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Back to Archives | Back to February 2012 Contents 

Radicalization to Violence: What It Is, and What It Isn’t

By Angus Smith, Officer in Charge, Strategic Assessment, National Security Criminal Investigations, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Ottawa, Canada; and Anna Gray-Henschel, PhD, Director General, Strategic Integration and Program Support, National Security Criminal Investigations, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Ottawa, Canada (on behalf of the IACP Committee on Terrorism)

adicalization to violence is a critical subset of the terrorist threat. It is the process by which individuals—often, but not always, young people—are introduced to an overtly ideological message and belief system that encourages movement from moderate, mainstream beliefs toward extreme views and, ultimately, violence.

Radical thinking is not necessarily inherently problematic. Throughout history, most political, social, and economic progress has been an outcome of some form of radicalization and the mind-set that accompanies it.

Radical thinking becomes a threat to national security when individuals espouse or engage in violence as a means of achieving political, ideological, or religious goals.

Radicalization to violence can occur because of a multitude of factors and influences and is not limited to any single ethnic, cultural, religious, or political group. For example, Canada has been dealing with the outcomes of radicalization leading to terrorist violence for more than a century, from the assassination of Thomas D’Arcy McGee in 1868, through the Front de Libération du Québec crisis of the 1960s and early 1970s, to the Air India bombing of 1985.

In the United States, John Brown’s attacks in Missouri and West Virginia in the 1850s, the assassination of President McKinley in 1901, the Weather Underground campaign in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, all are historical examples of what can result from a process that can be characterized as radicalization to violence.

Al Qaeda and Others: Violent Islamist Extremism

In a contemporary context, radicalization is most often discussed with reference to young Muslims who are influenced to some degree by Islamist thinking.

Islamism, the practical application of Islamist thought, is a set of ideologies rooted in the notion that Islam is not simply a religion but also a fully developed political and social system. Proponents of Islamism believe that an Islamic society must be governed by law derived from traditional Islamic sources and that Islam is the single most important political unifying factor for Muslims the world over. Islamism is not synonymous with Islam.

There are many different proponents of Islamism and many different schools of Islamist thought, few of which advocate violence. Violent Islamist extremists, on the other hand, seek to bring about Islamist rule through whatever means necessary, including terrorism.

Members of the Toronto 18 are apprehended
in a takedown by police.
By far, the best known and most problematic violent Islamist extremist group is al Qaeda. In the post-9/11 period, most known examples of radicalization to violence in Canada, the United States, Europe, and elsewhere have been driven by al Qaeda, its ideology, or by groups or individuals who are either associated with or influenced by al Qaeda. The Theo Van Gogh killing in the Netherlands, the Madrid bombings, the 7/7 bombings in London, the Toronto 18 case in Canada, and the Fort Hood shootings in the United States all are reminders of what can happen when radical thinking becomes terrorist practice.

Extremist Narratives

Currently, the greatest threat facing the United States and Canada is radicalization related to violent Sunni Islamist extremism. Sunni Islamist extremist ideology is typically promoted through a narrative that claims the virtues taught by Islam are threatened by the immorality of the West and that Islam itself is threatened by a war waged against it by the West.

Canadian and U.S. foreign policy are central components of the narrative advanced by Islamist extremist ideologues. The narrative claims that the proper response and the religious duty of Muslims is to take up arms and fight Western nations and apostate Muslim regimes—that is, regimes that Islamist extremists deem to have renounced or betrayed the principles of Islam. The end goal of this struggle is to organize all aspects of life in what are viewed as Muslim lands according to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.

This narrative has been developed and is espoused by terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda and many other groups and individuals. Recently, in messages directed to Western audiences, al Qaeda and its affiliates have refined this message by emphasizing that the proper role of Muslims in Western countries is not to join the fight overseas but to take action locally with whatever means are available to them. This aspect of the Sunni Islamist extremist narrative centralizes the strategic role of domestic radicalization to violence.

The single narrative is compelling in its simplicity and remains a significant driver of radicalization to violence for many young Canadian and American Muslims. It is propagated through a range of media, including al Qaeda media statements and videos; lectures delivered in person or recorded and distributed on CD, DVD, or online; and through regular repetition in web forums and chat rooms.

Young people are the most receptive audience for extremist messaging over the web. Their intellectual framework largely has been shaped by their interaction with the Internet, and they are often struggling with fundamental questions around faith, the future, and their place in the world. Extremists are able to link such experiences to a culture of embattlement and victimhood, the identification of perceived enemies, and the putative suffering and humiliation of Muslims at the hands of those enemies.

Radicalization to Violence: What Makes a Terrorist?

Considerable effort has been made around the world by law enforcement, government officials, and scholars to determine what drives people down the road of radicalization toward terrorism. The inner path from consciousness raising to terrorism is a unique experience for each person. Preradicalization indicators, where they exist or are detectable, are often extraordinarily subtle, particularly to a social or cultural outsider such as a law enforcement officer.

Overarching factors such as poverty and alienation are often advanced as explanations for radicalization to violence. While the so-called root causes theory applies in some cases, it often fails to stand up to scrutiny. Domestically radicalized terrorists do not necessarily exist at the margins of society. For example, the Glasgow airport bombers were all educated, employed professionals—physicians, researchers, and engineers. All were long-term residents of the United Kingdom. If there is a trend, it is that dangerous extremists tend to emerge from the ranks of the privileged middle and upper-middle classes.

The associated challenge for law enforcement professionals is that if they assume that factors such as deprivation and alienation are effective predictors of the radicalization to violence, they then tend to focus attention and resources on the young and on the underclass.

Youth is certainly a frequent factor in the radicalization continuum; it is almost certainly a function of the adolescent need to question the world and one’s place in it. But mature and well-educated individuals are likely to be receptive to much more sophisticated radical messaging than their younger counterparts. More importantly, they have both the intellectual and the emotionalwherewithal to translate this into meaningful direct action and to take on leadership roles within terrorist cells.

It also is important to note that terrorists rarely live at the margins of society. In fact, ordinariness is often a key factor in the domestic radicalization phenomenon. Ordinariness is what permits apparently integrated, nondescript individuals to become radicalized to the point of planning and attempting to carry out terrorist acts. It allows them to proceed unnoticed until it is too late to prevent them from crossing the extremist line.

Some analysis of recent terrorism cases points to a few common factors in the radicalization continuum. However, these can be seen only as factors that may require further investigation. No one factor, or even the presence of any combination of factors, provides certainty of the development of a radical mind-set or violent agenda.

Family ties can play a role in the development of extremist views, particularly if close relatives are actively engaged in either terrorism or support for terrorism. The role of family can be extended to include a whole range of social networks. Similarities in background, age, and outlook in social and peer group networks often create a dynamic that can accelerate the radicalization process, encouraging people to adopt attitudes or to take action as a group that they might not consider as individuals.

Authority figures with extremist views also can wield a great deal of influence, particularly over young people. Similarly, religious converts may find their way to violence under the influence of an extremist leader or mentor.

Travel to so-called hot zones is another important factor. Exposure to Islamist extremist ideology in seminaries and theological institutions has played a role in a number of Canadian and American cases. Travel to places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Somalia may also be indicators of violent radicalization, particularly where sojourns in terrorist training camps or participation in combat operations are involved.

It is important to emphasize that in the vast majority of cases, most of these factors and behaviors may suggest nothing more than adherence to a particular creed or a political cause. Many ethnic, cultural, and religious constituencies in Canada and the United States remain deeply concerned about homeland issues. Indeed, continued identification with cultures and countries of origin remains an important component of the Canadian and the American understanding of pluralism and integration.

Violent Extremism: The Future

Terrorism and radicalization to violence are constantly evolving, often much faster than the ability of Western law enforcement to keep up or adapt. New tactics, new methodologies, and often entirely new terrorist constituencies emerge, seemingly overnight and often unexpectedly.

For example, a great deal of ambiguity has traditionally surrounded the role of women in the overall violent Islamist extremist narrative. Portrayal of women in extremist propaganda has often been intended less to encourage women and more to shame Muslim men who elect to remain on the sidelines of the struggle. Nevertheless, Islamist extremist groups seem increasingly willing to embrace and include women.

Al Qaeda and a number of other organizations increasingly portray women as both fierce and articulate, belying Western stereotypes of Muslim women. From time to time, al Qaeda publishes an online women’s magazine intended to recruit female fighters and martyrs.1 Other violent extremist materials targeting women—especially on the Internet—emphasize their role in terrorist operations and provide specific instruction in a range of practical subjects, from small arms and explosives to battlefield medicine.

The past decade has seen increasing numbers of suicide attacks—whether in Iraq, Jordan, Afghanistan, or Kashmir—that have involved women. And most notably, women have been actively involved in Chechen terrorist operations, such as in the Moscow Theatre siege and the Beslan school massacre.

All of this suggests that the traditional constraints on women taking part in direct terrorist action are beginning to erode, perhaps indicating a willingness on the part of al Qaeda, its affiliates, and its offshoots to take terrorist operations to a new level, utilizing a much broader constituency than in the past.

As stated above, radicalization to violence is not just about Islamist extremism. Over the past couple of years, both Canada and the United States have seen a surge in right-wing extremist groups, along with significant increases in hate-based crimes and attacks on minorities. Blacks, homosexuals, and Jews in particular are targets and victims of hate crimes far out of proportion to their numbers. And where there is a violent political component to such attacks, it often emanates from the radical right wing.
Anders Breivik killed 77 people in Norway
on July 22, 2011.

Despite their seemingly crude ideology and reliance on absurd conspiracy theory, there are numerous indications that the radical right wing exerts a powerful and continuing pull on certain individuals within Canadian and American society and beyond. The violent right-wing threat is real.

The 2011 Anders Breivik murders in Norway were a chilling reminder of where extremist narratives lead. In the United States, right-wing extremists have killed seven police officers and a security guard since the beginning of 2009. And until 9/11, all terrorist attacks—domestic and international, Islamist extremist or otherwise—were measured against the Oklahoma City bombing, which was an act of a violent, right-wing extremist.

Working With Communities to Identify Radicalization
to Violence

Ultimately, violence that originates within specific communities can be countered only by communities themselves. While there are roles for law enforcement in counterradicalization programming, these roles must be undertaken in full collaboration with communities, recognizing their unique requirements. Indeed, any counterradicalization programming that is specifically linked to law enforcement will at best be dismissed by the target audience. At worst, it will be characterized as manipulation, if not outright surveillance, and may ultimately serve only to exacerbate the very problems that law enforcement is trying to address.

Successful community counterradicalization programming must be based upon meaningful understanding of the ideological and theological foundations of extremist thought. Just as importantly, it must be delivered in a way that is entirely culturally appropriate. This means that counterradicalization programs must be delivered not by the police or any other official agency but rather by affected communities themselves.

Most importantly, law enforcement must be prepared to take seriously existing community counterradicalization efforts. Failure to engage in a constructive discussion with such initiatives sends a clear signal that law enforcement is interested only in addressing radicalization on its own terms.

Networks of influential community contacts have a tremendously important role to play in terms of both day-to-day community relations and crisis response and management. It can be difficult to know who, exactly, speaks for or represents communities of concern. Some community leaders are gateways; others are gatekeepers who can foil even the most concerted attempts to reach out to the right people.

Reaching out to the wrong people—self-styled leaders and spokespeople who have no real credibility—can exacerbate the very tensions that a prevention of radicalization strategy is trying to alleviate. Again, it is critical that any prevention strategy is advised by comprehensive understanding of community dynamics and of the pressures that at-risk members of those communities face. ■

Editor’s note: The IACP Committee on Terrorism is putting the finishing touches on three foundation documents on violent extremism. The documents, which include a statement of principles to guide law enforcement community outreach and engagement programming, a Radicalization 101 guide for frontline officers and police executives, and a lexicon of basic terms related to countering violent extremism, will form the basis of a common understanding of radicalization to violence across the IACP. Common understanding of common problems will promote a cooperative response and comprehensive solutions.

For more information on the Countering Violent Extremism Working Group please contact, Dr. Anna Gray-Henschel at

Please send any comments or feedback on this article to Angus Smith at


1Al-Khansaa, named for the Arabic female poet of the seventh century, was first published online in 2004.

Please cite as:

By Angus Smith and Anna Gray-Henschel, "Radicalization to Violence: What It Is, and What It Isn’t," The Police Chief 79 (February 2012): 38–42.

Click to view the digital edition.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXIX, no. 2, February 2012. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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