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Pushing Past the 'Grey Area' on Homegrown Radicalization

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Co-authored by Jonathan Kennedy, a doctoral student in the Department of Criminology at the University of Maryland and a Research Associate at START

In a recent article in Foreign Policy, Jane Harman echoes a growing concern that homegrown radicalization is likely to persist even if the United States successfully disrupts terrorist threats overseas. We wholeheartedly agree with Harman that the United States must do more to prevent radicalization here at home. We would like to push her point even further, however, and highlight three aspects of homegrown radicalization that remain ambiguous in her argument, as well as current efforts to address them.

First, Harman suggests we intervene in the "grey area between beliefs and behavior," a formulation that conflates the two. That is, Harman -- and to be fair, many others -- seems to assume that radical behavior depends on radical beliefs. This is not always the case, however, as there have been many examples of terrorists who are little-informed about their supposed ideology. Of course, it is not clear whether this is an exception or the rule. But further research on the connection -- or lack thereof -- of beliefs and behaviors in the radicalization process is needed. If it turns out that in many cases individuals adopt radicalized behaviors before they adhere to radical beliefs, the U.S. government could target its counter-radicalization efforts on behavioral changes, which might be easier to identify and interdict than changes in beliefs.

Second, Harman's "grey area" could expand to include whether material support of terrorist organizations arises from the same causes as the decision to commit a terrorist attack. That is, are the events and conditions that cause an individual to fundraise or provide safe-haven for a terrorist group the same as those that cause an individual to attack civilians or government targets on behalf of a terrorist group? If the answer is "yes," then counter-radicalization efforts must focus on the early stages of radicalization, i.e. before radical beliefs develop. If the answer is "no" (or "not always"), then counter-radicalization strategies could emphasize the unique causes behind the decision to adopt violence, allowing for a more effective and efficient approach.

Finally, Harman suggests working with community groups across society to prevent not just homegrown Islamic terrorism but also extremists on the far right and far left. We want to second this point. Because of the sensational violence of the 9/11 attacks and subsequent high-profile attacks and plots, most of the recent attention to radicalization focuses on violent Islamic movements. But this means we know less about far-right and far-left radicalization, as well as what is common and what is unique among these types of belief systems. An expanded awareness on these points could help the U.S. government avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to counter-radicalization efforts.

Several projects have begun to answer these questions. A study at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), titled Profiles of Islamic Radicalization in North America (PIRaNA), found that beliefs and behaviors do not always radicalize in tandem, so analyzing them separately should be useful. And START recently began to expand this study to encompass far-right, left-wing, and single-issue (e.g. anti-abortion) radicalization (in addition to Islamic radicalization), and compare violent to non-violent radicalized individuals through the Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) dataset. When complete, PIRUS will be the largest database of its kind, promising to yield valuable insight into the radicalization process.

The time has come to seriously consider (1) the relationship between radical beliefs and behaviors, (2) trajectories of violent and non-violent radicalization, and (3) the radicalization process across the ideological spectrum. Perhaps when we better understand these issues, the grey area between beliefs and behavior will not be so grey.