Small Wars Journal

The Process of Radicalization

Wed, 02/19/2014 - 2:14pm

The Process of Radicalization

Thomas De Veer Kruklis

This multicultural approach, saying that we simply live side by side and live happily with each other has failed. Utterly failed.

-Angela Merkel (speaking out in reference to political correctness)


For centuries, Islamic ideology and the argument for and against progressive fundamentalism has caused many rifts and divisions in the Muslim world.  Nevertheless, many Muslim countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe have either adopted or attempted to implement secularism.  However, this is not without significant strife leading to conflict and division in the population.  Other nations have chosen to enforce Islam as its state religion instead.  This has led to controversy and significant argument in Western countries between those that argue for political correctness and equality, and those arguing that Muslims are changing the cultural landscape.  Common questions in the minds of policymakers include “How far can fundamentalist Islam be practiced without interfering with the daily lives and cultures of our countries?” and “Is there a politically correct way to implement laws that address the radicalization of Islam?”

“Radicalization is a process of adopting an extremist system of values combined with expressing approval, support for, or use of violence and intimidation as a method of achieving changes in society or encouraging others to such acts” (Szlachter, 2012).  The final stage of radicalization is the actual undertaking of a terrorist act.  Needless to say, significant research has been done and still needs to be done before we can attempt to address this problem.  Many published writers and clerics have argued for the radicalization of Islam, citing the Quran and some going as far as calling for a Jihad, or a holy war.  Still, many other published authors have taken the stance calling for an end to the bloodshed, and acceptance of a more secular society.  When addressing these issues, one needs to consider the problems that could result in allowing citizens to practice a more radical form of Islam.  Conversely, the same can be said about the repercussions of denying such persons their freedom of speech and right to practice said religion.  This research addresses the hypothesis that a variety of individual and ideological factors as well as motivations lead a person to radicalism. Furthermore, this article addresses what motivations and specific factors cause an individual to become interested in waging jihad and the implications our Military faces today when addressing these individuals.

Literature Review

The overall consensus is that there is not a single pathway or method in which an individual becomes radicalized. “Several efforts have been made, however, to articulate a general sequence of stages, events, or issues that might apply across and within group types” (Borum, 2011). Several pieces of literature listed below reference the different methods in how a person obtains extremist points of view.

In “American Jihadist Terrorism: Combating a Complex Threat”, Jerome Bjelopera explores and describes how difficult it is to tackle the problem of radicalization and extremism. He writes that “Intermediaries, social networks, the Internet, and prisons have been cited as playing key roles in the radicalization process”. Furthermore, “Intermediaries – charismatic individuals – often help persuade previously law-abiding citizens to radicalize or even become violent jihadists” (Bjelopera, 2011).  An example of a charismatic individual and a key Islamic charismatic influencer of the 20th century was Sayyid Qutb. Qutb was an Egyptian scholar and key leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.  While many argue that he advocated for a peaceful fundamentalist movement, “his explanation of such concepts as tawhid, Islamic society and the infidelity of Muslim rulers may have added a further impetus to the charge of extremism” (Ushama, 2007).  The Social Movement Theory supports the hypothesis that charismatic leaders can sway groups to a cause.  In this theory “Individuals would “join” a movement because they passively succumbed to these overwhelming forces” (Borum, 2011). While these charismatic authors, intermediaries, as well as social networks do persuade people to adopt a more fundamental and ultimately radical approach to Islam, they are certainly not the only factor.

Another important factor that must be considered is where the individual studied or grew up.  Individuals who study in groups at madrasas in say, Pakistan, Afghanistan or certain places in Indonesia, have a much greater exposure to radical ideas than do individuals in other nations where a large portion of their population is Muslim.  Furthermore, whenever these individuals are fully immersed into a group with these same beliefs, they feel less responsible for their actions.  “If an individual acts violently within the context –or in the name– of a group, the mere presence of the group may diminish his perceived agency and therefore lower the acceptable threshold for violent behavior” (McCauley and Segal, 1987).  The madrassas where these individuals study are oftentimes funded by wealthy individuals and NGO’s, and often provide their students who otherwise would live in poverty, meals and an allowance.  Conversely, someone who has their upbringing in a more westernized Islamic-majority nation such as Kosovo or Turkey has a much lesser exposure to these radical teachings.

The last key aspect that leads people to radicalism is ideology.  Ideology essentially means a set of ideas that form a person’s core beliefs. The Conversion Theory focuses “less on the collective movement, and more on the individual process of transforming beliefs and ideologies” (Borum, 2011).  For example, the same way a Christian might believe in Jesus Christ as being the savior, a Jew may adamantly oppose him ever being born.  Similarly, some Islamic fundamentalists believe that there is no greater honor and reward than becoming a martyr while waging jihad.  This may happen progressively through the life experiences of an individual or through teachings said individual receives.  The scholarly article “Muslim Education, Celebrating Islam and Having Fun as Counter-Radicalization Strategies in Indonesia” explains how ideology leads to terrorism.  For example, “Sunni Muslim extremists combine jihadi radicalism with Wahhabi teachings” and as a result, “Wahhabism and terrorism are now clearly linked” (Woodward, Rohmaniyah, Amin and Coleman, 2010).

Methodology and Research Methods

As stated in the introduction, significant research has already been done to determine the cause of radicalization. These studies have taken the quantitative approach; using statistics to determine what individuals are more at risk, as well as qualitative approaches; involving large studies of the Quran by theologians as well as psychologists attempting to draw a link between the human psyche and terrorism.  While we have made several advances in understanding this elusive enemy, we cannot come to a decisive conclusion.  “In a series of hard-learned lessons, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency forces confronted the realization that, even as they were steadily removing bad guys from battlespace, the adversary forces were continuing to replenish and expand” (Borum, 2011).  While we should continue to further attempt to understand who we are dealing with, the famous saying of “know thine enemy” does not apply here as we will likely never fully know this enemy.  Wars have been fought because of religion since the beginning of humanity, and they are likely to continue.

This paper utilizes several theories involving psychology, ideology, and even the writings of the Quran itself to provide a basic framework of what causes radicalism. The dependent variable in this study is radicalism itself, while the independent variables are individual upbringing, ideology, and personal motivations.


After studying several scholarly writings and reviewing various cases of Islamists within the ranks of the US Military and government, it can be assessed that a radical government is the result of a distorted and biased view of the Quran.  To further expand on this, there are actually several passages in the Quran that argue for a secular government that voices its support for human rights, a representative government, and the rule of law. The 2008 book “Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Sharia” by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im provides several examples listed below.

  1. “Shura, the notion that leaders should consult with the general public” (An-Na’im, 2008).
  2. “Abolishing penalties against apostasy and heresy in the name of greater religious freedom” (An-Na’im, 2008).
  3. “Mu’awada, the principle of reciprocity and mutual respect” (An-Na’im, 2008).
  4. “A repudiation of the dhimma system to give equal citizenship rights to non-Muslims living in Muslim lands” (An-Na’im, 2008).

At the individual level, there are several theories that explain the human psychology and why/how an individual becomes radicalized and chooses to join an extremist group.  These psychological factors are explained in several theories: the Social Movement Theory, the Social Psychology theory, and the Conversion Theory.  Examples of each are given in the Literature Review Section in the contexts of the different articles and books reviewed.  “Moghaddam, drawing broadly from a variety of psychological constructs, developed the “Staircase to Terrorism” as a metaphor for the process of violent radicalization” (Borum, 2011). The model is displayed below.

Moghaddam’s model is intended to facilitate the viewer in understanding how individuals go through the stages (or steps in the staircase) and become radicalized. As you get higher up the steps, the number of individuals dwindles, hence the fact that in some countries people are motivated enough to burn American flags and speak out against the U.S. but unwilling to actually take action.


What is the right solution to address a growing trend of Jihadist sects from throughout the world and even within the United States?  This is a tough question with significant political intrigue behind it.  To properly explain the situation; the article entitled “Problems in the U.S. Military” explains that the political and military’s tolerance of extremist forms of Islam within the United States Military is immense.  For example, when Major Hasan showed various signs and rhetoric pointing to his intent to kill fellow servicemembers, his ideological views were welcomed by his superiors, who celebrated his cultural diversity and claimed that there was much we could learn from him.  This all culminated with him communicating with Al-Qaeda affiliated personnel, stating that “Even when Hasan's communication with al-Qaeda's Anwar al-Awlaki put him on the radar of terrorism task forces, it had little effect on the rose-colored narrative” (Rusin, 2013). 

Such is the Army’s attempts to culturally accommodate these groups, that they have gone as far as denying the evangelist Franklin Graham to participate in a national prayer service, they have allowed JROTC students to wear Islamic garbs in their uniforms, issued handbooks to soldiers seemingly justifying Jihad simply as “defense of Islam”, and continued to allow radical Muslim groups to certify chaplains. While further research is needed to assess political correctness in the civilian level, there should be a more clearly defined role of how these religious challenges should be addressed in the military.  In order to fully understand how to address these challenges, the Military must first clearly realize that jihad is the enemy and extremists with a jihad mentality often result in terrorism.  Our sensitivities to Islam have caused our military leadership to not fully define radicalism as an enemy and thus fail to understand our enemy. “By bending to Islamists' appeals for religious sensitivity, these leaders ignore the most crucial lesson of the Fort Hood massacre: Political correctness can kill” (Rusin, 2013).


An-Na’im, Abdullahi Ahmed. 2010 “Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari’a.” Harvard University Press, 336 pages

Bjelopera, Jerome P. 2013. "American Jihadist Terrorism: Combating a Complex Threat." Congressional Research Service: Report 1-137. International Security & Counter Terrorism Reference Center, EBSCOhost (accessed September 20, 2013).

Borum, Randy. 2011. "Radicalization into Violent Extremism I: A Review of Social Science Theories." Journal Of Strategic Security 4, no. 4: 7-36. International Security & Counter Terrorism Reference Center, EBSCOhost (accessed October 1, 2013).

Borum, Randy. 2011. "Radicalization into Violent Extremism II: A Review of Conceptual Models and Empirical Research." Journal Of Strategic Security 4, no. 4: 37-61. International Security & Counter Terrorism Reference Center, EBSCOhost (accessed September 30, 2013).

Borum, Randy. 2011. "Rethinking Radicalization." Journal Of Strategic Security 4, no. 4: 1-6. International Security & Counter Terrorism Reference Center, EBSCOhost (accessed October 4, 2013).

Falkenburg, Luke. 2013. "On the brink: The resurgence of militant Islam in Central Asia." Small Wars & Insurgencies 24, no. 3: 375-393. International Security & Counter Terrorism Reference Center, EBSCOhost (accessed September 6, 2013).

McCauley, C.R. and Segal, M.E. 1987. “Social psychology of terrorist groups” Group processes and intergroup relations: Review of personality and social psychology. Newbury Park: Sage, pages 231-256.

   Rusin, David J. 2013. "Problems in the U. S. Military." Middle East Quarterly 20, no. 2: 19-26. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 6, 2013).

Szlachter, Damian, Waldemar Kaczorowski, Zbigniew Muszyński, Piotr Potejko, Paweł Chomentowski, and Tadeusz Borzo ł. 2012. "Radicalization of Religious Minority Groups and the Terrorist Threat -- Report from Research on Religious Extremism among Islam Believers Living in Poland." Internal Security 4, no. 2: 77-98. Criminal Justice Abstracts with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed October 1, 2013).

Ushama, Thameem. 2007. "Extremism in the Discourse of Sayyid Quṭb: Myth and Reality." Intellectual Discourse 15, no. 2: 167-190. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed October 1, 2013).

Woodward, Mark, Inayah Rohmaniyah, Ali Amin, and Diana Coleman. 2010. "Muslim Education, Celebrating Islam and Having Fun As Counter-Radicalization Strategies in Indonesia." Perspectives On Terrorism 4, no. 4: 28-50. International Security & Counter Terrorism Reference Center, EBSCOhost (accessed October 2, 2013).



About the Author(s)

Thomas Kruklis is an Intelligence Officer in the United States Army.  He has Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration in Marketing from the University of North Georgia and is working towards a Master of Arts degree in Intelligence Studies at American Military University.  He is originally from Brazil and currently resides in Atlanta, Georgia.  In addition to English, he is fluent in both Portuguese and Spanish. His past duties included Section Chief of a Human Intelligence Detachment and All-Source Intelligence Analyst as a contractor in support of the federal government.  He is currently assisting his Brigade in planning of the Army’s Regionally Aligned Forces mission.



Mon, 03/24/2014 - 6:14pm

Hello Thomas,

Thanks for bringing this issue of "political correctness in the military" to the forefront. After spending seven years plus in three Muslim countries trying to help their national police departments and working along side our fine US military personnel, I have found that they no longer adhere to the high standards in which my relatives had served during their tours. It is time to go back to the military's founding principles and stop compromising to appease certain cultures. After all, those serving have joined on their own since we do not have a draft call. If those who join cannot not accept and adhere to high standards, then they should not sign up. The military should also clean house and root out the fox from the hen house before another Fort Hood incident occurs!

From my research concerning these Islamic radicals, it is all about American citizens compromising and bending to their will. They will not adjust nor will they assimilate into US culture like those who came to America in the 1800 or 1900's.

Keep up the good work!

V. Byers

Mr. Kruklis:

I am guessing that you are putting your career on the line and certainly exposing yourself to harsh PC attack when you make a forthright statement like this "...the Military must first clearly realize that jihad is the enemy and extremists with a jihad mentality often result in terrorism."

For what it is worth I think you are doing good work by publishing this article. Keep it up.