Psychodynamic of terrorism: new approaches to understand the radicalization

When we speak about the contemporary terrorist phenomenon, the focus is, most frequently, on concept of Radicalization. This concept may seem unquestioned for several scholars and for media but actually is a thorny and debated issue. It is not just an academic dispute for more theoretical knowledge about the subject but more of a major step in order to identify and to preempt the future terrorist threat. But what does the term “radicalization” exactly mean? Is it be sufficient per se to explain the phenomenon of contemporary Islamic terrorism?

Psychodynamic of terrorism: new approaches to understand the radicalization -

Some statistics about terrorism and immigration

Though the relationship between immigration and terrorism has been widely discussed among policymakers and institutions, there are not any significative evidences that the current waves of immigration would increase the risk of attacks. It means, for instance, that is unlikely that the terrorist threat is linked to current migration flows. In fact, according to a study carried out by the Strategic National Risk Assessment from 1975 to 2015 in US, among 154 foreign-born terrorists who killed 3,024 people in attacks, just ten of them were illegal immigrants, while 54 were lawful residents, 19 students and 34 tourists. Statistically speaking, the chance of an American citizen being murdered by a foreign terrorist was 1 in 3,609,709 a year. Simultaneously the chance of being killed by a refugee is 1 in 3,64 billion a year. However, as regards the UE average, in the period from January 2016 to April 2017 only four asylum-seekers were involved in terrorist attacks, wherever the majority of them, exactly 94%, have been perpetrated by regular EU citizens.

Rhizomatic ramification

Although this specific issue would be worthy of particular attention, it is important to highlight that these terrorists are far from being an expression of islamic well-structured and pyramidal movement coming from North Africa or Middle east, but rather “insane particles”, working in almost total independence. Thus, these individuals are an integrant part of western society and their no-structured strategy is the very essence of the new terrorist strategy.

For instance, the so-called “lone wolves” are the clearest representation of the atomization and the liquefaction of the terrorist chain of command. Indeed the terrorist threat is becoming even more unpredictable and asymmetric due to opportunism of his affiliates. Therefore, might be useful to subsume the contemporary terrorist threat within the Rhizomatic model. The rhizome is thus a-linear, multiple, spread out, all proliferating and without boundaries centers/margins or limits. As such, a rhizome has neither central point or origin; it grows from anywhere or ends anywhere. The emblematic model is the world wide web, which has the perfect rhizomatic structure within which the propaganda and radicalization could easily proliferate.

Phenomenology of radicalization

In this context the role of individual is getting exceptionally important in order to prevent the terrorist’s next steps. For this reason, some psychologists are studying the Staircase of Terrorism starting from the Moghaddam metaphor. Conforming to that theory, the radicalization process should be divided in a six-floors: the first is search for options; the second is anger at the perceived  perpetrators of injustices; the third is a moral engagement that justifies terrorism; the fourth is joining a terrorist group; the fourth and fifth floors are dehumanizing enemy civilians. The important difference between justifying and joining is crucial because, as Moghaddam argued, is the difference between radical opinion and radical action. Another important contribution is offered by Horgan’s Psychology of terrorism. Horgan emphasizes three ideas in the progression to terrorist action: First is that the progression to terrorism is gradual; second is a certain sense of disillusion with individual’s activity and personal vulnerability; third is the idea that community supports violent actions. Moreover, in the book called Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West – according to the study conducted originally in 2002 UK during the activity of group of al-Muhajiroun – Wiktorowicz identified a four-stage model of radicalization. First is a cognitive opening to new ideas after experiences of personal disconnection; second is a personal relations with activists; third is the acceptance of legitimate authority to interpretate Islam; fourth and last is the belief that salvation depends on supporting jihad. Another remarkable theory was introduced by Sageman in Leaderless Jihad. In that book Sageman underlined that the future of jihadist threat in Western countries was represented by small self-radicalizing group of Muslim instead of the big terrorist organizations. Thus the author mentioned four factors that come together to move the individuals to violence: the axiom under which the war on terrorism is the equivalent of the war on Islam; the personal experience of discrimination living in the West; the moral outrage seeing videos of Muslim sufferings, and finally the face-to-face or internet contacts between individuals interested in attacking. Indeed, According to Sageman, the emotional aspects are the key to understanding self-radicalization, but the question remains: why does just few “sympathizers” of jihadist propaganda run into violence?

At the same time there is the evidence that not all those who engage in violent behavior necessarily need to possess radical beliefs.

The two -pyramids model

The psychologists are fairly confident that extremist ideologies and believes must be distinguished from extremist and violent actions: indeed some cross-sectoral studies reveal that a minimum percentage of radical thoughts could be converted in radical actions. Therefore McCauley and Moskalenko have created two different explicative models: opinion pyramid and action pyramid.

A recent study about the relationship between these two pyramids – taking in consideration the contents of the individual’s internet websites – showed little difference between activist and radicals, but a significant difference between radicals and terrorists. As reported by statistics the 99% of those with radical ideas never act, while are becoming increasingly frequents those who commit violent actions not justified by radical ideas. What are the implications of the two-pyramids model? According to the outcome of the studies, the researchers conclude that: 1) there is a very weak connection between extreme beliefs and extreme actions; 2) fighting these two different types of radicalization requires different tools; 3) escalating policing could increase the terrorist violence; 4) defining enemies like fundamentalistic multiplies the potential enemies.

Ultimately, we have to consider very carefully the different behavioral trajectory of individual to figure out the future space of conflict, paying particular attention to the emotions and affective experiences in understanding the process of radicalization. Hence the dynamic of self-radicalization goes hand in hand with the growing “exile” and “atomization” of individuals, it will be essential aim at raising public awareness, the media and the institutions of the current radicalization trajectory. Prejudices and indirect discrimination may determinate or encourage the self-radicalization process.