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'Radicalization' and 'violent extremism'


As with the concept of 'terrorism', there is no universally agreed definition of the term 'violent extremism'; indeed, somewhat confusingly, the terms can sometimes be employed interchangeably. There are, however, a number of definitions which have been developed at the national, regional and international levels. A recent United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) Report on good practices and lessons learned on how protecting and promoting human rights contribute to preventing and countering violent extremism examined existing State practice on policies and measures governing 'violent extremism' (General Assembly, Human Rights Council report A/HRC/33/29). This revealed very diverse national approaches (para. 17), a number of which are included in the 'interest box' below. The challenges associated with defining the phenomenon are also revealed in the Report's finding that "[i]n other cases, definitions employed do not make fully clear whether 'violent extremism' presupposes violent action or inciting violent action, or whether lesser forms of conduct that do not normally trigger criminal law sanctions would also be included." (Para. 17). Generally, the diversity of definitional approaches reveals some consistency in that the phenomenon of 'violent extremism' is regarded as being broader than that of terrorism. This is also reflected in the VE Action Plan in which the Secretary-General observed that "violent extremism encompasses a wider category of manifestations" than terrorism since it includes forms of ideologically motivated violence that falls short of constituting terrorist acts (General Assembly report A/70/674, para. 4).

The diversity of what may constitute 'violent extremism' has, to some extent, been shaped by the activities of terrorist groups such as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Al Qaeda and Boko Haram, which spread messages of hate and violence as well as religious, cultural and social intolerance. In doing so, groups engaged in violent extremism often distort and exploit religious beliefs, ethnic differences and political ideologies to legitimize their actions as well as to recruit and retain their followers.

Potential pitfalls, that some PVE/CVE efforts have become casualties of, include oversimplification of the phenomenon inter alia with respect to its association with any specific religion, nationality, civilization or ethnic group which can have the effect of furthering rather than hindering violent extremism agendas. For instance, the United States of America's Department of State, in its 2016 Strategy on Countering Violent Extremism, recognized this diversity where itnoted that "the drivers of violent extremism vary across individuals, communities, and regions" (US Department of State and USAID, 2016, p. 3). Despite the focus being on returning foreign terrorist fighters, the understanding of the United States resonates with the contents of The Hague-Marrakech Memorandum, where it was recognized that there is a need for a move towards an individual approach to PVE/CVE efforts. For instance, at Good Practices 16 and 19, the Memorandum suggested that States should deploy individual risk assessment tools, that consider a variety of factors, with the assessments being overseen by trained professionals (GCTF, (A), p. 8). This was reinforced in the addendum to the Memorandum, which recommended for the individual risk assessment tool to be implemented by an expert "proficient in understanding the many facets of radicalisation and the local and cultural context" (GCTF, (B), p. 4).

One aspect that States as well as commentators have sometimes oversimplified is the notion of 'radicalization', a concept which has attracted much attention (and related controversies) including in relation to counter-terrorism prevention discourse and efforts. The UNHCHR Report observed that:

The notion of 'radicalization' is generally used [by some States] to convey the idea of a process through which an individual adopts an increasingly extremist set of beliefs and aspirations. This may include, but is not defined by, the willingness to condone, support, facilitate or use violence to further political, ideological, religious or other goals. (Report A/HRC/33/29, para. 19).

Some commentators have suggested that 'radicalization' can be understood as the process by which individuals adopt violent extremist ideologies that may lead them to commit terrorist acts, or which are likely to render them more vulnerable to recruitment by terrorist organizations (Romaniuk, 2015, pp. 7-8).

Recruitment patterns

Recruitment can take many different approaches. Here is one set of proposed models as to how these might be categorized and critiqued:*

  • 'The Net': violent extremist and terrorist groups disseminate undifferentiated propaganda, such as video clips or messages, to a target population deemed homogeneous and receptive to the propaganda.
  • 'The funnel': entails an incremental approach, to target specific individuals considered ready for recruitment, using psychological techniques to increase commitment and dedication. Even targeted children who resist complete recruitment may develop positive outlooks on the group's activities.
  • 'Infection': when the target population is difficult to reach, an 'agent' can be inserted to pursue recruitment from within, employing direct and personal appeals. The social bonds between the recruiter and the targets may be strengthened by appealing to grievances, such as marginalization or social frustration.
* Gerwehr, Scott, and Sara A. Daly (2006). Al-Qaida: terrorist selection and recruitment. Santa Monica, California, RAND Corporation.  Pp. 76-80. Cited in United Nations, UNODC (2017). Handbook on Children Recruited and Exploited by Terrorist and Violent Extremist Groups: Role of the Justice System . Vienna. P. 13.

As many commentators and governmental/intergovernmental entities now recognize, historically too much emphasis was given to religio-centric ideology as a driver of terrorism (Kundnani, 2015, pp. 10-11), often at the expense of other critical underlying factors being overlooked or given inadequate attention. At the heart of the movement critical of this limited approach is the work of Botha, who drew attention to the significance of individual psychology as being an essential component in the turn to extremism (including terrorism), with Botha concluding that in order to further prevent terrorism it is essential that improved understanding is developed as to what motivates an individual to turn to terrorism (Botha, 2015, p. 3). For example, one of the key findings of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report, Journey to Extremism in Africa (UNDP Report) (2017), was that while 51% of people interviewed cited religious grounds as a reason for joining violent extremist groups, as many as 57 percent of the respondents also admitted to limited or no understanding of religious texts.

The previously mentioned study conducted by Botha supplements this, as it was determined that far from religion being a key component in radicalization, one of the strongest influences was that of an individual losing faith in politicians and political systems. Critically, Botha's study revealed that anger was commonly targeted at agents of the State, due to their role in protecting the incumbent; the impact of this can be seen when the following is considered: "instead of preventing and combating terrorism [the repressive approaches of agents of the State] ensure that young people affected by them - and even other family members - [were] radicalised" (Botha, 2015, p. 13). Certainly, there has been increased recognition that an over emphasis on radicalization may lead to overly simplistic conclusions regarding the causal links between radicalization (resulting in extremist thoughts) and acts of violent extremism. This may invite a 'deprogramming' approach as a/the solution in response without adequately examining other pathways to violence such as socio-economic factors, discussed in the next section. Certainly, the benefit of increased understanding and lessons learnt are reflected in the approach of the VE Action Plan around which the analysis in this Module has been framed.

It is interesting to note that, at times, academic scholarship has been ahead of governmental and intergovernmental institutions in terms of its understanding and thinking on PVE/CVE related issues. For example, Martha Crenshaw, writing back in 1988, noted that the "actions of terrorist organisations are based on a subjective interpretation of the world rather than objective reality", with Crenshaw arguing that the perception of the political and social environment is filtered through their own beliefs and attitudes (Crenshaw, 1988, p. 2). Nowadays, there is increased understanding that the process of radicalization is highly individualized, with no single pathway and often taking many different forms (General Assembly, Human Rights Council report A/HRC/31/65, para. 15). Scholars have drawn on the social-psychological distinctions within beliefs, feelings, and behaviours to disaggregate the radicalization process. Those who turn to terrorist action only form the apex of a pyramid of a larger group of sympathizers who share their beliefs and feelings (McCauley and Moskalenko, 2008; General Assembly report A/70/674, para. 32).

In examining drivers of violent extremism, great caution must be exercised in the terminology used in order to avoid being misinformed by incorrect and/or unchallenged related assumptions. Consequently, some entities have reviewed their definitional and conceptual approaches, such as the European Police Office (Europol) which recently proposed a move away from the term "radicalization" to "violent extremist social trend" (EUROPOL, 2016).

One significant issue, which must be clarified from the outset, is that what is critical to counter-terrorism discourse and efforts is not per se whether individuals hold 'radical' or 'extremist' views (terms which can be relatively subjective in nature and therefore susceptible to misunderstanding) but whether such views are translated into violent acts (which is the exception rather than the norm). Potentially, millions of people drawn from different social, ethnic, cultural, religious, or geographical backgrounds have what some others might regard as 'radical' or 'extremist' views, especially when compared with their own ones, yet do not commit violent or terrorist acts. Indeed, even how the terms 'violent' and 'violent extremism' are defined can vary contextually depending on the method and methodologies used. For instance, a positivist understanding of 'violent extremism' would differ from one derived from the application of a method of 'micro-narratives' or collecting life stories. Micro-narratives are undoubtedly important for better comprehending or addressing more local drivers of violent extremism.

Definitional approaches to 'violent extremism'

There are many different governmental and intergovernmental definitional approaches to the concept of violent extremism, some examples of which are given here.


Australia (1*): "Violent extremism is the beliefs and actions of people who support or use violence to achieve ideological, religious or political goals. This includes terrorism and other forms of politically motivated and communal violence."

Canada (2**): "[V]iolent extremism" is where an offence is "primarily motivated by extreme political, religious or ideological views". Some definitions explicitly note that radical views are by no means a problem in themselves, but that they become a threat to national security when such views are put into violent action

USA (3*): The FBI defines violent extremism as the "encouraging, condoning, justifying, or supporting the commission of a violent act to achieve political, ideological, religious, social, or economic goals", whilst USAID defines violent extremist activities as the "advocating, engaging in, preparing, or otherwise supporting ideologically motivated or justified violence to further social, economic or political objectives".

Norway (4*): Violent extremism constitutes activities of persons and groups that are willing to use violence in order to achieve political, ideological or religious goals.

Sweden (5*): A violent extremist is someone "deemed repeatedly to have displayed behaviour that does not just accept the use of violence but also supports or exercises ideologically motivated violence to promote something".

UK (6*): Extremism is defined as the vocal or active opposition to fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs, as well as calls for the death of United Kingdom armed forces at home or abroad.


Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) (7*): "[P]romoting views which foment and incite violence in furtherance of particular beliefs, and foster hatred which might lead to inter-community violence".

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) (8*): Whilst recognizing that there is no internationally agreed-upon definition, UNESCO, within the Preventing violent extremism through education: a guide for policy-makers document, suggested that the most common understanding of the term, and the one which it follows within the guide, is one that "refers to the beliefs and actions of people who support or use violence to achieve ideological, religious or political goals". This can include "terrorism and other forms of politically motivated violence".

1* Parliament of Australia (2015). " Australian Government measures to counter violent extremism: a quick guide." February.
2* Public Safety Canada (2009). " Assessing the Risk of Violent Extremists." Research Summary, vol. 14, no. 4.
3* USAID (2011). " The Development Response to Violent Extremism and Insurgency: Putting Principles Into Practice." USAID Policy, September 2011. P. 2.
4* Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security (2014). " Action Plan Against Radicalization and Violent Extremism." P.7.
5* Government Offices of Sweden (2011). " Sweden Action Plan to Safeguard Democracy Against Violence Promoting Extremism." Government Communication 2011/12:44, Point 3.2.
6* HM Government (UK) (2015). Counter-Extremism Strategy . London, Counter-Extremism Directorate, Home Office. Para. 1. See too HM Government (2011). Prevent Strategy . The Stationery Office, Norwich. Annex A. Note that the 2013 UK Task Force on Tackling Radicalisation and Extremism defined "Islamist extremism".
7* Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Development Assistance Committee (2016). DAC High Level Meeting, Communiqué of 19 February 2016 .
8* United Nations, UNESCO (2017). Preventing violent extremism through education: A guide for policy-makers . Paris, France.
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