“The R Word”
Radicalization Theories and Their Discontents
Scholar Yassir Morsi (2017) warns that under CVE
every aspect of the Muslim life is brought under the microscope of this scientific, “evidence-based” approach. The gaze utterly shatters and makes fragments of its subject matter. It quarters us and the life of the pre-radicalized into categories for intellectual pontifications. Personal traumas, economic deprivation, social alienation and discrimination, and even our consciousness of conflicts with Muslims become topics for scholarly thought police. (17)
The study of the radicalization process dissects Muslims by treating every aspect of personhood as an object of analysis that can inform the U.S. antiterrorism agenda. Some scholars defend this dehumanizing research agenda as the necessary means to identify tomorrow’s terrorists today. In this view, studying the cultural, psychological, and theological conditions that facilitate the radicalization process can guide the identification of individuals at risk of turning into terrorists. Yet, by focusing on individuals and communities, rather than broader political contexts, radicalization research conveniently “forgets colonialism” (Morsi 2017, 17) and “precludes any wider discussion of foreign policy” (Kundnani 2014, 14). The narrow focus on individuals dehumanizes Muslims, ignores the political aims of violent actors, and dismisses the role of Western state violence in the production of “what governments call extremism,” which “is to a large degree a product of their own wars” (Kundnani 2014, 25). Given these critiques, the concept of radicalization has become so controversial that some CVE practitioners referred to it as the “r word.” This contentious concept has remained hotly debated in and intensely relevant to the CVE policy environment.
In this chapter, I explore the evolution of radicalization research. I also document how this research has influenced the CVE policy world through the development of indicators, factors, and early warning signs used to detect individuals perceived to be vulnerable to or in the process of radicalizing. Through this analysis, I argue that radicalization research pathologizes Muslims by “marking the origins, causes, developments, consequences, and manifestations of deviation from some imagined norm,” turning common human experiences into objects of study and surveillance (Erevelles 2014, 84). Radicalization research therefore functions as a technology of biopower, which seeks to “qualify, measure, appraise, and hierarchize” populations (Foucault 1976, 144). Knowledge generates statistical measures to identify the “normal” and the “deviant.” Through this process of normalization, “power is both ‘totalizing,’ because it controls all aspects of life by creating pressure to conform to norms, and ‘individualizing,’ because those who fall outside the norm are marked as deviant and targeted with disciplinary strategies designed to neutralize their deviance” (Pylypa 1998, 23–24). Radicalization research has produced new knowledge used to identify and correct deviant subjects perceived to threaten national security.
Defining Radicalization: New Theories for a New Breed of Terrorism
In 2016, U.S. security agencies defined radicalization as “the process through which an individual changes from a nonviolent belief system to a belief system that includes the willingness to actively advocate, facilitate, or use unlawful violence as a method to effect societal or political change” (Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of Investigation 2016, 1). Struggling to understand “homegrown terrorists,” these U.S. security agencies have shifted their scale of analysis from the broader social contexts that generate political violence to the psychology, culture, and theology of individual actors. The study of individual pathologies has generated new conceptual frameworks to understand and respond to an evolving terrorist threat.
Historian Walter Laqueur (2006) first examined the perceived “changing face of terrorism,” identifying a “new breed of terrorism” distinct from older forms of terrorism enacted by “social revolutionaries driven to desperate actions by intolerable conditions, oppression, and tyranny” (48). This new breed of terrorism is “different in character, aiming not at clearly defined political demands but at the destruction of society and the elimination of large sections of the population” (Laqueur 1999, 81). Applying his new terrorism thesis to contemporary events, Laqueur (2004) argued that “Al-Qaeda and September 11 occurred not because of a territorial dispute or the feeling of national oppression but because of religious commandment—jihad and the establishment of shari’ah” (para. 8). In this view, new terrorists have abandoned the political orientation of previous revolutionaries in favor of “religious fanaticism” and “excessive indiscriminate violence” (Spencer 2006, 13).
Laqueur (2004), however, also wanted to better understand why only a few “militants” turned to violence if many “believe[d] with equal intensity in the justice of their cause” (para. 15). Although he admitted that “imponderable factors might be involved” in the turn to violence, Laqueur determined that “neither economic nor political analysis will be of much help in gaining an understanding” of this new breed of terrorism (para. 15). Instead, Laqueur hypothesized that a “cultural-psychological predisposition” could explain why only a few “militants” turn to violence (para. 16).
To test his cultural-psychological predisposition hypothesis, Laqueur (2004) analyzed Europe, which he considered to be the “most vulnerable battlefield” in the global war on terror. Through his case study, Laqueur (2004) concluded that Muslim newcomers refused “cultural and social integration” so they could “preserve their religious and ethnic identity and their way of life” while in Europe (para. 23). Unlike their parents who sought to “live in peace and quiet,” second generation immigrants were “superficially acculturated (speaking fluently the language of the host country)” yet also driven by acute feelings of “resentment and hostility” (para. 25). In this context
it is not necessarily the power of the fundamentalist message . . . which inspires many of the young radical activists or sympathizers. It is the feeling of deep resentment because, unlike immigrants from other parts of the world, they could not successfully compete in the educational field, nor quite often make it at the work place. Feelings of being excluded, sexual repression . . . , and other factors led to free-floating aggression and crime directed against the authorities and their neighbors. (Laqueur 2004, para. 26)
The presence of and interplay between these cultural and psychological factors contribute to the radicalization of frustrated, sexually repressed, and aggressive youth. The culture, theology, and psychology of individual actors outweigh any political factors driving violent extremism. By anchoring his theory of radicalization in a “cultural-psychological disposition,” Laqueur generated interest in identifying cultural and psychological indicators of a vulnerability to, or propensity for, violent extremism.
Through an intensive case study of Al-Muhajiroun in the United Kingdom, for example, CVE architect Quintan Wiktorowicz (2005) detailed a three-step psychology-based radicalization process. First, a “cognitive opening . . . shakes certitude in previously accepted beliefs,” catalyzing an individual’s “initial interest” in extremist groups (5). For individuals “willing to expose themselves to new ways of thinking and worldviews,” a “cognitive opening” can “facilitate possible receptivity” to radical ideas and actions (5). There “is no single catalyst for initial interest” as “any number of things can prompt a cognitive opening,” from discrimination to political repression (5).
This cognitive opening “sparks a process of religious seeking in which [individuals] search for answers to pressing concerns through religious meaning,” oftentimes with friends (Wiktorowicz 2005, 5). “Not every individual who experiences a cognitive opening,” however, “will engage in religious seeking and not every individual who becomes a religious seeker” explores “radical Islamic groups” (5). During this time, extremist groups may mobilize their social networks to contact and expose individuals to their mission and gain credibility. Lastly, extremist groups socialize individuals to “inculcate” their ideology and convince individuals to “engage in risky activism” (6). Through this three-step psychological process, individuals mobilize toward violent extremism.
As Wiktorowicz’s study indicates, continued struggles to understand why a small percentage of the population turns to violent extremism ushered in a new generation of radicalization scholarship that has sought to study the possible “cultural-psychological predisposition” to violent extremism. In fact, Laqueur’s (2004, 2006, 1999) initial publications generated an explosion of studies seeking to better understand the radicalization process, particularly by examining the role of culture, theology, and psychology. These theories would provide the scientific evidence needed to support surveillance practices to detect actionable indicators of violent extremism based on these cultural, psychological, and/or theological dispositions.
Jihadization: The Perceived Role of Theology in the Radicalization Process
In 2007, the NYPD published one of the most influential reports on “radicalization in the West,” which created new ways of knowing and policing the “homegrown threat.” More specifically, the study examined the “threat from Islamic-based terrorism to New York City” and developed a “conceptual framework for understanding the process of radicalization in the West” (Silber and Bhatt 2007, 5). Through this study, the NYPD identified four phases of the radicalization process, each with “its distinct set of indicators and signatures”: pre-radicalization, self-identification, indoctrination, and jihadization (7).
To map this radicalization process, the NYPD conducted case studies of five prominent terrorist plots and groups: the 2004 Madrid attack, the 2005 London bombings, Amsterdam’s Hofstad Group, the 2006 “Toronto 18” thwarted terrorist plan, and the 2005 Operation Pendennis raids that prevented attacks in Australia. After handpicking these five cases, the NYPD “dispatched detectives and analysts to meet with law enforcement, intelligence officials, and academics at each of these locations to enhance [its] understanding of the specifics of these events as well as the phenomenon of homegrown radicalization” (Silber and Bhatt 2007, 15). Using this information, the NYPD identified “common pathways and characteristics among these otherwise different groups and plots” to guide its policing (15).
To test these findings, the NYPD applied its framework to the observable radicalization process in five operational cells in the United States: Lackawanna, New York; Northern Virginia; Portland, Oregon; New York City, New York; and the Hamburg, Germany, cell that organized the September 11 attacks. Through these cases, the NYPD confirmed its hypothesized four-phase radicalization process with identifiable “indicators and signatures.” Although social scientists have noted that the NYPD’s study “relies on [an] inadequate sample set,” its findings of a four-phase radicalization process have informed CVE programming and community policing across the United States (Patel 2011, 14).
The role of theology anchors the NYPD’s framework, which defines each phase of the radicalization process by a changing relationship with Salafism (a strand of Sunni Islam). In fact, the NYPD claimed that “radicalization in the West is, first and foremost, driven by: jihadi-Salafi ideology” (Silber and Bhatt 2007, 16). In addition, the NYPD report reduced the perceived radicalization “phenomenon” to an individual, not political, struggle “for an identity and a cause” (82).
According to the NYPD, the pre-radicalization phase refers to an individual’s “life situation before they were exposed to and adopted jihadi-Salafi Islam as their own ideology” (Silber and Bhatt 2007, 6). During this time, economic, social, political, or personal crises like job loss could trigger a “cognitive opening,” which “shakes one’s certitude in previously held beliefs and opens an individual to be receptive to new world views” (6). This cognitive opening facilitates the self-identification phase, in which individuals “begin to explore Salafi Islam” and “gravitate away from their old identity and begin to associate themselves with like-minded individuals and adopt this ideology as their own” (6). Crises catalyze this “religious-seeking” behavior, indicated by “giving up cigarettes, drinking, gambling, and urban hip-hop gangster clothes,” “affiliating with like-minded individuals,” and regularly attending a Salafi mosque (31). These perceived indicators tie increased (Islamic) religiosity to progression in the radicalization process.
In the indoctrination phase, “an individual progressively intensifies his beliefs, wholly adopts jihadi-Salafi ideology and concludes, without question, that the conditions and circumstances exist where action is required to support and further the cause. That action is militant jihad” (Silber and Bhatt 2007, 36). In this phase, individuals accept a “religious-political worldview that justifies, legitimizes, encourages, or supports violence against anything kufr, or un-Islamic” (36). For the NYPD, the withdrawal from a mosque or development of new identities based on Salafi ideology may indicate that an individual is progressing through the indoctrination phase.
Lastly, in the jihadization phase, group members “accept their individual duty to participate in jihad and self-designate themselves as holy warriors or mujahedeen” (Silber and Bhatt 2007, 19). The group begins operational planning and preparation for a terrorist attack, which can occur gradually or rapidly. Traveling abroad, participating in “Outward Bound-like activities” like camping or whitewater rafting, or “researching on the internet” could indicate that a person has committed to and is planning a terrorist attack (7).
Through its development of this linear four-stage radicalization process culminating in “ATTACK,” the NYPD report indicts the theology and psychology of violent extremists, irrespective of broader political, social, and economic contexts (Silber and Bhatt 2007, 9). To guide its counterterrorism operations, the NYPD looks for the perceived “typical signatures” of the radicalization process, such as “giving up cigarettes,” “growing a beard,” “wearing traditional Islamic clothing,” and “becoming involved in social activism” (31). In fact, the NYPD argues that the “consistency in the behaviors and trajectory” of each terrorist plot “provides a tool for predictability” (82). These perceived indicators of radicalization therefore have informed the NYPD’s predictive policing practices.
Although the NYPD’s study has informed its predictive policing practices that target “radical Islam,” radicalization is not a linear process with identifiable “signatures” that can be detected by law enforcement. Legal scholar Faiza Patel (2011) instructs that “despite the impetus to find a terrorist profile or hallmarks of radicalization to hone in on incipient terrorists, empirical research has emphatically and repeatedly concluded that there is no such profile and no such easily identifiable hallmarks” (8). Even the FBI (2015a) concedes that “there is neither one path or personality type, which is prone to adopting extremist views or exhibiting tendencies, nor is there a singular path or personality that leaves an individual vulnerable to others who may seek to impress these views or tendencies upon them” (2). Despite the growing number of CVE programs that rely on this understanding of the radicalization process and use these “typical signatures” to identify individuals vulnerable to violent extremism, CVE actors admit that there is no single terrorist profile and no scientifically proven warning signs of radicalization to violence (Jenkins 2007; Horgan 2008; Patel and Koushik 2017).
In addition to these concerns, the NYPD study utilized a flawed methodology. The absence of a control group—a cohort of similar but nonviolent individuals—means that the NYPD cannot conclude which factors facilitate radicalization and which “typical signatures” indicate progression in this process. Accepted social science methodology, after all, “requires a comparison between behaviors and beliefs common to terrorists and a control group” (Patel and Koushik 2017, 14). This means that “contrary to social science norms, the NYPD report fails to consider whether the religious conduct and expressive activity that it characterizes as early signatures of radicalization occur with any more frequency among terrorists than among all American Muslims” (Patel 2011, 16). In fact, the NYPD later conceded that “during the early stages of radicalization, the behaviors associated with a greater degree of religiosity . . . cannot be used as a signature of someone becoming a terrorist” and “so law enforcement would be doing itself a disservice and wasting significant resources on tracking individuals who simply exhibit behaviors that at this stage are perfectly benign and in the vast majority of cases not associated with terrorism” (Silber and Bhatt 2009, 12). Despite these documented limitations, radicalization researchers still fail to “employ basic scientific principles, such as the use of a control group, to test the specificity and validity of terrorism-related measures” (Sageman 2015).
Terrorism scholars themselves have raised this methodological issue on several occasions. Marc Sageman (2015), for example, testified:
Any attempt to assess the validity of indicators or factors that might lead an individual to commit political violence would require a study including both (a) individuals who actually carried out acts of political violence, and (b) individuals (the control group) who are similar to the first set in all respects except that they did not engage in violence. Use of a control group is critically important because it is only by a comparison with this control group, in which the indicator of actual violence is absent, that one can make the argument that other indicators specific to the subject group are valid. In short, a control group helps to lower the probability of generating a false positive, that is, falsely identifying someone as a future terrorist when he is not. (9)
As a terrorism scholar, Sageman objected to the faulty methodologies used to determine the indicators of violent extremism, calling these predictive judgments mere “guesses” and “hunches” (9). These flawed studies therefore cannot be used to accurately identify individuals vulnerable to or in the process of radicalizing.
Even as these radicalization theories matured, they continued to commit the same methodological errors as the NYPD’s early report. In 2016, for example, Sageman again concluded that “Western states’ indicators of ‘radicalization’ . . . are really indicators of the generally nonviolent Islamist protest community in the West, and not its violent members” (167–68). Sageman (2016) repeated his warning that these indicators could not accurately identify radicalizing individuals and, instead, alienated Muslim communities and criminalized political protest.
CVE researcher Adrian Baker described similar methodological concerns with radicalization research, noting that “one of the biggest criticisms of certain radicalization models has been from a social science perspective” because of “the fact that there’s a lack of a control group and there’s reliance on the dependent variable.” For Baker, this was an “entirely valid methodological critique” that “has largely gone unaddressed in radicalization research.” Baker also confirmed that “long story short, basically, we don’t necessarily have evidence yet that can speak to causality. For instance, a lot of people at an individual level have said, ‘Oh, extremist ideology causes people to engage in violent extremism.’” Without a control group, however, social scientists cannot claim a causal relationship between extremist ideology and violent extremism (interview, January 27, 2017, emphasis in original). In fact, “most people who hold radical ideas do not engage in terrorism, and many terrorists—even those who lay claim to a ‘cause’—are not deeply ideological and may not ‘radicalize’ in any traditional sense” (Borum 2011, 8).
Given these scientific shortcomings, Baker reported that “we can say that there’s certain factors that are associated with [violent extremism], that they may be necessary or near necessary conditions, but we can’t say, for instance, that they directly cause these kinds of things. At most we can say that they’re associated to some degree, whether weakly, moderately, or strongly.” For Baker, this meant that “as social scientists, we don’t want to engage in those kinds of very strong causal claims, in large part because, again, as CVE critics and radicalization critics have rightly pointed out, there are no . . . comparison and control groups from which we can begin to adequately isolate some of those variables and tease out causality” (interview, January 27, 2017, emphasis in original). Baker conceded that radicalization research could not reliably identify the indicators, risk factors, or early warning signs of violent extremism.
In recognizing these methodological shortcomings, Baker still asserted that “in the domestic context,” CVE “is an attempt to try and address what I would call macro-, meso-, and micro-level factors that are associated—again, not causing, but associated—with entry into nonstate ideologically-motivated violence, aka violent extremism.” Like the NYPD, Baker acknowledged the methodological shortcomings of radicalization research while affirming that these studies had identified factors “associated to some degree with,” but not causally linked to, violent extremism. Practitioners therefore could develop CVE programs organized around these factors “associated with” violent extremism while recognizing “we don’t necessarily have evidence yet that can speak to causality” (interview, January 27, 2017, emphasis in original).
Despite Marc Sageman’s warning, radicalization researchers still conduct studies and develop antiterrorism programs using the same flawed methodology (see, for example, Gartenstein-Ross and Grossman 2009). In 2018, the FBI used this same faulty methodology to outline a series of “concrete, observable pre-attack behaviors of many active shooters,” “warning signs” communities could use to identify individuals “moving towards violence” (Silver, Simons, and Craun 2018, 6). To determine these “pre-attack behaviors,” the FBI undertook a “descriptive study,” meaning it “cannot postulate on the probability as to whether some of the behaviors and characteristics seen here would also have been seen in other populations,” such as those who do not commit mass shootings (26). Despite these scientific limitations, the FBI determined that these “concerning behaviors” include “amount or quality of sleep,” “changes in weight or eating habits,” “sudden and/or recent use of changes in use of alcohol,” and “indications of depression, anxiety, paranoia, or other mental health concerns”—all common behaviors and experiences in the United States (29). Although radicalization researchers have recognized the methodological shortcomings of such descriptive studies, some scholars have continued to undertake this research and use their findings to inform national security policy.
Unfortunately, these flawed findings have guided CVE programming across the United States. This is evident in the growing number of initiatives that have called on social service providers, community members, and law enforcement to learn about and use these early warning signs to identify individuals vulnerable to terrorist radicalization. The Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (2016), for example, planned to train community members to “be more alert to warning signs,” to “be more proactive when these warning signs are observed,” and to “engage effectively with individuals who exhibit warning signs of radicalization to violence and/or to targeted violence” (4). As we will see, CVE actors both acknowledged the limits of radicalization research and used the concept of radicalization to organize their work.
A Social Autopsy: Toward a Middle-Level Analysis of the Radicalization Process
Responding to these well-documented critiques, some terrorism scholars have acknowledged that “attempts to profile terrorists have failed resoundingly” and have called for more complex analyses that examine the pathways to violent extremism rather than the profiles of violent extremists (Horgan 2008). Like Laqueur’s early formulation of the “cultural-psychological predisposition” to radicalization, these scholars have sought to account for factors beyond theology that contribute to the radicalization process. In this approach, CVE researchers must conduct a “social autopsy” to understand the radicalization process and potential points of intervention (Guillermo Cespedes, as quoted in Slutzker 2016). New radicalization studies have undertaken this work by conducting, cataloging, and analyzing the “social autopsies” of known violent extremists to taxonomize the terrorist mind.
Critical of past radicalization research like the NYPD study, Marc Sageman (2008) rejects micro-level, or psychological, analyses that assume that “there is something different about terrorists that make them do what they do” (16). Sageman also discredits macro-level, or sociological, analyses that only examine the “root causes” of terrorism while missing the “collective dimension of terrorist behavior” like “how people get together and what motivates them to carry out the work of the abstract terrorist organization” (22). Instead, Sageman calls for a “middle-range analysis” that examines “how the terrorists act on the ground: how they evolve into terrorists; how they interact with others (terrorists and non-terrorists); how they join terrorist groups; how they become motivated to commit their atrocities; how they are influenced by ideas; and how they follow orders from far-away leaders” (16, 23). Through this “middle-range analysis,” Sageman has pursued a more complex rendering of terrorism that can inform national security policy and practice.
To develop this “middle-range analysis,” Sageman (2008) built a database to generate and test his hypotheses about the radicalization process. The database includes information about “people and their relationships with other terrorists, non-terrorists, ideas, and the social, political, economic, cultural, and technological context” (25). This database also can “trace the evolution of these relationships to see how they form, intensify, and fade so as to describe them over time” (25). Although think tanks have developed “incident-based databases,” Sageman argued that they “do not help us answer questions about terrorism and its processes, such as radicalization, mobilization, recruitment, and motivation” (27). Rather than catalog terrorist incidents, Sageman’s database mapped the complex processes perceived to facilitate the turn to violence.
To map the radicalization process, this study focused on “the people who carried out September 11, and all those like them who pose a threat to the United States” (Sageman 2008, 27). After curating and analyzing a database of five hundred case studies, Sageman concluded that there are “four prongs” to the radicalization process: a sense of moral outrage, the interpretation of this moral outrage, the resonance of that moral outrage with the individual’s own lived experience, and the mobilization by terrorist networks to convert moral outrage to violence. This four-step process, however, does not always progress linearly or uniformly: “One cannot simply draw a line, put markers on it, and gauge where people are along this path to see whether they are close to committing atrocities” (72). With a narrow focus on Muslims, Sageman encouraged readers to think about the interplay between these multiscalar prongs rather than interpret them as distinct or discrete factors that drive the radicalization process (as with the NYPD report).
In this view, a sense of moral outrage initiates the radicalization process. Personal or political tragedies “brought about by human hands and seen as a major moral violation such as killing, injury, rape, or arrest” can generate this moral outrage in Muslim communities (Sageman 2008, 72). Moral outrage, however, is insufficient to radicalize individuals or mobilize them to violence. To rise to the formation of an “Islamist terrorist,” this moral outage must also “fit into a moral universe,” “resonate with one’s own experience,” and “be amplified within a group.” Through an “enabling interpretation,” a person can “make sense of the violation and put it into a context that affects him personally and leads to his personal involvement” (75). To justify violence, individuals must undertake an interpretive process that bridges global tragedies with local grievances. This “interpretive bridge” can make young Muslims “feel personally involved” and thus “more likely to join this fight” (83). To propel terrorist radicalization, global tragedies must be interpreted in relation to Muslims’ own everyday lives and sense of morality. This interpretive process therefore is political, despite the vocabularies that make radicalization appear religious in character.
These interpretive processes, however, do not amount to brainwashing as Muslims take on an active role in making sense of their environment and their lives. Radicalizing individuals are agentic rather than passive recipients of the beliefs and interpretations of group leaders. In addition, “global Islamist terrorist ideology is not unified,” particularly given the differing assessments of which types of violence are permissible and effective (Sageman 2008, 82). These interpretations, however, help individuals make sense of their moral outrage and direct it toward action.
Finally, to help them “cross the line from venting their anger to becoming terrorists,” radicalizing individuals need “other people who share their outrage, beliefs, and experiences, but who are further along the path to violence or who are willing to explore it with them” (Sageman 2008, 84). According to this “bunch of guys” thesis, social networks—including those formed through “radical student associations” and “radical mosques”—are central to the radicalization process (85). In this view, “political violence is the natural result of evolutionary cognitive mechanisms that make us identify and favor our group at the expense of strangers” (Sageman 2016, 174). Social bonds therefore precede any ideological commitment to terrorism. This conclusion justifies the policing and surveillance of sites that cultivate these social bonds, like schools, student associations, and mosques.
Through this “middle-level analysis” and “bunch of guys” thesis, Sageman treats terrorism as “the product of a socialization process of friendship and kinship, progressive intensification of beliefs leading to acceptance of the Salafi ideology, and a link to know-how and support” (Kundnani 2014, 130). Yet, “claiming social bonds to be the root cause of terrorism is inadequate” as CVE practitioners still have no way of knowing how radical beliefs transform into violent methods, unless they rely on the assumption that radical beliefs are inherently violent (Kundnani 2014, 129). Despite his desire to develop a more nuanced understanding of the radicalization process, “at the heart of [Sageman’s] model remains an unexamined assumption that violence has its origins in dangerous theological ideas,” an assumption that has plagued radicalization research since its inception (130). Despite this limitation, Sageman advocates for a “managerial approach to Muslim grievances,” using soft power methods like community policing to identify tomorrow’s terrorists through today’s associates of terrorists “without asking too many questions about where that radicalism comes from” (Kundnani 2014, 129). In this view, Sageman’s analyses do not bring us closer to understanding homegrown terrorism while reaffirming the primacy of the concept of radicalization as a theological, cultural, and/or psychological process facilitated by social bonds.
Like other radicalization researchers, Sageman admits that there is no single profile of a terrorist and no discernable warning signs of radicalization. The radicalization process remains mysterious, as individuals follow different pathways toward violence and are mobilized by a range of factors that cannot be distilled into a single comprehensive model. As CVE practitioner Humera Khan concludes, “This is not about rational explanations. This is about dealing with humans where they are” (as quoted in Slutzker 2016).
Locating Violent Extremism in the Global War on Terror
Although radicalization case studies typically dismiss broader economic, political, and social conditions in their examination of the theological, cultural, and/or psychological factors driving the turn to violence, some continue to call for less individualizing analyses. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), for example, studied the global “drivers of violent Islamist extremism,” working from the premise that “terrorists and other violent extremists do not exhibit common psychological attributes,” nor do they “share a psychopathology” (Denoeux and Carter 2009, 51). Rather than engage in an “elusive search for a ‘terrorist personality,’” USAID explored other contexts that drive violent extremism, distilling its findings into three main categories: (1) enabling environments like weak states with ineffective security services and state support for violent extremist groups; (2) pull factors that cultivate the appeal of violent extremism like terrorist groups with a “compelling narrative and attractive objectives” and the “lucrative economic opportunities” in exchange for participation; and (3) push factors that drive individuals to violent extremism like social exclusion, “real or perceived” discrimination, the denial of political rights and civil liberties, foreign occupation, and the “perception that the West is attacking Islam and Muslims” (Denoeux and Carter 2009, 2–4).
After providing a summary of these factors, USAID concluded that “there is ample evidence to suggest that foreign military occupation—and, more generally, large-scale external political and military intrusion—represents a significant driver of VE” (Denoeux and Carter 2009, 19). For USAID, military occupation facilitates and intensifies the push and pull factors of violent extremism. This report, however, still normalizes the concept of radicalization, treats political violence as epiphenomenal to U.S. foreign policy, and reaffirms the “bunch of guys” thesis. Today, USAID’s concepts still organize some CVE work in the United States, noted in the continued use of “push and pull factors” to describe the drivers of violent extremism.
The U.K.’s Joint Intelligence Committee (2003) similarly warned the British prime minister that “the threat from al-Qaeda will increase at the onset of any military action against Iraq. . . . The worldwide threat from other Islamist terrorist groups and individuals will increase significantly” with such military aggression (1). The report further cautioned that “the broader threat from Islamist terrorists will also increase in the event of war, reflecting intensified anti-U.S./anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world, including among Muslim communities in the West” (2). Like USAID, the U.K. Joint Intelligence Committee feared that increased military operations would intensify retaliatory acts by violent extremists in Britain, signaling a more complex understanding of radicalization than a mere psychological process lubricated by social bonds.
Contrary to these concerns raised by the U.K. intelligence community and the USAID report, radicalization studies primarily investigate the cultural, psychological, and theological drivers of violent extremism. The reliance on such an individualizing understanding of the radicalization process means that political violence is never placed within the context of the global war on terror and radicalism is never treated as a serious political orientation. For example, after the brutal machete killing of a British soldier in Woolwich, South London, “it remained taboo to suggest any connection between the killing of a British soldier on the streets of London and the killings by British soldiers in the villages of Helmand [Afghanistan]” (Kundnani 2014, 19). Media restricted their coverage to the “official narrative of radicalization by a dangerous ideology,” while ignoring how “the perpetrators offered a clear statement of what they were doing” (19). Like Tsarnaev’s testimony etched into a Boston boat, one Woolwich attacker proclaimed that “the only reason we have killed this man today is because Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers. And this British soldier is one. It is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. By Allah, we swear by the almighty Allah, we will never stop fighting you until you leave us alone. . . . So, leave our lands and we can all live in peace. That’s all I have to say” (as quoted in Jamieson 2013). These comments locate the brutal attack in a broader political context by drawing attention to the United Kingdom’s ongoing violence in Afghanistan.
Given these findings, USAID concluded that violent extremism “typically results from the confluence of several factors and dynamics” such that “mono-causal explanations,” like theology or psychology, “should be viewed with particular skepticism.” Lastly, USAID reported that “from a programmatic perspective, there is no ‘magic bullet’ for the many challenges posed by VE” (Denoeux and Carter 2009, 84). By studying the role of military occupation in the rise of violent extremism, these scholars suggested that radicalization is a far more complex political process than conventional radicalization studies suggest. Rather than exonerate violent extremists, this approach explores the conditions that make violence seem like a justified tactic to achieve specific political goals.
For some CVE practitioners, however, these studies also engage the same methodological flaws as similar studies of the cultural, psychological, and theological drivers of violent extremism. Baker, for example, explained that, “when it comes to the issue of foreign policy and economic conditions—especially when it comes to causality—there’s insufficient evidence to suggest that foreign policy, at least by itself, causes people to enter into ideologically-motivated violence” (interview, January 27, 2017). Although the USAID study never claimed that foreign policy itself drives violent extremism, it also did not use a control group to test its theories. Like other radicalization studies, USAID could not draw a causal link between U.S. military occupation and violent extremism. Instead, USAID approached violent extremism as a response to military aggression that fueled “anti-U.S./anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world.”
Even though CVE actors expressed interest in the “micro-, macro-, and meso-level factors associated with violent extremism,” they used this methodological shortcoming to dismiss the role of “foreign policy and economic conditions” while focusing on cultural, psychological, and theological factors identified through similar methods. CVE programs therefore have focused primarily on identifying struggling individuals perceived to be “at risk” of radicalization, with little attention to the broader contexts that organize political violence or the political goals violent actors may pursue. Unlike other radicalization research, USAID examined the interaction between multiscalar factors from individual experiences to foreign policy. USAID, however, still viewed radicalization as an individual process facilitated by broader political and social contexts.
Like the U.K. Intelligence Committee’s finding, this approach encourages an analysis of U.S. foreign policy to understand the political orientation and objectives of violent actors. A narrow focus on how individuals radicalize misses the factors that “are politically inconvenient for governments, such as the impact of state violence, both domestic and foreign” (Patel and Singh 2016, para. 14). CVE practitioner Bassem Ali also questioned the politically expedient focus on theology, asking:
If there’s theology, if theology is a major part of this, if theology is somewhere in there, if it is a major part of this, then why is all this stuff beginning now? Why didn’t this begin 50 years ago, 60 years ago? As a society, we’re still not ready to have an honest conversation about why 9/11 happened. We need to talk about our foreign policy. . . . I don’t know when we’ll be ready to talk about 9/11, meaning what I’m saying is, I don’t know when we’ll be ready to really talk about our foreign policy. (interview, March 16, 2017)
Given the perceived role of foreign policy in the rise of domestic terrorist attacks, Ali incorporated a political analysis in his religious teachings to Muslim youth. This view, however, does not dismiss the interplay of other factors that propel individuals toward violent extremism. Instead, it locates violent extremism in a broader set of social, political, and economic contexts, thereby indicting U.S. foreign policy in the turn to political violence. These more complex analyses, however, still pathologize violent actors, particularly by reaffirming the concept of radicalization and arguing that broader political contexts like war produce deviant behavior, such as violence.
In addition to these shortcomings, studies like USAID’s introduce new analytical problems. Anthropologist Darryl Li (2015) cautions that although “a critical understanding of imperial practices and the U.S. role in particular is absolutely indispensable,” analytically “reducing jihadi groups to mere epiphenomena of U.S. actions is a dead end for analysis” (para. 12). These approaches unfortunately “give rise to a kind of Frankenstein theory of jihad, which insists that the US can manufacture such groups but then somehow always loses control over them without ever really explaining how” (para. 15). In addition, “the political logic of the complicity charge can be all too easily appropriated by warmongers, such as the late columnist Christopher Hitchens, who maintained that U.S. support for Saddam Hussein in the 1980s made Washington all the more obligated to overthrow him in 2003” (para. 15). In a world organized by nation-states, framing violent extremism simply as the blowback of imperial policies refuses to take radicalism seriously as a political project undertaken by nonstate actors. In this view, terrorism scholars do not need better studies to map the radicalization process; they must challenge “jihad talk as demonology” by reconceptualizing radicalism as a political orientation (para. 17).
Toward a Public Health Model: Recalibrating Violence Prevention Programs
Recognizing the limitations of radicalization theories, some CVE practitioners and policymakers turned to other violence prevention programs as additional models for their work. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (2015), for example, identified a need to “learn from intervention approaches in other situations, such as gang prevention,” to solve the problem of violent extremism (13). Although committed to teaching social service providers to identify the early warning signs of radicalization, CVE practitioner Tanvir Rahman also referred to suicide- and gang-prevention programs to guide his work. In fact, the utility of gang prevention models compelled Rahman to “focus on the V not the E,” meaning he sought to deter violence rather than criminalize extremism (interview, November 10, 2016). For Rahman, focusing on violence, rather than ideology, avoided the shortcomings of radicalization research, making other violence prevention models more applicable to his own CVE work. Rahman and other CVE practitioners, however, typically did not abandon conventional radicalization research as a guiding frame for their work.
Despite the increasing popularity of gang-prevention programs in the CVE policy environment, some warn that “the track record of gang reduction programs is mixed” and that “gang violence and terrorism are radically different in scope” (Patel and Koushik 2017, 18). Violence prevention expert Guillermo Cespedes, for example, observed, “It appears to me that while the diagnosis seems to be somewhat different, we seem to be applying the same solution that did not work [with gangs] to violent extremism” (as quoted in Slutzker 2016). CVE practitioner Seth Rogers also admitted that “there’s criticism about following the gang intervention model because the vast majority of people say it hasn’t worked. . . . If we’re thinking about just replicating a wheel that hasn’t worked before, how are we building on lessons learned?” (interview, November 9, 2016). Sociologist David Pyrooz similarly concluded that “on an individual level, policies and programs designed to prevent and intervene in gang membership might not translate very well to domestic extremism” (as quoted in National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism 2017a). Given these two critical issues, some CVE practitioners refused to incorporate gang-prevention models into their work.
Seeking additional guidance on violence prevention, some CVE practitioners turned to the “violence-as-infectious-disease” model, which treats violence like a contagious disease that spreads, as “one event leads to another, leads to another, leads to another” (Slutkin 2016). This infectious spread occurs in “all kinds of manifestations of violence, whether we’re talking about riots or we’re looking at gangs or tribes or militias that fight each other with repeated retaliations” (Slutkin 2016). Like infectious diseases, proximity and exposure to violence influence an individual’s susceptibility to committing an act of violence, meaning violence must be contained and quarantined to prevent its spread.
Despite the effectiveness of this approach in controlling infectious diseases, it provides little guidance in understanding political violence. As Arun Kundnani (2014) explains, “even if we accept the implication that terrorism spreads like a virus from a person already infected to his associates, all we have done is explain the process of infection; we have said nothing of why the virus exists in the first place” (129). More perniciously, “the use of the discourse of contamination and disease is used to reaffirm colonial ideas about the inferiority and bodily degeneracy of colonized people,” namely diasporic communities (Murdocca 2002, 20). Under these enduring colonial logics, the “diseased is represented as both a moral danger and as a bodily danger to otherwise law-abiding, legitimate citizens” (20). As a threat to the social order, the diseased must be quarantined, corrected, or eliminated through “therapeutic” measures.
Given the perceived parallels between infectious disease and violence, epidemiologist Gary Slutkin (2016) “began to apply some of the same methods and applications of public health to reducing the spread of violence, which means detecting and interrupting events and changing behaviors. . . . This system or method that we’ve used for other contagious processes works very well for reducing violence.” Given the limited occurrence of violent extremism, Slutkin has advocated for methods that “find potential cases or very urgently likely cases, for example, a case of [tuberculosis] to prevent it from spreading to others and the family or to friends. And it’s important to find a potential person who is about to do violence or is considering doing violence because those acts cause more as well as the friends and the contacts pick up the ideas in proximity as well.” In this view, a violence-as-infectious-disease model can prevent the spread of violent extremism by first identifying “a potential person who is about to do violence”—the diseased—and then providing interventions to stop the spread of violence.
Other practitioners and scholars have developed a “public health model” of CVE to reduce susceptibility to, and contain the spread of, violence using the same methods to prevent epidemics. These methods include primary prevention, secondary prevention, and tertiary prevention. Primary prevention “aims to prevent injury and disease before it occurs by preventing exposure to the causes and promoters of injury and disease,” like healthful eating to prevent diabetes (Weine and Eisenman 2016, para. 3). Applied to the problem of violent extremism, primary prevention counters radicalization through “community-level strategies that mitigate modifiable risk (e.g., availability of extremist media) and leverage protective factors (e.g., parenting support and education) that are empirically or theoretically associated with violent extremism” (para. 4). Secondary preventions treat a disease before it “manifests and progresses” (para. 3). In the CVE context, secondary preventions are “directed at individuals who have been identified as having some characteristics that render them at elevated-risk for violent extremism” like “exposure to extremist ideologies” (para. 4). Secondary prevention strategies include counseling and mentoring. Lastly, tertiary prevention efforts like psychotherapy and intensive case management target radicalizing individuals before they engage in acts of violence. To deliver these resources, this approach tasks social service providers with amplifying the protective factors that support healthy individuals and reducing the risk factors associated with violent extremism. Through these measures, this public health model attempts to “move to a more proactive and positive paradigm to address violent extremism through non-coercive means in the pre-criminal space” (para. 1).
Despite the growing popularity of these public health approaches to CVE, critics questioned their utility in understanding and responding to violence. Gang prevention specialist Teddy Howard, for example, cautioned that this public health model failed to consider the social, political, and economic conditions under which “guys get caught up” in violence, making the infectious disease analogy “bullshit” (interview, November 2, 2016). Critics also warned that the public health model still organizes the delivery of social services on the assumption that certain factors, like “mental health/psychosocial troubles,” contribute to the radicalization process, even while recognizing “there has yet to be a statistical evaluation of these factors” (Weine, Eisenman, Kinsler et al. 2017, 212). By acting on these perceived risk factors, mental health professionals come to view their clients through an antiterrorism lens and enhance the relationship between law enforcement and the provision of social services. Despite these critiques, the CVE policy world has advanced this public health model as a viable method for preventing and quarantining the problem of violent extremism.
Drawing from this public health framework, in 2016 the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), Department of Mental Health, Sheriff’s Department, and FBI launched a CVE program called Recognizing Extremist Network Early Warnings (RENEW) (later renamed Providing Alternatives to Hinder Extremism [PATHE]). RENEW was designed to “find a potential person who is about to do violence” and intervene immediately. To support this objective, RENEW created pathways for communities to report individuals “about to do violence” and for law enforcement to respond in multiple ways, thereby containing the threat of violence and its infectious spread.
When LAPD officers or community members encountered an individual exhibiting certain “early warnings of potential violent behavior,” they reported this person to the Joint Terrorism Task Force/LAPD Major Crimes Division liaison. This liaison then notified the LAPD’s RENEW program coordinator, who contacted the Joint Regional Intelligence Center (JRIC). The JRIC conducted a “full workup on the subject,” after which the subject was directed to different services, like counseling and outpatient therapy. By opening a criminal investigation under “reasonable suspicion . . . that a crime was about to take place,” this process putatively prevented the spread of violent extremism (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2017, 31–40). This meant that law enforcement intervened in noncriminal cases in the name of national security.
Although social scientists have determined that there are no reliable indicators of violent extremism, RENEW deputized community members as the police by encouraging them to report individuals using “early warnings of violent behavior” like “exhibiting signs of mental illness” (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2017, 32). LAPD counterterrorism expert Michael Downing insisted that this program prohibited the profiling of people, only “criminal behaviors,” despite intervening in noncriminal cases specifically in “diasporas and other communities” (32, 29). Furthermore, this reporting process engaged several law enforcement agencies, including the LAPD Major Crimes Division, Joint Terrorism Task Force, and Joint Regional Intelligence Center, three units primarily engaged in counterterrorism investigations and prosecutions. Given this police involvement, the incorporation of mental health professionals to prevent the spread of violent extremism does not address community concerns related to anti-Muslim surveillance or the criminalization of individuals with psychiatric disability labels in the name of national security.
Although a “public health” model sounds like a less punitive and more therapeutic approach to countering violent extremism, this model necessarily has relied on punitive institutions like the criminal-legal system, even opening criminal investigations of referred individuals before they commit a crime. This preventative approach has further tethered the provision of social services to law enforcement and encouraged providers to view their clients through an antiterrorism lens. Rather than serve as an alternative to coercive counterterrorism methods, RENEW increased police contact and facilitated information sharing across law enforcement agencies, using and therefore securitizing mental health professionals and other social service providers who participated in RENEW. Lastly, RENEW still relied on disproven early warning signs of violent extremism to detect and refer individuals “about to do violence” for services.
Although CVE actors have borrowed from gang prevention programs and infectious disease control, these new approaches do not eschew the problems with earlier iterations of CVE as they continue to securitize social services, facilitate police involvement, and use early warning signs with no evidentiary basis. These CVE programs have reinforced state power by adding onto, rather than transforming, dominant institutions of control that historically have criminalized communities of color.
Terrorist Watchdogs: Policing Pre-Criminal Behaviors
Guided by their interpretations of radicalization research as well as other violence prevention models, some CVE actors have developed programs that increase community participation in the prevention of violent extremism. To do so, CVE actors have mobilized social service providers, parents, and friends to detect individuals perceived to be vulnerable to or in the process of radicalizing. This “third way” has offered a “path between doing nothing and calling the police” by “empowering community members to help these individuals before they engage in criminal acts (the pre-criminal space)” (obtained documents). One CVE practitioner argued that, although “there are no known profiles of people who will become radicalized to violence,” he could train community members to “identify individuals who may be on a path towards becoming radicalized to violence or on a path towards engaging in acts of ideologically inspired targeted violence” (obtained documents). By taking on this role, community members could coproduce national security while reducing the role of preemptive prosecutions and other carceral solutions in the prevention of violent extremism. Despite their noted flaws, radicalization research, gang prevention programs, and public health models have supported CVE initiatives by providing guidance on the early warning signs communities could use to identify individuals “on the path toward becoming radicalized” and the types of multidisciplinary programs to “help these individuals.” This approach has deputized social service providers and community members as the police who watch out for, report, and work with individuals vulnerable to violent extremism.
In Minnesota, the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office applied for a 2016 DHS CVE grant, proposing, in part, two workshops with the Voices of East African Women community organization. These proposed workshops would be “specially designed for area women and their children” to “understand the nature and danger of the threats, the processes and signs of radicalization, and aid in discussion of available resources for protecting their children and others in the community” (Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office 2016, 6). These workshops intended to mobilize Muslim mothers as critical national security agents who protected their children from predatory terrorist recruiters by understanding the “processes and signs of radicalization.”
The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office (2016) also sought to replicate the London Metropolitan Police Department’s Red Stop Program, an online system for individuals to “easily and anonymously report extremist internet content to law enforcement” (11). This approach would “allow residents and community partners to share the responsibility of policing the internet” and “create a clear opportunity for law enforcement to engage the community in partnership,” particularly within Somali communities (11). Moreover, the Sheriff’s Office proposed a “new staffing model for law enforcement” by hiring “community liaisons” who would “develop relationships with growing immigrant diaspora communities that face challenging cultural and language barriers” and “vouch for our Agency credibility” (Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office 2016, 8). In this proposal, the Sheriff’s Office called on “women and their children,” community liaisons, and social service providers to watch out for the perceived signs of radicalization, strengthen community-police relationships, and enhance police credibility, all in the name of “addressing the threat of radicalization.” Bashir Cilmi even reported that, after years of CVE programming in Minneapolis, a psychologist consulted with him to determine if a struggling Somali child “was radicalized.” Psychologists came to view and evaluate their Somali clients through a radicalization lens, even if they had never “worked with this population before” (informal conversation, December 2, 2017). The racialized concept of radicalization creeped into the minds and practices of mental health professionals such that they came to view Somali youth as incipient terrorists.
Like the Sheriff’s Office, New Jersey’s Global Peace Foundation submitted a 2016 DHS CVE grant application similarly proposing “train-the-trainer” programs for law enforcement agents and community leaders. These trainings intended to “promote knowledge and awareness of Violent Extremism (VE) and Countering Violent Extremism (CVE)” and were “designed to help communities to assess at-risk persons, inform communities about when it is appropriate to notify law enforcement about individuals at risk, make the environment resistant to violent extremism, and to encourage the development of community-led prevention and intervention” (Global Peace Foundation 2016, 4). The City of Houston (2016) also proposed “Empowered Parents workshops” to educate parents about the “risk factors” of violent extremism (11). In Colorado, the Denver Police Department (2016) announced plans for a “community-led” CVE model to “help facilitate community-police trust and relationships as together we seek to recognize and prevent radicalization of at-risk populations in the Denver Metro area.” To do so, the Denver Police Department (2016) partnered with Goodwill Industries to provide additional mentoring to youth identified as “at risk” of radicalization organized around the “concept of community-oriented policing” (4–5).
In Michigan, the Dearborn Police Department (2016) pursued DHS CVE funding to “help raise awareness on recognizing disturbing behaviors which warrant non-criminal intervention by well-trained law enforcement personnel and mental health professionals” (2). Citing Dearborn’s large Arab Muslim population, the police department emphasized the need for “partnering with citizens and the community as the first line of defense in both homeland and hometown security” (4). From the department’s perspective, “the marriage of community policing and countering violent extremism has proven effective in meeting the needs of the City of Dearborn” (4). This marriage contributed to the creation of the department’s “Intervention Model” whereby “family, friends, or acquaintances” who are “worried about a person’s behavior” can “tip off the police” (6). The police department suggested that terrorism awareness and prevention trainings could equip community members with the tools to identify and thwart potential threats by knowing the behaviors or activities that may lead to criminal activity.
Dearborn’s approach aligns with broader CVE practices that police the “pre-criminal” space presumed to be a precursor to criminal violent extremism. In this “preventative” or “public health” approach, family, friends, and acquaintances use their CVE trainings to spot and report suspicious behaviors “before the line of criminal activity is crossed” (Department of Homeland Security 2015, emphasis added). Redefining noncriminal behaviors like extremist thought as “pre-criminal” facilitates the criminalization of racialized communities, whereby certain behaviors are identified, reported, and treated as proven precursors to criminal violence.
These “pre-criminal” community policing approaches have gained increasing acceptance in the CVE community even while recognizing that scientific studies routinely demonstrate that there are no known indicators, warning signs, or risk factors of violent extremism. Despite these scientific limitations, the social construction of a “pre-criminal space” has enhanced policing powers by reframing noncriminal behavior as pre-criminal and then training community members to report such noncriminal behaviors to law enforcement and support individuals identified as vulnerable to violent extremism.
Each of these community policing–oriented CVE programs has relied on community partners to give local police legitimacy, credibility, and access to targeted communities. The City of Houston’s planned CVE program, for example, included “government partners, academia (Rice University and University of Houston), and non-profit partners (the Islamic Society of Greater Houston [ISGH], Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston [IMGH], and the United Way).” In Boston, the Police Foundation (2016) identified the North American Family Institute, the Somali Community and Cultural Association, and the Boston Police Department as critical partners in implementing its Youth and Police Initiative Plus program aimed at fostering “community resilience to violent extremist recruitment and radicalization among Somali families in the Boston metropolitan area” (1). In addition to these religious, academic, and community institutions, CVE community-police partnerships increasingly include mental health providers like the Illinois Department of Human Services Division of Mental Health, Oakland’s Mind Body Awareness Project, and the New Jersey Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services, to name just a few. In these collaborations, the FBI encouraged mental health professionals to “tell us if you think there’s a large threat to something” (participant observation, October 27, 2017). Although CVE practitioners referenced suicide prevention strategies to justify the policing of this “pre-criminal space” by mental health professionals, behavioral scientists contributing to CVE discussions admitted that “in the realm of suicide prevention work, there are no interventions in place to screen people for (or prevent) thoughts of killing oneself, because of the difficulty in distinguishing between those who are thinking about killing themselves and those who go on to kill themselves” (Rajeev Ramchand, as referenced in National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2017). Given their concerns with the validity, ethics, and impact of this approach, some mental health professionals and community partners, such as the Ta’leef Collective, have withdrawn from CVE programs, despite their initial support.
Within the CVE policy world, policing institutions have enhanced their power by training social service providers and community members to identify, report, and work with individuals vulnerable to violent extremism using disproven indicators, risk factors, and warning signs. This process aligns with academic calls for preventative interventions that “serve youth and adults who are believed to be at risk of committing a violent act but are still in the pre-criminal space” (Weine, Eisenman, Kinsler et al. 2017, 3). Researchers suggest that “a consensus of policymakers and practitioners have called for developing community-based capacities that proactively address those vulnerable to violent extremism in the pre-criminal space through mental health and psychosocial programming, rather than waiting for them to cross the line, or involving them in sting operations that take them in a direction where they never have dreamed of going” (Weine, Eisenman, Kinsler et al. 2017, 8). By encouraging communities to police certain noncriminal behaviors and thoughts as precursors to criminal violence (“pre-criminal”), CVE practitioners have criminalized common immigrant experiences, constitutionally protected acts, psychiatric disabilities, radical thought, and “Muslim and refugee communities” perceived to be uniquely vulnerable to violent extremism.
Although the U.S. security state’s collaboration with community institutions suggests a softer, friendlier approach to fighting homegrown terrorism, Kristian Williams (2004) warns that “the dangers of allowing the state to co-opt community institutions, especially those of oppressed minorities, should be clear enough” (501). In Nazi Germany, for example, “whenever the extermination process was put into effect, the Germans utilized the existing leadership and organizations of the Jewish community to assist them. . . . In the face of German determination to murder all Jews, most Jews instinctively relied on their own communal organizations to defend their interests whenever possible” (Rubenstein 1978, 72, emphasis in original). Yet, “these very organizations were transformed into subsidiaries of the German police and state bureaucracies” such that the Jewish organizations “undertook such tasks as selecting those who were to be deported, notifying the families and, finally, of sending the Jewish police to round up the victims” (Rubenstein 1978, 74). The incorporation of community institutions and social service providers into state projects thus can increase, not mitigate, state violence. This means that “by organizing on a sufficient scale, the police can greatly enhance their own power—not only over these agencies, but through them—while acquiring relatively few additional burdens for themselves” (Williams 2004, 339). Rather than frame CVE as an alternative to law enforcement activities, communities must approach CVE as a security strategy that has enhanced policing powers by deputizing community partners as coproducers of public safety and legitimizing local police agencies.
On Killing: The Radicalization of the State
Although radicalization research has informed CVE work, it has not been used to prevent or mitigate state-sanctioned violence. U.S. police trainings, for example, emphasize the necessity of killing, an unquestioned tactic framed as public safety rather than state terrorism. Radicalization research therefore reinforces the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence by pathologizing, criminalizing, and demonizing violence committed by nonstate actors.
In his popular police training “On Combat,” Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman informed police trainees that to “serve and protect,” they must “deter and then stop the threat.” Grossman argued that “the most effective way to stop someone is to fire a bullet into his central nervous system. It is up to God and the paramedics as to whether the man dies. Your job is to stop the deadly threat and the most effective way to do that is to make that threat die” (participant observation, June 28, 2017). In 2016, U.S. police killed 1,093 people in the name of public safety (Guardian 2018).
Rather than advance a “bunch of guys” thesis or theorize a three-step psychological process to understand what drives law enforcement to violence, the United States positions police violence—including firing a bullet into a person’s central nervous system—as a necessary strategy to “serve and protect.” The U.S. public largely does not question how its soldiers or law enforcement officials come to enact violence even when, as I detail below, this violence has included the indiscriminate slaughtering of civilians for sport. Despite increased opposition to police killings of people of color, the U.S. public views this violence as a necessary instrument to ensure national security and social order.
Given the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence, violence perpetrated by state actors does not qualify as “evil” acts. In a 2007 video leaked by Chelsea Manning, for instance, U.S. soldiers in two Apache helicopters began killing unarmed Iraqi civilians, commenting, “Hahaha. I hit ‘em” and “Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards.” Rather than question the culture, theology, or psychology of these soldiers, U.S. media suggested Manning’s gender identity contributed to her “traitorous decision” to leak classified documents. Manning (2013), however, argued that she was “depressed with the situation we were mired in [in Iraq]” and by U.S. military operations “obsessed with capturing people.” Leaking the documents could “make the world a better place” by sparking a public debate about the vicious violence deployed by the U.S. military (Manning 2013). Despite Manning’s efforts, the U.S. public often defends war, drone strikes, and targeted assassinations as critical national security tools rather than contesting them as acts of state terror. Radicalization models limit the concept of violent extremists to “nonstate actors,” effectively eliminating state actors from the radicalization rubric and “violent extremist” label.
Despite the mass violence U.S. soldiers inflict on local populations, we do not reduce soldiers to irrational evildoers or indict soldiers’ culture, psychology, or theology in their capacity to kill. Li (2015) assesses that, although radicalization research reduces political violence to individual pathologies, scholars “would never write a cogent analysis of the invasion of Iraq by focusing on why soldiers volunteer to join the U.S. military” (para. 25). Ultimately, “the absence of politics leaves accounts” of radicalization “rather empty” (para. 25).
To Think Otherwise: Unsettling Radicalization Research
Today, radicalization research advanced by psychologists, social scientists, and terrorism experts organize domestic security policies. What these radicalization models seek to, but cannot, demonstrate is “how an otherwise normal individual becomes a murderous terrorist” (Puar and Rai 2002, 123). Despite these scientific limitations, this research indicts individual psychologies, cultural deficiencies, or theological perversions in the radicalization process. “Terrorism, in this discourse, is a symptom of a deviant psyche, the psyche gone awry, or the failed psyche; the terrorist enters this discourse as an absolute violation” (Puar and Rai 2002, 124). CVE programs informed by this radicalization research encourage community members and law enforcement agents to identify these “deviants” and provide therapeutic, or corrective, services.
Following these normative assumptions, Los Angeles’s RENEW program could place individuals perceived to be at risk of or in the process of radicalizing on an involuntary psychiatric hold. In Minneapolis, CVE practitioners described psychological factors like “disaffection” and “internal identity crises” as indicators of radicalization and hired youth intervention workers to “spot” these “root causes of terrorism” in schools. In Chicago, the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority trained mental health professionals to “identify when a person close to them appears to be in crisis and at risk for committing a violent act.” These narratives, and the carceral practices they authorize, implicate these perceived deviations from hegemonic norms in the mobilization to violence, particularly when expressed by Muslim youth. In fact, “over 70 percent of federally-supported CVE programs are premised on the unsupported conclusion that diversity and the experience of discrimination in America are suggestive of a national security threat” (Patel, Lindsay, and DenUyl 2018b, para. 3). These programs therefore treat difference as a source of danger.
According to philosopher Michel Foucault (1999), abnormality is a relational concept that defines the norm through differentiation. This means that the “normal” is defined by constructing the abnormal—the mad, the sick, the criminal, the deviant, the terrorist. For Foucault (1999), “racism against the abnormal” is distinct from but interlinked with ethnic racism, evident in the rise of German psychiatry simultaneous to the rise of Nazism (317). This “internal racism” has authorized “the screening of every individual within a given society” to detect “all those within a group who may be the carriers of a danger to it,” ultimately defending society against its “abnormal individuals” (Foucault 1999, 317). Grafted onto ethnic racism, these categories of abnormality demonize, pathologize, and criminalize individuals of color as “monsters” if they appear to deviate from hegemonic social, cultural, and psychological norms. This process historically has facilitated the development of practices to defend society from these monsters, including incarceration and psychiatric intervention that disproportionately target communities of color.
Today, these monsters “haunt the prose of contemporary counterterrorism,” particularly in the monitoring of entire communities to detect potential threats (Puar and Rai 2002, 124). More specifically, “the knowledge and form of power that is mobilized to analyze, taxonomize, psychologize, and defeat terrorism has a genealogical connection to the West’s abnormals, and specifically those premodern monsters that Western civilization had seemed to bury and lay to rest long ago” (Puar and Rai 2002, 124). In the 1850s, for example, psychiatrists “believed that African American slaves who ran away from their white masters did so because of a mental illness called drapetomania” (Metzl 2009, ix). During the 1960s Black freedom struggle, psychiatry similarly “positioned itself as an authority that made sense of the crisis posed by angry, protesting Black men” by labeling these men as “crazed Black schizophrenic killers” (108, xv). “Anxieties about racial protest catalyzed associations between schizophrenia, criminality, and violence,” ultimately equating Black political protest with insanity (xix). These narratives have resurfaced in the contemporary treatment of Black organizers as “Black Identity Extremists” who must be monitored, surveilled, and controlled in the name of public safety. Today, “psychiatric definitions of insanity continue to police racial hierarchies, tensions, and unspoken codes in addition to separating normal from abnormal behavior” (ix). By indicting a deviant or failed psyche, these pathologizing discourses strategically have erased what slave insurrections, the Black Panthers, and the Movement for Black Lives sought to accomplish, politically, through their struggles, while shoring up support for policing institutions to manage these perceived threats.
Through her exploration of how “colonial constraints and imperial dispositions have a tenacious presence” in the geopolitical and spatial distribution of inequities, anthropologist Ann Stoler (2016) argues that today’s “colonial configurations are different, as are the actors, but the tactics of instantiating difference and forging an ‘internal enemy’ are colonial reverberations with a difference—and with more than a distant semblance to earlier racial logics, engendered fears, and counterinsurgent tactics from which they gained their support” (4, 28). Organized around “internal enemies,” these reworked colonial concepts contribute to contemporary security regimes that service U.S. empire. Rather than treat the anti-Muslim logics that inform radicalization models as a byproduct of the global war on terror, we must locate these dynamic racial formations within a longer genealogy of defining, taxonomizing, and criminalizing terrorist-monsters, particularly in nondominant communities. The ready-made narratives we reach for to make sense of “homegrown terrorism” did not simply emerge after the instantiation of “terrorism studies” or after the September 11 attacks. The concepts we call on to understand violent extremism are rooted in colonial histories that bear on the present through the rearticulation of the dangerous terrorist-monster lurking in our communities who must be detected and corrected.
Pulsating through an iteratively receding and resurfacing “colonial presence,” CVE policies depend on a “seamless continuation of colonial practices that pervade the present,” like the reworked counterinsurgency tactics to neutralize the perceived civilizational threat posed by “merciless Indian savages” who resisted colonial rule (Stoler 2016, 25; Estes 2017). Because colonial entailments “wrap around contemporary problems,” these “colonial counterinsurgency policies rest undiluted in current security measures” (Stoler 2016, 4). These continuities reveal the complex temporalities of colonial relations in the development of CVE that draws on, supports, and remakes domestic counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and community policing doctrines to advance U.S. empire “over here” and “over there.” If radicalization theories reactivate and remake colonial taxonomies, how might we decolonize terrorism studies and think otherwise?
Because these colonial impingements are not overdetermining, the next chapter examines how CVE practitioners interpreted and negotiated prevailing radicalization research, remaking for themselves what constituted progressive and ethical national security work.