Blue Line

Radicalization a prerequisite to terrorism

April 22, 2014  By Rick Parent and James O Ellis III

by Rick Parent and James O Ellis III

North America has long served as a fundraising and logistics hub for dozens of global terrorist organizations and has occasionally been attacked.

Many radicals have lived, worked or studied in their host country for extended periods and rarely fit the mold of a classic “sleeper operative.” They either appear to not integrate into a pluralistic, tolerant democracy or move to a radicalized subculture that has taken root through a perversion of the freedoms afforded by multiculturalism.

{The process}


Radicalization is not a new phenomenon, but common usage of the term and its frequent connection to terrorism only began around 2004. As with terrorism, there are many different definitions. The RCMP defines radicalization as the process by which individuals are introduced to an overtly ideological message and belief system that encourages movement from moderate, mainstream beliefs towards extreme views ().

The Dutch intelligence agency AIVD defines radicalization as a readiness to pursue or support far-reaching changes in society that conflict with, or pose a threat to, the democratic order (). Much of the current literature suggests that radicalization involves more than simply adopting a system of extreme beliefs; it also implies imposing those beliefs on the rest of society. Consequently, a radicalized individual will often display a willingness to use, support or enable violence to effect societal change. Radicalization may make an individual prone to violence. It does not always produce this result but it can be seen as a prerequisite to terrorism.

In recent years, both the US and Canada have seen an increase in homegrown extremism and radicalization amongst various diaspora communities. This trend suggests the possibility of additional future attacks that may approach the levels of violence seen in Europe over the last decade.

Diaspora communities have a long history of producing violence in their host country and provide an extended social support network that can rapidly import conflict to North American shores. There are two distinct processes opposing radicalization – disengagement and deradicalization. They may be applied at both the individual or collective group level.

Disengagement involves a behavioral change and rejection of violent means, though not necessarily a reduction in ideological support for a cause. A disengaged individual may withdraw from a radical organization or an organization may cease its violence, but each may retain their original, radical worldview. In other words, disengagement focuses on outward actions.

Deradicalization is the process of moderating beliefs and rejecting extremist ideology, making it more about internal views. Disengagement can occur without deradicalization but deradicalization cannot occur without disengagement.

The European Commission suggested individual exclusion, threatened identity, discrimination, globalization and immigration as possible root causes of radicalization, noting a lack of connection to the linguistic, religious or political beliefs of the parents’ generation or that of the host country. Senior Canadian officials have also identified poverty and intense feelings of marginalization and alienation as root causes. The FBI conceives of Muslim radicalization as a four-stage cycle: pre-radicalization, identification, indoctrination and action ().

radicalization process chart

Various motivating factors, thought to be unique to each individual, may spur conversion and initiate the radicalization process to become a violent jihadist. The four types of potential violent jihadists are described as jilted believers, protest converts, acceptance seekers and faith re-interpreters. Once in the identification stage, the individual becomes alienated from his former life and affiliates with like-minded individuals while strengthening dedication to Islam ().

During the identification stage, individuals may engage in training and group bonding experiences to solidify their extremist identity but do not pursue training in preparation for an attack. An indoctrination period follows. At this point, the individual becomes convinced that action is required to further the cause and, if recruited, undergoes extensive vetting and operational tests to gauge willingness to participate in an attack and to test resolve (<FBI, 2006>).

The action stage represents various activities, including participation in jihad, terrorist attacks, facilitation, recruitment or financing. The actions can be violent or nonviolent but are done with the intention of inflicting damage to the enemy. Evidence suggests that radicalization does not always lead to action and is a fluid process without a timetable.

The FBI also notes that recruitment is often accomplished by personal friends who have established bonds with the extremist group or member and may not involve a charismatic leader (). Intermediary organizations sometimes act as “conveyor belts” and “match-makers,” transforming newcomers into sympathizers, supporters and members of terrorist networks.

In other cases, traveling clerics and agitators pass through local communities to galvanize support and radicalize the faithful, indoctrinating adherents and propelling them to terrorist training camps. This was the case with radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki shortly after the September 11 attacks. He spoke to groups across the United Kingdom and developed his lecture series, “Constants in the Path of Jihad,” while fleeing an FBI inquiry. A generic recruitment process may include these steps:

1) Attract/promote exposure to seminal ideas;

2) Invite prospects to smaller, select gatherings;

3) Develop social bond to small group;

4) Gradually introduce political/radical ideas;

5) Cultivate extremism, focusing on political/radical ideas; and

6) Allow social forces to mobilize volunteers for action.

{The rational act of terrorism}

Resorting to terrorism is a rational choice, offering a way to show that even powerful governments cannot guarantee safety and security. Leaders who use terrorism can also become legitimate politicians over time, as demonstrated by Menachem Begin, Yasser Arafat and Gerry Adams. To them, terrorism was cheaper than all-out war and killed fewer people. It also provides an opportunity to gain media access, notoriety and an opportunity to magnify the importance of marginalized individuals and causes. In this view, terrorism is “win-win” since it gains media attention regardless of whether the tactical operation is successful.

Describing terrorists as rational actors does not justify their actions or downplay their occasional delusional views of reality but clarifies that terrorism is the result of a strategic calculation to achieve specific goals and not a form of pathology.

Many terrorists view themselves as reluctant warriors, believing history will see them as peacemakers or valiant martyrs driven to violence to serve the greater good. They trust their acts will spur change, help return to some golden age or avenge a grievous wrong. Defining themselves as righteous protectors and visionaries, they feel the ends always justify the means, no matter what carnage they leave behind.

{Opportunities for radicalization: Diaspora communities}

The term “diaspora” covers ethnic migrants; first, second or even third-generation immigrants, guest workers, refugees, expatriates and students who can be thought of as playing an active role in two or more communities simultaneously. They may develop their composite identity from both their host country and their traditional ethnic or cultural roots.

Diaspora communities have grown in part due to global migration patterns. An estimated 200 million people worldwide now live outside their country of birth. Today’s diasporas have access to ubiquitous telecommunications, inexpensive international travel and liberalized financial remittance systems that create “hyper-connectivity” with their home communities. This can provide an extended social support network but may also provide pathways to import foreign conflict and relieve pressure to integrate into a host country.

{Countering radicalization}

Europe has developed counter radicalization strategies at the international, national and municipal levels and has direct and indirect programs. The main emphasis has been to prevent at-risk individuals from radicalizing and to rehabilitate those who are not irreconcilable. In this regard, Europe has identified several factors that may promote radicalization such as large youth bulges during periods of high unemployment, poverty and radicalized educational institutions.

Law enforcement agencies benefit from developing closer relations with diaspora communities. They can provide valuable insights, language skills and cultural understanding to aid in analyzing data and intelligence from their countries of origin. Cultural sensitivity and understanding are important in monitoring diaspora communities with radical elements. A narrow focus on criminal investigations and blindness to continuing threats and radicalization can diminish community cooperation and turn sources into adversaries. Good relationships between law enforcement and sources in, or close to, radical movements in diaspora communities are vital to acquiring actionable information.

It is important to recognize the role of law enforcement and public vigilance in stopping terrorist attacks. An American study of 68 foiled plots since 1999 found more than 80 per cent were discovered by law enforcement or the general public – and nearly one in five were foiled during investigations into seemingly unrelated crimes. This suggests that intelligence and national security agencies are not the only significant players in stopping terrorism and radicalization.

A radicalization prevention strategy should be rooted in the basic principles of policing, with an emphasis on community policing (<CACP, 2008>). Strategic community policing in diaspora communities must actively address community concerns, fear of crime and trust of authorities (<Whitelaw–Parent, 2009>).

Local police agencies and “street-level” patrol officers are best placed to detect radicalization and intervene early in the process. In this regard, local and police agencies need to be engaged in preventing radicalization since they have deep local knowledge of, and insights into, communities of interest.

Radicalization and terrorism do not need community support to flourish, only community silence. This emphasizes the important role of diaspora communities in taking the initiative for “self-policing,” utilizing various strategies that include developing credible counter narratives. They can strip radicals and terrorists of their glamour and mystique through satire and by citing their ideological and theological shortcomings.

Finally, diaspora community leaders have a special role to play in self-policing by recognizing and confronting radicalization. Community leaders have their own intelligence systems and usually know a great deal about local activities. Radicalization can occur quickly and pre-radicalization indicators may appear quite subtle to a cultural outsider like an intelligence officer.


The issues associated with radicalization in North America are multi-faceted and can be attributed to a number of sources, many part of religious and ethnic diaspora communities. There is a long history of episodic and continued violence developing from within North American communities, with no single group monopolizing this type of extremism and violence. Xenophobia and collective sanctions against identified ethnicities, religions or nationalities are likely to be counterproductive and may serve to exacerbate tensions.

Since there is no single path to radicalization, there is also no guaranteed method for disengagement and deradicalization. However, Canada and the US must enable public engagement and education programs that describe radicalization indicators communities should look for. Following the example of some European countries, we should work with diaspora communities to develop alternative, non-law-enforcement mechanisms at the local level to deal with radicalization.

Effective law enforcement support of diaspora communities can also help them become more resilient to radicalization. The essential components for containing diaspora radicalization and terrorism are community cooperation, tips from friends and family members, alert citizens and focused intelligence collection.

Culturally-sensitive strategic community policing, combined with voluntary self-policing efforts, offer powerful mechanisms to reduce and root out radicalization. Reducing it today can save lives tomorrow.

Author’s note:

This article is based upon a Metropolis Working Paper, Series 11-12: “Countering Radicalization of Diaspora Communities in Canada.”


Dr. Rick Parent is Assistant Professor, Police Studies Program, School of Criminology, Simon Fraser University. A former police officer with more than 25 years service, his research and expertise focuses upon police use of lethal force, including the phenomena of suicide by cop. Contact:

James O Ellis III, MA is a Senior Fellow, Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, which is funded by the Department of Homeland Security, and a former Fulbright scholar at the University of St Andrews. Contact:

The authors are researchers for the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS), funded by Public Safety Canada.


Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) Prevention of Radicalization Study Group, 2008. Building Community Resilience to Violent Ideologies: A Discussion Paper.

FBI Counterterrorism Division, 2006. The Radicalization Process: From Conversion to Jihad (Unclassified Intelligence Assessment).

Homeland Security Institute (HSI), 2006. Radicalization: An Overview and Annotated Bibliography of Open-Source Literature.

Whitelaw, B., & Parent, R. (2009). Community-based Strategic Policing in Canada (3rd ed.). Toronto: Nelson Education.

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