The term “radicalization” is not a newly coined word. It is defined, simply, as, “to make a person more radical.” Just as have other barbed terms used throughout history, this descriptor also has taken on a new meaning in the past decade — and along with this new meaning, an ability to rouse feelings of hate, fear and apprehension.
Headlines around the world assure, or warn us, depending on one’s interpretation, with headlines like, “Initiative Aims to Address Roots of Terrorism and Radicalization,” “Homegrown Radicalization not a Threat,” and, “No Mass Phenomenon of Radicalization in Canada.”
To Americans today, though, the term denotes alarm and portends some level of fear. The term evokes images of 9/11 and, more recently, the Boston Marathon bombings. Along with these images comes the seemingly unanswerable question: how does a young person, living in one of the most prosperous countries in the world, become someone who is capable of terrorism?
Americans have been exposed to acts of terrorism for decades, beginning with violent acts perpetrated by underground groups opposed to the Vietnam war and nuclear power. Still, those domesticized acts of terrorism did not strike the sort fear in the hearts of Americana as they do today. The first internationally well-known terrorist was “Carlos the Jackal,” who was active in the mid-1970s. His real name was Ramírez Sánchez. He was an inept though prolific terrorist from Venezuelan who, due to a weight problem, was known as Gordo. Carlos was not an ideological terrorist, however – he was “in it” for the money, even though he originally was recruited by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Closer to home and more recent, however, America’s first nationally shared experience with radicalization came at the onset of the invasion of Afghanistan when the Northern Alliance –assisted by American forces — routed the Taliban from northern Afghanistan and captured a large group of Taliban fighters. Among them, American CIA operatives discovered, was a scrawny, scraggly-bearded young man with a gun powder-smoke smudged face who, to everyone’s dismay, identified himself as an American citizen.
This “first of its kind” event occurred at the hastily improvised prison, Qala-i-Jangi outside Mazer-e Shariff within a day of another more tragic “first of a kind” event — the first American casualty in the war to oust the Taliban.
John Walker Lindh was captured in a battle resulting from an uprising of Taliban prisoners held at Qala-i-Jangi. During this battle, CIA field officer Michael Spann was killed, along with all but 86 of the estimated 500 prisoners. Spann was the first of many Americans who would die in this country.
In the ensuing weeks, media in the United States would be deluged with stories, not of the American hero Michael Spann, but of John Walker Lindh, who originally was from San Francisco. He was the first radicalized Islamic jihadist, and we all wanted to know who, what, where, when and why he was radicalized. The most lingering of these questions was, “why?”
The discovery of the American Taliban, as Lindh quickly was referred to, ushered in a new meaning to, and emphasis on, the term “radicalization.” Though not precisely accurate, in America’s mind, Lindh was our first “radicalized American youth.”
The term wasn’t exactly accurate in Lindh’s case though, because America had dealt with radicalized youths for decades, like the infamous Weather Underground romanticized in Robert Redford’s, movie, “The Company You Keep.” Radicalization, represented by examples such as Lindh, however, was a completely new and sinister conception.
The products of radicalization in America, it was eventually realized, were men and women much more willing to die fighting infidels given that part of the radicalization process resulted in a resolved belief that by fighting for Allah they would be rewarded in death.
Lindh didn’t travel to Afghanistan to fight with anyone; he’d become a devout Muslim and went to Pakistan to learn about Islam. While in Pakistan, though, he was disillusioned with the lack of sincerity and Islamic zeal shown by some of his fellow students. It was then he decided to go to Afghanistan and join the Taliban, whom he’d heard were much more strict and devout. Joining an army was something he’d planned, but it seemed like a natural thing to do under the circumstances.
Ironically, as Lindh fought alongside his new Taliban brethren against the Northern Alliance, he knew nothing of the 9/11 attack until it after it happened. He’d become radicalized long before jihad against the West caught fire. Nevertheless, from that point forward, radicalization would define those who ally themselves with jihadist movements against America.
It’s easy for the casual observer of the process of radicalization to categorize all radicalized youth as inclined toward martyrdom through suicide. But the fact is, many radicalized American youth do not consider suicide. Americans who become radicalized and committed to acts in support of the jihadi cause — whatever that may be — are most often motivated by tangible rewards.
The lure of rebelliousness associated with the freedom fighter, which is how they view themselves, is tinged with adventure and romanticized for the targeted youth in the West. Terrorism, undertaken to defend “the oppressed,” can always be supported by impressionable youth — from progressive countries — easily convinced of the moral justification of the use of terrorism.
Recruiters of American youth most often refer to the “terrorist” as the “revolutionist.” The revolutionist is brave and courageous while the terrorist is someone too easily abhorred or feared. The revolutionist is often romanticized in media and action movies like the ones that depict Che Guverra or the actions of the French resistance fighter of old. Young people looking for meaning in their lives are easily enamored and seduced by this. Songs have even been written, glorifying the bravery and individualism of the revolutionist. The “terrorist,” however, is rarely glamorized in the same way.
For Western youth, the reward for involvment is more tangible. The adventure itself is aluring. The idea of an immediate transformation and paradise, such as that sought by the traditional Islamic recruit, is foreign to the American. Americans aren’t instilled from childhood with the concept of the glory of sacrifice in martyrdom. Western youth not only must be convinced of the worthiness and righteousness of the cause, but they also must be enticed with the earthly reward of fame and recognition. The typical American recruit, additionally, wants to be around to bask in their new found fame.
The United States government does not have a recognized, all-encompassing definition of terrorism largely because there are too many blurred lines and confusion between what is an act of war and what constitutes terrorism. An act of war, it may be argued, is not punishable by law, while an act of terrorism is more synonymous with a criminal act. Such distinctions have hampered the American government in efforts to isolate a clear definition.
Political ideologies are additional considerations that, in light of the fact that the vast majority of acts of terrorism are committed by Muslims in the name of Islam, cultural issues further hinder specifics when it comes to defining terrorism.
Since the act itself is so difficult to define, the actor also is difficult to define; and the process that connects the actor to the act is further confused because of the lack of specifics and definitions. A case in point is the incident in which Alton Nolen, fired from his job at Vaughn Foods in Moore, Oklahoma, returned to his jobsite where he stabbed one worker and beheaded another. Officials have never discounted the possibility that a connection between his Islamic beliefs and loose ties to ISIS played a role in his horrific attack, yet his actions have been categorized as “workplace violence” and therefore subject to much clearer criminal violations and sanctions. It is much easier to handle a clear violation of the law.
Specific definitions aside, a process does take place when a young American is transformed from a seemingly normal young person to a terrorist bent on potentially suicidal terroristic actions. Thankfully, there are not enough incidents to establish a firm pattern. However, there are some recognized similarities among individuals who have been radicalized and the process or pattern of actions that resulted in their radicalization.
The process of radicalization may be viewed as sequential, along a continuum in four stages beginning at a place all young men find themselves at some point in their adolescence. Every young man — and some young women — go through a stage of pre-adolescence that is characterized by two things; rebellion and seeking. They dissident and begin a diligent search for an identity.
Anyone who has raised a son knows there is a period of time when they are a lost soul. They wake one day and see themselves as a punk rocker with an earring and spiked hair, and the next day they morph into a cowboy, complete with country music and boots.
The traditional way a young person survives this period in their life is through the use of solid support systems. This is why we in America saw very few young men go seriously astray in generations past. Past generations of youth had strong support systems through family, church, community and school. Sadly, these support networks for youth today have seriously deteriorated.
Young people searching for meaning and identity today are easy prey, especially for religious institutions like Islam and those within Islam who are charged with recruitment to the faith, and, ultimately, to jihad. They know how to recognize the vacuum in the lives of young men and howto fill it.
One clearly defined similarity in the lives of most every radicalized American youth is a lack of stability. Most of them sought and were rejected by foundations in other areas or other religions before turning to Islam.
John Walker Lindh, for example, found stability in Islam following the instability brought on by his parent’s divorce and his father’s declaration of homosexuality. In actuality, Lindh himself rejected the training he sought and received in a madrassa he attended in Pakistan and sought a much stricter interpretation of Islam with the Taliban. In his perception the foundation of the particular group of students in the madrassa was not solid.
Without the support of family or institutions such as churches, a young person is adrift in search of an identity. And along with a loss of stability and security and the comfort that comes from these support structures, a young man can lose his sense of pride in America and the sense that his country is good. He is without a personal identity and any sense of pride in America, and is easily convinced of the veracity of the anti-American rhetoric espoused by Islamic extremism.
Another recognized similarity in individuals who have been radicalized is their intelligence. These young men are almost all above average in intelligence – a trait useful to Islamist recruiters for several reasons, but primarily because it enhances the recruiter’s ability to explain difficult religious and philosophical concepts.
Stage two is a bonding stage in which young men find true belonging in Islam. It is worth noting most jihadist recruiters do not seek candidates for radicalization in random environments; they simply wait until young people convert to Islam. It is also worth noting that not all converts to Islam become extremists or jihadists. Many simply become Muslims. Among the crowd of young, newly converted Muslims, however, the recruiter for jihad finds plenty of vulnerable candidates.
The recruiter selects his targets from the newly converted. And make no mistake; they are very adept at recognizing the converts with the best potential to be nurtured into active jihad. There is a natural human desire to please and to be accepted, especially when we join a new organization or club.
It is among the new members of any group that the older members seek individuals to take on responsibilities others do not want to shoulder simply because of the human desire to please. Evidence indicates Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John,” became a prolific executioner for ISIS at his own behest in order to prove himself soon after joining the Islamist organization.
In stage three, the hook is set. Recruits for radicalization are paired with others with similar qualities, and they’re constantly reinforced and praised for their willingness to “do more and be more.” They are deluged with stories of the plight of their brothers in other lands and the suffering they endure for Allah.
Their connection to individuals and situations in Islamic countries is presented in ways that most young people can understand, and with which they can sympathize. The fact they are “brothers” of those in the fight in distant lands is appealing to the newly recruited. Romanticizing the suffering and the “struggle” is easy for the experienced recruiter.
Formal training, which is expensive and difficult to conceal, is not necessary in all cases. The recruiter simply has to instill the desire and the willingness to sacrifice for the cause; then nurture it on a fairly consistent basis until the timing is right.
Thus, our greatest threat today are radicalized youth in the US willing to do something to please their Islamic mentors in jihad. When individuals are chosen for, or volunteer for training abroad, they generally are trained as soldiers. These now veteran jihadi fighters are told they’d be more useful fighting on their homefront. These radicalized youth are indoctrinated and encouraged to carry out simple but effective actions back on their native soil.
Local training is simple, and may be seen as more of a bonding process than actual tactical training, i.e.: guys going out and firing weapons or setting off explosives. Bonding in such scenarios allows individuals to encourage each other and intensifies when they commit to jihad.
All recruits are useful, even those who are unwilling or unable to carry out an attack. Recruits such as these are often used to recruit others who are more willing to undertake jihadist missions.
Another important consideration is the fact that even an unsuccessful operation is in its own right, successful. It makes little difference whether the actual act of terror a recruit undertakes results in mass casualties. The ultimate goal is to instill terror, which is accomplished even with a failed act of jihad. A case in point is the failed attack on the Texas “Mohammad cartoon group.” The lone wolf act was not only inexpensive, it required very little command and control and therefore less risk to those higher in the cell structure.
The fourth and final stage is carrying out a jihadist operation. The recruit is often given an operation or an assignment by the person who managed his indoctrination and conversion to extremism — it is only natural that the mentor directs his recruit’s jihadi mission.
The mission need not be catastrophic in nature to be effective, because, the attack, in addition to causing panic and terror, is to instill confidence in the recruit. Once the recruit has “taken the plunge,” with even minor success, he is emboldened. And if the process is handled right, he is anxious to carry out more serious forms of jihad.
It’s important to make a distinction between the American born and raised recruit, and the individual who grew up in a predominantly Islamic country with much more lengthy exposure to jihadist, extremist doctrine. The latter individual needs less evidence of the spiritual reward for martyrdom. The reward for him is much more ethereal. Additionally, individuals born in Muslim nations often live in poverty. For this individual, stepping from a life of poverty into paradise is reward enough. And, since he has been exposed to the veracity of the paradise of the afterlife from birth, he needs little encouragement.
The American convert though, regardless of his zeal for the movement, needs more convincing and more encouragement. The exuberance of youth is unfortunately often intertwined with severe shortsightedness so the danger involved is rarely an issue for the recruit. The American recruit also is often encouraged by promises of respect from his peers should he be caught and imprisoned because he will be seen as an “Islamic freedom fighter” – much like the scores of dangerous jihadists who have been released from GITMO.
Committing an act of terrorism in support of jihad is a step into adventure for the American recruit. The thought that he might be killed carries no more weight than when a young man decides to drive a car at 100 miles per hour.
In summation, the youthful exuberance and rebellious nature of American youth with little or no support systems — and little or no family structure – are most susceptible to radicalization. The lack of structure for these typically young men is at least in part a byproduct of American society itself, therefore these young men have very little allegiance to, and more often than not, have a level of disdain for, America.
Consequently, joining and fighting for extremist groups like ISIS is, for these young men, as much about striking out at America as it is in defending Islam.
Contributing Writer Godfrey Garner is a veteran special operations counterintelligence officer who retired from US Special Forces in 2006. He served two military tours and six civilian government related tours in Afghanistan. His work there most recently was as a counter-corruption analyst. Garner previously wrote about jihadi groups’ unification in his Homeland Security Today report, The Potential that Jihadi Groups will Unify … and With it, More Savagery. Garner also is author of, Danny Kane and the Hunt for Mullah Omar, and, The Balance of Exodus.