Countering Violent Extremism: Why do People Become Radicalized?

The terms violent extremism and terrorism are used interchangeably, but in reality, the two are quite different. Violent extremism refers to the phenomenon of an individual(s) who commit violence to achieve a political or social objective. It is a general term. Terrorism on the other hand, refers to the threatened, and of course at times, the actual use of illegal force which can be through violence by a non-state actor to fulfill an economic, religious, social, or political goal through methods of coercion, fear and intimidation. Terrorism, therefore, has a more specific tone to the crime that has been carried out due to ideological motives. In order to gain more insight into how radicalization comes into fruition, there are five radicalization models that are used in order to gain a more rounded understanding of the matter.

The Five Models

Number one is the “quest for significance.” During this step, an extremist tends to be motivated by an overwhelming need or desire to be respected or to make an imprint of some sort in the world. These include a restoration in significance, a gain in significance, and/or a prevention of losing his/her significance. Model number two refers to “social identity.” This model refers to how an individual’s perceived reality and thinking is greatly molded and shaped by the group’s influences and how he/she should be thinking about themselves, including how to feel, see and behave.

Via RS21

They promote a positive sense of self-worth to the individual to reduce uncertainty regarding their social view of the world. Model number three discusses “recruitment.” During this process, extremist organizations place their energy and resources into luring in more members to support their political ambitions. The method of recruitment highly emphasizes on a psychological and/or emotional variables in order to attract members. In order for a successful recruitment process, messages are bespoke in a way that blends the audience’s social, historical and cultural context. The fourth model points to “social movement.” There are several phases that are initiated here. The first is called a “cognitive opening,” which is triggered by some large event or perhaps several minuscule events that pile up. As a direct result of the cognitive opening, the individual then seeks out a religious purpose as a coping mechanism. Soon after, a “frame alignment” is introduced, which refers to the connection between a perceived reality of an extremist organization and the outlook of the potential recruit. After the frame alignment has been successful, the social movement model ends with the final phase which ultimately is “indoctrination,” leading us to the fifth model of “rational choice.” This model highlights the point that radicals are no different from other non-extremists in society in regards to their their socio-demographic traits and their decision making and evaluation process. The entire process of radicalization for the individual is in fact a direct result of the capability of a rational decision making process. Prior to them joining an extremist organization, they measure the pros and cons and ultimately conclude that the gains from this newfound purpose outweigh the costs.

The Three N Model of Radicalization

Studies carried out over the course of years by academics and profilers have been able to create what is called “The Three N Model of Radicalization” to study the radicalization process within prisons. The three N’s stand for need, narrative, and network. The need mentioned here refers to a desire to be significant in some shape or form. The narrative then gets constructed into how one can ultimately reclaim their lost significance due to perceived persecution or oppression. Eventually, the network comes into play where a person’s friends, family or in this case inmates, endorse the newfound ideology and validate him/her, as well as providing respect and admiration.


Furthermore, in the studies of radicalization are the “push/pull” factors that delve into the context of how and why some individuals join any extremist organization. The push factor mentioned here can include poverty, unemployment, incarceration by the parents, sexual abuse and other elements. As a result, the pull factors sprout up, which include a social support system available that offers the individual the necessary emotional void that have been negated. For example, a push factor may refer to perhaps neighborhood violence against the individual, forcing him/her in seeking out protection from the area. However, the entry and exit points to the extremist organization can be similar, as the member may leave due to even more personal victimization or disapproves violence as a viable approach in carrying out their message.

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Another similarity between an entry and exit within an extremist organization includes the feeling of belonging and need for comradery, and then exiting it due to the influence of positive relationships with family members, children, etc. Albeit it should be noted that any strategy used to guide a member out of a radical organization can inadvertently further reinforce the member’s strong attachment to the existing ideology. Such harmful tactics include emphasizing points that suggest disloyalty as well as intra-group conflicts. The push/pull factors are suggested to be carefully considered here in order for the member to be able to stand back and think for themselves and the negative impact their radicalization has towards their relationships. In allowing the member to do this, a ray of hope lies for them to witness themselves their distorted and foggy lens and evident contradictions, instead of achieving the opposite in reinforcing the radical beliefs they already possess.

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