Radicalization: Finding a Needle in a Haystack

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Monday, July 25th, 2016
Nicholas Kim

Nicholas Kim

With the advent of the post-9/11 era, there’s no doubt that the international war on terror has morphed to include ever-evolving boundaries. From no-knock raids on unsuspecting Muslim homes to undercover agents infiltrating terrorist sleeper cells, it is clear that the conflict with radical Islamic jihad has been brought within national borders, transcending the clear delineations of war previously present within the conflicts of the past.

The stereotypical portrayal of a terrorist, a bearded Middle Eastern foreigner attacking freedom and liberty, is being eroded by the science underneath the changing nature of terror. With the Boston Marathon bombing and a seemingly unexplainable increase in American, South Korean, and Canadian citizens heading overseas to join fundamentalist organizations, combating the radicalization of youth has quickly become one of the most urgent priorities for empirical behavioral analysts. Disenchanted youngsters are turning to extremism, and it is a race against time for psychologists and counter-terrorist organizations to understand the science (patterns of behavior, contributory factors, triggers, etc.) behind radicalization before the threats turn deadly.

Namely, South Korea has had such an instance with “Kim,” a 17-year-old student who left
Korea to join the jihadists in the Middle East, just as three Muslim women from London did last
August. When the trend of defections escalated after the advent of the Islamic State (IS), cumulative Danish sociology research has shown that these defections are driven less by religious fanaticism and radicalization than by a warped and distorted search for personal identity and social acceptance.

The consensus within the scientific community is that disillusionment with mainstream society
leads to radicalization. As such, the extreme principles of radical terrorist organizations are now
seen as a source of purpose and hope for inclusiveness to disenfranchised individuals. In this way, countries in the past had ignored the scientific consensus and sought to combat the madness within terrorism not with objective de-radicalization efforts but strong and emotional punitive measures, such as the revocation of citizenship, which isolated and excluded these individuals all the more.

Yet the solution remains more elusive than ever. Using objective models and equations to track down such potential recruits for terrorist organizations remains nearly an impossible task, the only panacea incurring massive encroachments upon personal privacy. Indeed, many critics have derided the new French “evidence-based terrorist guidebook,” a hodgepodge list of warning signs of loved ones turning into radicals. Simply put, the “guidebook” cited all manner of daily life habit changes, ranging from the trivial (dietary changes), to the extremely subjective (lack of energy): broad sweeping generalizations that would encompass hippie self-declared vegans to second semester seniors. It would appear that policymakers throughout the world are trying to use psychological research to predict objectively who could become radicalized and construct a predictive and actionable algorithm. But, thus far, there has been no breakthrough. The resulting determination then remains that the current science behind predicting someone’s turn to radicalization remains hazy at best, which would be perfectly acceptable were it not for the fact that such information has the potential to save many lives.

Perhaps this is what makes the concept of homegrown terrorism so terrifying. Rather than a
tangible phenomenon with a clear bulls-eye, the new face of terrorism relies on a mist of uncertainty. Forty years of scientific terrorism research seems to repudiate the notion that only "mad" people engage in terrorism and has revealed a prospect infinitely more terrifying: anyone could be a ticking time bomb.

Written by Nicholas Kim, Seoul International School (SIS)

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