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:

Radicalisation to Escape Fear and Pain

Torture and “brainwashing” techniques (coercive persuasion by means of threats, pain, fear) produce temporary compliance but not, according to studies, political conversion. Another kind of fear and experience of threats and violence is found in failed state environments. Think of Colombia, Somalia, Bosnia, Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria. Joining a group with guns in such states can give one a feeling of greater safety than trying to get by alone. But even strong states can produce their own terrorists by over-reacting and leading otherwise innocent suspects to fear incarceration or murder, and who then find safety by going underground and siding with radical extremists.

Radicalisation to Escape Disconnection


Kurt Lewin

Parents have often over-estimated their importance in imparting values to their children. Since social psychologist Kurt Lewin it has been better understood that group or peer influence is a much stronger shaper of our values than our parents.

Confidence about our value judgments depends on a stable network of others who agree with us . . . If we leave our daily round of connections, or if our connections leave us, we are opened to new connections and new values. Following Kurt Lewin’s 1947 model of unfreezing, social psychologists distinguish three phases: 

  • first unfreezing of old connections and ideas; 
  • then development of new connections and new ideas;
  • and finally refreezing in a new social network that provides the confidence of consensus for new values and new actions.

Notice that, in this model, changes in values that are not anchored in a new group must remain unstable and liable to further change of reversion to older forms. 

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 1600….). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. (My formatting)

McCauley and Moskalenko raise another more recent concept very similar to unfreezing: biographical availability. Biographical availability is defined as

the absence of personal constraints that may increase the costs and risks of movement participation.

Personal constraints may include spouse, children, a full-time job. Those who are not so constrained and hence free to participate in political activism are generally the younger people, especially students living away from home, and older retired persons.

Interestingly McCauely and M return once again to an overlap we have noticed several times before:

The strongest demonstration of the power of unfreezing and biographical availability comes from studies of cult recruiting. These studies indicate that conversion to an intense religious group requires that the potential convert meets members of the group at some kind of turning point in life. Unfreezing, biographical availability, and turning point — all three of these appear in recruitment to the Unification Church. 

Unfreezing in Recruitment to Religious Cults

At this point the authors turn to research into another bunch of “crazies” and focus on cult recruiting.

Jerrold Post appears to have been the first to recognize that cult recruiting can provide a useful model of terrorist recruiting. The analogy begins by noting that individuals who join either a cult or a terrorist group are likely to be characterized as “crazy.” Both a cult and a terrorist group require a level of commitment that most people find difficult to comprehend. Also, much has been written about how to define a cult, especially about how to distinguish a cult from other kinds of religious groups, paralleling a similar uncertainty about the definition of terrorism, especially about how to distinguish terrorists from guerrillas and freedom fighters. 

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 1706….). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. (My bolding in all quotations)


John Lofland

The 1965 study of Lofland and Stark, “Becoming a World-Saver: A Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective” [Link is to 770 KB PDF] — in American Sociological Review, 30, 862-875 — shows the critical importance of social networks in religious conversion. When the Unification Church came to America initial conversions were easy and rapid because of key individuals in Eugene who opened to the door to sizeable social networks. Moving to new territory (San Francisco) proved a much more difficult ground to win converts because there were no prior connections with such networks. Evangelists resorted to trial and error before settling on “lovebombing” — that is, “intense, positive, and personal attention focused on potential converts” as a means of creating “instant connections” with strangers.

My own experience was conversion through a radio preacher. The church was for a time even called The Radio Church of God. Radio then still had the direct one to one connecting power of the intimate “fireside chat”.


Rodney Stark

Prior to Lofland and Stark’s study the conventional wisdom was that people were attracted to the ideology of cults because they met some personal need. People with grievances or who felt deprived in some way felt the cult was offering some sort of remedy to their plight.

In retrospect the deprivation explanation was always too broad because most individuals who suffer a particular deprivation do not ever join a deviant group. Thus, Lofland and Stark did not so much contradict the established view as complement and focus it. Deprivation and grievance establish a pool of potential converts for a particular cult, but social networks determine who among the many in the pool are likely to be among the few actually recruited. 

This thesis was supported by studies of attendees at Unification Church proselytisng meetings. These demonstrated that those who went on to eventually become full members had the weakest personal bonds with non-members.

In terms of group dynamics, both cults and terrorist groups offer a full array of rewards to members: affective, social, cognitive, and material. Chief among these rewards for both groups are powerful interpersonal bonds among group members. Particularly susceptible to the sense of community offered by both cults and terrorist groups are those who have lost or never developed close ties to others. 

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 1760…). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Radicalisation of Muslim Immigrants in Western Countries


Marc Sageman

I have not yet seen the film Tug of War and I wonder if it would be a great exploration of the way Western Muslim immigrants or children of immigrants are attracted to terrorist groups. I have addressed the theme and factors involved in other posts previously. Once more won’t hurt, however. Once again we rely upon research data. In this case the starting point is the research of Marc Sageman on relevant networks.

Marc Sageman has focused on international terrorists, those who attack the United States and its allies. Starting with the nineteen terrorists of September 11, 2001, Sageman has accumulated data on an expanding network of jihadists that by 2008 totaled more than 500 individuals. A striking commonality of these individuals is that they come from the Muslim diaspora: over 80 percent are either Muslim immigrants to a Western country or the children or grandchildren of Muslim immigrants to a Western country. Sageman interprets this commonality in terms of the social and value opening that we have called unfreezing.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 1768-1772). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

What is going on here?

Unfreezing occurs when young Muslim immigrants in Western countries are lonely and disconnected from families and friends in their country of origin. Homesick, lonely, and marginalized—perhaps after trying Western lifestyle without relief—they seek companionship in and around mosques. There they form likeminded groups, focus on victimization of Muslims represented in news and videos from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel, interpret this victimization as a war on Islam that also makes sense of their own experience of discrimination against Muslims in Western countries, and then, if they can connect with al Qaeda or another source of training, they turn to terrorism. In this account, group ties (Sageman’s “bunch of guys” formulation) come first. Then a group develops outrage for group and personal grievances, accepts “war on Islam” as the interpretation of their grievances, and group polarization … moves the group to terrorism if it can find access to weapons or bomb-making skills. Sometimes, as with the case of Muhammad Bouyieri … the weapons can be more primitive than bombs. 

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 1772-1781). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

For immigrants the disconnection comes with separation from friends and family at home. For the children of immigrants it is the experience of discrimination that disconnects them from the country of their birth. Sageman sees isolation and alienation as the open doors to radicalisation among young Muslims in Western countries. Open doors potentially make possible a vast range of new identities, “but for a Muslim living in a non-Muslim country, shared religion is likely to be a high-salience source of similarity and support.”


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