Into the minds of the radicalized: the psychology of extreme ideas

By Alex Hager

Our television screens flash with images of a city in mourning, a gunman has opened fire in a restaurant, an attacker has driven a truck into a crowd. Terrorist attacks have seized international attention in recent years, and many are left scratching their heads. How could a human being be driven to such an act? What would lead a person to such a position of rage, such a violation of respect for humanity?

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In this age where terrorism seems to be on the rise, international focus has shifted to try to understand exactly why and how terrorism happens. As with so many political and ideological issues, the essence of terrorist motivations exists beyond the organizations, governments, and causes involved. In reality, the best answers to these questions can be found by examining the people behind the events and headlines.

Becoming a terrorist implies that a person has gravitated towards extreme ideals. This idea of drifting towards, or being pulled towards, an ideological pole is identified as radicalization. Radicalization describes the process by which someone moves towards this ideological extreme or the process by which someone becomes more entrenched in their extreme ideas.

In efforts to curb terrorism before it starts, experts have tried to identify the psychological reasons and tangible factors that drive people towards those extreme ideas.

While experts have pored over batches of radicalized individuals looking for patterns in their personalities, behaviors, and identities, there doesn’t appear to be much of a clear answer as to what makes someone a prime candidate for radicalization. However, that has only made their studies grow deeper and more interesting.

More than just terrorism

Radicalization has been an idea at the forefront of the international terrorism and violence prevention conversation for quite some time, but it’s important to understand that radicalization is not a concept that pertains exclusively to terrorism. Radicalization is certainly a psychological process that plays a large role in our understanding of the psychology behind terrorism, but also exists in contexts far away from radical extremism.

Just as radicalization can describe the process by which a person gets involved in a group preaching radical ideas and carrying out violent actions, it also describes the process by which someone comes to align themselves with any kind of extreme ideas that are on the polar end of an ideological spectrum, even when those ideas are not tied to violent action.


“Radicalization is now synonymous with discussions of terrorism, but twenty years ago it was different,” says John Horgan, a professor of global studies and psychology at Georgia State University and an investigator and research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). “It was seen as a good thing, it was synonymous with someone becoming more politically aware, more politically active. It’s only very very recently that the term radicalization has become synonymous with terrorism.”

Horgan says that it’s important to make a clear distinction. Radicalization is not a process exclusive to terrorism.

In fact, that form of nonviolent political radicalization has seen a sharp rise lately. If you live in the U.S., it’s been all around you for the past year or two. The media has gone on endlessly about growing political polarization in America throughout this past election cycle. That idea of drifting towards an ideological pole, getting deeper entrenched in your ideas, that can be described as radicalization.

“In today’s contentious political environment it’s common to have strong views about a particular issue,” says Horgan. “That doesn’t mean that a person is going to engage in violence. They may get involved in protests, nonviolent protests which normal and perfectly healthy and shouldn’t be equated with terrorism.”

Although some parts of the process look the same, radicalization to terrorist action is entirely different from radicalization of ideas.

Disconnected, disaffected, and ready to be radicalized 

Getting entrenched in a belief can happen to anyone. The journey from belief to entrenchment often looks the same from case to case, but the people who drift to an ideological pole rarely do.

Although experts haven’t been able to identify a particular profile of a person that is prone to the radicalization of ideas, they have established some reasons explaining how and why a person might get radicalized. However, Horgan cautions that the reasons vary from person to person and are far from a hard and fast set explanation.

Many people considered “radicalized” arrive at an ideological extreme as a result of some outside motivation. In some cases, they are pushed towards that pole as a result of a large-scale political event that affects their lives, or are attracted to a group that identifies with some of their beliefs, but also holds more radical beliefs.

The one most consistent factor, though, is that the process is almost always gradual.

“It’s not that people somehow change their views overnight,” says Horgan. “Nobody wakes up an extremist.”

While the radicalization of ideas has been harder to study, researchers have made more progress analyzing the process of radicalization to action, especially in cases where a recruiter or an organization reaches out to a yet-to-be-radicalized civilian.

Recruiting techniquesTo analyze that process, they have been looking at some of the psychological techniques used by recruiters trying to attract people towards their extreme. While it is possible that people can develop extreme ideas on their own, those who become radicalized to be terrorists are often pulled towards extremism by a recruiter.

To pull someone towards extreme ideas, a recruiter will gradually exploit and condition a victim over time, building a rapport. They will often prey on the disaffected, people who have gone through some personal turmoil or people who are trying to find a place in the world. They will bait their subject with the idea that joining their group will somehow give them the answers to their questions and that they will be able to achieve more with the group than they will on their own.

Specifically in the context of terrorist radicalization, experts like Clark McCauley, a professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr college and investigator and research affiliate at START, have begun to form profiles of people who might be radicalized to violent action.

The first of these, McCauley calls the “caring compelled.” This person feels strongly about the suffering of others and feels that they can’t stand by idly, their emotions driving them to action.

“Usually we think of empathy and sympathy as quintessentially human virtues,” said McCauley, but we’re suggesting that there is a dark side to empathy and sympathy, that there can be an emotional push to do something violent.”

The other kind, McCauley calls the “disordered and disconnected.” These people, he says, have very little to lose and a lot of pain in their lives. In efforts to escape from their pain, they will often gravitate towards a group that can provide distraction or support. However, they do not always turn to terrorism. McCauley suggest that they might just as easily join a cult, but joining a terrorist group might just be “a matter of accident.”

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A common thread in McCauley’s descriptions of those radicalized to violent action is that the individuals are often succumbing to normal human emotions. It may be easy to perceive terrorists as psychologically disturbed, but research has shown that the people radicalized are rarely psychotic. A 2009 study of people who had committed to carrying out a suicide bombing, but had been derailed for one reason or another, showed that none of them were found to be psychotic.

Even those who had been drawn to commit extreme violence as the result of radicalization were not mentally ill, they had just been radicalized.

Out of the home and into terrorism

There seems to be a common assumption that young people are the most likely to
become radicalized, especially in the context of terrorism.

“People assume terror is a young person’s game because their political and social identities are still forming, making them malleable or suitable to be radicalized,” said Horgan.

He emphasized that this assumption is an overly simplistic view of radicalization, and that studies show a much broader age range for those who are radicalized to action.

However, when terrorism is the end result, McCauley argues that young people may be more prone to violent action simply because they have less connections to the world. While an adult might have an established life, career, or family to worry about, a young person is more likely to have  no significant people in their life and may have moved away from their home city or country.Screen Shot 2017-04-19 at 2.15.38 AM copy

Scott Atran, an anthropologist, spoke to the United Nations Security council in 2015, addressing the role of youth in violent extremism, especially their involvement in ISIS.

“They are mostly youth in transitional stages in their lives,” said Atran in that speech. “Students, immigrants, between jobs or mates, having left or about to leave their native family and looking for a new family of friends and fellow travelers with whom they can find significance.”

Although there is a chance that anyone could be persuaded into radicalization, the circumstances which make people want to seek out a peer group to provide them with significance are definitely more prevalent in the lives of young people.

Traditional recruiting methods and causes have historically not discriminated by age, but the emergence of social media as a platform for terrorist recruitment have narrowed the field to a slightly younger demographic. Those who are more likely to communicate and form deep connections via the internet and social networks are, by extension, more likely to be radicalized on those same mediums.

A 2015 New York Times report looked in to ISIS recruiting in America, finding few similarities in the profiles of recruits. However, John Carlin, the assistant attorney general for national security, said that of all terrorism-related arrests in the previous 18 months, 80% of those arrested were younger than 30, and 40% were younger than 21. The report cites a trend in social media recruitment as the main factor behind such a large contingent of relatively young recruits.

On those mediums, the approach by terrorist organizations is often tailored to younger people.

“[ISIS] also generates releases that cater to a younger population more familiar with popular culture, said Nicholas J. Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center in a testimony recorded by the Department of Homeland Security. “These releases often reference Western brands—including popular video games—to appeal to thrill seekers and youth looking for fulfillment. They have also coined pithy ‘memes’ such as, ‘YODO: You Only Die Once. Why not make it martyrdom?’”

While terrorist organizations are not at all exclusively targeting young people, they have identified a demographic that is easily accessible all over the world, and it is no surprise that they’re ready and willing to seize on that population as long as it remains a convenient option.

New online mediums, same old tactics

Recently, that idea of radicalization via the internet or social media has become a major talking point. Just as out digital connectedness has come to creep into every corner our daily lives, it has had an impact on the way radicalization patterns are carried out.

Horgan explains that this impact isn’t necessarily a The New York City Subway System is the largest subway system in the world, with 468 train stations and 26 subway lines. That's one massive subway system!change in the way that people are radicalized to action, but rather a shift in the channels through which people are radicalized. In terms of terrorist radicalization, he sees the internet and social media as recruiting tools.

“It’s a mistake to say that people become radicalized exclusively online,” said Horgan. “Online radicalization is something thats just part of involvement in terrorism. The internet and technology have just given terrorist groups more platforms to engage recruits.”

The perception that people are being radicalized to action simply by reading tweets or viewing other social media posts does not paint the full picture. While terrorist groups use social platforms to spread propaganda, the actual radicalization element is still mainly playing out in conversations. However, the groups have a much wider reach because these conversations can happen on platforms like Skype and in direct messages.

A 2015 report from George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security shows many examples of ISIS followers sharing messages of support and sympathy for the group’s actions on Twitter, but cites other instances of more productive two-way communication between ISIS members and recruits through Twitter direct messages.

Horgan and the GWU report agree, while social media platforms have been flooded with widely-available posts supporting terrorist activities, the real recruiting is still happening in one-on-one conversations, albeit within a digital medium.

But in terms of the radicalization of ideas, social media has had a more profound impact on the way people shape their opinions.

“Social media and communication technology create ‘filter bubbles’ around us,” said Michael Stefanone, a professor at The University at Buffalo whose work focuses on the psychology of communications. “This means that we are able to consume only the information that supports our world view, and we can filter out any information that challenges our beliefs.”

Whereas terrorist radicalization over the internet involves a deliberate path of communication between a recruiter and a radicalized person, radicalization of ideas can be done entirely on one’s own. People can pick and choose from a wide array of opinions, even extreme ideas that don’t often see the light of day in normal conversation or the mainstream media. By shutting out opposing viewpoints online, every day spent in that “filter bubble” is filled with increasingly polarized information, concentrated to a specific viewpoint.

Just as research on terrorist motivations and radicalization has developed to consider the involvement of the internet and social networks, the internet will surely evolve even further, pulling researchers and counterterrorism officials further into new frontiers of radicalization study.


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