Radicalization to Terrorism: What Everyone Needs to Know merges original and existing research to offer a unique overview of the most crucial mechanisms of both radicalization and terrorism.
Sophia Moskalenko became interested in the topic of radicalization in the 1990s, whereas Clark McCauley began a decade earlier, one of the first psychologists to focus on terrorism.
The book represents a fundamental tool for both beginners and experts in terrorism studies. Thirteen questions introduce in an easily digestible way the most complex issues related to terrorism and radicalization, which are further deconstructed through exhaustive sets of sub-questions and answers. The strikingly clear and agile structure brings additional value to the analysis.
The authors bring up a wide range of issues, from fundamentals like “What is radicalization?” to the perennial questions afflicting theoreticians and practitioners alike over the relationship between radical ideas and radical action, whether and what “lone wolves” are, and the possibilities of prevention and de-radicalization.
The psychological approach to studying radicalization is adopted in a catchy way throughout the book, which explains some of the most interesting psychological models, theories, and keywords used in the realm of terrorism studies.
It is not possible to summarize here all the insights contained in Radicalization to Terrorism. Nevertheless, a few quick examples will further demonstrate the value of this book, while leaving for EER readers the pleasure of reading it for themselves.
One of the first points made by McCauley and Moskalenko relates to the idea that, to understand how radicalization becomes terrorism. They argue that the transition requires both radicalization of opinion and radicalization of action, and that, for the purposes of counter-terrorism policing and prevention, it is the latter that is more important.
An interesting meta-analytic point in the book is a clarification of who actually studies radicalization which, given the complexity and diversity of the topics, can be surprisingly useful for those already in the field:
- Psychologists study radicalization from different angles. Social psychologists are interested in the circumstances that may result in individuals or groups becoming radical. Social psychologists ask questions such as “What were the events or relationships that made thoughts, feelings, or behaviors more radical?”;
- Sociologists consider radicalization in the context of the culture and society in which it arises and try to uncover the tendencies that affect broader populations and make them more prone to radicalization;
- Political scientists view radicalization through the lens of political systems, government policies, and their impacts on populations affected by them;
- Historians study radicalization as it developed over time, seeking informative patterns; and
- Criminologists study radicalization as a form of criminal behavior that may be related to gang violence, assassinations, and school shootings.
As far as the mechanisms of radicalization are concerned, the authors conclude that the “slippery slope” remains particularly informative, despite the model falling out of fashion. The idea of the psychological power of a slippery slope belongs to the psychologist Stanley Milgram, who carried out experiments trying to understand how millions of ordinary Germans could be complicit of the Holocaust.
In his laboratory experiments, Milgram exposed ordinary Americans to a situation that, for two out of three participants, led them to participate in torturing an innocent man. The conclusion was that the main reasons for these results were, first, the presence of an authority in the situation: the experimenter in a white lab coat and, second, the slippery slope. The slippery slope is, in a nutshell, a series of successive steps, each incremental and barely perceptible, serving as the justification for the next step, that take participants across lines they would otherwise not cross because there is never a clear point at which they have gone too far.
If the slippery slope is one of the most powerful mechanisms leading to violence and radicalization, however, the two authors clearly warn that one mechanism is not always enough to radicalize an individual. It can be, but in general individual journeys towards radicalization include more than one mechanism and different mechanisms and patterns can combine in many different ways.
Another interesting phenomenon addressed in the book is “group polarization”, relating to the interaction of like-minded people as a radicalizing factor. In a group discussion, like-minded groups discuss reasons for their perspective, and emerge with new arguments in support of their initial position favoring a particular side or interpretation of an issue. Beside this intellectual reinforcement, these like-minded interactions play a social role in establishing a hierarchy of influence among participants. Perhaps surprising to some: the people with the most extreme positions are generally more admired by other group members than are more moderate individuals. This paradigm is called group polarization and the two forces that are believed to cause it—the informational and social pressures within the group—are the core components of the persuasive argument theory and social comparison theory.
In one of the later chapters, McCauley and Moskalenko shift their focus on another set of extremely complex issues, one related to the radicalization of whole publics. In this respect, they illustrate the notions of political frame and political narrative. Framing is a way to capture an issue in simple terms. With simplification, however, some of the facts are left out and what the frames includes or not will determine how the audience will perceive the issue described, which side it is likely to support, and which emotions it is likely to experience. In other words, without altering the facts in any way, framings can have an impact on the choices made by the audiences. If a frame is static, describing things as they are, a narrative is dynamic, describing how and why things got to be this way. Instead of taking a snapshot of the events, narratives talk about the causes of the present and the likely trajectory into the future.
These are just few, scattered examples of the multiple insights provided by Radicalization to Terrorism: What Everyone Needs to Know, a book capable of merging a far-reaching scope with originality and rigorousness.