Study finds unexpected risk factors for violent radicalization

Youth, wealth and academia appear to predispose individuals to sympathizing with acts of terrorism

In this court sketch, Michael Adebolajo, who was sentenced to life in prison in February for the 2013 killing of British soldier Lee Rigby, tells the court he loves Al-Qaeda.
Elizabeth Cook/PA/AP

Youth, wealth, and a full-time education are risk factors associated with violent radicalization, according to a British study released Wednesday that challenges commonly-held notions in the West of what makes an individual prone to sympathizing with terrorist acts.

Perhaps surprisingly, religious practice, mental health, social inequality and political engagement were not significant factors.

Researchers from Queen Mary University in London surveyed more than 600 men and women of South Asian Muslim heritage living in London and Bradford to assess their sympathy or condemnation for 16 different actions that are broadly defined as “terrorism,” such as the use of suicide bombs "to fight injustice," for example.

Most experts suggest that radicalization is a staged process that begins with a pre-radicalization phase, marked by the onset of sympathetic feelings towards violent acts. The study focused on those sentiments, which might make an individual particularly vulnerable to persuasion by extremist groups that seek recruits.

“We’re offering a new paradigm for sympathies as an early phase of radicalization that can be measured,” Kamaldeep Bhui, the study's lead author and a cultural psychology professor at the university, told Al Jazeera.

While just 2.4 percent of people expressed some sympathy for violence overall, researchers found that those under the age 20, those in full-time education rather than employment, and those with annual incomes above $125,000 were more prone to express sympathy for violent protests and "terrorism."

“One explanation for homegrown terrorism in high-income countries is that it’s about inequality-related grievances," Bhui said in a phone interview. "We were surprised that [the] inequality paradigm seems not to be supported. The study essentially seemed to show that those born in the U.K. consistent with the radicalization paradigm are actually more affluent or well off.”

Two other findings stood in conflict with prevailing stereotypes about so-called homegrown terrorism in the West: Immigrants and those who speak a non-English language at home, as well as those who reported suffering from anxiety or depression, were less likely to express sympathy for terrorist acts.

The Queen Mary team hopes its findings better inform early intervention and preventative counterterrorism strategy.

“Once terrorists are captured, there is often debate about what motivated their behavior,” Bhui said. “Whether they came from disadvantaged backgrounds, have mental health issues or a criminal record, and whether their acts were purely political. Characteristics identified during interrogation are uncritically assumed to be of relevance to the early phase of radicalization.”

Increasingly, the perpetrators of high-profile terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe are not foreign operatives but citizens who worked or were educated in the countries they attack. Dzhokar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the brothers implicated in last April’s Boston Marathon bombings that killed three people, both fit that profile. Two British Muslim converts were sentenced last month for the brutal killing of a British soldier in apparent retaliation for the killing of Muslims by British soldiers around the world.

And many are “lone wolves” with few ties to other extremists and no history of criminal behavior. Terry Lee Loewen, who allegedly plotted to detonate a bomb at a Wichita airport in December, is an example.

The U.S. intelligence community has begun to recognize that its counterterrorism strategy is ill-equipped to predict attackers who do not fit their traditional paradigms. “Law enforcement activities directed solely against an individual’s illegal activity after radicalization likely start too late and do not provide a sufficient answer to the complex phenomenon of homegrown Islamist terrorism," said a 2011 FBI report titled “The Evolution of Terrorism since 9/11.”

“Counterterrorism is more art than science,” the report concluded.

The common threads running through many acts of violent radicalism in countries like the U.K. or U.S. are a sense of isolation and a desire to find a more potent identity, Bhui said. Many of these links have been studied anecdotally, he said, but they have not previously been supported by empirical evidence.

The apparent correlation between being a student and being prone to radicalism is one example. “There’s been a lot of concern about university campuses being hotbeds of violent radicalization, or at least that’s how it’s described in the newspapers,” Bhui noted. “It could be that education is a transitional phase and young people are trying to identify with another way of thinking. When people are undergoing education, they are vulnerable to all sorts of influences.”

But the study also suggests that another essential ingredient to the effective prevention of homegrown "terrorism" is to work with the Muslim communities who are often singled out for producing radicalized individuals. Bhui said the Muslim organizations his team worked with indicated they would prefer to take an active role in addressing violent radicalization.

The Queen Mary University team has plans to conduct similar studies on other Muslim and white British samples. “Unfortunately for Muslims, they carry the label of extremism much more, but there may be common factors across all groups,” said Bhui.

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