Anti-terrorism experts still grappling with what it means to be 'radicalized'

Some radicalization experts say that law enforcement and counter-radicalization programs may be using the wrong tools to detect those in need of intervention and surveillance.

Some question whether efforts have mostly focused on the wrong set of clues to identify dangerous extremists

Momin Khawaja was the first person convicted under Canada's anti-terror laws enacted in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. (Canadian Press)

Radicalization experts call it the "flash-to-bang cycle" — the time between the adoption of radical ideology and the outburst of lethal violence.

For Western jihadis who have carried out attacks, that transition has always been quick, frequently as short as six weeks. But recent attacks in Europe have shown it getting even faster. In one recent case, involving a migrant to Germany, as fast as 48 hours.

And yet the overwhelming majority of those who adopt extremist ideology will never put their thoughts into action. The person who is truly threatening is a needle concealed in a haystack of passive couch-jihadis and Twitter warriors.

Those two facts combine to make it extremely difficult to identify potential dangerous extremists and turn them from their path.

But Canada is determined to try and has budgeted $35 million to pay for it.

Some experts, though, are questioning whether de-radicalization efforts have mostly focused on the wrong set of people, because they are looking for the wrong clues.

Talkers vs. doers

Increasingly, experts are distinguishing between mere radicalization — the adoption of a radical ideology — and "radicalization to action."

Clark McCauley is a member of the American Psychological Association's task force on reaction to terrorism, and a lead investigator for the U.S. government's National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (NC-START).

For two years McCauley studied the radicalization of one individual, Ottawa's Momin Khawaja, the first person convicted under Canadian anti-terrorism laws passed in the wake of 9/11. Khawaja's writings, all entered into evidence at his trial, provide a real-time view of one man's journey to extremism.

"He is an example of the importance of distinguishing between radical ideas and radical action," McCauley said.

Khawaja shared the same outlook as his immigrant father Mahboob Khawaja: a conservative Islamic world view tinged with outrage at the perceived mistreatment of Muslims around the world. But the father was content to vent his anger on obscure websites, while the son could not remain passive in the face of the perceived wrong.

"I used to think that radical thought and radical action were part of the same continuum," said McCauley, "like a pyramid with radical ideas at the bottom and radical action at the top. But I came around to seeing it quite differently."

McCauley now pictures two separate pyramids, one of thought and one of action, with the most radicalized people at the top of each. Some climb to the very top of the first pyramid without ever jumping to the second. Others will quickly move to violent action without even waiting to absorb the whole radical ideology.

McCauley says effective programs would focus on preventing people from taking that leap to action, or at least understanding who does it and why.

'Means and opportunity' the critical factors

"In psychology we tend to focus on motivation," McCauley said. "But in the criminology business, they focus on means and opportunity at least as much as motivation. And what that means in practice is that instead of trolling through mosques and bookstores, security people ought to be trolling through firing ranges and paintball ranges."

McCauley says the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan attacks in Paris, and the Brussels and Nice attacks were all carried out by young men who had recent histories of run-ins with the law, who frequented bars and were involved in the world of illegal drugs. A security agency that focused its attention on those who most visibly adhered to an Islamic fundamentalist lifestyle would have missed them.

"In France and Belgium what we're mostly seeing is young men who've been into petty crime, sometimes including violence," McCauley said.

"If you say 'means and opportunity,' then you're led to pay special attention to anyone who has previous experience of violence and criminality, because they have means, they have networks, they can get weapons."

Lone wolves

Experts emphasize that the true "lone wolf" is a rare figure. Fewer than 10 per cent of radicalized individuals carry out attacks without some degree of support from, or co-ordination with, a network.

The motivations of lone wolves tend to fall into one of two very different categories, says Sophia Moskalenko, a researcher at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and co-author of Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us. Most are what she describes as "disconnected/disordered," but a minority are "compassionate/compelled."

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who became a key commander in al-Qaeda in Iraq, is seen in an undated file photo released in Amman, Jordan, in 2002. (Associated Press)

For some, the main motivation is the desire for power over others and to harm others. An example is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of the group that became ISIS. Zarqawi was already a rapist and a murderer in his native Jordan before he graduated to international terrorism.

Moskalenko says little can ever be done to turn the Zarqawis of the world from their violent paths. But she says Canada's Momin Khawaja's motivations were very different.

"The reason he was moved to action was not because he was crazy, not because he was lonely, not because his life was falling apart — in fact, it was going very well — but instead because his feelings were too overwhelming for him not to do something about it," Moskalenko said.

"He was a very sensitive individual who felt that in order to live as a moral being he had to live out his convictions."

Moskalenko is not optimistic that the de-radicalization programs will work with the majority of people drawn to extremism. But she says a minority of people — like Khawaja — probably would respond positively if someone helped to channel their urge to take action into more positive directions.

"The idea is to identify Holden Caulfields and to help them become catchers in the rye before they turn into Momin Khawajas."


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.