Transformative Radicalization: Applying Learning Theory to Islamist Radicalization

Alex S. Wilner and Claire-Jehanne Dubouloz have a new article in ‘Studies in Conflict and Terrorism’.


While a consensus has emerged concerning the role radicalization plays in persuading Westerners to participate in terrorism, little research investigates the cognitive processes inherent to radicalization processes. Transformative learning theory, developed from the sciences in education and rehabilitation, offers an interdisciplinary lens with which to study the processes of personal change associated with radicalization. Transformative radicalization explains how triggering factors lead to critical reflection of meaning perspectives and personal belief systems that guide and alter behavior. Using an autobiographical account of the radicalization process, this study offers a plausibility probe of an inherently interdisciplinary and novel theoretical framework.

UN Movie about repentant terrorists from Algeria

This brief 10 minute  film examines the experiences of an Algerian fighter and the factors that influenced him to disavow the use of violence and reenter “mainstream” society. The documentary series was developed by the UN as part of an effort to assist member states in taking action to counter violent extremism by providing a platform for former terrorists and their victims to speak out against terrorism. Referring to the aim of the initiative, Mr. Barrett stated, “We must show that terrorism is not an acceptable solution and that is why we focus on both the victim and the perpetrator in the films.”

Mathew Alexander on torture as a recruitment and radicalisation tool

Air Force interrogator Matthew Alexander has a new book out Kill or Capture: How a Special Operations Task Force Took Down a Notorious Al Qaeda Terrorist. In an interview with Scott Horton he offers some of his thoughts on how Egypt’s brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood strenghtened the extremist views of many Al Qaeda leaders.

Al Qaeda’s beginnings trace back to the prisons of Egypt and Mubarak’s persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sayyid Qutb, whose writings have inspired many Al Qaeda leaders including Osama bin Laden, was imprisoned for years and witnessed and experienced torture that convinced him that violent extremism is a legitimate response to authoritarian dictatorships. As I saw in Iraq, torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay were the number one reasons foreign fighters gave for coming there to fight. This was especially true because of the nature of the torture, which often included sexual, cultural, and religious humiliation. Anyone who says torture works is not looking at the long-term ramifications.

The recent successful revolution in Egypt started as a result of the torture of a regular citizen who planned to expose police corruption. Twenty-eight-year-old Egyptian blogger Khaled Said was taken by the police from an Internet café in Alexandria and beaten to death in a residential building as witnessed by several citizens. The death of Said became symbolic of the routine and widespread use of torture by Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

Cameron Criticizes ‘Multiculturalism’ in Britain

The New York Times reports that UK Prime Minister David Cameron has mounted an attack on the country’s decades-old policy of “multiculturalism,” saying it has encouraged “segregated communities” where Islamic extremism can thrive.

Speaking at a security conference in Munich on Saturday, Mr. Cameron condemned what he called the “hands-off tolerance” in Britain and other European nations that had encouraged Muslims and other immigrant groups “to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream.”

He said that the policy had allowed Islamic militants leeway to radicalize young Muslims, some of whom went on to “the next level” by becoming terrorists, and that Europe could not defeat terrorism “simply by the actions we take outside our borders,” with military actions like the war in Afghanistan.

“Europe needs to wake up to what is happening in our own countries,” he said. “We have to get to the root of the problem.”

In what aides described as one of the most important speeches in the nine months since he became prime minister, Mr. Cameron said the multiculturalism policy — one espoused by British governments since the 1960s, based on the principle of the right of all groups in Britain to live by their traditional values — had failed to promote a sense of common identity centered on values of human rights, democracy, social integration and equality before the law.

Cables describe suspicions of Syrian government involvement in 2006 anti-Western cartoon protests

Cable 06DAMASCUS404 from the fifth of February 2006 describes how the Syrian regime seemed to have benefited from the rioting with enhanced legitimacy in several ways.

Civil society contacts noted that SMS text messages were sent to cellphones two days before, announcing a demonstration on February 4, in front of the Danish Embassy. These contacts also insisted, and an imam confirmed to Poloff, that the SARG (probably through its security services) had issued a “suggested” sermon for all imams to use in the mosques for the Friday prayers that preceded the Saturday rioting. Some contacts reported buses being sighted bringing in demonstrators from some of the rougher areas of Damascus, including the Palestinian camps at Yarmouk, although this could not be confirmed. One opposition contact said it was ludicrous to think that the SARG could not have prevented this rioting — at least earlier on — if it chose to, noting that when Riyad Seif and several other recently released Damascus Spring detainees attempted late last week to hold a press conference, the government deployed “three hundred security officers” to prevent it. Islamist-oriented human rights activist Haithem Maleh insisted that it was SARG provocateurs affiliated with the security services, rather than Islamists, who had stormed the embassies and egged on the crowds. 

¶13. (C) COMMENT: We concur with contacts that the SARG allowed these demonstrations to occur and almost certainly helped to facilitate them at the beginning. Somewhere along the way, the SARG, true to form, seems to have miscalculated and lost control. The end result left a deeply embarassed SARG to pick up the pieces and trying to explain its incredible security lapses to the disbelieving Europeans and Chileans. Despite any miscalculation, loss of control, or embarrassment, the minority Alawite regime seems to have benefited from the rioting, enhancing its legitimacy in several ways. It offered its religious Sunni population an opportunity to vent on an issue of visceral populist concern and it put itself in the vanguard regionally, demonstrating to the Arab street that Syria can be counted on to defend Islamic dignity. The rioting also helped the SARG in its recurring attempts to convey to the international community  that “we are the only thing standing between you and the Islamist hordes.” Some argue that the riots also serve as useful distraction from recent price hikes and general hard times.

One day later cable 06DAMASCUS427 reports that an “influential Sunni sheikh” provided  details February 6 that seem to confirm the Syrian government’s (SARG) involvement in  escalating the situation that led to the violent rioting in  Damascus two days earlier, including communications between  the PM’s office and the Grand Mufti. He also noted that SARG  authorities now seem intent on identifying a few scapegoats  to be blamed for the incidents.

Two months later an interesting cable puts the actions of the Syrian government in perspective.

Overall, despite some contradictions, it seems evident that the regime is reaching out once again to the Sunni Islamic community with various initiatives and adopting some elements of an Islamic populism to shore up support. According to gadfly economist and former deputy minister of planning Riad Abrash, the regime has calculated now that Arab nationalist interests “are identical” with the Islamic population’s desire, both in Syria and the region, to oppose the U.S. In his view, the regime “is getting closer to the view of people on the street” in order to retain its popularity. The regime recognizes the powerful hold that Islam has on the masses, said Abrash. He acknowledged that the regime “is playing with fire,” but noted “they want to survive. They feel threatened, so it makes sense to take dangerous steps.

While alarmist scenarios about the future rising tide of Islamism may be true, the SARG seems for the time being to be successfully manipulating this Islam issue, occasionally blending in some populist aspects. The regime is well-positioned politically because of its championing of Islamic political causes such as those of Hamas, Hizballah, and Iran, and has adopted a sufficiently nuanced policy on Iraq to immunize it against criticism that it is helping suppress an Islamic insurgency. Nevertheless, some Sunni leaders tell us that the regime’s attempts to manipulate the Islam issue are not credible and that people are not taken in by it. Where the SARG has been effective is in keeping Islamic leaders in Syria under its wing, supported and politically muzzled. The more populist touches seem designed to drown out the unwelcome noise coming from the Brammertz investigation and — in tandem with appeals to Syrian nationalism — to persuade Syrians that it is not the regime (and Asad family) under attack but the country and the Islamic nation.

A cable from September 2006  reveals that the US wanted to influence the decision from “Jyllands-Posten” on how to commemorate the cartoons’ first anniversary September 30 2006. The paper was contemplating to re-publish the original cartoons or running new ones on the subject.

The Ambassador called Prime Minister Rasmussen’s national security advisor, Bo Lidegaard, to ask if this was true and to find out how the government was going to handle the issue. Lidegaard indicated that the government did not want to get directly involved in the matter. So sensitive was the issue, Lidegaard told the Ambassador confidentially, that the prime minister’s office had made a conscious decision not to alert the foreign ministry or the intelligence services. Furthermore, Lidegaard explicitly warned against any attempt by us to openly influence the paper’s decision, which, if made public, the prime minister would have to condemn, he said. Lidegaard agreed, however, that no harm would come from a straightforward query from us to “Jyllands-Posten” about their plans.

With that, the Ambassador telephoned “Jyllands-Posten” editor-in-chief Carsten Juste, and asked straight out about his paper’s intentions for commemorating the anniversary. Juste told the Ambassador that he and his team had been considering re-publication, but concluded that such a move would be unwise, especially so soon after the controversy caused by the Pope’s Regensburg remarks. The Ambassador welcomed this news, noting that none of us wanted a repeat of the crisis earlier this year. Lidegaard was demonstrably relieved when the Ambassador reported this exchange a short time later.

Incoming chairman of US Homeland Security Committee says NYT should be indicted under Espionage Act

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the incoming chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, ripped into The New York Times Tuesday for telling him in a weekend editorial to tone down his rhetoric.

“I’m absolutely delighted that The New York Times would attack me,” he said in an interview with The Hill. “I have nothing but contempt for them. They should be indicted under the Espionage Act. … The New York Times is just basically being a mouthpiece for political correctness.”

King took aim at a Sunday editorial that criticized King’s comments about the radicalization of Muslins. The editorial suggested such comments were beneath someone who will be chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.

King’s proposal to hold one of his first hearings on the radicalization of U.S. Muslims and homegrown terrorism has brought a rash of criticism from those who argue it could turn into a McCarthy-esque witch hunt, fueling distrust among Muslim citizens of the government.

In its editorial,  the Times said King’s “sweeping slur on Muslim citizens is unacceptable.” It also accused him of too much “blather” and “bluster” on a host of national security issues, saying King “has popped off far too often in recent years, claiming, among other things, that President George W. Bush ‘deserves a medal’ for authorizing waterboarding.”

FBI study: The Fundamentals of Islamic Extremism- Psychological Considerations for Developing & Managing Counterterrorism Sources

This paper outlines some psychological considerations for planning and running a source operation against Islamic extremist targets.

The objective is simply to provide information for Special Agents to ponder as they develop operational scenarios and spot potential sources. As is true with successful interrogations, it is critical to understand the culture and mindset of the both source and target. Additionally, it is important to understand the adversary’s recruitment and radicalization processes, as well as the contexts in which screening and recruitment occur. Detailed descriptions of known Islamic extremists are offered, so that potential sources can be selected or shaped to provide a good fit with others in the target group. Finally, detailed source assessment questions, recruitment criteria used by the adversary, and several case studies are provided in the appendices.

Source operations provide a window to the mind of the adversary. Penetrating a network of known extremist cells offers clues to the adversary’s capability and intention that routine physical and technical surveillance cannot. Under the new operational mandate of preemption and proaction, the goal is to interrupt forward motion and prevent attacks before they occur. These objectives can be advanced more efficiently by learning about the inner-working of attack plans and preparation than by any post-attack investigation, with use of far fewer resources and no tragic loss.

Islamic group asks DoJ to review police training

(WP) Two groups representing American Muslims differed sharply Monday over revelations in The Washington Post about the sometimes-ignorant quality of local  police training on radical Islam, with one group calling for a Justice  Department investigation, the other saying it “is not a systematic problem.”

Raid on Islamic Groups in Germany

The German Interior Ministry ordered simultaneous raids in three states on Tuesday against what it called Salafist networks suspected of seeking the imposition of an Islamic state. The action signaled growing concern over the radical messages of some Islamic groups.

The raids, in Bremen, Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia, were not linked to a recent terrorism alert reportedly inspired by phone calls from a man who said he wanted to quit working with terrorists and who warned of a pending Mumbai-style attack, the Interior Ministry said.

The ministry statement said the raids were directed at two groups: Invitation to Paradise in the cities of Brunswick and Mönchengladbach, and the Islamic Culture Center of Bremen, on the North Sea coast. The two groups work closely together and share the same ideology. The authorities are seeking to outlaw both groups.

The raids appeared to represent a departure for the German authorities in their dealings with radical Muslim groups. They were conducted under the authority of postwar laws enacted with an eye to the Nazis to prevent the overthrow of the state or Constitution by extremist groups. Before, those statutes had been invoked primarily against right-wing nationalist and neo-Nazi groups, and German intelligence had focused primarily on individual Muslim extremists rather than groups.

The ministry’s statement emphasized this shift in approach. “For a well-fortified democracy, it is necessary and demanded, without waiting for the jihad to occur in the form of armed struggle, to take action against anti-constitutional organizations.”

The statement said the groups were suspected of opposing constitutional order by seeking to “overthrow it in favor of an Islamic theocracy.” There was no indication that any arrests were made.

“The group is very influential and is especially active in converting people,” a senior German security official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation was still under way. The best-known figure in the group is a German citizen, Pierre Vogel, a former boxer and convert to Islam. “They do have the aim to change Germany and make it Islamic, but there is no evidence that they were or are involved in any terrorism,” the official said.

Rand Corp: Deradicalizing Islamist Extremists

Read the publication here.

Considerable effort has been devoted to understanding the process of violent Islamist radicalization, but far less research has explored the equally important process of deradicalization, or how individuals or groups abandon extremist groups and ideologies. Proactive measures to prevent vulnerable individuals from radicalizing and to rehabilitate those who have already embraced extremism have been implemented, to varying degrees, in several Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian, and European countries. A key question is whether the objective of these programs should be disengagement (a change in behavior) or deradicalization (a change in beliefs) of militants. Furthermore, a unique challenge posed by militant Islamist groups is that their ideology is rooted in a major world religion. An examination of deradicalization and counter-radicalization programs in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Europe assessed the strengths and weaknesses of each program, finding that the best-designed programs leverage local cultural patterns to achieve their objectives. Such programs cannot simply be transplanted from one country to another. They need to develop organically in a specific country and culture.