Terrorism a social activity, says Helfstein


Radicalization to the point of actually undertaking terrorism is both an ideological and a social phenomenon, argues a new paper (.pdf) from Scott Helfstein, director of research at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point Academy.

There are very few people who progress to violent action on their own, in isolation--and those who do often have a history of mental illness or other political grievances, Helfstein says, drawing from the John Jay and Artis dataset of terrorist social networks over time.

As a result, true lone wolves who have come in one-way contact with global militant jihadist material and have undertaken terrorism as a result are very rare, Helfstein says. His analysis of radicalization posits that radicalization, even by those ideologically predisposed to it, increasingly is a function of social relationships as an individual travels from awareness to interest to acceptance of jihadi ideology. The importance of social relationships peaks in the acceptance stage, with the path from acceptance to implementation less dependent on external validation.

The importance of socialization, Helfstein estimates, not only discounts the likelihood of lone wolves (as he defines them, since two-way online social interaction counts as socialization under his model), but also has implications for counterterrorism.

Recruitment, for one thing, is typically not undertaken by dedicated recruiters, but by individuals within a terrorist network who bring in one to three others as a way of increasing their own social standing.

Because recruitment is driven by self-interest, doctrine plays a less critical role than socialization in terrorist networks' spread, Helfstein says.

"Macro explanations of spread may be traced to micro level activities of ego‐driven individuals," he adds.

Disrupting radicalization, then, is most effective during the passage from interest to final acceptance, he says, since it's during that step where socialization is most important. The barriers to entry of an individual gaining awareness of jihadi ideology or becoming interested in it are low, whereas accepting it requires "high cost" socialization activities. Citing research in Northern Ireland by John Horgan, director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism, Helfstein says that "people with strong ideological affinity can disengage from violence by changing their social network."

Spreading counter jihadi messages is still important, Helfstein hastens to add, but "relying on such a grand strategy to disrupt individual radicalization in the short run, however, may not prove the best approach to ensuring security."

For more:
- download Helfstein's paper, "Edges of Radicalization; Individuals, Networks and Ideas in Violent Extremism" (.pdf)

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