist acts in the criminal space to risk and prevention in the pre-criminal space. ‘Radicalisation’ quickly became the “holy grail” by which to determine pre-violent indicators.

Governments poured money into this ‘new’ field of research, new centres and agencies were established with a specific focus on ‘radicalisation’ and academics from various disciplines flooded in to take part in the goldmine. Much of the criticism of ‘radicalisation’ research is focused on this early period immediately after its conception arguing that the research produced lacked academic rigour and an empirical basis. This was due to a combination of the money made available by governments which tempted a number of nascent researchers with a poor understanding of the phenomenon they were studying and the pressure exerted by governments to produce results in a short space of time.

In the tangle of this rapidly changing environment, a sufficient development of the concept of ‘radicalisation’ itself was neglected and the focus was instead on producing research on which governments could structure and base new prevention policies. This has led to a confusing collation of models, theories and identifiers all claiming to represent what ‘radicalisation’ really is and how it happens. The models include Moghaddam’s staircase, Silber and Bhatt’s conveyer belt and McCauley and Moskalenko’s pyramids, each depicting ‘radicalisation’ in their own distinct ways. Theories that have been developed emphasise different factors relating to ‘radicalisation’ – Sageman’s “bunches of guys” highlights alienation, friendship and kinship bonds and group processes whilst Wiktorowicz argues that “cognitive openings” are key to understanding the move towards terrorism. Some argue it is necessary to look at root causes while others state that we should focus instead on routes into ‘terrorism.’ Furthermore there is tension between academics who favour research on behavioural ‘radicalisation’ and those who argue that a focus on cognition is more important. There are now endless factors identified as affecting or causing radicalisation: alienation, social networks, a search for identity and belonging, relative deprivation, actual deprivation, lack of social and economic mobility, discrimination, a sense of adventure, sexual frustration, religion, ideology, rebellion and countercultural attitudes and a lack of role models to name but a few. About the only thing that academics agree on is that ‘radicalisation’ is a process, but even that has been challenged. It appears almost anything could be deemed ‘radicalisation,’ and if this is true, what kind of explanatory power does that leave the concept?

‘Radicalisation’s’ popularity is misleading. Despite its frequent application and use as a guiding concept in research, it lacks explanatory power. It is an underdeveloped, ill-defined and confusing concept and it is insufficient to guide research. The problems with the concept of ‘radicalisation’ have already been noted by various academics. However, their tendency is simply to conclude that more research is needed and encourage ‘radicalisation’s’ continued use, despite its fallacies. This stands in no logical relation to the criticisms they level at the concept.

This study aims to fill this gap in the research concerning the conceptual debate on ‘radicalisation.’ It is guided by two research questions: 1) Is the concept of ‘radicalisation’ useful for studying terrorism?; 2) Is the concept of ‘radicalisation’ necessary for studying terrorism?

The criticisms of the concept highlighted in this study are not new but need to be reiterated as they seem to have had little effect on the field at large. This study will argue that what follows logically from the conceptual analysis of ‘radicalisation’ is that the concept should be abandoned altogether.

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