A group of white nationals marching. Photo Source: Mykal McEldowney/AP.
Radicalization is difficult to fully grasp because of its complex historic milieu, geographic peculiarities, and individualistic idiosyncrasies. Frank Furedi, a sociologist best known for his work on the psychology of fear, argues that a government’s portrayal of radicalization usually has a “fantasy like character,” designed to make Muslims’ isolation from society sound very much like a “psychological virus.” [i] The term is largely subjective, consisting of a transformative process in which the individual, to follow the government’s fantastical framing, is either perceived as a victim or a villain. [ii] As a concept, radicalization is transcendent and very fluid in nature, but even individuals who undergo this process sometimes end up exhibiting fluid belief systems themselves. Furthermore, radicalization does not always require rooted extremist belief. Sometimes, it is an emotional process driven by other factors such as discrimination or political repression, and radical ideology facilitates individuals’ ultimate goals in their journey of self-discovery.
The attraction to extremist ideology can be attributed to the fact that membership within the group “is not a means to an end (e.g., a positive social identity) but an end in itself.” [iii] This summer, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) headquarters in the Middle-East North Africa region, Asia and the Caucasus renewed their allegiances to ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The series commences with the West African ISIL branch proclaiming, “Be patient, soldiers of the Islamic State…you are the righteous ones, and this scourge does nothing but purify your ranks. You are waiting for one of two blessings: victory or martyrdom.” [iv] The alliance attracts more members by “us[ing] the narrative of shared pain.” [v] Therefore, by constructing an imagined community, in-group dynamics attract susceptible individuals as well as hardcore believers to the cause.
Radicalization, albeit internationally motivated and inspired by groups in far-away lands like ISIL, occurs across very different nations. It is, in a sense, directed from within. The Hofstad Network, an Islamist terror group composed of Dutch nationals, serves as a relevant example, as it had an “amorphous structure and lack[ed]…ties with international networks.” [vi] Hofstad member Mohammed Bouyeri’s killing of Theo Van Gogh in the Netherlands demonstrates this point. The letter that Bouyeri placed on Van Gogh’s corpse was written in a traditional, rhyming Dutch verse. It also contained many references to events and characters in Dutch political life, demonstrating the lack of “global” or transcendent Islamic issues within the group’s actual radicalization process. The fact that each nation spawns its own unique form of terrorism means that each radicalization process will in fact manifest itself in particular ways. As this example indicates, socio-political problems within the domestic setting can trigger terrorist activities.
Additionally, it should be noted that multiple divergent extremist ideologies can resonate with a susceptible individual. When the FBI searched the home belonging to Nicholas Young, a former police officer, for proof of his support for ISIL, they found that he espoused multiple extremist ideologies. Not only did FBI officer find that his home was Nazified with Adolf Hitler’s framed portrait and Nazi slogans, but they also found a Confederate flag, outlining the statement, “Rebel Blood in My Veins, Yankee Blood in My Yard.” [vii] Alongside these violent extremist possessions, FBI agents found ISIL videos and songs, and a copy of the al-Qaeda English-language magazine, Inspire. [viii] The multifaceted nature of his extremism indicates Young’s susceptibility to powerful and violent extremist messages. FBI agents also found a photo of the Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini, alongside Hitler. [ix] The photograph provides the potential ideological bridge between two very different forms of extremism: Hitler defended the Palestinian cause and fought against the creation of a Jewish homeland, sharing the goal of eradicating global Zionism. The Anti-Semitic link within these belief systems may explain the fluidity of these ideologies. Interestingly, a Muslim Waffen-SS 13th Division was created in Germany, demonstrating the historic ties that can further explain the fluidity and compatibility of these extremist belief-systems.
Additionally, extremism is sometimes the primary motivator throughout the radicalization process, regardless of the ideological affiliation. Some individuals seem to be drawn to radical ideas rather than ideologies; therefore, belonging to a group with clear-cut extremist views can be an appealing pull-factor. Devon Arthurs, a neo-Nazi who converted to Islam a year before killing two of his roommates, is a good example of this type of attraction. Mark Pitcavage, a Senior Research Fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, claims that many young people have converted from one extremist ideology to another, and he attributes this to the “fluid” nature of their “belief” systems. [x] Here, individuals who crave excitement and ego are particularly susceptible to powerful extremist ideas, as they tend to be young men driven by a lust for adventure or by a need for an outlet to showcase their emotions.
What makes individuals embark on this journey of self-discovery may be different in every case, but each individual will undergo some process of transformation. The element of transformation is mostly missing from the current models and theories of radicalization. Quintan Wictorowicz, a scholar specializing in Islamist movements, mentions the importance of a “cognitive opening,” when the individual facing discrimination, political repression and socioeconomic crises becomes more vulnerable and receptive to extremist thinking. [xi] However, there is a lack of clear-cut analysis on how the person undergoing radicalization changes. This transformative process is particularly acute because the anonymity curtailed within the Internet has given us the ability to shape our lives. Users change their personas on the Internet and gradually adopt their virtual aliases in real life.
When the gap between the virtual and real worlds becomes too great, individuals tend to fully immerse themselves in their avatar’s persona. For example, 22 year-year-old Christopher Lee Cornwell was living an uneventful life, residing with his parents, not working a steady job and lacking friendships—his “best friend was a cat.” [xii] Cornell developed an online persona under the alias Raheel Mahrus Ubaydah, which empowered him to shed his domestic self. Indeed, the Internet is not only “a virtual ‘echo chamber’ in which…extreme ideas and suggestions receive the most encouragement and support,” but it is also a significant part of the individual’s identity—an end goal. [xiii] This case reflects the susceptibility of an individual who feels unfulfilled.
When the dissonance between the arguably “boring” prior-self and the new-found coherence of a powerful ideology and identity come to the fore, individuals can come to engage in violent acts in order to retain their transformed persona. Interestingly, Mediha Medy Salkicevic, an Illinois woman originally from Bosnia, highlights the issue of the plurality of selves. Bearing two pseudonyms, Medy Ummuluna and Bosna Mexico, she supported Abdullah Ramo Pazara, a Bosnian-American who rose to a high-ranking position in ISIL. [xiv] She intended to provide resources to Pazara, acknowledging that he and his group could use the money and supplies for combat. The role that aliases have in encouraging the projection of the individual’s newfound persona is understated. In this case, it is possible that these aliases gave Salkicevic the confidence to cross the line, thereby illustrating the importance of better understanding the leap from peoples online personas to their willingness to offer material support to a terrorist organization or even become a terrorist.
Unfortunately, most current models and theories of radicalization do not account for how the radicalization process fluctuates. As a concept, radicalization is transcendent and very fluid in nature, but even individuals who undergo this process sometimes end up demonstrating fluid belief-systems. These are significant processes to consider, particularly in demonstrating the importance of emotion, transformation and identity when individuals are hunting for self-validation. Insight into how the cultural and historical communities drive extremism, and how individuals perceive the world they live in, must be developed into a more multifaceted framework.
[i] Frank Furedi, “Muslim Alienation in the UK? Blame the Israelis,” Spiked, February 9 2009, https://www.spiked-online.com/2009/02/09/muslim-alienation-in-the-uk-blame-the-israelis/.
[iii] Asaad Almohammad and Jon Lewis, “When Pain is Thicker Than Blood: Surviving Scourge and Purifying the Ranks,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, September 26, 2019, https://www.fpri.org/article/2019/09/when-pain-is-thicker-than-blood-surviving-scourge-and-purifying-the-ranks/.
[vi] Lorenzo Vidino, “The Hofstad Group: The New Face of Terrorist Networks in Europe,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, May 23 2017, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10576100701385933.
[vii] Lisa Rose, “How A Nazi-sympathizing cop went to jail for aiding ISIS,” CNN, October 31 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/31/politics/nazi-sympathizer-cop-police-officer-jail-aid-isis/index.html.
[ix] “United States v. Nicholas Young, 18-4138 (4th Cir. 2019),” Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, February 21 2019, https://www.courtlistener.com/opinion/4592596/united-states-v-nicholas-young/.
[x] Tony Marrero, “Neo-Nazis sometimes convert to Radical Islam,” Tampa Bay Times, https://www.tampabay.com/news/publicsafety/crime/sharing-extreme-views-neo-nazis-sometimes-convert-to-radical-islam/2324915.
[xi] Quintin Wictorowicz, “Joining the Cause: Al-Muhajiroun and Radical Islam,” The Roots of Radical Islam, 2004, http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.689.7010&rep=rep1&type=pdf.
[xii] Lorenzo Vidino and Seamus Hughes, “ISIS in America; From Retweets to Raqqa,” Program on Extremism George Washington University, December 2015, 31.
[xiii] Ibid, 18.
[xiv] Indictment, “US District Court Eastern District of Missouri Eastern Division,” https://extremism.gwu.edu/sites/g/files/zaxdzs2191/f/Hodzic%20et%20al.%20Indictment.pdf.