If media accounts are to be believed, the accused Boston marathon bombers were “radicalized” by watching American-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki’s YouTube sermons and reading Inspire, the al Qaeda magazine. To whatever extent it is true of the Tsarnaev brothers, this narrative follows a familiar path: one in which seemingly ordinary people are exposed to radical ideas, then adopt those ideas as their own, and then become violent. That theory was set out in a 2007 NYPD report called Radicalization in the West, which focuses exclusively on Muslims, and describes a four-stage progression – a “funnel,” the report says – in which each step towards violence is intrinsically linked with increased religiosity. Though the intelligence community at the federal level has distanced itself from the NYPD’s theory, it continues to dominate thinking in law enforcement. There’s only one problem, according to critics: It’s reductive and simplistic at best, and at worst is a thin justification for racial profiling of Muslims.
“Nobody watches YouTube or reads Inspire and becomes a terrorist. It’s absurd to think so,” says John Horgan, director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Pennsylvania State University. “YouTube videos and reading Al Qaeda magazines tends to be far more relevant for sustaining commitment than inspiring it.”
The mistaken belief that the earliest stages of terrorism can be seen at “radicalization incubators” – Muslim bookstores, hookah bars, mosques, virtually anywhere Muslims congregate in person or online – has resulted in a focus on so-called “preventive policing,” a policy whose stated aim is to prevent a terrorist attack before one happens. Since the theory says adopting radical ideas is the first step toward someone becoming violent, officials say they’re justified in surveilling places where “radical” ideas might take hold.
According to Horgan, though, that’s just not how it works. “The idea that radicalization causes terrorism is perhaps the greatest myth alive today in terrorism research,” he says. “[First], the overwhelming majority of people who hold radical beliefs do not engage in violence. And second, there is increasing evidence that people who engage in terrorism don’t necessarily hold radical beliefs.”
Jamie Bartlett, head of the Violence and Extremism program at the think tank Demos, echoes these doubts. “The word ‘radicalization’ suggests a fairly simple linear path toward an ultimate violent conclusion,” he says. Studies suggest that although there may be stages in the evolution of a terrorist, placing them sequentially on a line, as the NYPD’s report literally does, is far too pat. The stages are fluid, not a simple trajectory, and it is virtually impossible to predict who will or won’t engage in violence based solely on their beliefs.
… Despite all this, law enforcement organizations have used the flawed logic of “radicalization” to justify investigating innocent Muslims in almost every part of their daily lives. Under “preventive policing,” critics say cops and FBI agents aren’t focusing on actual crime, but on protected first amendment activities – like the NYPD’s surveillance of student and political groups, or reports “that the FBI has infiltrated mosques simply to learn about what was being said by the imam leading prayers and by those attending” – without a clear reason to suspect criminality. [++]