What do we know about the process that turns youngsters into single-truth adherents, or possibly terrorists? And why is it such a difficult issue to deal with? By Delphine Michel and Camille Schyns

What is radicalisation?

Radicalisation is a phased process in which an individual or a group embraces a radical ideology that can lead to an increased willingness to condone or use violence for political goals.
The radicalisation process is unique to each individual. However, it tends to involve a combination of shared cognitive and behavioural traits, structural grievances, politicised by a unifying ideology or a rallying cause that encourages a process of “de-pluralisation” – a concept that describes how an individual becomes increasingly narrow minded in relation to key political concepts and values.
The process of “de-pluralisation” is also linked to a strong confirmation bias which tends to produce an affirmation of problems, solutions and future scenarios associated with a specific ideology. Over time, this creates a situation in which individuals have problems engaging with alternative interpretations of life and politics. This can create a sense of threat, and eventually a state of urgency in which violence is seen as a necessary and legitimate course of action.
Radicalisation can occur at any end of the political spectrum: Europe, for example, has in recent years seen attacks from both right wing extremists (Anders Breivik in Norway or the NSU in Germany) and Islamist extremists (Paris, Brussels, and Copenhagen).  
Radicalisation towards terrorism is not a prevalent phenomenon among a majority of European citizens. At the same time we should not underestimate its impact on European security. It remains important to distinguish between violent and non-violent radicalisation. Supporters of a radical ideology aim for deep, radical changes in society; only a small minority is willing to use or condone violence for those ends.

Radicalism, extremism, terrorism - what's the difference?

Radicalism challenges the legitimacy of established norms and policies. It does not, in itself, lead to violence. For example, it includes individuals that reject the values of a society but adhere to the law and attempt to bring about change through political dialogue. Whether radical communities are brewing grounds for violent extremism - or important partners for prevention, is currently the topic of an intense political debate.

Extremism is different from radicalism. Extremists accept violence as a legitimate means for obtaining political goals without necessarily exercising violence themselves. Extremism involves categorical us-versus-them thinking, often fueled by a dense, closed-off environment of like-minded individuals. Approving of the use of violence, including against civilians, can further alienate an individual from society; it also marks an important stage in which the individual can become psychologically prepared to use violence.

Terrorism or violent extremism encompasses violent behaviours that originate in an ideology shared at least by a limited group of individuals. Violent extremism includes the willingness as well as training, preparation and the actual conduct of violent acts against civilians. Terrorists show a severe disconnect from society and tend to devalue or dehumanise their victims. Historically, individuals turned to terrorism when they saw no other possibility to achieve a specific political goal.

Factors leading to violent extremism

Radicalisation is a context-bound phenomenon which includes global, sociological and political drivers as much as individual psychological causes. There is no hierarchy of factors that automatically results in violence. One notable concept is the ‘staircase to terrorism’ in which individuals move through different phases, moving up (or down) a ladder, sometimes skipping a step. However, the ladder metaphor also simplifies the reality of radicalisation. The process is much less linear and may see individuals jumping on and off a ladder at different heights. Another conceptual model has been put forward by Tore Bjørgo. Here, causes vary according to each individual. There are however a number of common factors, facilitators, and events in the process of radicalisation, which may or may not result in violent extremism:

First there are structural factors: long-term, fixed factors that instill a sense of injustice in individuals at risk of radicalisation. Examples of these include demographic imbalances, poverty, inequality, discrimination, or polarised environments and transitional societies. Whether real or perceived, these conditions create an enabling environment for radicalisation.

At the same time, it is important to emphasise that not all individuals who share this sense of injustice become radicals: most will ignore their grievances or seek a political outlet to articulate them. Only few turn to violent extremism and even fewer to terrorism. This makes radicalisation incredibly difficult to predict. When it comes to terrorism, Martha Crenshaw observed that ‘the outstanding common characteristic of terrorists is their normality’.

Then there are facilitating or accelerating causes which facilitate the radicalisation process through access to information and other resources. The internet has made radical messages available to a global public while encryption technologies make some messages undetectable. Low cost air travel has enabled aspiring individuals to travel to schools, training camps or areas that are central to the particular radical discourse, for instance conflict zones.

Motivating factors, playing on structural grievances, bring an individual closer to extremism through a process of indoctrination. For example, radical political leaders or radical preachers that incite hate and intolerant beliefs or ideologies fall into this category. See also this study which explores the complex motivations for suicide terrorism. In this phase, an individual’s environment shapes a Manichean divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’. By creating these black-and-white distinctions, radicalisation can contribute to the polarisation of a society. This process intentionally exploits existing divisions in society

Finally deciding to engage in violence takes a further personal transformation. Research has pointed to the importance of trigger events: significant acts that have an intense emotional impact on the individual at risk. These events can encourage someone to take "the final step" toward (violent) extremism. A well-known case is Mohammed Bouyeri, who murdered the Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh in 2004. His radicalisation process was partly triggered by the death of his mother.

It is considered violent extremism when the individual decides to engage in violence as a means of manifesting his/her beliefs. This can be on an individual level or as part of a group/movement. The process leading to violent extremism  includes various structural, motivating and triggering factors that go hand in hand with a personal “de-pluralisation”. At the end of this radicalisation process the use of violence has become necessary and urgent and is considered to be the last resort to change the status quo.

For further reading – for example, on the role of the internet, recruiters, or ‘lone wolf’ terrorists – explore our ‘essential readings’ below.

Essential reading on radicalisation and beyond

Radicalisation, De-Radicalisation, Counter-Radicalisation: A Conceptual Discussion and Literature Review
Based on an in-depth literature review, ICCT Research Fellow Dr. Alex P. Schmid explores the terms “radicalisation”, “de-radicalisation” and “counter-radicalisation” and the discourses surrounding them. This theoretical examination explores what we know well and what we know less well about radicalisation.

What is the driving force behind jihadist terrorism?
What is the driving force behind jihadist terrorism? This speech by Olivier Roy, professor at the European University Institute, explores the common characteristics of individuals that radicalise, such as their youth, frustration and resentment, as well as their lack of past political militancy and their limited religious knowledge. A must-read to understand what unites those that decide to take up arms, either at home or in Syria.

Youth, Violent Extremism and Promoting Peace
Anthropologist Scott Atran describes his insights from wide-ranging, experimental research on young people who have joined violent extremist movements. Radicalisation, according to Atran, is caused by the collapse of a traditional culture, which leads young people to search for a social identity that gives personal significance and glory – a struggle for values and dreams.

Lone Wolf Report
Despite the current media focus on Islamic violent extremism, The Lone Wolf Report from early 2015 showed that in the United States the majority of terrorist attacks has come from domestic, far-right groups, anti-government radicals, and white supremacists. Often operating alone, these terrorists have been dubbed ‘lone wolves’.

The Other France: Are the suburbs of Paris incubators of terrorism?
Writing before the Paris attacks of 13 November, George Packer asked whether the suburbs of Paris are incubators for terrorism. An in-depth investigation of alienation, anti-semitism and radicalism.

Radicalisation in the digital era
What is the effect of the internet on radicalisation? This RAND report shows how the internet enhances the opportunities for radicalisation and how online discourses confirm pre-existing beliefs. At the same time, it does not appear to remove the need for personal contact: radicalisation remains dependent on human relationships.

Recruitment and Mobilisation for the Islamist Militant Movement in Europe
This 2007 report by Peter Neumann and Brooke Rogers of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King's College London presents a comprehensive overview of how Islamic militants mobilise support and find new recruits in Europe. Although it was commissioned when al-Qaeda was still the main threat and no one had heard of ISIS, it remains relevant today as it demonstrates why the measures aimed at resolving extremist recruitment are not effective until the causes of radicalisation are adequately addressed.

Youth & Consequences: Unemployment, Injustice and Violence
In this report, titled Youth and Consequences: Unemployment, Injustice, and Violence, Mercy Corps investigates some fundamental assumptions about what drives young people to embrace violence. Based on field research in Afghanistan, Colombia, and Somalia, the report shows that the principal driver of political violence is, contrary to popular belief, not poverty but perceived injustice through discrimination, corruption, and abuse by security forces.

Skyping with the enemy: I went undercover as a jihadi girlfriend
‘Skyping with the enemy’ is the story of a French journalist that explores how ISIS recruits young European women. Posing online as interested in leaving France for Syria, she was soon contacted by an ISIS fighter that promised her marriage and paradise.

The online life of a modern terrorist: Anders Behring Breivik’s use of the Internet
Jacob Asland Ravndal investigated the social media behaviour of Andres Breivik, the "lone wolf terrorist" who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011. He found that the internet facilitated Breivik’s radicalisation, as it allowed him to cultivate his views uncontested.

Find out more about EIP's work on extremism and radicalisation. Sign up to "Extremism Watch" - EIP's new monthly briefing on extremism. In each issue we will focus on one of the key issues of (violent) extremism inside and outside Europe. From ISIS to NSU, from foreign fighters in Syria to CVE/PVE initiatives in Europe. How can we prevent radicalisation and polarisation? What is Europe's response to these challenges?