Extremism and terrorism have arguably been part of the human existence for thousands of years. Some of the earliest documented acts of terrorism date back 2,000 years ago to the Roman Empire, while modern terrorism dates back to the Assassins of the 11th century. The concept of ‘radicalization’ as a pathway to extremism and violence, however, is relatively new. Radicalism had, for centuries, the connotation of social progress. While violence could be part of this progress, radicalism was not necessarily considered to be a pathway to violence. Only in the years after the 9/11 attacks—specifically 2004-2005—did the term ‘radicalization’ emerge as a conceptual framework to understand how and why individuals come to adhere to extremist ideologies and perpetrate acts of terrorism.
The field of radicalization studies is, therefore, a young academic discipline. To be sure, research on terrorism has been conducted for a much longer period of time. The Anarchists in the 19th century were the subject of academic research as well as the wave of left-wing terrorism in Europe and the US in the 1960s and 1970s and the conflict in Northern Ireland. Here, too, researchers analyzed the drivers of terrorism, the role of factors such as grievances or personality structures as well as the organizational makeup of the groups and recruitment strategies by building on existing sociological or social movement research. However, radicalization, as a process of developing an extremist mindset and an overarching framework to understand personal, social and meta-level factors facilitating extremist ideologies and driving individuals towards perpetrating violence, has only recently come to the forefront of academic research.
While an astonishing amount of research has been published on radicalization and progress has been made in uncovering the processes leading to the adoption of extremist ideology, key problems remain. So far, understanding the process of radicalization has proven to be both theoretically and practically taxing for the research community. There are multiple challenges associated with researching and modelling the processes of radicalization, including conceptual clarity, the nature of the research phenomenon, and the nature of the process.
Despite popular notions of ‘I know it when I see it’, finding a common definition of radicalization has been proven to be just as difficult as agreeing on a universal definition of terrorism, although attempts have been made to reach academic consensus. Who and what is considered extreme and outside of the mainstream depends on the point of reference one employs and this changes over time. For instance, while the right of women to vote is part of the mainstream set of rights and values in Western societies, this was not the case in 19th century Europe and the US. Advocating for these rights during the 19th century was considered extreme by mainstream society. Additionally, labeling an individual or a group of individuals as ‘radicalized’, ‘extremists’ or ‘terrorists’ carries political implications and can justify political action against this group. The term may therefore be used in popular discourse to shape a certain perception of reality, rally support for certain actions and delegitimize actors who may or may not be regarded as extremists in the various academic definitions of the term.
The current socio-political reality has been proven especially difficult for developing conceptual clarity of radicalization. Who or what is radical or extreme is relative. Recent years have brought a change in the so-called Overton window, that is, the values and ideas that can be regarded as part of the political mainstream. We have seen a ‘Pasokification’—a collapse of the center named after the once dominant Greek social democratic party Pasok whose public support fell from 45% to 4% in 2015 after being overpowered by more extreme forces in Greece—in many Western countries and the inclusion of ideas and values in popular discourse that would have been considered extreme and peripheral ten years ago. Should academic definitions of radicalization change according to the current social climate? After all, the study of radicalization is not only concerned with violent or behavioral radicalization, but also with researching cognitive radicalization, which is merely a radicalization of ideas. If more and more extreme ideas enter mainstream discourse, do we need to redefine who we regard as radicalized? Do we need to develop different models of radicalization for different political environments?
The lack of conceptual clarity is problematic for modeling radicalization because the models developed will inevitably need to be grounded in a baseline—a way of differentiating between the radicalized and ‘the others’. If this baseline is unclear or keeps on moving, models potentially stand on shaky ground too.
The Nature of the Phenomenon
The fact that extremist activity is mostly clandestine is an obvious obstacle to researching radicalization. Propaganda materials are able to reach far more people these days because of social media, which theoretically makes researching radicalization easier. This is because online communications can be monitored much easier than physical places such as bookstores or mosques. However, one must distinguish between material distributed by extremist organizations and its resonance with the audience. If mere exposure to propaganda material causes radicalization, hundreds of researchers would be radicalized. Without knowing who the consumers of the propaganda are and what distinguishes those who will radicalize from those who are exposed but do not change their views, the accessibility of social media is not necessarily an advantage for understanding radicalization processes.
Social media must also be regarded as part of what Goffman calls the ‘frontstage’. What is posted and shown online is not necessarily indicative of the user’s social reality offline. Trolls, for instance, purposefully post controversial comments to stir up discussion, but these posts do not necessarily correspond to their worldview. Judging radicalization by analyzing online communication, especially if posted publicly, must, therefore, be exercised with caution. Tracing an individual’s social media history can potentially facilitate an understanding of the progression of extremist ideas into the worldview of this individual but basing a model of radicalization solely on such public stages is likely to be incomplete or skewed towards factors publicly shared by the individual rather than giving a holistic picture.
The Nature of the Process
The third challenge is the nature of the research subjects. Similar to terrorism research, the study of radicalization relies too heavily on studying those who have been arrested because those who have not been arrested are not easily accessible. This usually means that research carried out on radicalized individuals takes place at a very late stage in their radicalization process—if they hadn’t acted against the law they would not have been be arrested and therefore would not be available to researchers. In order to obtain accurate models of radicalization, researchers would need to have access to individuals at every stage of the radicalization process. That is an unattainable goal and the lack of access means that models of radicalization are, at best, reconstructions of radicalization processes or theoretical endeavors. Retrospective accounts—even if given to the best of the individual’s ability—are usually biased. This is because our current state of mind or system of beliefs often alters our recollection of past events and motives. Research subjects may unknowingly over-emphasize or under-represent certain factors in their accounts or they may not be aware of the factors that led to their change in worldview. We, as humans, are reflective agents, but in multifaceted processes of cognitive or behavioral changes, we may not be able to give a complete account of the reasons and underlying factors driving these changes.
Radicalization is a highly individualized process. Ranstorp speaks of a “kaleidoscope” of factors contributing to radicalization and the emerging picture in the kaleidoscope is different for each individual. Radicalization does not follow uniform stages, staircases, pyramids or funnels, even if the models incorporate a whole range of factors and allow for a relatively large degree of flexibility. Modeling radicalization carries the risk of oversimplification or an exclusion of factors the researcher does not regard as important. This is especially true because individual differences that are difficult to observe, such as perceived self-efficacy, may make it difficult to distinguish between cognitive and behavioral radicalization.
To put it simply, no model will be able to adequately explain all cases of radicalization. This is especially true as most models (and the bulk of research on extremism for that matter) focus on jihadism. While there are models seeking to explain right-wing radicalization, other forms of extremism such as left-wing extremism or single-issue terrorism are under-researched with regards to radicalization. Whether underlying mechanisms or radicalization are the same for religious, ethno-national, right-wing, left-wing and single-issue extremists, cannot yet be determined. It is nevertheless unlikely, however, that a single model of radicalization will ever be able to capture both individual and ideological variety adequately and be applicable in every context.
How we conceptualize and model radicalization is not simply a subject of academic debate. It shapes P/CVE policies, guides the development, implementation and evaluation of programs, and supports practitioners in their de-radicalization work. Therefore, a continued debate on the nature of the radicalization process and its facilitating conditions and stages is needed. More research needs to be done to compare and contrast pathways of radicalization into different ideologies and in different political environments in order to facilitate a more holistic understanding of radicalization and, therefore, a more holistic approach to countering extremism and radicalization in today’s world.
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