How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us

frictionI have now posted on the first part of Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us by Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko. This section has covered the how individuals are radicalised. Future posts will look at how groups move towards extremism, and then how entire nations can likewise go in that ugly direction.

Type of mechanism Mechanism Case studies Sweetreason post
Individual Personal Grievance Andrei Zhelyabov
Fadela Amara

How Terrorists Are Made: 1 – Personal Grievance

Individual Group Grievance Vera Zazulich
Theodore Kaczynski (Unabomber)
John Allen Muhammad (Washington sniper)
Clayton Waagner (abortion providers)
Ayman Al-Zawahiri
Bin Laden

How Terrorists Are Made: 2 — Group Grievance

Individual Slippery Slope Adrian Michailov
Omar Hammami (Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki)
Bin Laden

Slippery Slope to Terrorism

Individual Love Sophia (Sonia) Perovskaya & Andrei Zhelyabov
Amrozi bin Nurhasyim (smiling terrorist)
Bin Laden

Love, Relationships and Terrorism

Individual Risk and Status Alexander Barannikov
Leon Mirsky
Ahmad Fadeel al-Nazal (Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi)
Bin Laden

Terrorists on Status Seeking Adventures

A contemporary example of a status driven extremist?

Individual Unfreezing Sophia Andreevna Ivanova (Vanechka)
Muhammad Bouyeri

Unfreezing. Gateway to Radicalisation (Comparing Cults and Terrorist Groups Once More)

Group Group Polarization
Group Group Competition
Group Group Isolation
Mass Jutitsu Politics
Mass Hatred
Mass Martyrdom



Unfreezing. Gateway to Radicalisation (Comparing Cults and Terrorist Groups)

What follows will be as obvious as our common humanity to many readers. To others it may appear to be a spineless excuse for idiocy and criminality. How to explain such contrary perspectives is itself an interesting question to explore. But if you are curious as to what mechanisms open the doorway for some people to join radical activists and/or religious cults then stick with the post or scroll down towards its latter half.

Canadian filmmaker Boonaa Mohammed (as quoted on ABC News interview — @ 10 mins):

I kid you not. Muslims themselves do not really understand how people become radicalised — because it’s such a foreign concept to mainstream Islam and mainstream Muslims.

The film Tug of War (link is to trailer but be sure to check the interviews beyond the trailer) has been criticized for not offering an answer to the question of prevention but even the question of how it happens seems to elude many, both Muslims and non-Muslims. The latter very often simplistically blame the Quran and the Muslim religion generally, but most Muslims do not become violent. Others equally simplistically blame various grievances, but there are many more aggrieved persons in the world than violent ones.


View the interviews with the lead actors on the same site as this trailer.

One theme that has repeatedly surfaced in my readings of religious and other forms of extremism is of individuals finding themselves cut adrift from conventional moorings: a respected place in society, a family, a career, a home. Radicalisation is costly and those of us focused on job and family are not going to take time to explore an alternative option that would mean leaving them behind. We are likely to consider the very idea as crazy or self-indulgent. (See below: Radicalisation to Escape Disconnection)

friction1This theme leads us to the next mechanism involved in radicalisation addressed in Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us by Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko. Here is the opening of their seventh chapter:

For many individuals, the path to radicalization is blocked by prior routines and responsibilities. Supporting a family, building a career, and attachments to friends and neighbors are all jeopardized by committing time and energy to political activism; joining an illegal and dangerous organization costs even more. But what if everyday commitments and attachments are lost? Perhaps parents die suddenly or a spouse unexpectedly departs. Or an individual moves from home to a remote city or a foreign country and has to begin again with no social ties and few resources. Or civil war ravages the country, destroying families, jobs, and social networks; streets become dangerous, and fear follows people home. Disconnected from everyday routines and relationships, an individual becomes an easy prospect for any group that offers friendship and security. If the new group comes with an ideology, new ideas may be embraced along with new friends.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 1585-1592). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

To continue an important observation introduced above — not everyone who goes through experiences that open one to a radical questioning of one’s belief system and an ability to embrace quite new ideas become radicalised.


Clark McCauley

As for the other mechanisms they have discussed they provide two case studies, one from late nineteenth century Russia and the other a modern contemporary, and introduce some of the psychological studies that help us understand the behaviour.

In 1870s Russia students who moved to a major centre to study found themselves as part of a “brotherhood”, a new family, as a result of radical students setting up communes to provide their peers with food, shelter and to assist them with any other needs that might arise. They were “friends of humanity”, always willing to respond to fellow students whenever they found themselves in a difficulty.


Sophia Moskalenko

McCauley and Moskalenko introduce readers to “Vanechka” (Sophia Andreevna Ivanova). The information they provide derives from her autobiography. She lived in a provincial town, one of ten children, and both her parents died by the time she was sixteen. Having an idealised view of Moscow and places of higher learning, Vanechka asked one of her brothers to help her move to Moscow where she hoped to pursue a higher education. Unfortunately disappointments followed. Two other brothers of hers who had been in Moscow were forced to leave as a result of work commitments and poor health, leaving her completely alone in a big unfriendly city with no money and no place to live. She had no education or skills, and her job opportunities were limited. 

One job she found required twelve hour days for pay that was inadequate to cover both rent and food. Vanechka jumped when an opportunity to work in a printing workshop was opened to her. Books had long been her love. The workshop happened to belong to Myshkin, a revolutionary, and had a secret room where revolutionary tracts and literature were printed, although Vanechka knew nothing of this at first.

Two women in the workshop who befriended Vanechka were “typical nihilists” and students of the day — short hair, carelessly dressed, stern looks — and over time they came to trust Vanechka enough to work in the secret room. Such a trust was, of course, a great honour. When her coworkers learned of her financial plight they organised a commune in the printery using its spare rooms for a common pool of money, food, clothes, and other necessities. Other revolutionaries would be taken in from time to time as needed (as when they were hiding from police). Vanechka was part of the circle.

Her boss, Myshkin, did take her aside to ask if she understood the danger of being associated with people but considering herself such an insignificant person in the larger group she scoffed at the idea that the authorities would ever want to arrest her.

Vanechka was arrested, however, and jailed, when the police shut down the printery. Under interrogation she found herself following the advice her friends had given her — to be prepared for anything to to say nothing. Luckily her brother was able to arrange for her release but then she found herself once more without social supports. Her friends all remained in jail and she was once again without a job, without an income, without a place to stay.

She decided to move to St Petersburg where her friends were awaiting trial. At least she could visit them in prison. There she found another job in a printery and once again found friends among radical supporters of jailed comrades.

Her new friends, again radicals, gave Vanechka the support she needed and in return she found herself participating in their activist programs. She was arrested as part of a protest activity and sentenced to Siberian exile.

She escaped, and soon afterwards rose to the exclusive ranks of the executive committee of the revolutionary group People’s Will and used her experience to organise and run an underground printing press. She married the convicted terrorist Kvyatkovksi. When he was sentenced to death she begged the court to be given the same sentence with him but was instead given four years hard labour. She died in Moscow in 1927.

One can readily identify the moments of breakdown of stable supports in Vanechka’s life, and where her life’s path was directed to radical opposition to the State.


Muhammad Bouyeri

The contemporary case-study in this chapter is Muhammad Bouyeri, the murderer of Danish filmmaker Theo van Gogh who produced Submission, a film critical of Islam. Bouyeri left a letter for Ayaan Hirsi Ali stabbed to his chest. I won’t repeat Bouyeri’s story here except to list key “unfreezing” disconnections in his own life:

  • seven months in jail for a non-religious crime
  • the death of his mother (to whom he was very close) about the same time
  • his subsequent attempt at finding meaning in an idealistic project to build youth centres came to nought, partly as a result of his own deepening fundamentalism
  • his loss of job

Nothing predestined Bouyeri to become a blood-stained terrorist. His life could well have taken another fork in the road. The point is, his journey did come to a fork that not everyone experiences, and when we do, so much depends upon those who are around to give us a new direction.

McCauley and Moskalenko list several different types of ungluing or unfreezing catalysts: Continue reading

A contemporary example of a status driven extremist?

Unlike his inspiration Barannikov, however, Mirsky was unable to contain himself: he told everyone who would listen that he was the attempted assassin. . . . Soon [the police arrested him].

Only a few weeks later, Mirsky was already betraying his comrades from People’s Will and writing humble petitions to the czar. His loyalty to the radical movement evaporated completely; there is even evidence he was recruited to serve as an informant for the prison authorities. . . . 

Barannikov sought the thrill of adventure; Mirsky status. The two kinds of motives are often linked in experience and can be linked in theory. Gang activity is a familiar setting where certain young men seek status. In an earlier post in a series addressing factors that attract persons to extremist radical groups, Terrorists on Status Seeking Adventures, I did not discuss Mirsky. But this morning I caught up with a detailed investigation into another (ex)Islamist radical I have posted on a few times and am struck by some similarities.

The contemporary example of someone who was driven by a pursuit for social status in his involvement in an extremist Islamist group appears to be Maajid Nawaz.

Previous posts focusing on Nawaz:

harris-nawazIn at least one of those posts I did wonder why Maajid Nawaz appeared to approve of being a billed as an equal joint author (with Sam Harris) of a book in which some of Harris’s more extreme views went unchallenged and were even further promulgated through the advertising of a book whose arguments are opposed by Nawaz.

I had also heard reports that Nawaz had been responsible for falsely reporting peaceful Muslim groups to the British authorities as potential extremists. I was unable to find secure evidence in fairly quick searches to verify such claims. (Some have accused him of falsely presenting himself as a Moslem, but I have probably met more non-practising Moslems than devout ones when overseas, and see no reason to pronounce a spiritual judgement upon them and accuse them of not being Muslims at all. The identity cards of those who have them flatly state they are Muslims.)

This morning I read the following:

The Self-Invention of Maajid Nawaz: Fact and Fiction in the Life of the Counter-Terror Celebrity

The lengthy report is on Alternet; the authors are Nafeez Ahmed and Max Blumenthal. The byline reads:

Maajid Nawaz bases his credibility on a compelling personal story, but how much of it is true?


Like Mirsky, it seems that Nawaz became an informant for the police:

As soon as Nawaz and his fellow former prisoners arrived at Heathrow on their return from Egypt in early 2006, Nisbet said they were quickly spirited away for interrogation. “When we came into Heathrow we were met by Special Branch police officers,” he recalled. “We were interviewed separately about our Islamic views and each of us was asked whether we would become informants in the local mosques. We were asked whether Special Branch could come and visit us in our homes to continue the discussion. Only Maajid agreed to this, as he says he could not think of a quick response to get rid of them.”

If Nisbet’s account is correct, no sooner had Nawaz landed on British soil after his detention in Egypt than he volunteered to become an informant for Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch. (This is a unit of the British police that oversaw national security related matters, and later merged with the Anti-Terrorist Branch to form the Counter Terrorism Command.)

Another former HT member who was close to Nawaz at the time, who now also rejects the movement’s ideology, told us Nawaz was indeed a police informant, helping the Metropolitan Police identify potentially troublesome HT members at political protests and other public gatherings.

In response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act, the Metropolitan Police refused to confirm or deny the matter . . . .

Appeal to the higher powers

Mirsky appealed to the czar for release from prison. Nawaz had spent time in prison in Egypt and after his return to Britain and subsequent eventual abandoning of his former extremist views he also appealed to the British government:

quilliamIn April 2008, Husain and Nawaz together founded the Quilliam Foundation. Billed as the world’s “first counter-extremism think tank,” Quilliam was named after the English convert William Henry Quilliam, who opened the first mosque in England. Husain, Nawaz and their co-directors marketed themselves as leaders of a new movement for Islamic reform whose insider experiences gave them special powers of de-radicalization. Between 2008 and 2011, Quilliam received the U.S. dollar equivalent of at least $3.8 million in British government funding—about 92 percent of its total operating budget. Nawaz was, in effect, an employee of the British government, reaping a salary of about $140,000 a year. . . . 

Rizwaan Sabir, an assistant professor specializing in counter-terrorism and insurgency at Liverpool John Moores University, argues that the blacklist was evidence of Quilliam’s ulterior political agenda. “Quilliam is not there to de-radicalize, they’re there to offer a counter-narrative,” Sabir told us. “That’s why they primarily engage with people in power; they’re there to give legitimacy and justification to government power and practice.”

There is also the story of Nawaz’s efforts to enter politics — but I leave that one aside for now.

Gang activity

Nawaz’s pre-Islamist background was as a gang leader. Recall from above that such activity is the stage for status seeking young men. There are many episodes in Radical where Nawaz’s status-seeking is evident — in his drive to be the leader of gangs, to impress peers, to rise to leadership in the Islamist movement. Of course there are other factors in play as well (e.g. experiences of racism, torn between two cultures) and these cannot be discounted as having some part to play.


And status does appear to be the aim of the game according to Nafeez and Blumenthal’s article. What they write certainly explains several details of Nawaz’s book Radical. (I spoke of this book in The Conflict between Islamism and Islam.)

Nawaz’s decline in status in the U.K. appears to be unknown in the U.S. where he is feted by many conservative celebrities. It is perhaps instructive to compare Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s fall from grace in The Netherlands (she was exposed as having lied about her past experiences) who turned to the U.S. to face less critical admirers. It appears that Maajid Nawaz has likewise creatively embellished some of the truth of his past in his book Radical.

Like Nawaz, Hirsi Ali based her celebrity and political authority on her tale of transformation from radical Islamist to liberal atheist. And like Nawaz, Hirsi Ali’s story was filled with fabrications and half-truths. After being exposed by a Dutch television network for lying about her childhood, her family and her immigration status while serving as a member of the country’s right-wing government, Hirsi Ali fled to the U.S., where she basked in positive publicity and generous patronage. With his credibility on the wane in the UK, Nawaz seemed determined to follow her example.

It appears that Nawaz has misremembered when, how and why he turned his back on radical Islamism. It was not, as we wrote in Radical, through the admirable attitudes of Amnesty International and deep reflection on his past while in an Egyptian prison. In fact, those who knew him unanimously recall him emerging from prison more hardened and radical than ever. What appears to have eventually swung him to the “other side” was a combination of the failure of his earnest efforts to convert others to his views and seeing former his colleague, Ed Husain, attract some widespread fame with the publication of his book, The Islamist, about his experiences in the Islamist extremist movement and how he left it behind:

islamist. . . His close friend Ed Husain had just released his book, The Islamist, which catalogued his experiences inside the movement and described his path back to traditional Islam. The book rose to international bestseller status, garnering Husain a public platform as well as access to influential British counter-terror officials. A former Home Office official told Nafeez Ahmed (co-author of this article), “the draft was written by Ed [Husain] but then ‘peppered’ by government input — not explicitly, but implicitly.”

Just as Nawaz was approaching the upper echelons of HT, he suddenly resigned from the organization. Former friends of both Husain and Nawaz told us Nawaz was captivated by the stunning example of Husain’s success and eager to emulate it.  

Theological and scriptural counter-arguments appeared to have played no meaningful role in Nawaz’s decision to leave HT. Besides witnessing Husain’s rise to prominence, the main catalysts appear to have been multiple: the terrifying experience of his imprisonment due to his Islamist activism; the emotional disconnection from his wife Rabia; a growing disillusionment with his identity as an HT member and ex-prisoner; and an apparent new love interest at SOAS in the form of a more senior student.

Nawaz’s decision to become an informant for the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch upon his arrival from Egypt, described by his former fellow prisoner Ian Nisbet and an ex-HT member, also played an instrumental role in his complex evolution. In his book, Nawaz claims how in May 2006, he began to wonder where he could go next with his HT baggage. But rather than describing an inner ideological or theological crisis behind his decision to renounce HT, he outlines an emotional lack of self-esteem and realization that his path as a senior Islamist activist offered only a dead-end. 

One fellow student who was at SOAS while Nawaz was active on campus suggested to us that his failure to generate interest in HT influenced his exodus from the group. “Far from SOAS being a hotbed of radical Islamism, we basically used to laugh the HT guys— including Maajid—out of campus,” he said, echoing the same assessment as Nawaz’s former Newham classmate of the earlier experience there. “HT had no traction whatsoever at [university]. Maybe this skeptical social and intellectual environment is what really caused his conviction in Islamism to buckle.”

As a matter of chronology, it was only after Nawaz returned to his studies at a major London university, surrounded by leading scholars and bright students of the Middle East and Islamic history—and where he was able to recognize more publicly acceptable opportunities to advance his career and personal life through the example of Ed Husain’s success—that he finally began to become “deradicalized.”

With Ayaan Hirsi Ali

ayaanAnother indicator of Nawaz’s motives for change are found in a turning point debate with Ayaan Hirsi Ali:

Nawaz and Hirsi Ali first met at a 2010 debate hosted by Intelligence Squared, a nationally televised debating forum sponsored by the neoconservative Rosenkranz Foundation. They were on opposite sides of the debate question, “Islam is a religion of peace.” Nawaz was still intent on portraying himself as a liberal Muslim, while Hirsi Ali had called for Islam to be “defeated.” “Once it’s defeated,” she said in 2007, “it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now… There comes a moment when you crush your enemy.”

Her debating partner, Douglas Murray, then-director of the London based Center for Social Cohesion and author of Neoconservatism: Why We Need It, was a right-wing anti-immigrant activist . . . . 

Prior to the debate, audience members were asked to register their opinion of the question. A majority stated their support for the statement that Islam was a religion of peace. By the end of the debate, however, the crowd had shifted decisively in the other direction, with nearly all undecided voters rejecting the statement.

Nawaz appeared overwhelmed by the arguments put forward by Hirsi Ali and Douglas Murray. His attempts to place Islamic scripture in historical and theological context fell on deaf ears while his opponents electrified the crowd with unequivocal arguments casting the whole of Islam as poisoned. The humiliating defeat seemed to have a powerful impact on him.

With Sam Harris

harrisThe status seeking motive might likewise explain Nawaz’s affiliation with Sam Harris:

Recently, Nawaz joined forces with Sam Harris, the self-styled “new atheist” who has declared, “It is time we admitted that we are not at war with ‘terrorism.’ We are at war with Islam.” An avid supporter of torturing Muslim terror suspects and racially profiling “anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim,” Harris is also a New Age transcendental meditation enthusiast who has suggested that babbling infants might be speaking ancient languages. As Nawaz embraced the fervently anti-Muslim movement of self-proclaimed new atheists, he received a $20,000 donation from Harris to Quilliam in 2014.

In 2015, Harris and Nawaz published Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue, a book framed as a high-minded demonstration of “how two people with very different views can find common ground.” Hirsi Ali offered effusive praise: “We must all read it and follow in [Harris and Nawaz’s] footsteps.”

When Harris and Nawaz took their show on the road, they scrapped any pretense of debate and acted as a tag team. Their most high-profile event occurred last September at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

After opening the discussion by emphasizing the need to “destroy intellectually” what he saw as the troubling tenets of Islam, Harris offered a hypothetical scenario to explain the religion’s “uniquely problematic” tenets. “If I take out a pen and draw a stick figure of Muhammad, it’s not implausible to think that the rest of my life will be this deranged attempt not to be killed by a religious maniac who thinks I have crossed a line there. There’s only one religion on the planet today that is doing that to people, and this is not based on U.S. foreign policy, it’s not based on anything but specific religious ideas.”

Nawaz never challenged Harris. Instead, he unleashed a tirade against non-Muslims who had criticized his partnership with Harris. Tossing back the language of left-wing campus identity politics, Nawaz accused his “non-Muslim, white, middle-class American male” critics of “colonial patronage; a reverse form of racism,” indignantly instructing them to “check their privilege.”

“The day that you have had to dodge neo-Nazi knife attacks on the streets of Essex…is the day you get to talk to me about Islamophobia,” Nawaz declared, portraying the affluent seaside area where he was raised as a hardscrabble ghetto besieged by violent thugs. Then he pointed to Hirsi Ali, now a Belfer Center fellow, seated in the front row of the audience, to vindicate her of any and all charges of Islamophobia. Next, to rebut detractors of Harris, Nawaz offered an anecdote about an encounter earlier that day in the gym:  

“I’m in the middle of training and Sam pulls his headphones out and says, ‘You can tell them that I’m listening to [Pakistani Sufi devotional singer] Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan…’ The reason I mention that is, here’s Sam Harris, who’s often accused of anti-Muslim bigotry… listening to Sufi music. That’s because he understands the difference between scrutinizing an idea and harboring anti-Muslim bigotry as a person. And if he did not understand that idea he would not be listening to one of the great Sufi mystics and musicians that Pakistan ever had.”

In his recent interview with Australia’s News 7, Nawaz compared his battles against Islam—not extreme Islamism, not radical Islam, not jihadism, but Islam—to noble fights against the scourges of racism and sexism. “You don’t need to be black to challenge racism, you don’t need to be gay to challenge homophobia,” he said, “and you don’t need to be a Muslim to challenge Islam.”

The metamorphosis of Maajid Nawaz continues to unfold. Whatever his latest identity, he demands that his ever-changing story be taken at face value. He presents himself as one of the world’s leading experts in understanding the radicalization of Muslims in Western societies because of his own hard-wrought experience. But upon closer and more objective examination, Nawaz’s career appears to be more a case study in public relations. His family and former friends are left to wonder who he will be next, and how he will sell it.

How much of Radical is true?

radicalThe article exposes a few moments in Radical that I had found frustratingly vague when it came to critical explanatory details. The moment of Nawaz’s sudden falling head over heals in love with the power of the Islamist movement according to his own account was when his elder brother was able use his Islamist identity to hold in check a gang of neo-Nazi thugs about to attack him. He had threatened to blow them all sky high and himself along with them by exploding a bomb he had in his backpack. The thugs melted away, leaving Nawaz in awe. So the story goes. Ahmed and Blumenthal cite eye-witness evidence that claims the altercation was over a girl and Nawaz’s brother had merely persuaded them to look elsewhere for the guilty party. The reason Nawaz might want to associate his older brother with radicalized Islamism is not very savoury.

(In addition to the alternative accounts of the encounter the authors point to anachronisms in Nawaz’s account that undermine its credibility. Gangs fought race wars in the 1990s, not anti-Islamic ones; the notion of bombs in backpacks of would-be suicide bombers entered public consciousness after 2001 or rather after the 2005 7/7 Underground attacks in London.)

Nawaz’s account of a murder on campus is also a little too dissimilar from Ed Husain’s story of the same event. The murder is presented by Nawaz as an Islamist attack and Nawaz was himself involved near the front line, but again the truth appears to have been different: it was all about gang politics and Nawaz was a distant spectator.

Other disappointing details also emerge about Nawaz’s reasons for the breakup of his first marriage. Nawaz complains that on his release from prison his wife was “suffocatingly” extremist in her views. It seems that the opposite was the case. His wife had even been very active in working for his release only to be ignored by Nawaz afterwards.

I had not been able to understand why Maajid Nawaz failed to challenge Sam Harris when it was so clear that he must have disagreed strongly with some of Harris’s statement in Islam and the Future of Tolerance (link is to my blog post.) I started to follow Nawaz’s Twitter account to see if I was missing anything, but no. As Ahmed and Blumenthal demonstrate convincingly in my opinion, Nawaz used an Islamist extremist group to further his status ambitions and has since left it for what appear to be much the same reasons.

It is unpleasant to write these things about a contemporary, but two reasons have led me to do so. Firstly, as I indicated at the opening of this post, we see here a fresh illustration of one of the factors known to draw certain persons to terrorism or any extremist movement, including Islamist radicals; secondly, a couple of details that have emerged from the article have left an unpleasant taste in my mouth.


Terrorists on Status Seeking Adventures

So far we have noted how one becomes a terrorist as a consequence of embracing a violent ideology and a desire to take action in response to personal or group grievances. But not all terrorists in history, or today, have been overly bothered by either of these things. For some the primary motivation has been the opportunity to break out of a hum drum existence and live a life of adventure and win high status among peers as a heroic warrior.

Look at the following description of the man who laid the foundations of Islamic State, al-Zarqawi. (After Zarqawi was killed his organization under new leadership was eventually transformed into today’s Islamic State.) Formatting and bolding are mine in all quotations….


Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

The search for status and risk taking can be unrelated to any sense of grievance or ideology. An example of how far the separation between politics and radical action can go was recounted to one of the authors in a government-sponsored meeting. A young Iraqi had been captured trying to place an improvised explosive device (IED) on a road traversed by U.S. forces. When interrogated, he showed surprisingly little animosity toward Americans. Placing IEDs was a high-status, well-paid occupation; he was saving his money to get to America.


The United States placed a price of $25 million on his head—the same bounty offered for Osama bin Laden. At the onset of his criminal career, nobody would have thought that Ahmad Fadeel al-Nazal al-Khalayleh, later known as Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, could gain such prominence on the international stage.

Born in 1966 he grew up in a middle-class family in a suburb of Zarqua, Jordan. His school performance was weak, and he dropped out of high school in his final year, refusing to undertake vocational training or to continue his studies. He was not interested in religious studies either and did not attend religious services. Instead, he got involved with other neighborhood troublemakers, quickly creating a reputation for himself as an aggressive and dangerous thug—not because of his extraordinary physical strength but because of his bad temper. He took one unskilled job after another, only to be fired for neglecting his duties and inciting fights. In 1986 a mandatory two-year military service took him away from the street career he was building, but he came back with the same drive for intimidation and domination.

His contemporaries recall that at this time he drank too much and earned a nickname, “the green man,” for the numerous tattoos he acquired (a practice condemned by Islam). He liked to stand out in other ways too:

  • in several cases, he became involved in altercations with local police, repeatedly causing his father the embarrassment of picking him up from the police station.
  • In 1987 he stabbed a local man, earning a two-months prison sentence, which was eventually substituted by a fine.
  • Numerous arrests followed—for shoplifting, for drug dealing, and for attempted rape.
  • Although the authorities did not approve of Ahmad’s behavior, there were plenty of admirers. Neighborhood young men feared and respected him, and he began frequenting a Palestinian enclave where he became a leader for young Palestinian refugees.

To keep him out of trouble, his mother enrolled Ahmad in a religious school at a mosque in the center of Amman. There, among Islamic radicals preparing for jihad in Afghanistan, he realized that his talents might best be applied in war. Hoping to be sent to the front of the fighting, he submitted to the most basic requirements of Islam by beginning to attend sermons and abstaining from alcohol. In 1989, with a group of peers, Ahmad finally set off on the road to Afghanistan.

To his dismay he arrived too late: the war against the Soviets was already over, and he could only join the fighters in celebration. But the region was in ruins, the situation was chaotic, and Ahmad thought he might yet find his adventure. 

[Zarqawi built up network connections with influential members of the radical Islamist movement and befriended the Islamist ideologue Al-Maqdisi who led him to take up journalism.]

The war with the Soviets was over, but a civil war was just beginning in Afghanistan. Wasting no time, Ahmad joined the majority Pashtun side and gave up journalism for his true passion—fighting. This was an opportunity to learn from the best. Ahmad attended several training camps, learned to use automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, and absorbed the politics and practices of war, including rape and beheading. According to a biographer,

“In Afghanistan, he filled himself with the spirit of jihad, no matter what the cause: for the liberation of Afghanistan, for Islam, for the liberation of Iraq, or on any other grounds. Zarqawi discovered in himself the personality of a fighter.”8

[In 1993 Ahmad returned to Jordan but was always watched by the police.]

Of those under suspicion, Ahmad was already well known to the local police for his prewar delinquency. Now steeped in the Islamic ideology he had absorbed in his Afghan years, he started to “act locally,” first subjugating his immediate family to the strict and arbitrary rules he thought important. Suddenly his family were alone in town wearing traditional Afghan clothing, and his brothers were forbidden to watch television.

Once Ahmad had subdued his family, he moved on to larger domains. He went into crowded streets and the marketplace and shouted out his call to embrace jihad—this in a city where public sermons were forbidden. 

[Ahmad invited the more accomplished speaker and intellectual, Maqdisi, to join him.]

It was around this time that he adopted the new name, al-Zarqawi—clearly aiming to expand his influence far beyond his hometown. The two friends—the bully and the ideologue—joined about three hundred other Afghan veterans to form a terrorist cell. . . . 

[Zarqawi and Maqdisi were arrested by the Jordanian police.]

Zarqawi, Maqdisi, and some other members of [his terrorist cell] were sent to the maximum-security prison Suwaqah. Here, among the worst offenders, not only political prisoners but also felons and drug dealers, . . .  Zarqawi quickly established his status by beating up those who challenged him. His strategy was the same for intellectual as for physical challengers: when a prison newspaper printed articles critical of Zarqawi, he pummeled the authors.

Building up his main “arguments” for status, he lifted weights obsessively, becoming beefier and stronger than he had been before prison. He told stories of his heroic role in the Afghan war (the war that he missed) to impress other prisoners. He demanded complete obedience from those who wanted to be under his protection. They had to wear what he told them, read what he approved, and get his permission for any activity, even a visit to the infirmary. Violators were brutalized.

Observers recalled that he could give orders to his followers with only a blink of his eye. In addition to the sticks, Zarqawi had carrots: he distributed food rations to his followers and on occasion even cared for those who were sick or injured. But what won them over most was his overt defiance of prison authorities. He refused to wear a prison uniform and demanded that his side-kicks be allowed the same laxity. The army had to intervene to enforce the rule, and when Zarqawi realized he had no chance against the armed troops, he shouted insults in soldiers’ faces.

On several other occasions he tried to organize prison uprisings, and when the head of prison security summoned him, Zarqawi never once looked away from his eyes. Over months and years, the prison authorities came to fear and avoid conflicts with this berserker. Eventually, Zarqawi and his gang gained special status. The whole prison wing where former Bayt Al-Imam members [Zarqawi’s terrorist cell] were held was excused from morning rounds and, eventually, from wearing a uniform.

[In 2004 Maqdisi publicly acknowledge Zarqawi as his leader.]

In prison, for the first time in his life Zarqawi found the status he sought. He was more powerful than anyone. He got to this position through brutal force and unyielding defiance of authority. When in 1999 King Hussein died and Zarqawi was released in an amnesty, he had served only five years of his fifteen-year term. But it was the best five years of his life, so much so that he later told his friends and relatives that he had not really been glad to be released. He told his brother-in-law that life behind bars was much more enjoyable to him than his uneventful life as an average Jordanian. He even stayed an extra night in prison after being released.

[Once out of prison Zarqawi took some of his followers and went in search of bin Laden. On finding him he pledged him his loyalty.]

Being a part of a larger organization did not suit Zarqawi’s grand ambitions, and he moved away from al Qaeda’s main ground in Kabul to Herat, stirring anxieties in the terrorist leadership about his autonomy and unruliness. In 2003 the United States began its offensive against the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. . . . Zarqawi saw a great chance to make Iraq his own battleground, out from under the leadership of al Qaeda.

The world soon learned his name and saw his face in connection with multiple kidnappings and brutal beheadings of U.S. and allied forces contractors in Iraq, most notably his video-taped beheading of Nicholas Berg. In addition Zarqawi began a campaign of violence against the Shi’a of Iraq, with the goal of eliciting Shi’a reprisals against Sunni that would rouse the “inattentive” Sunni to jihad against both Western invaders and heretic Shi’a . . . .

[The al-Qaeda leadership rebuked Zarqawi for his attacks on fellow Muslims, but in vain.]

But pressure from authorities had not stopped Ahmad on the streets of Zarqa, had not stopped him in prison, and did not stop his bloody campaign in Iraq. [Al-Qaeda’s] political plans and calculations were of little consequence to Zarqawi. All he had ever wanted was power and the thrill of violence, and he got both from his violent operations in Iraq.

In 2006 a U.S. air strike destroyed a house where Zarqawi was hiding. He died shortly after being discovered in the rubble.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 1516-1529). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

friction1Zarqawi was not the first to undertake terrorism for the status and the adventure. McCauley and Moskalenko show the same personality drivers in the nineteenth century Russian anarchists Alexander Barannikov (always there when a violent action was being planned, less engaged in other educational and promotional activities) and Adrian Michailov (largely to impress the ladies).

The same trait was observed in the European terrorists of the 1970s:

A similar emphasis on risk taking is evident in the student terrorists of the 1970s. The two most famous terrorist groups that emerged in Europe were the Italian Red Brigades (BR) and the German Red Army Fraction (RAF). Della Porta provides excerpts from interviews that show some of the thrill value of violence and the special attraction of guns as instruments of dominance and violence.

Thus the Italian militants also glorified the idea of an adventurous and active life. The dangers involved in participating in a terrorist organization were considered “the expression of a dynamic and interesting life,” a contrast to the dullness of ordinary life.

Both Italian and German militants had “very special relationships with guns.” Guns held a particular glamour: “the gun . . . gives you more strength,” one militant explained . . .; “arms have a charm . . . that makes you feel more macho,” said another. . . . You can feel “very secure of yourself because you keep a gun in your hands . . . [they give you] a crazy self-confidence.”7

McCauley and Moskalenko discuss the universal drive for status and its psychological and evolutionary roots. (For those suspicious of evolutionary psychology after reading Richard Carrier’s recent swipe at the field have no need to worry: the drive for status is a trait found world wide and the evolutionary explanations for it suffer none of the superficial arguments and assertions Carrier identifies in certain publications.)

Rather than get into the science behind the drive for status and the place of risk-taking ventures in enhancing status I will quote a range of other scholarly works that also identify the drive for adventure and status as a significant motivator for many who go the way of terrorism today.

(I should point out that I am not saying all terrorists are motivated by adventure and status. Nor am I saying that where these motivations are found they are necessarily the only ones present.)

Terrorists and Other Radicalised Warriors

41w81XuILGL._SX331_BO1204203200_“These susceptibilities become motivations for terrorism, I learned from my extensive studies, and can and often do include personal traumatization, deep traumatic bereavement, anger, a desire for revenge, heightened sensitivity to the suffering of others, humiliation, frustrated aspirations, social alienation, marginalization, secondary trauma, a desire to prove one’s manhood, to belong, to protect others, to have an adventure or to be a hero.”

“As I gaze into the open faces of these young boys, I am overcome with emotion listening to them. They are one year older than my son at home. And just like my son, Alan had two sisters— but his were killed in the shootout. These boys are so ordinary in their innocent boyishness. It’s hard to take in this story and comprehend it’s real— they tell it like it’s a movie they saw. There is very little visible emotion in any of them except boyish excitement of telling an adventure tale.

“And when young people especially feel an overwhelming sense of not belonging, there is a vulnerability to extremist ideologies and groups that offer adventure, identity and belonging that is based on hatred and violence.”

Speckhard, Anne (2012). Talking to Terrorists Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & “Martyrs


“Internal motives stem from what an individual wants or needs for himself, in terms of the perceived benefits of membership in an extremist group, such as a feeling of belonging, escape into a new identity, adventure, or money.”

“While few would dispute the importance of religious allure in attracting fighters to the field, the conversation online frequently turned to the theme of fun and adventure.

The overall effect, likely intentional, made al Qaeda look like an adventure camp for young men.

Stern, Jessica; Berger, J. M. (2015). ISIS: The State of Terror


“Islamic State fangirls on Twitter mooned over the group’s hirsute warriors. Marriage brings status; the death of a husband brings more, as well as financial compensation. Status is not the only reason young women join the Islamic State. They share many of the men’s motives: seeking adventure, wanting to be part of something larger than themselves, indignation at the suffering of their coreligionists, a chance to rebuild the caliphate, or a belief that they are living in the Last Days.”

McCants, William (2015). The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State 


isisinside-198x300“‘In most cases, they’re adventurers who don’t have a pot to piss in back home, whether that’s Belgium, Manchester, Algeria, Yemen or, OK, Georgia. . . .'”

“The final factor leading foreign fighters to ISIS, according to Maher, is pure adventurism. Adrenaline junkies tend to be nonpracticing Muslims and are often drug users or addicts, or involved in criminality and gang violence back home— much as al-Zarqawi himself was in Jordan before discovering the mosque. Going off to fight in Syria represents just another rush for these types.”

Weiss, Michael; Hassan, Hassan (2015). ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror 


phoenix“For many young Westerners, joining the jihad or the rebels is an adventure, a kind of military summer camp.”

“The foreigners, in particular, are excited at the idea of going to war.”

Napoleoni, Loretta (2014). The Islamist phoenix : Islamic State and the redrawing of the Middle East


“The militant life brought not only regular meals and pocket money but also the revered status of a mujahid.”

hassan-201x300“The destruction ofvthe economic base of the Tamil areas was a potent factor in motivating many young people to join the LTTE, which gave their young lives purpose, meaning and status.

“For the individual, participation in a suicide mission is not about dying and killing alone, but has a broader significance for achieving multiple purposes. These include gaining community approval, political success, liberation of the homeland; personal redemption and mark of honour, achieving an exalted status of martyr for the survival of the community . . .”

Hassan, Riaz (2011). Life as a weapon: the global rise of suicide bombings


insideTerrorism-199x300“Although Baader may perhaps be an extreme example of this phenomenon, action is the undeniable cynosure for all terrorists—perhaps even more so, the thrill and heady excitement that accompany it. Far more of Peci’s 222-page account of his life as a Red Brigadist, for instance, is devoted to recounting in obsessive detail the types of weapons (and their technical specifications) used on particular RB operations and which group members actually did the shooting than to elucidating the organization’s ideological aims and political goals. Baumann is particularly candid about the cathartic relief that an operation brought to a small group of individuals living underground, in close proximity to one another, constantly on the run and fearful of arrest and betrayal. The real stress, he said, came from life in the group—not from the planning and execution of attacks. Others, like Stern, Collins, the RAF’s Silke Maier-Witt and the RB’s Susana Ronconi, are even more explicit about the “rush” and the sense of power and accomplishment they derived from the violence they inflicted. “Nothing in my life had ever been this exciting,” Stern enthused as she drifted deeper into terrorism. Collins similarly recalls how he led an “action-packed existence” during his six years in the IRA, “living each day with the excitement of feeling I was playing a part in taking on the Orange State.” For Maier-Witt, the intoxicating allure of action was sufficient to overcome the misgivings she had about the murder of Schleyer’s four bodyguards in order to kidnap the man himself. “At the time I felt the brutality of that action. . . . [But it] was a kind of excitement too because something had happened. The real thing,” she consoled herself, had “started now.” Ronconi is the most expansive and incisive in analyzing the terrorist’s psychology. “The main thing was that you felt you were able to influence the world about you, instead of experiencing it passively,” thereby combining intrinsic excitement with profound satisfaction.

“Aum effectively approached these young, intelligent but depressed elites, proposing to provide status, money, facilities and the tremendous opportunities to allow them to explore their potential capability to the maximum, and made them believe they could find themselves in Aum.”

“The perpetrators of this violence are thus accorded a special status and are revered as shaheed batal—“martyr heroes” or istishahadi—“he who martyrs himself.””

Hoffman, Bruce. (2006) Inside terrorism


pape-197x300“The more suicide terrorists justify their actions on the basis of religious or ideological motives that match the beliefs of a broader national community, the more the status of terrorist martyrs is elevated, and the more plausible it becomes that others will follow in their footsteps.”

“If at all possible, terrorist groups need their suicide attackers to be accepted as martyrs by the wider community. This is important because individuals are more likely to volunteer if they can expect to be accorded high status after their deaths than if their sacrifices will go unnoticed.

Pape, Robert. (2005) Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism


newthreat“. . . by 2012 or 2013, Islamic extremist ideas were attracting people who were younger, less educated and poorer than, certainly, the majority of the militants of the late 1990s in the UK. Their knowledge of Islam, and indeed of Islamic extremism, was more superficial, and the attraction of militancy appeared to be much less ideological. If the similarity with gangs is striking, it should not be surprising. Militant groups offered a different form of gang-type community with a different narrative but with often similar benefits — purpose, companionship, status, excitement, adventure and the prospect, infrequently realised, of both material and sexual advantages. . . . Above all, there was a sense of empowerment, as was very clear from the music, in both its jihadi and its more conventional versions. . . .”

“To young, alienated, bored men from the UK as much as their counterparts in Morocco, Turkey or Pakistan, the conflict offered sexual opportunity, status and adventure — opportunities that could be seen, at least in the eyes of a particularly naive and ignorant young person, as more inspiring than trying to scratch together fifty pounds for a night out in a run-down British port city before another week’s work flipping burgers or studying for a low-grade utility degree.”

Burke, Jason. (2015) The New Threat: the Past, Present and Future of Islamic Militancy


Pantucci-We-Love-Death-web1-192x300“At the time few questions were asked about how these young men had been persuaded to leave the comfort of England for an adventure in a lawless and far-off land, but with the benefit of hindsight and insights provided by those who were at the Finsbury Park mosque at the time, we are now better informed about the Egyptian cleric’s charisma and presence. . . . “

“Returning warriors would regale newer recruits with tales of adventure and experiences fighting or training on the frontline, while posters would offer sign-up sheets for those who were eager to go ahead.”

“But most of the training took place beyond the mosque’s four walls, with Abu Hamza regularly organising camping and adventure trips for his young warriors in the Brecon Beacons in Wales.”

“‘The only qualifications needed were that those who attended ‘were serious, [and] were going to go on to fight in Afghanistan.’ But they remained at heart a rambunctious group of young men on an adventure holiday: prior to departing for the camp near Lahore, neighbours complained to police about the noise they made. . . .”

Pantucci, Raffaello. (2015) “We Love Death As You Love Life”: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists


Atran_TalkToEn-197x300“Especially for young men, mortal combat in a great cause provides the ultimate adventure and glory to gain maximum esteem in the eyes of many and, most dearly, in the hearts of their peers.”

“They leave pheromone-like tracers for those who come after, letters of love for their peers and heroic posters and videos with the thrill of guns and personal power made into an eternally meaningful adventure through sacred-book-swearing devotion to a greater community and cause.”

“Moral outrage and a large dose of frustration and boredom seem to impel the search for meaning and adventure.

Most human violence is committed by young people seeking adventure, dreams of glory, and esteem in the eyes of their peers.

Atran, Scott. (2010) Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What It Means to be Human

Love, Relationships and Terrorism

friction1Previous posts in this series looking at Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us by Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko:

  • How Terrorists Are Made: 1 – Personal Grievance
  • How Terrorists Are Made: 2 – Group Grievance
  • How Terrorists Are Made: 3 – Slippery Slope

A number of critics who are more interested in attacking religion, especially Islam, than in making the effort to understand what scholarly research has uncovered about why individuals become terrorists have often missed a critical reason for radicalization. This reason seems too simple and some have scoffed at the idea as if it is some left-wing loony nonsense — such as anthropologist Scott Atran’s claim that street soccer networks can enable us to predict who is at risk of extremism. It is a fact, however, that some of us over time do get mixed up in things neither we nor any of our acquaintances would ever have suspected. And it’s not because we convert to some fanatical religious idea.



McCauley and Moskalenko introduce us to Sophia (Sonia) Perovskaya, a Russian girl born into nobility and who was attracted to idealistic student movements seeking to improve the lot of the peasantry. Her ideals forbade her from crossing the line of violence.

Like many others who ventured “into the people,” Sonia did not have much success in mobilizing the peasants. Instead, it appears from her letters at the time that she became more and more involved in the mission of making peasants’ lives better, having seen the horrible conditions in which they lived.

Failure to politicize the peasants led a fellow revolutionary, Andrei Zhelyabov (we met him in the first post of this series), to persuade a few that violence was the only answer. The peasants were too besotted with the Czar; kill the Czar and they would be forced to engage in actions for a better society. Sophia’s response was absolute refusal:

“revolutionaries must not consider themselves above the laws of humanity. Our exceptional position should not cloud our heads. First and foremost we are humans.”

Unfortunately there was a strong sexual attraction between Andrei Zhelyabov and Sophia Perovskaya and Sophia found herself contributing her time to both the main nonviolent group and the breakaways and she ended her life on the gallows with Andrei for her part in the attempted assassination.

The above is just one case study that in one form or another has been repeated many times.

The prevalence of friends, lovers, and relatives among those recruited to terrorism has made personal relationships an important part of recent theorizing about terrorism, perhaps because it recovers the “known associates” approach to criminal investigation. As with criminal gangs, individuals are recruited to a terrorist group via personal connections with existing members. No terrorist wants to try to recruit someone who might betray the terrorists to the authorities. In practice, this means recruiting from the network of friends, lovers, and family. Trust may determine the network within which radicals and terrorists recruit, but love often determines who will join.

A Red Brigade member explained his motivations:

There are many things I cannot explain by analyzing the political situation . . . as far as I am concerned it was up to emotional feelings, or passions for the people I shared my life with.

Political scientist Donatella della Porta refers to research on German militants and the Red Army Faction:

“There is widespread agreement among researchers that ‘most terrorists . . . ultimately became members of [German] terrorist organizations through personal connections with people or relatives associated with appropriate political initiatives, communes, self-supporting organizations, or committees — the number of couples and brothers and sisters was astonishingly high.”

Della Porta refers to “block recruitments”, meaning that a group of friends would all decide together to actively join an underground movement. Once in the group, the adventures experienced, the threats and dangers encountered, all work towards increasing any individual’s bond with their comrades. The sense of solidarity works both to encourage entry into the group and to prevent any serious thought of leaving the group.

An Irish Sinn Fein member is quoted:

“There’s times I’ve said to myself, ‘Why? You’re mad in the head, like.’ But . . . I just can’t turn my back on it. . . . there’s too many of my friends in jail, there’s too many of my mates given their lives, and I’ve walked behind — I’ve walked behind too many funerals to turn my back on it now.”



Australians more than many other Westerners are familiar with Amrozi “the smiling terrorist”, the Indonesian who bought the van involved in the Bali bombings (not far from where I am typing this post) in 2002. Amrozi bin Nurhasyim is described as “a spectacular failure of his father’s efforts” to raise him as a devout Wahabbist Muslim.

He was a fun-loving disgrace to his whole family.

He drifted through schools, jobs and marriages, always making himself useful as the one who could fix anything from a motorbike to a cell phone.

His older brother, on the other hand, Muklas, did take up his father’s Islamist teachings. Muklas became a leader in a terrorist outfit with ties to Al Qaeda, operated often in Malaysia to escape the Indonesian authorities, had experienced the war in Afghanistan, and had been tasked with building a new Islamist boarding school for Indonesians living in Malaysia.

After drifting through odd jobs and a couple of marriages Amrozi finally caught up with his older brother to whom he looked up as a most admirable success and role-model in life.

Amrozi did not adopt a radical version of Islam because he was intellectually persuaded, and did not join in violence against infidels and apostates because he had suffered himself from those targeted. He joined in the life and work of the brother he admired in order to be with his brother, and he basked in brotherly approval when he later joined Muklas and their youngest brother, Ali Imron, in the campaign of terrorism that produced the Bali attacks. 

Here is Sally Neighbor’s summary of Amrozi’s path to terrorism:

‘It was Mas [brother] Muklas who raised my awareness to fight the injustice toward Islam.’ The effort that went into Amrozi’s transformation would prompt Muklas to boast with a chuckle: ‘Thank God, with endless patience, bit by bit, to this day, he’s also in the league of praiseworthy terrorists.’

To complete the network, Amrozi bought the incriminating van from a personal acquaintance. He was executed alongside his older brother in 2008, proud of what he had finally achieved in life.


All quotations are from the Kindle version of Friction.

Incidentally — in preparing this post I learned that Australia’s “Father of Federation”, Henry Parkes, wrote a poem about Sophia Perovskaya, The Beauteous Terrorist.  He was struck by the incongruity of her outward appearance and character housing the soul of a murderer, apparently unaware of her life story prior to her involvement with the assassination attempt and of how she had changed through her love for Zhelyabov.

Slippery Slope to Terrorism

aa656-chernyshevskyPrevious posts in this series looking at Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us by Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko:

Starting at the Top: Rejecting Violence

Place: Russia
Year: 1875

Adrian Mikhailov was a talented Russian orphan who wanted more than anything else to use his skills to help lift impoverished peasants out of their miserable existence.

It was in boarding school, in the library attic, where his vision of a “new Russia” was inspired by writers like Chernyshevsky (author of What Is To Be Done?) and Dobrolubov. A scholarship enabled him to move to the University of Moscow where he mixed with like minded idealistic students. Their strategic vision (inspired by writings like What Is To Be Done? ) was to go to the peasants, live among them, become one of them, discuss their conditions with them and raise their awareness to understand how political action could lead to a better life. Adrian’s small commune started their own farm to work among “the people”.


Place: USA – Syria – Canada – Egypt – Somalia
Period: 1999-2001


Omar Hammami

Omar Hammami was baptized a Christian in his home state of Alabama. His mother was a Christian but Omar fell in love with the culture and people of Syria when he visited his father’s family in 1999 and soon afterwards became a Muslim. Though at first he had defended Osama bin Laden as a freedom fighter 9/11 prompted him to study his religion more seriously and he took a strong turn against politics. He turned to a Salafist interpretation of the Muslim religion that rejected involvement in politics totally. He condemned the killing of innocents and believed political interests only compromised the true values of Islam. Jihad, for Omar, was entirely a personal spiritual struggle.

Such were the positions from which Adrian and Omar began their respective slides into terrorism.

They both were opposed to violence, especially the murder of innocents, but both eventually found themselves in the thick of terrorist actions.

The Slippery Slope to Violence


Milgram experiment (Wikipedia)

To understand how that is possible recall the Milgram experiment where participants followed directions to punish a learner who gave wrong answers with electric shocks of ever increasing severity. It’s learner was actually an actor who was not really suffering electric shocks, but the participant did not know that. Afterwards a number of the participants reported feeling some distress as they administered what they believed were ever stronger shocks but what remains noteworthy is that two-thirds of the participants nonetheless followed through with a series of small incremental steps (15 volts per step) until they “knowingly” were administering the dangerous level of 450 volts.

This experiment can be interpreted as an indicator of the willingness of people to follow the directions of an authority since it is the experimenter who instructs the participants to steadily increase the shock level. But there is an interesting “no-authority” variation to this experiment.

[I]n the “no-authority” variation, a “co-teacher” (another accomplice of the experimenter) asks and grades the questions, while the naive participant is the teacher who gives the shocks. The experimenter, summoned away for a “phone call,” is no longer in the room when the co-teacher comes up with the idea of raising the shock level with each mistake.

Despite the absence of the experimenter and his authority, 20 percent of teachers go all the way to administering 450 volts.

(McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 904-908). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.)

How do explain the disturbing behaviour of one fifth of those among us?

One way to explain this result is in terms of rationalization. According to dissonance theory, humans are likely to change their opinions to fit their behavior. Especially if we have done something stupid or dishonest, we are likely to come up with reasons that will justify or excuse us.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 912-913). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Or to spell it out in more detail:

The dissonance interpretation of why 20 percent of participants will administer 450 volts in the absence of authority goes as follows: The finely graded levels of shock are a slippery slope, in which the best reason to give the next higher level of shock is that a slightly lesser shock has just been given. If the next level of shock is wrong, there must be something wrong with the previous level of shock already delivered. But if there is nothing wrong with giving the immediately preceding level of shock, the next level, only 15 volts higher, cannot be wrong either. If 300 volts was OK, how can 315 volts be wrong? But if 315 volts is wrong, how could 300 volts have been right? Having already given a number of shocks, participants feel a need to justify themselves and to preserve their self-image as decent people. The justification of the previous shock then rationalizes the next level of shock.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 914-920). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Subsequent interviews with the participants indicated that many of them did indeed feel some distress for their victims and were even relieved to learn that no real harm had been suffered. Their actions were not malicious. They did not feel comfortable carrying out their actions but that discomfort did not stop them.

Is it possible that some people slide into terrorism by the same process?

Adrian’s Descent

The farm, or more pointedly the radicalisation efforts, were a failure. Like other students Adrian could only find a meeting of minds with the peasants up to a point. Never would the salt of the earth countenance a bad word about their czar.

Adrian returned to Moscow without persuading a single “convert” to his credit. But he did believe in and love what he was doing and immediately sought another occupation to bring him closer to the people. This time he trained to be a blacksmith.

His student comrades, however, were more impressed with his understanding of economic theory and his ability to expound Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Before he had an opportunity to return to the field he was invited to St Petersburg to discuss Marxist economics. His success there led him to be accepted as a member of Land and Freedom, a group that later morphed into People’s Will. But a stronger force pulled him away from them. He explained this way:

At another time and under other circumstances I would have stayed here for a long time to personally get to know this family, yes, family, of prominent workers of revolution — charming people with colorful personalities. But a stronger force pulled me away — into the people. . .

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 800-802). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Sadly Adrian worked himself as an obliging blacksmith into ill health and was again forced to return without having succeeded in politicizing any of the peasants.

In fact the “going to the people” movement more generally had been a failure so leading activists turned their attention to getting rid of the czar himself. Remove the peasants’ idol and they would be obliged to take action themselves to create a better society.

Adrian’s subsequent written account of his experiences indicate that he felt somewhat lost in this new change of direction. Unlike many of his colleagues he really loved living and working among the peasants. He believed the peasants’ political consciousness could be ignited eventually through peaceful means.

At the same time he felt a sense of loyalty to the activist movement of his fellow students.

First assignment:

  • Adrian was to be the coachman in a plan to rescue a prominent activist prisoner. Plan failed, but Adrian had been involved in the illegal action.

Adrian requested leave to return to the peasants. His comrades did not allow him — there was too much work to do and too few to help in St Petersburg.

Second assignment:

  • Adrian was to be the coachman in a plan to rescue a number of political prisoners. The plan failed, but Adrian again involved in a more daring illegal action.

Adrian again requested leave to return to the peasants. His comrades again refused his request.

Third assignment:

  • Again the coachman role, but this time for a plan to assassinate General Mezentsev. This time the plan succeeded. All members dispersed to the countryside for their own protection.


Months later Adrian was recalled to St Petersburg to help establish a newspaper.

Authorities discovered and arrested him.

To escape hanging he gave the police the names of two of his colleagues — although one was outside Russia and unreachable and the other was an alias used by his comrade, not his real name. Nonetheless the latter was identified and captured.

In Adrian’s subsequent written account of his life he writes warmly and fulsomely of his time working alongside peasants but is consistently matter-of-fact, unemotional, brief, when covering the more intellectual and criminal activities undertaken with his fellow students. The difference in tone tells readers where his heart was.

Nonetheless, out of a sense of loyalty to his student colleagues he did find himself being drawn into activities that included murder — despite his personal disposition not to be so involved.

Omar’s Descent


Omar Hammami = Abu Mansoor al-Amriki

Having embraced a version of the Muslim religion that rejected all interest in politics and that taught that such interest amounted to a stain on the purity of one’s faith, Omar went another step into “purity” by dropping out of college. Apparently struggling with the temptations of the flesh he felt it better to remove himself from a co-ed environment.

He followed a friend (Bernie Culveyhouse, another convert to Islam) to Toronto where he found the Muslim community much more opposed to the U.S. war in Iraq. While browsing in an Islamic bookstore someone asked him to “pray for the people of Fallujah”.

This request initiated a political awakening that led Omar to abandon his Salafi distancing from political events. After the battle of Fallujah, he became consumed with events in Iraq and Afghanistan. Later, in a 2009 e-mail interview, he explained his sudden political interest as follows: “I was finding it difficult to reconcile between having Americans attacking my brothers, at home and abroad, while I was supposed to remain completely neutral, without getting involved.”

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 966-969). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Now married to a Somali woman, Omar with his wife and his friend moved to Egypt with hopes of being accepted for Al-Azhar University.

They lived in Alexandria but found the city “disappointingly secular”.

Failing to gain entrance to the University, his friend returned to the United States — leaving Omar feeling betrayed and deserted.

In Egypt he began following closely the news of the conflict in his wife’s country, Somalia.

At this point he felt a call to jihad. Notice how he had graduated through circumstances and influences from a pacifist faith to a militant one.

With another friend he met in Egypt Omar began attending underground mosques and listening to radical imams.

2006, the U.S. backed Christian Ethiopian army invaded Somalia.

Omar began to appeal on the internet for action against the “infidel invaders” of Muslim Somalia. These internet appeals were his first public action.

From a dissonance-theory perspective, the more public the commitment is, the greater is the need for justifying this commitment with new and increased commitments.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 1005-1006). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Note the way the following steps at each point left Omar with a way out:

  • Omar told his family he was going to look for work in Dubai but instead went to Somalia.
  • In Somalia he told his wife he had lost his passport and that was the reason he could not return soon.
  • After Ethiopia captured Mogadishu (2006), Omar joined Shabab, the militant Islamists linked with al-Qaeda who were seeking to drive out the Ethiopians.
  • 2007, Omar was the leader of Shabab. Took the name Abu Mansoor al-Amriki: — appeared in an al-Jazeera interview with mask hiding his face.
  • 2008, Omar appeared in a new video leading attacks in the field. His face is uncovered: “It makes more of a statement if my face is uncovered.”

It is important to notice that he reached the peak of opinion radicalization with his Internet postings urging action against the infidel invasion of Somalia, but these postings left him still far short of full commitment to radical action. He kept open a door to disengagement with the stories he told to his wife and parents, first about visiting his wife’s family, then about a lost passport. Even after joining Shabab, he masked his face for his first video, preserving some chance of exit. Finally, with the unmasked interview, he reached the peak of final and public commitment to Shabab and its violence.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 998-1002). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

We thus see how Omar Hammami’s steps to his life as an Islamic warrior were gradual, a new step being taken with each new move, with each new set of contacts, with each new step towards a public commitment, first of opinions, then of actions.

In 2012 the FBI added Omar’s name to its “Most Wanted Terrorist” list.

In 2013 he was killed in a power struggle among members and former members of Shabaab.



How Terrorists Are Made: 2 — Group Grievance

Continuing the series on Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us by Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko. Previous post: How Terrorists… 1 – Personal Grievance.

This post looks at the psychological mechanisms at work among those who are radicalized and turn to terrorist acts in response to threats or harm inflicted on a group of cause they care about.

quote_begin Readiness to sacrifice for friends and family is so common that it is often seen as natural and no more in need of explanation than having two eyes. But sacrifices for non-kin present more of a puzzle. quote_end

Vera Zasulich (1849-1919), shoots and wounds police chief Trepov in retaliation for his brutality : she is tried but acquitted by a sympathetic court. 1878

Vera Zazulich (alt Zasulich. Link is to Wikipedia article)

Nineteenth century Russia was a time of social turmoil. Vera Zazulich, from a modest noble family, became involved in student activist circles. She was arrested and exiled to a remote village in 1869 but returned to mix with a new student group.

Zasulich became outraged over an event she read about in the newspapers — the flogging of a political prisoner. The Governor of St Petersburg, Trepov, had passed the prisoner twice; the first time the prisoner removed his hat but not the second time. Trepov ordered him to be flogged. Zasulich did not know the prisoner, was not herself threatened in any way, but according to her own testimony at her trial she decided to risk her own life to follow her conscience and attempt deliver justice upon cruel government officials for their mistreatment of student activists. (Zasulich had planned with a friend to kill two government officials and drew lots to decide their respective targets.)

Their motivation was to see justice done. It was entirely altruistic. They had nothing to gain; Zasulich was acting on behalf of people she did not know against others she did not know personally. Her actions and testimony following her crime (she did not attempt to hide and said she was prepared to face any penalty the court decided) make it clear that she had nothing to gain for herself.


Ted Kaczynksi

Theodore Kaczynski (the Unabomber)

Kaczynski gave up his academic position at the University of California and sought to punish those he believed were leading social technological-industrial changes that denied the needs of human nature and were harmful to humanity.

Again, he had nothing to gain and was acting on behalf of others when he sent bombs that killed three and wounded twenty-three.

Kaczynski’s ideas drew on critics of the twentieth century’s Brave New World.


John Allen Muhammad

John Allen Muhammad (the Washington sniper)

According to his accomplice, Muhammad (a Gulf War veteran and “a convert to Islam and black separatism”) who shot dead ten people and wounded two

hoped to extort several million dollars from the U.S. government and use the money to found a pure black community in Canada. Muhammad was not forthcoming about the origins of this plan, but it appears that he reacted to what he saw as the victimization of black people in the United States.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 527-529). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Muhammad’s political ideas appear to have been related to his time in the Nation of Islam.


Clayton Waagner

Clayton Waagner

In 1999 Waagner admitted to police he was planning on murder abortion providers with the illegal firearms found in his car. (As a convicted felon — theft, burglary, attempted robbery — he was forbidden from possessing firearms.) After escaping from prison he sent hundreds of letters as anthrax hoaxes to abortion clinics causing many to shut down. The criminal activities “showed planfulness bordering on genius”.

Clayton Waagner may have begun as a petty criminal, but he ended with what he saw as a God-given mission to make war on those “who make war on the unborn.”

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 545-546). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Waagner’s (attempted/threatened) political violence appears to have been fueled through web sites of antiabortion groups such as the Army of God.

Though acting as “lone-wolf terrorists” they nonetheless had connections with wider political ideas. But among “lone wolves” there is a higher chance of psychopathology being a factor in their actions. Kaczynski was said to have suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. (More recently the Sydney hostage-taker, Man Haron Monis, has been associated with mental disorder.)

Not all such terrorists are acting out their inner demons, however. Vera Zasulich, John Allen Muhammad and Clayton Waagner had no signs of mental problems.

Altruism and Strong Reciprocity

Humans are among the more social animals that experience the clear benefits of group cooperation. McCauley and Moskalenko [M&M] remind us of the classical example of the hunter who shares his catch today in the expectation that when he is less lucky others will share their food with him.

The problem is that there are always cheaters. If cheaters succeed then others are likely to follow and eventually all cooperation ceases. What keeps the cooperative life of the group alive is the presence of members who are willing to punish the cheaters.

A group can reap the benefits of altruism if it has members willing to carry out justice at a price to themselves. Altruism can succeed if there are enough individuals who respond in kind—tit-for-tat—to both cooperation and cheating. Strong reciprocity describes this combination of two tendencies, to cooperate and to punish. The combination can be successful where the tendency to cooperate, taken alone, would disappear under the costs of cheaters.

Psychologists use various games such as variants of the Prisoner’s Dilemma to study this attribute among humans.

In some PD [Prisoner Dilemma] games, participants are offered a chance to use some of their own winnings in order to “punish” defectors—paying to reduce the payment to those who do not reciprocate cooperation. . . . 

Results of PD games show that most individuals begin by trying to cooperate and that most individuals are ready to pay extra to punish those who do not cooperate. Importantly, it is not just those who suffer the defection who are ready to pay to punish the defector. A third party is often willing to pay to punish a defector despite the fact that the one punishing did not suffer personally any loss to the defector. Not only will we pay to punish those who spit on us in response to our kindness, we will even pay to punish those who spit on others. Even in these simple games, then, individuals are willing to pay personal costs to punish bad behavior that does not affect them personally.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 579-587). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. — My own bolding in all quotations.

The findings are cross-cultural. M&M tell us that in tests across many cultures 40% to 60% of game players are willing to pay to punish defectors.

Zasulich is a clear illustration of a third party willing to pay a cost to carry out justice for her group.

If we are ready to generalize from bad individuals to bad groups—a projection not yet studied in the game theory literature—then Muhammad and Waagner can also be seen as extreme examples of individuals incurring personal costs to punish perceived malefactors.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 590-592). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Presumably the number of people willing to pay a price to punish others depends upon the price required. The higher the cost required to carry out justice the fewer there would be willing to pay.

There is another way to understand third-party punishments.

Group Identification

Identification with another means caring about the other person’s welfare. Positive identification means we feel good when the other is safe, prospering, or growing, but we feel bad when the other is in danger, failing, or diminished. Negative identification is an inverse concern for the welfare of another: negative identification means we feel good when the other is in trouble, and we feel bad when the other is safe and prospering.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 598-601). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

M&M’s examples of positive group identification (our caring about groups we are not a part of) include:

  • causes for Tibet’s welfare
  • deep interest in popular entertainers (I’d add the royal family)
  • sporting teams
  • fictional characters
  • companion animals

In all of these cases, our concern for the welfare of the other goes beyond any economic value to the self. That is, our own material welfare is not significantly improved by raising the welfare of Tibetans, Britney Spears, the Dallas Cowboys, Tiny Tim, Hero, or Shoesy. Nevertheless we invest real money, real time, real anxiety, real tears, real pride, and real joy in the ups and downs of others whom we care about. And when what we care about is threatened, conflict is likely to ensue.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 604-607). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

People are quite capable of making real sacrifices for groups we identify with. Most people will feel sympathy when their group interest is harmed but there are some who are willing to sacrifice their own self-interests for the other, and the higher the sacrifice the fewer there will be — but they are found. Of the many who sympathized with the student who refused to raise his hat to the governor only two (Zasulich and her friend) were willing to sacrifice their lives to see justice done. Many feel exasperated over the plight of African Americans but there has only been one John Muhammad. Many view abortion as murder, but not many Clayton Waagners have emerged.

Why only these three — Zasulich, Muhammad and Waagner? Is there a common personality type? Not likely: we have “a tender-hearted secretary, a macho ex-soldier, and a criminal turned crusader”.

Our three examples of normal individuals turning to radical individual action for a cause suggest the difficulty of specifying a personality predictor or profile for this rare form of radicalization. We turn now to try the relevance of our analysis for a modern example of radicalization by political grievance.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 620-622). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Ayman Al-Zawahiri — from Intellectual to Terrorist


Ayman_al-ZawahiriAyman Al-Zawahiri (Link to Wikipedia)

Look first at the Egyptian family from which Ayman came

Father’s side of his family Mother’s side
The more scholarly . . . The richer and more political . . .
Father (Dr Mohammad Rabie al-Zawahiri) was a professor of pharmacology Mother (Umayma Azzam) had a great uncle married to daughter of Libyan resistance leader who had fought against the Italians
Uncle a dermatologist Great uncle became first secretary-general of Arab League, given title of Pasha by Egyptian government
More than two dozen physicians, chemists or pharmacists Her father studied in London; became dean of School of Literature at Cairo University
More than forty physicians counting relations by descent and marriage Father later was ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan
Despite the above tradition in medicine, the family was more famous for its religious scholars — one was rector of Al-Azhar University, the most prestigious post in the most prestigious centre of Islamic learning in the world. Father became first administrator of Riyadh University in Saudi Arabia

Ayman was strongly influenced by his maternal uncle, Mahfouz Azzam.

The following biographical notes lead us to explore the dynamics of personal grievance and political motives/group grievance coming together.

  • 1936, Mahfouz Azzam, in third grade, was taught Arabic by Sayyid Qutb. The two formed a close and lasting bond.
  • Both spent time in jail for antigovernment activities.
  • After one stretch in jail Qutb published Milestones, “which remains today an inspiration for those Muslims who would replace secular government with an Islamic state.”
  • Egypt Government condemned Qutb to death for Milestones
  • 1966, Mahfouz had become Qutb’s lawyer and visited Qutb just before his execution. Qutb gave Mahfouz “a martyr’s parting gift” of his inscribed copy of the Koran.
    • Ayman was fifteen years old at the time.

From Qutb to Mahfouz and from Mahfouz to Ayman came a radical critique of the Egyptian government as hopelessly corrupt and a radical alternative in the purity of government by Sharia. Along with the radical vision came a radicalizing personal experience of suffering at the hands of the government. The government had twice jailed Ayman’s uncle and had jailed, tortured, and finally executed his uncle’s dearest friend and mentor.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 641-644). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Ayman himself was not naturally inclined to leading the life of a political protestor, being described as a child as “religious, bookish, a lover of poetry, and uninterested in sports.”

In the year Qutb was executed (1966, Ayman being 15 years old) Ayman helped to form an underground cell to spread Qutb’s ideas.

In the 1970s his cell joined with several others to form Jamaat al-Jihad.

Ayman completed his medical studies; served as a surgeon in the Egyptian Army for three years; opened his own clinic; married; worked for the Red Crescent in Pakistan to treat refugees from from the Russian conflict in Afghanistan. . . . returned to an Egypt in turmoil. . . .


Assassination of Sadat

1979, an Islamic state was established in Iran. This was what Qutb had hoped to see and what Ayman had hoped to see in Egypt.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat responded by banning and jailing many Islamic groups. A military cell within Jamaat al-Jihad assassinated Sadat. Ayman was among those subsequently arrested by Sadat’s successor, Mubarak.

The common fate of suspected conspirators in Egyptian prisons was humiliation and torture. By several accounts Ayman broke under torture and cooperated with security forces in a trap set for Essam al-Qamari, a charismatic Army officer who had planned with Ayman to bring down the government with a bomb attack on Sadat’s funeral. In his memoir, Knights under the Banner of the Prophet, Ayman was probably referring to his own experience in this passage: “The toughest thing about captivity is forcing the mujahid, under the force of torture, to confess about his colleagues, to destroy his movement with his own hands, and offer his and his colleagues’ secrets to the enemy.”

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 657-661). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Ayman al-Zawahiri left prison “a hardened extremist for whom death was not horror but release.” Earlier he had grieved over the hurt to loved ones, his uncle and his uncle’s friend Qutb, and now he had suffered physically as well as suffering the humiliation of having betrayed a friend. He looked back on his years with al-Jihad as amateurish and bungling.

Ayman al-Zawahiri left prison with these personal grievances framed as part of a larger victimization of devout Muslims, that is, with a sense of grievance that integrated revenge with jihad.

Synergism of Personal and Group Grievance

In the case studies we have seen so far the personal and group grievance are very often found together.

Radicalization seems to happen when the two grievances combine.

We saw in the previous post that the personal grievances of Zhelyabov and Amara soon directed their hostility towards landowners in general (not just the one responsible for the rape of his aunt or those who facilitated in the ensuing injustice) and towards all expressions of racism (not only towards certain racist police). They acted not just for an aunt or a mother, but for serfs in general and for all Muslim immigrant women. Their personal grievances became politicized.

Zasulich and Waagner also had personally experienced the prison and justice systems they later came to despise and with which they had lost all confidence to deliver true justice.

The blending of personal and political is most pronounced in the case of al-Zawahiri. He hears first about the suffering of his uncle and his uncle’s mentor Qutb at the hands of the Egyptian government, but from the very beginning their experience is interpreted for him as the suffering of devout Muslims trying to replace secular injustice with Sharia justice. After Qutb is hanged, Zawahiri’s antigovernment activity brings him up-close and personal experience of the victimization of Islamists in Egyptian prisons. He leaves prison a hardened terrorist, as ready to accept death as to mete out death to the enemy.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 681-685). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

quote_begin In short, particular cases of individual radicalization indicate that personal and political grievances tend to be found together. . . . The great majority of cases will show, as Zawahiri’s case shows, a near-seamless blend of personal and political grievance. quote_end

Making sense of the anger lasting only minutes but the planning going on for years

We can now further begin to understand the paradox of, on the one hand, grievances producing strong emotions that according to psychological research last only minutes, while on the other, the actions of revenge and justice that are stimulated by those transient emotions are planned over weeks or years.

To the extent that grievance depends on identification, however, it can be steadier than the vagaries of strong emotion.

An individual is usually radicalized when there is a blending of personal and group grievances.

Personal tends to mean that one has a negative identification with the group seen as the perpetrator of injustice and a positive identification with the group seen as the victims of injustice.

These reciprocal positive and negative identifications provide stable incentives for intergroup conflict, as successes of the positive-identification group are rewarding and successes of the negative-identification group are punishing. 

The stability of group identifications can explain the stability of intergroup conflict, revenge, and justice-seeking despite the brevity of emotions of anger and outrage.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 697-700). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Is there then “a predictor for this rare form of radicalization”? If so, M&M suggest it is to be found in those who feel the most strongly for a group or cause. Studies in altruism have demonstrated the importance of sympathy and empathy in predicting help for a stranger in distress. That’s not the same as predicting aggression towards the one responsible for the stranger’s distress, but it would seem to follow.

If both personality and personal experience are necessary for lone-wolf terrorism, then attempts to profile this combination must face considerable complexity. Although it offers no easy answers for security services concerned with lone-wolf terrorism, our perspective is consistent with a well-established finding in psychological research: individual behavior depends, not separately on person or situation, but on their interaction.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 712-715). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition..

Next, Slippery Slope. . . .


How Terrorists Are Made: 1 – Personal Grievance

friction1Not every book I discuss here I would recommend but I am about to post on chapters in Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us by Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko and this one I do recommend. It is a quick yet grounded introduction to a range of factors that turn people towards radical action against state powers, extremist violence and terrorism. Each chapter looks at one of twelve contributing factors through biographical case studies accompanied by descriptions of scientific research into the relevant human behaviour.

Some of the mechanisms for radicalization operate at an individual level; others involve the dynamics of small group and mass social psychology.

Not only do we read about “them” but we also learn what motivates “us” to fully support our governments to launch campaigns of state terrorism — war, torture, extra-judicial murder.

Sometimes it appears just one factor is enough to propel people to extremist violence; more often several factors come into play. Friction concludes with a look at the life of Osama bin Laden to demonstrate how a range of triggers and conditions coalesced in one person to lead to 9/11.

The message conveyed is that there is rarely a single simple explanation for why people become involved in extremist violence and terrorism.

Over the next several weeks/months I hope to address each of the twelve dynamics covered by McCauley and Moskalenko. The table below lists the topics to be covered.

Type of mechanism Mechanism Case studies
Individual Personal Grievance Andrei Zhelyabov
Fadela Amara
Individual Group Grievance Vera Zazulich
Theodore Kaczynski (Unabomber)
John Allen Muhammad (Washington sniper)
Clayton Waagner (abortion providers)
Ayman Al-Zawahiri
Bin Laden
Individual Slippery Slope Adrian Michailov
Omar Hammami (Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki)
Bin Laden
Individual Love Sophia (Sonia) Perovskaya & Andrei Zhelyabov
Amrozi bin Nurhasyim (smiling terrorist)
Bin Laden
Individual Risk and Status Alexander Barannikov
Leon Mirsky
Ahmad Fadeel al-Nazal (Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi)
Bin Laden
Individual Unfreezing Sophia Andreevna Ivanova (Vanechka)
Muhammad Bouyeri
Group Group Polarization
Group Group Competition
Group Group Isolation
Mass Jutitsu Politics
Mass Hatred
Mass Martyrdom

Personal Grievance


Andei Zhelyabov

Andrei Zhelyabov (link is to Wikipedia article where the political careers of each person can be read. I won’t repeat the details here.)

Zhelyabov wanted revenge against the landowner who had raped his aunt; later, when local landowners blocked the case against the rapist, he wanted revenge against landowners as a class. His life as a terrorist can be understood as motivated by a powerful confluence of personal revenge with abstract ideas of justice for serfs that were held by many university students.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 368-371). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.


Fadela Amara

Fadela Amara (not a terrorist but a radicalized Muslim — showing that personal grievance leading to political radicalization does not have to lead to violence)

Amara, [a Muslim] reacts first to victimization of her mother, but soon the target of her hostility is expanded from racist policemen to anyone—including immigrant men—who disrespects immigrant women, and her identification with her mother expanded to identification with the welfare of all Muslim immigrant women.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 674-676). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Zhelyabov (nineteenth century Russia) and Amara (twentieth/twenty first century France) turned personal grievances into broader political action. The former faced government repression and turned to terrorist tactics. The latter engaged in illegal activity but without state repression she was able to transition her radical opposition into a successful political career. Radicalization does not necessarily lead to violence.

Why do some people turn their personal grievance into a political cause against an entire group on behalf of another group?

Contrast, for example, the 9/11 terrorists with Joseph Stack.

In contrast, there are occasions in which a personal grievance stays personal, and the victim acts for revenge against a particular perpetrator. In February 2010, Joseph Stack, a 53-year-old software engineer, flew his Piper Cherokee into an IRS office building in Austin, Texas. He left behind a manifesto detailing his anger against the IRS . .  There was no obvious positive identification with a group of similar victims, and the personal did not become political as it had for Zhelyabov and Amara.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 433-434). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Mass radicalization from personal grievance:

The experience is not limited to individuals. Nineteen Arab Muslims caused many of us to turn in anger against all Arabs and Muslims.

A Western democracy, proud of its tradition of personal freedoms and human rights, has a history of international interventions to restore peace and stop atrocities. One day ethnic fanatics attack the country’s largest city, killing or injuring thousands. Shock and disbelief evolve into grief and outrage. Hundreds of ethnic immigrants are rounded up on suspicion of being related to the attack, and are detained without access to the legal system. To get information from individuals suspected of militant activities, the government issues a secret mandate to torture them. The government’s violations of internationally recognized standards of human rights are exposed by the media. Nevertheless, the government is reelected by a majority of its citizens.

This transition took place in the United States after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Americans embraced the unthinkable in search of retribution and security. We were radicalized: our feelings, beliefs, and behaviors all moved toward increased support for violence against perceived enemies, including sometimes Arab and Muslim Americans. We idealized American values, gave increased power to American leaders, and became more ready to punish anyone seen as challenging patriotic norms. More generally, radicalization is the development of beliefs, feelings, and actions in support of any group or cause in conflict.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 146-156). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

To understand why some people turn a personal grievance against one or a few persons into a hostility against an entire class of people on behalf or another class of people

we need a theory that describe when and how individual events are interpreted in terms of social conflict between groups. 

Moreover, emotional heat is transitory, as psychologists know. Political action on behalf of “abstract categories of people”, on the other hand, can be undertaken over many years. So how can short term emotions over personal grievance explain long-term actions against classes of people for the benefit of other classes?

The psychological mechanisms that change some people’s outrage over a personal offence into political action for a wider interest are explored in the next chapter of Friction dealing with group grievance.