The terms “radicalization” and “terrorism” are distinct but interconnected. “Radicalization” describes a process by which a person becomes conditioned to hold radical views regarding political and societal issues, while “terrorism” describes the act of committing a violence to create a climate of fear in a population. Vulnerability and desperation are two conditions required to be able to radicalize a person and put them on a path toward chaos, with the final destination being a terrorist act. While most people have a general understanding of what terrorism entails, the ability to understand the dynamic factors at play is something that even the most seasoned experts on terrorism sometimes struggle with, let alone the general public.
Perhaps what matters most in the discussion on radicalization and terrorism might be the need to understand what makes people more susceptible to being radicalized and joining terror groups, but also the reasons why some of these same people want to exit out of terror groups, because that is a reality for many of them as well. It is equally as important to understand the current ways that governments are attempting to combat radicalization and terrorism, and to what extent that social platforms are doing their part in addressing this global challenge.
Radicalization often starts in childhood.
One common thread of consensus amongst experts on radicalization and terrorism is that radicalization often starts in childhood. The most common susceptibility factors, which can have significant impacts on child development include challenges around financial stability (poverty), mental health (personal or familial), social factors (victimization, stigmatization, and marginalization), social bonds (parent-child bonds and friend groups), and reorienting events when combined with propaganda is what leads people to tumble down the rabbit hole of radicalization and toward terrorism.
Beyond the most common susceptibility factors, the other commonalities between children the end up getting radicalized is that they often come from homes where parental supervision might be lacking, they tend to grow up around domestic violence, they display early childhood aggression when playing, they may get into a number of school fights, and their thoughts around hurting others are likely to be distorted. And the earlier that aggressive tendencies are exhibited by children the greater the chances that they will experience negative life and health outcomes. These susceptibility factors and commonalities are just synonyms for vulnerability and desperation, and the power of these ingredients is that they always create chaos. But there are remedies to these challenges.
Similar to how people can tumble down the bottom of the radicalization rabbit hole, after hitting the bottom and arriving with the realization of what terrorism is really about, it is not uncommon for people to want to exit these groups. The most common reasons for exiting have been disillusionment and burnout (group hypocrisy, infighting, ineffectiveness), but also as a result of interventions. Outside the susceptibility factors, one of the more effective ways to combat against radicalization is by having children growing up in diverse communities with exposure to all of the world’s cultures, providing emotional support to children as they transition into adolescence and eventually into adulthood, and an environment where kindness is instilled as a fundamental value, but growing up in a stable country and in a financially stable household are big parts of that equation as well.
There is a need for a different lens.
Scholars seem to agree that the beginning of the era of international terrorism happens to be between the 1960s and 1970s. One of the biggest differences from then till now might be how common it was for children of privilege which lived in functioning democracies to commit general acts of destruction. Today, it is far less likely that any individuals who come from privilege to take part in any similar actions, and it might be the first hint that the terrorism has evolved into something more, and that it requires getting to its core and better understanding community characteristics.
As interconnected as radicalization and terrorism may be, it is entirely possible for people to hold radical beliefs but never put them into action. This has to do with the differences between radicalization and extremist beliefs, and terrorism, and how triggers for action can vary from person to person. As such, it is important not to assume that individuals carry out terrorism because of irrationality, unreason, fanaticism, or another reaction. It can be a calculation or miscalculation. However, one of the most commonly referred to triggers tends to come by the way of technology and different social platforms. Thus, it has resulted in a sort of behavioral engineering for those struggling with vulnerability and desperation, and playing on an assortment of factors, including psychology, psychiatry, world history, social issues, and more, until they become comfortable with the idea of terrorism.
In the U.S., the Department of Homeland Security is focusing its counteractive measures on geographic hotspots and high spawning areas to offer culturally sensitive and community-specific programs, services, employment, and health support. Meanwhile, Australia has taken steps to establish a presence in Southeast Asia to prevent it becoming the next front for the war on terror and helping develop counter terrorism cooperation between countries in the region. Canada, on the other hand, has taken similar steps to ensure that different religious and ethnic leaders can be utilized to help identify and prevent community members from a path of no return. Despite that there has been some general consensus around the world when it comes to addressing radicalization and terrorism, some of the fiercest opposition has come by the way of tech companies.
“If we don’t understand our problems, we can’t create effective responses.”
The Center for Law and Human Behavior (CLHB) at the University of Texas carried out a Homeland Security Symposium series between 2016 and 2017, which was only open to individuals affiliated with the Department of Homeland Security as well as local federal, state, and tribal agencies. One of the lecturers started off their presentation by highlighting the 9/11 Commission Report and how they suggest that all their policy, policing, criminal justice system undergrads, masters, PhDs and post-doctoral students read this document, calling it one of the most important documents in criminal justice. What the 9/11 Commission Report highlights is how, prior to September 11th, the U.S. was largely looking for pyramid-like terror groups that functioned from top to bottom, while the 9/11 attack was carried out by cells. Furthermore, the Boston plane that hit one of the twin towers, out of the three hijackers on that plane only one of them knew it was a suicide mission. Simply put, 9/11 had no central command.
A different member of the CLHB on Homeland Security quoted one CNN journalist who described the chaos that was being perpetuated from gun violence in low-income areas across America’s most violent cities as being part-gang, part-terrorist and that the level of weapon violence was street gangs on steroids. Ultimately, this weapons violence segues into how many youths from Milwaukee that tried to leave the U.S. to join terrorist groups elsewhere in the world seemed to have a common thread that traced back to gangs, but gang intervention models, policies, and tactics are different from those required to carry out terrorism interventions. After that realization, more resources went into creating algorithms and machine learning systems that could navigate open-source intelligence (OSINT), because how people thought about themselves, and their identity was often reflected by how they posted on online social platforms. It also resulted in leveraging Google, often used by individuals who might be thinking about joining a terrorist group, so that terror-related searches show Google ads for support lines, and it has been proven to be an effective tool.
The Homeland Security Symposium highlighted international working committees that included European partners who raised concerns with how Norwegian youth were replicating Chicago gang culture with graffiti and in photos and videos. What was interesting about this was the Norwegian youth were often early-generation Norwegians from all racial backgrounds including white, black, and mixed race. After studying the issue and speaking with some of these youth, the working group was able to conclude that it was the power of internet that helped to transmit Chicago’s culture, groups, and group identities, creating for a better understanding for all working group committee members.
Another concerning realization that came out of one of these symposiums was a survey of attendees which indicated that policing and public safety personnel often relied on media as the leading way to learn about gangs and more. Despite this response, the same group reported that media was the least reliable source in relation to their work, and media still seems to be the source most used to understand things like gangs and terror groups and it is used to shape policies and craft interventions. Overall, this series concludes with one of the main ideas being that the open nature of online social platforms should be seen as a gift for intelligence gathering purposes, especially since it requires violating no civil liberties.
Anti-social tech needs to be more cooperative.
Much of the violation guidelines that social media companies are the result of past legal battles and threats from advertisers to pull their ads from these platforms. Harvard Law School hosted one panel where the topic of the discussion was the role of social media in terrorist incitement. During this discussion, one of the speakers referenced an experiment that was conducted on Facebook to demonstrate the inconsistency of which pages got removed, including terror-related material and hate speech. The experiment saw two opposing ethno-religious pages get created, that posted terror-related materials and hate speech about the other ethno-religious group, and only one of the two pages were removed. As a result, a group took Facebook to court over the matter in New York, where Facebook tried citing the Communications Decency Act, a law created to offer blanket immunity for web-page misuse by users in the early days of internet, as to why they did not need to be proactive about the misuse of the platform. However, Facebook was pushing specific ads to users, making recommendations about different things, and it did not function like an early-day webpage. Eventually, new laws were introduced, and advertisers threatened to pull their ads from all social media companies that did not stick to a civil standard, and it resulted in some improvements about what can and can not be posted online. But these changes came not because they were realized as the right thing to do but because of the pressure environments and situations these companies were faced with.
What radicalization and terrorism seem to be is a fight for the hearts and minds of those most exposed to vulnerability and desperation and likely to embrace chaos. There might be an unsettling reality to all of that, as there is no end in sight in the fight against terrorism, and it is an issue that is not exclusive to any single country and can quickly spread between nations. Perhaps it is impossible to address all the complexities associated with radicalization and terrorism and the role online social platforms play because of the dynamic and constantly changing nature of these challenges. But without global cooperation, the attacks like 9/11 and in Southern Israel are bound to reoccur elsewhere, until there is consensus amongst all of the world’s nations on how many more human lives are sacrificial because the past seems to matter more than the future.