Radicalization and Violent Extremism: Risk Factors, Causes and Threat Assessment

The focus of the workshop is on identifying risk factors, causes and drivers of radicalization, including the role of self-uncertainty, small group dynamics, personality profiles, criminogenic factors, mental health issues as well as social-ecological characteristics of the surrounding environment. At the same time the workshop seeks to address the question of how empirical evidence on risk factors and causes of radicalization should/are informing threat assessment tools and policies of prevention and interdiction in the area of countering violent extremism. The workshop explores these questions in the context of all forms of violent extremism; lone actors and group-based; religious and politically motivated; domestic and foreign fighting. Core issues to be addressed include:

  • Conversion, group new-comers and status seeking
  • Interaction between personality and self-uncertainty in radicalization
  • Appropriateness of existing risk assessment tools of violent extremism
  • Overlap between criminal and extremist milieus – the uniqueness of risk factors of violent extremism
  • Neighborhood effects on the emergence of radical groups in some localities rather than others
  • Enclave deliberation, group polarization and self-uncertainty reduction
  • Effectiveness of civic engagement encouragement and other principles in counter-radicalization work
  • Systematic differences/similarities between various forms of radicalization and violent extremism

The purpose of the workshop is to bring together leading scholars in the area of terrorism and security studies, the psychology and social psychology of extremist violence and political aggression, criminology and sociology of violence for an inter-disciplinary exchange of views on empirical research findings, their implications for threat assessment and policies and future research projects and ideas. The format of the workshop will be a mix of presentations and plenary discussions in a relatively small setting of invited participants (about 15).

Presenter Biographies and Abstracts

Martha Crenshaw

Martha Crenshaw is a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and professor of political science by courtesy at Stanford University. She received her PhD from the University of Virginia in 1973 and taught at Wesleyan University from 1974 to 2007. In 2005-2006 she was a Guggenheim Fellow. In 2005-2017 she was a lead investigator with the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland. In 2009 the National Science Foundation/Department of Defense Minerva Initiative awarded her a grant for a project on “mapping terrorist organizations” (see mappingmilitants.stanford.edu). In 2015 she was elected a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy. She is the recipient of the International Studies Association International Security Studies Section Distinguished Scholar Award for 2016. Ghent University also awarded her the degree of Doctor honoris causa in 2016. Her recent work includes Countering Terrorism (Brookings Institution Press, 2017), co-authored with Gary LaFree.

“What is new about “radicalization”?”

Interest in the individual level of terrorism or “violent extremism” is longstanding. Many studies have investigated the question of why a small number of people who have had similar experiences and been exposed to the same ideologies turn to violence in the service of a political cause. What has changed since researchers began analyzing the subject in the 1970s and 1980s? Human psychology at the individual and group levels remains constant. What has changed is likely to be the environment. The first critical transformation concerns what can be called permissive conditions. Here the rise of social media in particular as well as advances in communications technology in general have increased the velocity and the worldwide scope of “radicalization” processes. More problematic is the second question of possible change in the instigating or motivating factors for an individual’s turn to violence. Is there a fundamental difference between contemporary radical Islamist/jihadist ideologies and historical predecessors such as revolutionary socialism or nationalism?

Lasse Lindekilde

Lasse Lindekilde is associate professor at the Department of Political Science, Aarhus University. He holds a PhD from the European University Institute. His research is focused on violent radicalization and the implementation and effects of counter-terrorism policies and communication. He has published more than 30 articles and book chapters in this domain. His work is interdisciplinary linking insights from political science, political sociology, criminology and social psychology. Methodologically he has published work building on both field work, survey research and experimental techniques. His research is funded by amongst others the European Commission, the MINERVA-programme and the Danish Research Council. He is currently undertaking research looking at the importance of self-uncertainty and dark personality traits in violent radicalization as well the efficiency of pre-event communication campaigns aimed at interdiction and mitigation of violent extremism.

“British Muslims Mobilization against Islamist Extremism: The Importance of Action Appeals and Trust”

Research on social movements and collective action has most often been silent on the issue of the effect of characteristics of the mobilizer on the success or failure of mobilization. Most studies in these fields investigate either successful cases of mobilization or collect data on intended behaviours without specifying to respondents, who it is that makes the appeal for action. This paper takes a first step in providing answers to the question of whether and how characteristics of the mobilizer matter to the success of mobilization. It does so by testing hypotheses derived from the literature on persuasive communication and related research, on the case of British Muslims‘ collective action against Islamist extremism. The data come from a survey experiment of British Muslims (n=825). It features a short scenario about a terrorist attack perpetrated by British Muslim attackers and a subsequent call to action by three different mobilizers (conditions): the British Government, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) or nobody specific. We investigate to what degree it matters for British Muslims‘ willingness to engage in collective action, who calls upon them to stand up against Islamist extremism. In doing so we also take into account other relevant variables, including trust in Government/MCB, group efficacy, protest experience, issue saliance, ideological attitudes, identity strength, and emotions.

Lella Nouri

Dr Lella Nouri is a Senior Lecturer of Criminology at Swansea University, specialising in terrorist use of the internet. Lella’s background is interdisciplinary in nature; she studied for her PhD in Politics and her MA in International Relations. Lella’s recent research has focussed on the growing use of the internet by far-right extremist groups; currently she is leading an interdisciplinary team examining extreme far-right groups’ usage and influence on popular social media sites. Lella is also part of Swansea University’s multidisciplinary cyberterrorism research project. To date the Cyberterrorism Project has conducted a survey of the global research community, compiled a database of definitions of cyberterrorism, conducted a study of online terrorist magazines, compiled a database of news stories on cyberterrorism, hosted a NATO Advanced Research Workshop and three international symposia, and published three edited collections and five policy reports (see further www.cyberterrorism-project.org). In 2017/18, Lella is a visiting scholar at University of California, Santa Barbara on a Fulbright Cyber Security Award.

“‘Fit into our community or piss off back to the prehistoric shithole you came from’:
Threat-based boundaries and social-media political community building by the Far Right.”

On 14th March 2018, Facebook banned Britain First from its platform, reasoning that they had “repeatedly posted content designed to incite animosity and hatred against minority groups” (Guardian, 2018). This came just a week after Britain First Leader Paul Golding and Deputy Leader Jayda Fransen were collectively convicted of four counts of hate crime and jailed for a combined period of 54 weeks. The removal of Britain First from Facebook has sparked debate about the content of the group’s Facebook page and its posts, with high-profile figures such as the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, describing the group as “a vile and hate-fuelled group whose sole purpose is to sow division” (The New York Times, 2018). By this time last year, Britain First had succeeded in receiving over 1.9 million likes and attracting 1.6 million followers on Facebook (Nouri, Lorenzo-Dus and Di-Cristofaro, 2017), thus making it by far the most popular political party on the platform. Since then these numbers increased still further, with over 2 million likes and 1.8 million followers, meaning that until its removal Britain First had the “second most liked Facebook page in the politics and society category in the UK – after the royal family” (Hope not Hate, 2018).
Against this backdrop, an important question emerges, why does use of social media by groups like Britain First result in such unprecedented popularity? By examining comparative data collected from Facebook and Twitter on two groups that can be classified under the far-right umbrella: Britain First and Reclaim Australia. The main aim of our paper is to examine how they use social media. This is crucial for reaching a nuanced understanding of causation in radicalisation processes since ‘how things happen is why they happen’ (Tilly 2006, 410). Drawing upon a +4million word corpus comprising all the Facebook and Twitter posts by Britain First and Reclaim Australia between 21st January and 11th April 2017, our paper examines the linguistic strategies used by both groups. Our analysis reveals that the overriding goal of these far-right groups’ use of social media is to establish an ‘imagined political community’ (Anderson,1991). Crucially, the relative salience and inter-relations between the constitutive features of these groups’ communities differ significantly from those proposed by Anderson. Most noticeably, establishing threats against boundaries – rather than developing national narratives – emerges as the main pillar on which these groups’ imagined communities rest. Our analysis also reveals that threat-based boundary establishment is primarily realised by these groups through discursive practices of othering (Coupland 2010), which are known to have an influential effect in digital terrorist propaganda (Lorenzo-Dus & Macdonald 2018).
By providing, to our knowledge, the first systematic study of Britain First and Reclaim Australia’s social media discourse, our paper advances understanding of how the far right uses social media and why their use proves so popular. Additionally, and by empirically testing theories of political group formation (specifically, Anderson’s seminal work) on these groups’ use of social media, our paper puts forward a new model of imagined political community for the far right – one that we hope may be further tested and applied to other extremist groups and media platforms.

Mikkel Hjelt

Mikkel Hjelt is PhD Candidate at the Department of Political Science, Aarhus University. His research area concerns radicalization and violent extremism within the scope of criminology. Mikkel’s PhD project is part of the Minerva research project The Social Ecology of Radicalization. His project centers on the ‘where’ of radicalization – the importance of the place for the emergence of radical settings, and what happens when certain places and certain people interact. He investigates the functions of radical settings (offline and online), the individual’s exposure to radical settings, and why such milieus emerge in some locations rather than others. Mikkel holds a BA and MA in the Study of Religion from Aarhus University. Prior to his enrollment as PhD candidate, Mikkel worked as a consultant and mentor for six years in Aarhus Municipality regarding prevention of radicalization, extremism and discrimination in Aarhus (the so-called Aarhus Model).

“The ’Where’ of Radicalization: The Social Ecology of Radicalization in Denmark”

My presentation focuses on the connection between individuals and their immediate surroundings in producing radicalization. Therefore, I investigate the immediate socio-physical or virtual environment by characterizing the functions of the radical settings, understanding the individual’s exposure to radical settings, and explaining what characterizes neighborhoods in which radical settings emerge. The data collection has been carried out in Aarhus, Denmark, wherefrom several foreign fighters have left for Syria and Iraq. The data collection applies a mixed methods approach, combining one-on-one interviews and focus groups.
Criminology constitutes the core theoretical framework of the project, more specifically, Situational Action Theory. Furthermore, the project draws on more specific theories of radicalization and extremism. My empirical findings underline the importance of the contextual level in understanding radicalization. First, exposure to radical settings begins early through a combination of social selection, networks, and recruitment since these young people live close to each other, attend the same schools, or participate in the same leisure activities. Second, these radical milieus are settings where you connect with other likeminded, socialize and develop a certain common identity through various activities, and discuss religious and political relations and actions, for example, leaving for Syria and Iraq. These radical settings intertwine a physical and virtual companionship. Third, the radical settings center on locations such as mosques or apartments in certain neighborhoods in Aarhus. Fourth, the broader socio-physical context seems to affect the emergence of radical settings. The neighborhood of my field research is, on the one hand, a community with a strong sense of mutual trust, helping, looking out for, and knowing each other. On the other hand, the same positive neighborhood characteristics also have a downside. These aspects of social organization, collective efficacy, and social capital seem to be limited internally. In this sense, the area is partly detached from the broader society. Furthermore, this neighborhood encapsulates a certain moral context that promotes certain norms, values, and feelings of identity, some of which may be conducive to radicalization.

Michael Hogg

Michael Hogg (PhD, Bristol) is Professor and Chair of the Social Psychology Program at Claremont Graduate University, in Los Angeles, an Honorary Professor at the University of Kent, in the UK, and a former President of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology. He is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, the Society of Experimental Social Psychology, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, and the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Michael Hogg’s research on group processes, intergroup relations, group influence and self and identity is closely associated with the development of social identity theory. He has 360 scientific publications that have been cited 73,000 times, and was the 2010 recipient of the Carol and Ed Diener Mid-Career Award in Social Psychology from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. He is foundation Editor-in-Chief with Dominic Abrams of the journal Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, an associate editor of The Leadership Quarterly, and a former associate editor of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Current research foci include leadership and influence, uncertainty and extremism, exclusion and marginalization, and subgroup dynamics within groups.

“Identity Uncertainty and the Social Psychology of Radicalization”

According to uncertainty-identity theory (e.g., Hogg, 2012), a key motivation associated with group identification and group and intergroup behaviors is reduction of self/identity related uncertainty. Because this motivation is more effectively satisfied by highly entitative groups that provide a distinctive and clear identity, people can develop a social identity preference under uncertainty for xenophobic groups that are intolerant of internal dissent and have autocratic leaders (e.g., Hogg, 2014). Uncertainty identity theory research has shown: (1) self-related uncertainty strengthens group identification, (2) particularly with distinctive groups that have a clearly defined and unambiguous identity; (3) in the absence of an available socially valued identity uncertainty can motivate identification with societally devalued groups; (4) uncertainty motivates people to accentuate the distinctiveness of a group they belong to and of its identity, and (5) can cause people to dis-identify with groups that do not have a distinctive identity; (6) uncertainty motives a need for leadership, (7) particularly leadership that delivers an unambiguous identity message in an affirmational and directive/autocratic style that is uncertainty reducing; (8) uncertainty can also create a preference for leaders who possess the Dark Triad traits of Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy, and can facilitate such people’s successfully attainment of leadership; and (9) people who are uncertain about their membership status in a group that matters to them are the most likely to become zealots who engage in extreme intergroup behavior on behalf of the group. In this talk I overview uncertainty identity theory and its findings in order to underscore the potentially powerful role that identity uncertainty plays in radicalization and violent extremism.

Oluf Gøtzsche-Astrup

Oluf Gøtzsche-Astrup is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Political Science, Aarhus University. In his PhD project, he relies on experimental methods to investigate the causes of intentions to engage in acts of political violence and extremism. His interests centre on the impact of dispositional factors such as impulsivity, emotionality and aggression, and situational factors such as personal uncertainty on political radicalization. Oluf holds an MSc in Psychology from Aarhus University and an MSc in Social Cognition from University College London. Ongoing projects involve the causal impact of personal uncertainty and a dark mindset on the acceptance of violence to solve political conflicts in society, the relationship between political radicalization and other kinds of organized crime, and qualitative analysis of what kinds of uncertainty are critical to radicalization.

“Resorting to violence: A generalized dark mindset mediates the effect of uncertainty on intentions to engage in political violence”

I present and test a theoretical framework that explains how fundamental uncertainty can lead to acts of political violence at the individual level. Existing theories claim that fundamental uncertainty is central to predicting political violence, but there is debate concerning the mechanism through which this happens. Drawing on social identity theory and cognitive and behavioral neuroscience, I argue that the negative emotionality caused by fundamental uncertainty is attributed to broader causes in the world through cognitive biases, which causes the individual to hold a dark mindset of the world. This dark mindset in turn makes acts of political violence, but not legal activism, seem necessary and attractive as an ingroup defense. In an observational pilot study and a population representative concurrent double randomization design study in the United States and Denmark, the mechanism linking fundamental uncertainty to political violence is tested. The results support the theoretical model and indicate a new target for policy interventions that attempt to lessen political violence caused by economic and political instability in society.

Clark McCauley

Clark McCauley is Research Professor of Psychology at Bryn Mawr College. He is a consultant and reviewer for the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation and a lead investigator with the National Consortium for Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (START). With Dan Chirot he is author of Why not kill them all? The logic of mass political murder and finding ways of avoiding it (Princeton University Press, 2006). With Sophia Moskalenko he is author of Friction: How conflict radicalizes them and us (Oxford, 2017). He is Emeritus Founding Editor of Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict and a member of the Editorial Boards of Peace and Conflict: The Journal of Peace Psychology and Terrorism and Political Violence.

“Evolution of the Psychology of Terrorism: Lessons for Analysts and Security Officials”

Looking back over developments in the psychology of radicalization and terrorism, several trends emerge. First was a turn away from seeing terrorists as crazy to seeing them in a rational choice framework in which at least terrorist leaders try to maximize the effectiveness of strategies and tactics. A more recent development gives greater attention to emotions in explaining terrorist behavior. Second, and related to the first, there was initially an emphasis on individual-level explanations of terrorism, then a recognition of the power of group, and most recently increased attention to the social movement and public opinion contexts in which terrorism occurs. Third, initial efforts to understand terrorism focused on them—the terrorists. Building now, if slowly, is attention to the action-and-reaction dynamic of the conflict between terrorists and the government they oppose. Several implications of recent trends are briefly identified.

David Parker

Dr. David Parker is an EU Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at Aarhus University’s Department of Political Science. His research focuses upon anti-radicalisation communication strategies in Denmark and the UK, assessing how communication can be improved and how those individuals vulnerable to radicalisation can be more effectively reached. Prior to this he worked in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, where his research focused on preventing, interdicting and mitigating lone-actor terrorism, as part of the EU-funded PRIME project. During his time at King’s College London, David lectured on several modules, including ‘Political Violence, Counterterrorism and Human Rights’. His work in a range of journals, including European Security and Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. In addition to his research David is an experienced counter-terrorism practitioner, with eight years of experience supporting the strategic local implementation of the UK government’s Prevent Strategy (counter-radicalisation) in West London. In this role David had responsibility for designing and delivering projects designed to counter terrorist ideology, led research project focused on local risk, designed communication and community engagement strategies and oversaw evaluation. He is also a member of the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism’s – The Hague (ICCT) Editorial Board.

“Encouraging Public Reporting of Radicalisation: The Impact of Framing”

Anecdotal and qualitative research suggests that when encouraging the public to report concerns of radicalisation, framing this action in terms of safeguarding the individual in question (i.e. a care framing) is the most effective. This approach is employed in a range of countries, including the UK and Denmark. Despite this, data available indicates that of all referrals received, the proportion from the public is extremely low. Furthermore, communication efforts to date have prioritised specific communities rather than the general population. However, anecdotal information indicates the potential for future radicalisation awareness communications to fall under broader CT branding that prioritises a risk framing. Such an approach would be in line with research that suggests risk framing can be an effective approach in influencing public opinion / behaviour. This presentation discusses the use of an experimental survey with an N-set of 4,000 nationally representative members of the public (2,000 in the UK and 2,000 in Denmark). The survey experiment seeks to identify causal inference on behavioural intentions when communications prioritise a risk or care framing (using intimacy as a further treatment) and attitudes towards the behaviour that could act as barriers of drivers of reporting. This data will add to the academic literature on both framing and counter radicalisation as well as having significant policy relevance for a range of states delivering radicalisation prevention strategies.

Noemié Bouhana

Dr Noémie Bouhana is Associate Professor in Security and Crime Science at University College London, where she leads the Counter-Terrorism Research Group. She holds a BA in Political Studies from the Institut d’Etudes Politiques of Lyon, an MA in Political Science from Université Jean Moulin Lyon III, and an MPhil and PhD in Criminology from the University of Cambridge. On the fundamental side, Noémie’s work is concerned with the social ecological processes involved in the emergence and maintenance of radicalising settings (the “where” of radicalisation, as opposed to the “why”), the role that these settings play, through mechanisms of selection and exposure, in the development of an individual propensity for terrorism, as well as the mechanisms which underpin individual susceptibility to moral change (the “how”). On the applied side, she is interested in the development of risk analysis instruments, which go beyond reliance on risk factors and indicators. Most recently, Noémie led the €2.9M EU FP7 PRIME project, an international, multidisciplinary study on lone actor radicalisation and attack behaviour. At present, she directs the $1M project “The Social Ecology of Radicalisation”, funded by the US DoD Minerva Initiative. Prior research was supported by the European Union, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), the Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the US National Institute of Justice (NIJ), among others.

“Nothing More Practical Than a Good Theory:
Development of a Causal Meta-Framework to Support the Assessment of Radicalisation and Terrorism Risk”

Changes in terrorist patterns over time and the unreliability of risk factors and indicators reflected in the absence of empirically-supported, stable terrorist profiles have hampered efforts to develop structured tools in support of frontline risk assessment of individual radicalisation and terrorism. As low base rates remain an insurmountable obstacle to the adoption of actuarial methods, structured professional judgement has emerged as the approach of choice for use in preventative, investigative and prison settings. This begs the question, however, of how such a judgement should be structured. This paper presents work carried out to develop a risk analysis, causally-informed meta-framework grounded in criminological theory (specifically, Situational Action Theory and opportunity theories) to support risk assessment practice above and beyond the use of risk factor-based tools. Findings from the EU-funded FP7 PRIME project on lone actor extremism, which draw from a dataset of 125 offenders, and from a qualitative study of radicalisation carried out in UK high-security prisons, are used to illustrate the conceptual necessity and the practical, diagnostic value of the proposed framework.

Amy-Louise Watkin

Amy-Louise Watkin is a Research Coordinator at Swansea University and Project Officer of the Cyberterrorism Project. Amy-Louise holds a first class BA in psychology and MSc in Applied Criminology and Forensic Psychology. Amy-Louise’s research interests include terrorist and violent extremists’ use of images and children in online propaganda. Amy-Louise is currently in her second year of undertaking a part-time PhD on tech companies and their regulation of terrorist content from their platforms.

“‘The Lions of Tomorrow’ A News Value Analysis of Child Images in Jihadi Magazines”

Written by Amy-Louise Watkin and Seán Looney

This paper reports and discusses the results of a study that investigated photographic images of children in five online terrorist magazines to understand the roles of children in these groups. The analysis encompasses issues of Inspire, Dabiq, Jihad Recollections (JR), Azan and Gaidi Mtanni (GM) from 2009-2016. The total number of images was 94. A news value framework was applied which systematically investigated what values the images held that resulted in them being ‘newsworthy’ enough to be published. This paper discusses the key findings which were that Dabiq distinguished different roles for boys and girls, portrayed fierce and prestigious boy child perpetrators, and children flourishing under the caliphate. It is thought that these images intended to inspire sympathisers to join and were a form of psychological warfare. Inspire and Azan focused on portraying children as victims of Western-backed warfare which is thought to have been an attempt to create feelings of guilt and anger towards the West. Finally, GM portrayed children supporting the cause peacefully, and JM contained no re-occurring findings. This is thought to be because the groups believed that using children would portray them negatively.

Page Editor

Ben Smith
Ben Smith
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email
Print Friendly and PDF