An essay in two parts, by A. Aaron Weisburd
Part One: The problem with radicalization and counter-radicalization (and de-radicalization)
The radicalization construct focuses on political and ideological factors thought to lie at the root of the choice to engage in terrorism.
The current wave of Islamist terrorism is by no means the first period of violent political activism. Unlike previous waves of terrorism, in the post-9/11 period we have convinced ourselves that terrorism is the result of something we call radicalization, and that counter- or de-radicalization programs are necessary to address the problem. Why? Was the leftist terrorism that gripped Europe in the 1970's and 1980's defeated by a communications strategy that sought to convince youths that capitalism and imperialism were really not so bad, or by promoting moderate Marxism? There were Marxists (by definition radical) before groups like the Red Army Faction arose, and there were Marxists after the RAF was defeated.
The radicalization construct fails to account for the fact that while all terrorists are radicals, most radicals are not terrorists. This is evidence that there are many processes and factors which — under a variety of circumstances — may contribute to someone becoming involved in terrorism. The radicalization construct fails to address the many personal, social, psychological, historical, structural, technological, macro- and micro-level factors and processes that likely contribute significantly to the making either of an individual terrorist or of a terrorist movement.
It stands that if radicalization is a problematic construct, so too are counter-radicalization and de-radicalization. This is because counter- and de-radicalization at best attack only part of the problem — e.g. ideologies, or narratives of victimization. Support for this proposition can be found in the literature regarding deradicalization. In practice, what we call deradicalization often involves a choice only to cease violent activism, rather than to abandon radical ideology or the desire for profound change. This fact is acknowledged by the increasing use of the term demobilization in such discussions.
The concept of radicalization does little to increase understanding of who will become involved in terrorism, how they will become involved in terrorism, or what we may do to prevent terrorist attacks and defeat terrorist movements. In contrast, an understanding of the broader factors and processes involved in terrorism leads to a broader range of options for counterterrorism.
Two: A broader approach to jihadi videos: counterterrorism, not counter-radicalization
The production, distribution, and viewing of videos is one of the primary activities of the global jihad. It is an activity that involves all layers of the movement, from the aspiring jihadi with no connections to any organization to the leadership of al-Qaida Center and the core al-Qaida franchises and affiliates. It is not for nothing that al-Qaida is viewed by many experts as a media organization that engages in terrorism.
While the Internet is where jihadi videos are first put in to broad circulation, all aspects of this phenomenon have physical-world components in addition to the activities we know occur in virtual space. There is constant interaction between those two realms. Behind everything we see occurring online there are real people. A holistic approach to counterterrorism will address those people and what they do on every level.
Successful counterterrorism — to the extent it prevents terrorist attacks or results in the capture or killing of leaders of the jihad — limits the pool of new material available to be turned into videos. Production and distribution networks can be targeted in both virtual- and physical-space. Consumption of jihadi videos can be detected and used to identify aspiring jihadis before they develop the associations necessary to progress further along the path to martyrdom.
The forums that serve as primary distribution points for jihadi video do not allow the content of those videos to be directly challenged, though with forethought and subtlety their messages can still be undermined. The infiltration or co-option of forum management teams provides a wealth of intelligence that can be used investigatively and operationally to thwart terrorist attacks and disrupt recruitment efforts. Finally, there are many options for kinetic operations against the forums and the computers used to keep them online. Much of this counterterrorism activity revolves around issues of trust: creating it, exploiting it, and undermining it.
Counterterrorism activities directed against the forums have the effect of driving jihadis to more open venues such as social networking and video sharing sites. These sites tend to be much more resistant to infiltration, co-option, and offensive operations, but present a host of new opportunities not found on the jihadi forums. Individual user accounts and video uploads can be targeted for removal. The credibility of all jihadi videos can be undermined through the proliferation of counterfeit videos displaying the appropriate al-Qaida trademarks. The content of jihadi videos can be more directly challenged through comments and response videos, while the social aspects of these sites facilitate the identification and disruption of the networks of activists involved in video distribution work.
Under the rubric of radicalization, jihadi videos are viewed as a source of problematic messages revolving around terrorist violence. Whether one accepts the critique of radicalization and related constructs presented here, it should be clear that a broader view of the problem yields many more options for counterterrorism activities, all of which are likely to contribute to achieving the commonly shared objectives of reducing the amount of terrorist violence and reducing the number of terrorists.
-- Notes --
 I've chosen to not focus on any single published definition or explanation or model of radicalization — there are multiple. I'm trying to focus on what they all hold in common: the focus on political, ideological, and historical factors terrorists cite as their justifications for resorting to violence. While these may be important, they are also abstractions, and are an incomplete explanation for terrorist violence of any sort.
 Granted, radicals are likely to harbor sympathy for the actions of terrorists with whom they share ideology and/or objectives.
 As with the takedown of whole websites, takedowns of videos and user accounts are most effective as a tool to make the targeted activists more active, so that they reveal more about themselves to the benefit of investigators.Posted on 06 February 2011 @ 23:43