A Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence led by the University of Maryland

Islamic Radicalization in Europe and North America: Parallels and Divergence


Islamic Radicalization in Europe and North America: Parallels and Divergence

Other START Researchers: 
Magnus Ranstorp

Project Details

Abstract: 

The project created highly detailed case studies of the radicalization processes of 16 extremists in North America and Europe, in order to identify factors that drive individuals and small groups towards extreme types of activism, including terrorism and potential differences in these factors or processes. The researchers developed a structured trajectory approach for measuring and analyzing the relationship between radical beliefs and radical behaviors over time. The cases were selected to allow comparison across socioeconomic factors, time period (before and after 9/11) and the degree to which the individual was rooted in the host society.

Primary Findings: 

Because of methodological differences between the European and North American components (which were conducted as separate projects), a direct transatlantic comparison was not possible. Nevertheless, the two studies identified common patterns within their own samples:

1. Neither study found evidence of a single pathway into radical beliefs or behavior, nor were any of the theories tested universally invalidated. These results suggest the need for more theoretical work to develop an integrated model of radicalization processes and dynamics.

2. In both studies, increases in radical beliefs generally preceded increases in radical behaviors. However, both samples contained individuals who were initially criminally involved with al Qaeda-linked entities and only subsequently developed an ideological commitment. Despite this, nearly all cases in both samples reached a maximum point in beliefs prior to reaching a maximum point in behaviors.

3. The events of 9/11 and the subsequent global counterterrorism response appear to have significantly shifted individual radicalization patterns.

a. The duration between initial exposure to the ideology and full radicalization has dramatically shortened;

b. The outcomes appear to have shifted - in Europe, prior to 9/11, only one of the subjects was arrested prior to carrying out an attack, and most of the plots were relatively sophisticated; half of the post-9/11 cases were arrested prior to carrying out an attack and the other half had lethally attacked a single individual as a target. In North America, none of the cases were detected beforehand prior to 9/11; three were interdicted relatively early before a sophisticated terrorist plot could crystalize after 9/11.

Methodology: 

The comparison study consisted of separate, parallel projects for each region. Although very similar, the European and North American projects used slightly different methodologies, which allowed generic regional comparisons, but not comparison between individual cases across the regions.

For the North America project, a pool of potential case studies was created and preliminarily coded for the following variables: inclusion criteria (the process of radicalization to the point of violence beginning and predominantly occurring in North America) and three attributes identified in the literature as potentially significant: socioeconomic status, degree of rootedness in the host society, and temporal relationship to 9/11. Eight cases were selected to represent maximum variation on these three variables. For each case, researchers performed several qualitative assessments: process tracing and four assessments of the explanatory power of theories representing the spectrum of top-down to bottom-up causal mechanisms at any point in the individual's trajectory. Second, researchers developed two quantitative assessments: a metric for creating structured trajectories of radicalization, which captured the individual's level of radicalization on a 5-point scale for beliefs and a 10-point scale for behaviors on a monthly basis, and coding of the degree of support each significant event provided the four representative theories. Third, the researchers combined the quantitative and qualitative assessments into a measure of the theories' goodness of fit. In addition to the theoretical assessments, the team analyzed the trajectory metrics, e.g. time to maximum radicalization, time at each level, lags between beliefs and behaviors, number of steps, etc., to identify potential patterns.

For the European project, cases were selected to maximize variation on the three attributes identified in the literature as potentially significant: socioeconomic status, degree of rootedness in the host society, and temporal relationship to 9/11. For each case, researchers qualitatively assessed the overall explanatory power of the four theories representing the spectrum of top-down to bottom-up causal mechanisms and assigned each theory a goodness-of-fit score. Second, researchers measured changes in the structured trajectories as described above at key events. In addition to the theoretical assessments, the team analyzed the trajectory metrics, e.g. time to maximum radicalization, time at each level, lags between beliefs and behaviors, number of steps, etc., to identify potential patterns.

Timeframe

Project Period: 
June 2008 to December 2011