Uncovering the Motivational, Cognitive, and Social Elements of
Radicalization and Deradicalization:
A DoD Minerva Research Initiative Project
Our research strategy is unique in that it integrates top-down and bottom-up approaches. The top-down aspect consists of a general model of radicalization and deradicalization grounded in prior theorizing and research. The bottom-up aspect consists of collecting field and laboratory data concerning how the postulates of our general model play out in specific socio-cultural contexts, possibly suggesting modifications in the model in response to feedback from the field, and from our computational modeling of the processes of interest.
Our guiding principle is that valid models of radicalization and deradicalizaton must take into account prior relevant knowledge (both theoretical and empirical) and advance it through its application to the socio-political contexts of terrorism. Thus far, most research on political violence has neglected the all-important issue of the context in which this violence is taking place. To close this gap, our research program is divided into the three individual thrusts that are outlined below.
Radicalization processes are currently under way in different locations around the globe, including North Africa and South and Southeast Asia. We are casting a broad net by sampling multiple sites in each of these locations, in order to afford a comparative analysis of radicalization and deradicalization. We are conducting systematic scientific studies via open-ended and semi-structured interviews, fixed-format surveys, and field experiments. This research will provide valuable understanding for validating hypotheses and models of radicalizations that could be created to account for worldwide variations and commonalities.
A principal aim of our studies in North Africa is to provide general parameters and sensors for identifying and influencing potential paths to radicalization and de-radicalization in the evolving context of Arab Spring movements. To this end, we will gather and analyze both theoretical and field-specific cultural knowledge about prevailing and potential core values and goals that drive revolutionary or terrorist actions among both young adults in Morocco and Egypt and leaders of activist or militant political and religious organizations. We have already carried out fieldwork throughout the Middle East and North Africa region and piloted many of our studies with leaders and activists of the PKK, Hamas, Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and Turkey’s JDP. Our ultimate goal is to reduce threats to US national security, save national treasure, and keep US forces out of harm’s way.
Because the membership of groups that foster violent extremism often draws from the target population, they have an advantage over the US in understanding how to manipulate the population’s sacred values to move people towards an extremist agenda. Our field studies, experiments and surveys aim to provide information, and ways of acquiring this information, that cancel – or even reverse – this advantage to the extent that we can foresee and, perhaps, influence which values emerge from the turmoil of the Arab Spring. This involves identifying which combinations of changing religious trends and democratic dynamics may be best suited for fostering violent expressions of political extremism, or for favoring prospects for a peaceful pursuit of the Arab Spring that discredits, marginalizes and ultimately destroys Al-Qaeda’s central narrative and the appeal of militant Islamism.
With respect to populations, our focus is on leaders of activist and militant groups, their supporters, and the surrounding populations in Egypt and Morocco. To a significant extent, the cultural forms that frame contemporary terrorism, and the responses to it, stem from these countries of the eastern and southern Mediterranean basin. Both countries offer a unique perspective on a common problem of direct relevance to the security of the US and its allies. Each is a major meeting and transit point for socially alienated youth who, as our previous studies show, believe that the adventure and glory that comes with fighting the most powerful country in the world is a supremely heroic endeavor that gives a moral meaning and sense of personal significance greater than self interest or even life itself (Atran, 2010; Sageman, 2008; Kruglanski, Belanger, & Gelfand et al., in press; Kruglanski, et al., 2009; Sageman, 2008). Both countries have generated and suffered major terrorist incidents. Each is also a focus of transformative changes in the region that can potentially channel young people to more peaceful and productive pursuits that bring meaning to their lives, in ways compatible with their values and interests.
South and South East Asia
South and Southeast Asia were generally considered the “Islamic fringe,” populated by moderate Muslims who shunned the radical versions of Islam found in the Middle East. However, the region has seen a substantial Islamic resurgence in the past few decades. Generally, the grievances of radical Muslims in the region have been local in nature. Yet, since the early 1990s there has been an expansion of radical Islam with global ambitions. There has been deep penetration of Al Qaeda into Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, and Singapore. The Jemaah Islamiyah group in Indonesia, Islamist separatists in in South Thailand, the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan, terrorist Bangladeshi groups like the Jamaat-ul- Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Abu Sayyaf, Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Raja Suleiman group in the Philippines and other similar groups have carried out attacks in the region and continue to pose a threat to the stability of nations in the area, and carry the danger of revolutionary Islamism expanding its radicalizing influence.
We have already carried out considerable preliminary work in the Philippines and Sri Lanka and are presently on the ground in these locations preparing to continue our research and expand it into Indonesia.
Computational models are formal representations of concepts, theories, systems or processes in the form of computer-based simulations. As such, computational models can be used for analysis, hypothesis exploration, and conducting “what if…” virtual experiments. Scientists use computational models when they wish to analyze complex systems that cannot be easily represented with traditional methods, such as mathematical models or statistical analysis.
Computational modeling of radicalization and deradicalization constitutes a viable and valuable scientific approach because the decisional and social processes involved in these complex human phenomena cannot be easily explicated by more traditional methods alone. Rather, computational models can supplement and build on other methods (e.g., ethnography, mathematical modeling) to provide additional insights and understanding into our processes of interest. For example, simulations can be used to explore alternative mechanisms of radicalization, by conducting “what if…” experiments that allow for the manipulation of specific cognitive or social conditions, in either combination or isolation from one another.
Consistent with our overall strategy, we will base our work on a combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches. Our overarching theoretical framework will provide a major source of hypotheses to be explored. In addition, we will generate relevant hypotheses suggested by historical events (like the Arab Spring), and incorporate their possible influence into our simulations (see below). The bottom-up aspect of this research thrust will consist of using data, results, and insights gained from our field data collection and analysis to create computational models of (a) individual agents, and (b) their interactions with their social networks and other environmental and cultural factors. An, additional and highly important, “bottom up” data source will consist of emergent results from the simulations, which may suggest possible modifications of our theoretical models and further questions to be explored in our field research.
We deem it of critical importance to translate our findings and insights into concrete practices designed to counter violent radicalization. Our effort to create effective counter-radicalization strategies has a three-fold focus: (1) to inform and improve efforts of communities to prevent the spread of radicalization; (2) to improve deradicalization programs in detention facilities; and (3) to inform and improve efforts to integrate deradicalized individuals into their communities.
Our research to understand the motivational underpinnings, mental models of belief systems, and social networks will allow us to build models of violent radicalization that can be generalized and tested in other communities across the world. In parallel to, and informed by, our data collection and computational activities, we will be holding biannual conferences aimed at developing programs and practices to prevent, or reverse, radicalization, and/or to prevent the re-radicalization of successfully deradicalized individuals.