Radicalization and the Progression to Violent Extremism

Like war, terrorist attacks cause fear, uncertainty, xenophobia, economic loss, among other adverse effects. Generally, terrorism is a violent act or the intention to coerce people or governments through fear (Waldron, 2004). The nature or terrorism is complex, making it challenging to derive an explicit definition of terrorism. In recent times, there are many attacks such as bombings, computer hacking, mass shooting, stabbing, among others. For instance, some of the most recent noticeable attacks is the he September 11, 2001 bombings of the World Trade Center, that led to deaths of 2996 people (Plumer, 2013).

Terrorists attacks were previously common in foreign countries; however, there is an increased cases for terrorist attackes in the western nations, including Austraia (Healey, 2017). Notably, terrolists leverage the power of technology, wich has enabled promptest spread of information through IT facilities and social media (Healey, 2017). Besides, terrorist groups explain their intentions and appeal to garner sympathy by spreading radical messages on social media platforms.

While this appealing method has worked successfully mostly in the middle east countries, there are growing concerns about the number of home-grown terrorists identified (Healey, 2017; Mullins, 2011; Michaelsen, 2005). Some of the terrorist attacks in the recent past were propagated by Australian citizens or residents (Mullins, 2011; Michaelsen, 2005). While factors that lead to terrorism are not adequately explored, studies have reported that within a population, there is a group that holds and supports radical views (Michaelsen, 2005). As such, there are Australians who are radical about their beliefs and ideologies, and even smaller portion of this population is willing to act on their radical beliefs. This has two systematic effects; one, such radicals are willing to do anything within their capabilities to protect their beliefs and ideologies, and two, they are compelled to radicalize others to gain more influence (Healey, 2017; Mullins, 2011; Michaelsen, 2005). Radicalization entails gradually changing one’s beliefs, values, and ideologies (Healey, 2017). In the context of terrorism, radicals change from noble and civil citizens to extremists who are disposable by terror groups or militia for lethal acts of violent extremism.

This paper looks into the progression of radicalization to extremism through behavioral patterns for one to become a terrorist, in order to promote further research and understanding of the radicalisation process, and develope effective preventative counter-terrorism policies.  A detailed literature review will help gather information regarding the motives for becoming a terrorist and the behavioral changes that one undergoes to conduct lethal acts or violet extremism. Then, the paper explores theoretical frameworks and their application in identifying the progression of radicalization. Lastly, there is a discussion regarding the gaps found in the literature review. This is an important project that will add information regarding radicalization and promote related research projects.


Literature Review

There is no singlestudy that has succeeded in finding a distinct factor and or reasons that make someone an extremist. In the past, it was believed that people become extremists like terrorists either because they are insane or psychologically impaired (Baele, 2014; Weenink, 2015).  Both insane or psychologically impaired people were have been found to lack empathy, shallow affect, glibness, manipulation and callousness, which makes them ruthless to other people and themselves (Baele, 2014; Weenink, 2015). However, current studies point out many factors, most of which are inadequately described. For instance, some studies have found poverty and social-economic hardship to be significant factors that lead individuals to become terrorists(Akbarzadeh, 2013; Porter & Kebbell, 2011; Bakker, 2006). A report from the Federal Research Division in the USA reportsthat most terrorists are educated youths and citizens of countries in the Middle East, motivated by religious and political interest (Federal Research Division, 1999). Besides, Akbarzadeh (2013) explains that radicals are mostly from marginalized communities and or alienated groups from political influence or democracy. Porter & Kebbell (2011) argue that radicals are likely to be youths and with fewer family connections. Notably, all terrorists become radicals progressively. The risk factors identified above only fosters the radicalization process. In that perspective, radicalization steps are worth noting, from the initial state of ideology, through perceived injustices to social relations.

Ideology concerns an orientation of thought for a person or a group. It is the first step in radicalization, where one either drastically or slowly changes their worldview (Šlerka & Šisler, 2017). Mostly, the change in worldview for radicals revolves around religion, politics, and sociocultural issues. The change is neither bad nor good but becomes a concern when the change is towards unsocial or criminal behavior (Šlerka & Šisler, 2017). In the terrorism context, people begin by changing their worldview, such that their ideologies favor violent extremism when advocating for or supporting their interests, beliefs, or values (Weenink, 2015). Besides, a radical worldview is that their beliefs, values, and ideas are superior, moral, or better compared to nonradicals (Šlerka & Šisler, 2017). According to Doosje et al. (2016), that perception creates ingroups and outgroups for radicals and nonradicals, a social schism that further leads to hate, discrimination, marginalization, and violence.

Once a potential radical has gotten a new ideology, the next phase is perceived injustice. Perceived injustice entails severe loss to injury, blame, sense of unfairness, and irreplaceability of loss (Sullivan et al.,2012). According to Doosje et al. (2013), perceived injustice is a critical basis for progression towards radicalization, to seek vengeance. While the reasons are not apparent, other studies have found that terrorists perceive their injustices from Western countries such as the USA (Sageman, 2008). For instance, Arafa (2018) found that Muslims are discriminated against in western society, which is a perceived social injustice likely to prompt radical retaliation. Also, a common grievance is the intervention by the western militaries into Middle eastern nations such as Iraq (Healey, 2017). Thus, social injustices such as racism, foreigjn military interventions, and marginalization are perceived injustices that aggravate the radicalization process after ideology.

Lastly, potential radicals change their social relations. Influence is a significant factor that plays a role in radicalization. As noted earlier, terrorist groups use social media to appeal for sympathy or to recruit new members (Healey, 2017; Mullins, 2011; Michaelsen, 2005). Social media has become effective since it is easier to send radical messages that lure youths, who are the most curious and extensive social media users (Anderson & Jiang, 2018). That way, terrorists create social connection with potential terrorists, and challenge their worldview such that they begin to detach from their relatives, and gravitate towards the likeminded radicals (Healey, 2017). The alienation from mainstream social relations is often strategic. For instance, Healey (2017) explains that there are often people who could not finish the radicalization process (reached extremism) because they were noted by parents or significant other in the process. Once noted, the interruption is critical, as it offers a chance to prevent further progression into the change of ideology, or perception of injustices.

Theoretical Framework

Theoretical frameworks help in substantiating the relationship between potential factors and the progression of radicalization to extremism. Two such theories are the Strain theory and social learning theory. According to Wickert (2019), Merton’s (1938) anomie is a subset of the strain theory, where people are alienated from the possibility to achieve their societal goals by natural situations or by other people. It results in aggressiveness and defiance. For instance, in the perceived injustice phase, terrorists become aggressive for missing opportunities or failing to achieve specific goals. In an extreme situation, such aggressive people begin to blame others and eventually resolve to retaliate (Morin, 2015). As such, revenge and denial for missed opportunities and failure to achieve expected social success become motives for violent extremism (Ferguson & Kamble, 2012). It is the motive for violent extremism that gravitates individuals to radical groups, and foster randicalization.

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According to Selinger (2019), individuals can learn behaviors and adopt values and beliefs through social learning theory (SLT). It is the same way the first step – ideology, happens. That is, through association with other people, potential radicals change their worldview. Similarly, ideologies that concern social relations and their value changes as potential radicals associate progressively significant others (Selinger, 2019). For instance, terrorists perceive themselves as more socially obliged to their organizations than any other social set up (De la Corte, 2010). They undermine the value of family and other conventional social relations to perceive themselves as independent (De la Corte, 2010; Elmas, 2020). Notably, people do not drastically change their view on social relations; it continues progressively, and after the change in ideology and cognitive perception of injustices. This can be explained through STL since exposure is critical in adopting view, beliefs, and values (Selinger, 2019). That is, through social learning, individuals are exposed to values and beliefs of radical groups, and adopt them as their own, to eventually becoming randicalized. However, there are significant gaps in this literature.

Gaps in the Literature

Most of the work available on the factors that facilitate radicalization into terrorism is mostly theoretical. They are mostly based on theories and presumptions instead of experimental data, which is more reliable. Although terrorism is a critical threat to peace and certainty in societies, and governments taking stringent measures to mitigate terror, there are few studies point to terrorism in Australia (Šlerka & Šisler, 2017). This might result from the few terrorism cases recorded in Australia, compared to other western nations like the USA. However, terror threats keep on looming in Australia and home-groen terrorists keep on increasing.

Many scholars have neglected the behavioral progression of radicalization and determinants to be a wate of time, by generalizing that terrorists are no different from ordinaly people. For instance a comparative study on terrorists versus non-terrorists found no difference between psychopathy, socioeconomic status or educational factors, which were alledged to contribute to becoming a violent extremist (Porter & Kebbell, 2011). From the few studies conducted, there are no agreed-upon steps in the process of radicalization. While there is a consensus that the three steps – ideology, perceived injustice, and social relations are involved, there is no concensus concerning the order in which they occur.

Additionally, the evidence provided has numerous contradictions. For instance, each literature source has a set of factors that lead to radicalization. These factors vary in significance from one study to another. For instance, Doosje et al. (2016), like early studies, concede that people who are compelled into radicalization are mostly suffering from psychological impairment. Selinger’s (2019) explanation of social strain suggests that social challenges such as marginalization and socioeconomic hardship facilitate radicalization. Healey (2017) asserts that social influences such as peer pressure cause radicalization, while Doosje et al. (2013) insists on the craving for vengeance. Therefore, there is a need for a consensus agreement on factors that cause or facilitate radicalization to mitigate the contradictions.


This paper identifies that there are increased concerns about the number of home-grown terrorists identified. People become extremists, such as terrorists, through a radicalization process that proceeds in three significant steps. The steps identified in this paper are ideology, perceived injustice, and social relations. In ideology, people change their worldview and adopt radical beliefs and values. In perceived injustice, they develop appraisal cognitive, where they associate problems and blame others for their miseries. In social relations, potential radicals are alienated from their significant others and gravitate towards radical groups. The steps have been explained in terms of Strain theory and social learning theory. That is, radicals are motivated by strains in their life or learn radical behaviors from others. Nevertheless, there are gaps in the literature, which concerns the lack of adequate empirical data, inconsistency, and contradictions, and lack of adequate information in the Australian context. Therefore, although there are many potential determinant factors and pathways to the progression of violent extremism, further research is needed to establish an irrefutable profile for terrorists, and develope effective preventative counter-terrorism policies. 


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