Radicalization usually the result of 'non-religious factors'

The revelation that two young Canadian men were involved in an al-Qaeda-linked attack on an Algerian gas refinery in January has prompted many people to wonder what would drive Western youth to such extreme action halfway across the world. Experts say the catalyst in cases such as this isn't religion or politics so much as emotion.

Experts say extremists typically motivated by emotion rather than politics

Xristos Katsiroubas, 22, is one of two Canadians accused of helping orchestrate an al-Qaeda linked attack on an Algerian gas plant that left dozens of refinery workers dead. (CBC)

The revelation that two young Canadian men were involved in an al-Qaeda-linked attack on an Algerian gas refinery has prompted many people to wonder what would drive Western youth to such extreme action halfway across the world.

Earlier this week, a CBC News investigation found that two of the people involved in the January attack — which led to the deaths of 39 foreign hostages, one Algerian security guard and 30 militants — were Xris Katsiroubas, 22, and Ali Medlej, 24, who had been high-school friends in London, Ont.

Experts say a person can be radicalized as a result of personal factors that may be unrelated to the act of extremism.

"The political connection isn’t what matters at all. It’s the emotional connection," said Dr. John Horgan, director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Pennsylvania State University.

Katsiroubas and Medlej were among the militants who died in the Algeria attack. Sources have said they likely blew themselves up during the siege. A third Canadian, Aaron Yoon, was a friend of the two deceased but did not participate in the attack, although he did travel with the other two to northern Africa.

While Katsiroubas, who came from a Greek Orthodox family, and Yoon, who was raised Catholic, both converted to Islam, Horgan said that religious belief wasn’t necessarily the catalyst for their actions.

"Don’t ever underestimate the lure of non-political, non-ideological, non-religious factors," Horgan said, suggesting that the impetus could have been "things like adventure, camaraderie, excitement, a sense that you are doing something important with your life."

Different connections

Ray Boisvert, former assistant director of CSIS, told CBC News that radicalization of young Canadians is not uncommon.

"This is not about Canadians or a particular group," Boisvert said. "It's about vulnerable youth, falling prey to a nasty subset of religious ideology driven through al-Qaeda narrative, being driven by a sense of adventure, a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning in their life, or perhaps following someone of influence in their life that will lead them to a path of violence."

Sophia Moskalenko, co-author of the book Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us, cautions about looking at this in terms of west versus east.

"There’s an inherent assumption that being from the west makes you immune to radicalization, and I think that’s a mistake, because radicalization is not a disease of the east," she said.

People from every side of the globe enter into radical behavior, and many of them have no apparent connection to the group they join, Moskalenko said.

Clark Richard McCauley, a social psychologist and professor at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, said that a major life change often triggers an individual’s need to make new connections, which can make them more susceptible to radicalization.

By losing "everyday contacts and connections and even love that anchor most of us into our everyday lives," an individual can arrive at a point where they are almost a blank slate and wish to receive new ideas and let in new people, McCauley said.

"That break in connections does not produce political radicalization, but it produces an opportunity for major social change in many different possible directions," McCauley said.

"It’s just an accident who the individual bumps into at that point in their life. So if this person had run into a cult, he might have joined that. Or if he had run into some kind of organization to help wayward youth, he might have thrown himself into that. The point is that this sudden break in his everyday connections leaves him available for new connections, and with new connections come new ideas and new behaviour."

Youth susceptibility

Horgan said young people are more susceptible to recruitment into radical organizations. 

"For young people, there’s certainly the element that they are far more willing to take risks, far more willing to explore opportunities," Horgan said. "Their political, social and religious identity is still being formed, and they are looking to be part of something."

Horgan said that while he was growing up in Ireland, he saw many of his Catholic peers venture to Northern Ireland to take up the cause of Irish independence from British rule.

"Northern Ireland was always something very foreign to us, very alien," he said. "And so we had very little sense of what the conflict was like in reality, so a lot of people that grew up in my area went and joined the [Irish Republican Army]."

Many of Horgan’s peers changed their minds, he said, when they arrived in Northern Ireland and found that the tales of fighting for freedom were often complicated by "sectarianism" and that the cause was not as clearly righteous or moral as it had been advertised.

Horgan says that for those growing up in violent environments, like Syria and Egypt, they can be seduced into playing the role of local defender. But for foreign fighters, it can be about fulfilling a romantic vision of doing something noble, something to help those who can’t help themselves.

Horgan said that in 2008 and 2009, there was a serious problem of radicalization and recruitment in the Somali refugee community in Minneapolis, Minn., where more than 20 young men left the U.S. to defend their homeland.

"Most of these young boys and men had no experience with their homeland, but they were being groomed by local elements in conjunction with foreign recruiters who basically spun them a story," Horgan said.

"[They were told they] were neglecting their duty to their own people and that they needed to go and do something before it was too late. So there was urgency to getting these people to come out there. And such was the power of that narrative, such was the power of that story, that the parents of these young boys never even realized that they were gone until it was too late."

A 'slippery slope'

It’s not uncommon for groups to be radicalized together, Moskalenko says.

A group mentality can often spur someone to head further down that path — one that experts say is rarely started with the intention of a fatal end.

In psychology it’s referred to as "the slippery slope": a gradual radicalization that happens through a step-by-step process until certain activities narrow the individual’s mindset. 

"First you are fighting for other people like you and maybe reaping some benefits indirectly, but the natural step in this misguided idea or radicalism — depending on which side you are looking at it from — is caring about and doing something for people who are not at all related to you," Moskalenko said.

Not all people who embrace radical views end up carrying out extreme deeds.

"One of the things that distinguishes the radical from the terrorist — the person who actually is willing to leave the country and go out and become a foreign fighter — is that the radical is happy to talk about these things, whereas the fighter is the person who places a premium on action."

The fear of homegrown terrorism

In response to the CBC investigation suggesting a London, Ont., connection to the Algeria attack, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said that Canada’s record on battling homegrown forms of extremism "is very sound."

The minister added that while the nation must remain vigilant, Canada does not exhibit the same amount of radicalization as many other western countries.

Horgan agreed, but said that given the intensity of recruiters and the power of a group mentality, these types of incidents could become more commonplace.

"The issue for me is not that we have these three interesting Canadian guys right now," said Horgan. "It’s why on Earth we haven’t seen more."

With files from Greg Weston and CBC News