May 18, 2012 | Gunpowder & Lead

Borum’s “Radicalization into Violent Extremism I”

The Journal of Strategic Security recently produced a special issue focusing on radicalization, which should be of immense interest for those of us studying the subject. One essay I’d like to highlight is Randy Borum’s “Radicalization into Violent Extremism I,” which reviews social science theories on the subject. It is an extremely incisive literature review, which raises several points that are well worth considering for those who do work in, or related to, this field of study.

Borum notes that “a focus on radicalization … risks implying that radical beliefs are a proxy—or at least a necessary precursor—for terrorism. We know this not to be true. Most people who hold radical ideas do not engage in terrorism, and many terrorists—even those who lay claim to a ’cause’—are not deeply ideological and may not ‘radicalize’ in any traditional sense.” This is not an original point, but is worth bearing in mind when considering the study of radicalization. I will also say, without contradicting Borum’s assertion, that one important aspect of assessing a lack of deep ideology on “many” terrorists’ part is making sure we get the metrics right for measuring their ideological beliefs. I took Jessica Stern to task a couple of years ago for a Washington Post op-ed she wrote that used rather inappropriate metrics for evaluating the religious commitment of those within al Qaeda.

The article has an interesting discussion of debates over the role of Islam. Borum accurately notes that “when countries cannot delineate which specific ideas they oppose, their reassurances” that their problem is not with the faith itself “lack credibility.” This points to the generally poor discussion of religion that tends to predominate within the field. Nuanced discussion of Islam is not completely lacking in the West, but tends to be the exception rather than the rule, including within the academic sphere. Borum outlines different schools of thought on this problem. On one hand, he points to a school of thought that distinguishes between Islam and Islamism. In this understanding, Islam refers to “a religion that conventionally–at least in modern practice–does not overtly encourage hatred of non-Muslims and neither mandates nor justifies killing of civilian non-combatants.” In contrast, the term Islamism “refers not to a religion, but to a totalitarian political ideology driven by strong anti-Western and anti-democratic sentiment.” On the other hand, he points to the contrasting view “that core Islamic texts and teachings mandate subjugation of and warfare against non-Muslims.” He concludes that “there are profoundly different strategic and tactical implications … for whether we identify the religion, its holy text, or a narrower ideology as the core threat to global security. These divergent views need to be discussed openly, not with the aim of determining a winner and loser, but to clarify security-related policy objectives.” I’m not optimistic that such a discussion could occur reasonably or productively, but Borum’s point that discussions of radicalization often fail to reference specific ideas that are seen as objectionable is in my view important. Bear in mind, too, that our definition of what views are “radical” and hence problematic may differ from the domestic context to global context.

Borum debunks the idea that we should look for a general theory of terrorism. He quotes the respected scholar Walter Laqueur, who noted, “Many terrorists exist, and their character has changed over time and from country to country.” It is certainly instructive, when studying concepts like radicalization or terrorist recruitment, to understand how these concepts have functioned across a range of groups. But recruiting strategies or radicalization processes for the Baader-Meinhof Group or IRA might differ significantly from those of al Qaeda. And even within a group like al Qaeda, there are different pathways to violence. Borum quotes John Venhaus’s division of foreign fighters who sought to affiliate with al Qaeda-related movements into four major types: the revenge seeker, the status seeker, the identity seeker, and the thrill seeker. I question whether this division may give short shrift to the ideologue as a type, but Venhaus’s observation that there are different radicalization pathways even for al Qaeda-related violence is certainly correct.

Borum’s article notes the underdevelopment of extant academic models for radicalization. Reviewing existing models, Borum writes, “none of them yet has a very firm social-scientific basis as an established ’cause’ of terrorism, and few of them have been subjected to any rigorous scientific or systematic inquiry.” He examines three such models–social movement theory, social psychology, and conversion theory–”with the aim of exploring how each might contribute to asking better questions about radicalization.” His review of these theories is well worth reading for anybody interested in the study of radicalization, particularly Borum’s observation about the applicability of conversion theory to such problems as Internet radicalization. His harsh but justified prognosis: “People writing about radicalization have recently begun to use the term (often quite loosely) ‘self-radicalizing,’ as if it is a new discovery, but conversion researchers were working on this phenomenon long before the Internet.”

This article constitutes a competent literature with solid ideas for improving the theories and studies that it evaluates.