Five Myths About Terrorism and "Radicalization"

How not to spot a threat.


J.M. Berger has a smart post at IntelWire listing five myths about terrorism and "radicalization." Here they are:

1. Radicalization inevitably leads to terrorism.
2. Counterradicalization equals counterterrorism.
3. Radicalization is an issue best addressed by law enforcement.
4. Radicalization is always bad.
5. Because those are myths, radicalization doesn't matter.

You should read the whole thing, and you should read the largely likeminded articles in START and Rolling Stone that prompted Berger's mini-essay too. But I'll post a couple of excerpts here as well, starting with Berger's comments on myth #2:

Mycology…mythology…close enough.

There isn't much data to support the idea that intervening with people who are becoming radicalized is a reliable way to stop or reduce terrorism, in part because there's no way to know for certain how many radicals would become violent at any given time in the absence of counterradicalization. The sample size of the number of terrorists (excluding foreign fighters from this equation for the moment) is too small to present clear trends, and the definition and implementation of counterradicalization is too vague. Meanwhile, there is at least some risk of having the opposite effect—if only a tiny, tiny minority of radicals become violent, there is almost nowhere for the rate of conversion to terrorism to go except up. In other words, given how few radicals become violent, there's more than a little risk that efforts to re-program people who are early in the radicalization process could create more terrorists, not fewer.

And here's a sharp remark about myth #3:

People on Twitter keep asking me why Cambridge mosque-goers didn't report Tamleran Tsarnaev to the FBI for shouting about "kaffirs." Do those people call the FBI to report a white supremacist when they see a racist political bumper sticker? Cambridge Muslims dealt with Tsarnaev the same way an average white person might deal with a racist in the same context. They took him aside, and said "knock it off." It turns out many terrorists and criminals were known assholes before they were arrested. If we make "being an asshole" the center of our counterterrorism policy, we have a long haul ahead of us.

The START and Rolling Stone pieces focus on Islamic terrorism, and while Berger mostly keeps his remarks general it should be clear from that last extract that he's intervening in a conversation that has been focused on Muslims. So let's make sure to note that the same mistakes about "radicalization" crop up when people talk about homegrown terror threats. Consider this "list of suspicious activity and radical behavior that may indicate a person's path toward radicalization," from the website of the homeland security consulting company DT Analytics. And then consider that the man behind DT Analytics, Daryl Johnson, has received glowing coverage from Danger Room, Democracy Now!, and other outlets that might be more skeptical were it not for the fact that Johnson's focus is the radical right. Mythbusting has a long way to go.