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.
1. The works in question include the English translation of Abu Jihad al-Shami's “The Vision of the Jihaadi Movement and the Strategy of the Current Stage”, Mark Stout's analysis of al-Shami's work, and Clint Watts' reaction to both.
2. Missing from Stout's otherwise excellent analysis of al-Shami's work is context. Not the global context in total, but the specific context within which al-Shami's work is distributed and within which the target audience finds itself.
3. That context is one of siege. The jihadi community finds itself increasingly isolated, under surveillance, or incarcerated. No amount of cheerleading from distant sidelines in Pakistan or Yemen will likely overcome the current set of disincentives being offered up by counterterrorism agents and courts. Simple possession of al-Shami's work can and will be used against you in a court of law. Sharing it with others is another crime you can be charged with.
4. In theory the target audience includes any self-identifying jihadi whose first language is something other than Arabic. This is a pretty good representation of where such people are currently located:
5. The first attempt to discuss the document at Islamic Awakening was subsequently removed by the site's administrators:
6. The second attempt to discuss the document at Islamic Awakening led to immediate insinuations that the thread-starter is an agent-provocateur:
7. The discussion at Ansar al-Mujahideen English Forum (AMEF) is for members only, and you can only become a member if someone vouches for you. We know that 8 members said "thanks for that" and 10 made comments of some sort.
8. For a reader of Islamic Awakening to get a copy of al-Shami's work, they would have to follow the link to Mark Stout's site, then follow the link to AMEF, then follow the link to justupit.com, then follow the link to one of the surviving download locations, then negotiate the download amid pop-up ads (of a frequently un-Islamic nature). All that in order to incriminate themselves.
9. As I write this 213 people have at least started the download process. How many of them are jihadis?
10. This brings us to Clint Watts' comments about al-Shami and his strategizing. How many of the few jihadis who
A. Download al-Shami's work,
B. Actually read it, and
C. Understand what they are reading, are
D. In any position to impose control or direction over jihadi operations (regardless of whether those actions qualify as terrorism or insurgency)?
11. For my part, I got to the page where al-Shami suggests maybe jihadis should focus less on al-Quds (Jerusalem) and laughed, thinking to myself that al-Shami is probably an Israeli agent and the work was her first assignment after finishing that dissertation and going back into government service. Idle speculation on my part, of course...
Victim : A Function of Distance and Attraction
In this model the victim doesn't exist in his or her own right. The victim is an abstraction, a projection of the worldview adopted by Ahmed, with support from his group and guidance from his leader.
Distance from Victim
The issue of distance between Ahmed and his victim can be understood as a kind of mathematical formula where, as the physical distance between killer and victim decreases, the emotional distance must increase in order for killing to occur. Physical distance, as Grossman describes it, can be provided not only by space, such as a bomber who sets his bomb off with a cell phone from a safe distance, but also by technology, such as the use of a backpack bomb which the jihadi has only to detonate, or by the use of a gun instead of a knife. These are not issues that concern us on the Internet. Online, the distance that is created is emotional. Cultural, moral, social, and ethnic differences are all emphasized on jihadi websites, and the jihadis have a very long list of people whose lives are forfeit: impious Sunni Muslims, Shiites and Sufis, Christians and Jews, Pagans, and so on.
Attractiveness of victim
The victim's attractiveness to the killer is in large part a function of their relevance, which in turn is a product of the emotional distance created in jihadi discourse. The likelihood of success is an assessment that Ahmed will have to make with his group, based on whatever training and experience they may have acquired either online or preferably (for them) at a training camp. This assessment does not have to be realistic to have the necessary affect. Closely linked to their assessment of the likelihood of success is their measure of the enemy's loss. It matters only that they believe the enemy suffers a loss. What Ahmed gains from killing will range from the satisfaction of striking terror into the hearts of his enemies, to the rewards of Paradise in the event that his attack is suicidal in nature. A great deal of effort is made by jihadis online to honor the memory of the martyrs and instill in the living a desire to follow the same course of action.
This essay is much more of a beginning than an end. It is an attempt to explore the applicability of Grossman's model to my studies of jihadi activity online. As with any model, it is a tool to assist in understanding the data, rather than a 1:1 map of a particular landscape. As such it seems to have much to offer, both in terms of online activity in support of global jihad and the limits of same.
The Big Picture
 This part of Grossman's model is derived from his reading of Shalit, B., 1988, The Psychology of Conflict and Combat.
Four factors make up the killer's, in this case Ahmed's, predisposition in Grossman's model.
Given that terrorists cannot kill people without stepping away from their computer and getting out into the real world, at first glance experience would seem to be something that Ahmed cannot hope to acquire on the Internet. It is worth noting, in this regard, that there are certain activities that Ahmed can engage in, and engage in successfully, that will support the jihad in a meaningful way. These activities, often called e-Jihad, are not nearly as serious as the actual taking of human life, but represent a kind of "starter terrorism" which may well embolden Ahmed and maintain his morale while he seeks out the real world associations and opportunities that will allow him to kill, and die a martyrs death. Such activities include, but are not limited to, attacks on the websites of perceived enemies of Islam, distribution of videos and other files that promote jihad, and more ordinary cyber crime such as credit card fraud and software piracy. The nature of criminal justice systems being what it is – namely slow – Ahmed will likely succeed in these endeavors, or at least be led to believe that he has succeeded due to the lack of a swift response from the police.
When Grossman speaks of conditioning he is referring mostly to the deliberate application of classical and operant conditioning, and also to the affects of social learning processes, in efforts to increase the lethality of soldiers in combat between World War 2 and the Vietnam War. He then segues into a discussion of how these same processes are at work in American society today, with a particularly negative affect on young people. Here he also leans on the decades of research that demonstrate some sort of positive correlation between exposure to violence, particularly media violence, and subsequent aggressive or violent behavior. While this is another subject that lies beyond the scope of this essay, suffice it to say that vivid portrayals of violence, up to and including the actual murder of hostages, are a frequently offered up for download and viewing on jihadi websites. It is beyond doubt that such portrayals help to desensitize Ahmed and those like him to the violence they fervently hope to perpetrate.
Grossman's work is based on the assumption that all but 2% (the "natural born killers," psychopaths, sociopaths) of soldiers have a powerful disinclination to kill. In terrorism studies, the consensus view is represented by Sageman's Understanding Terror Networks, where he tried and failed to find signs of clinical mental illness in the hundreds of first generation al-Qaeda members he studied. Jihadis, aside from their choosing to involve themselves in terrorist activity, seem to be relatively normal individuals. One caveat to this: as jihadis are increasingly self-selecting and self-organizing (i.e. homegrown) it may be that unstable individuals are more likely to succeed in involving themselves in terrorist activity than they would have been in an age where to be a part of al-Qaida meant getting to a training camp – where such people may have been rejected by the organization. To the extent that groups of jihadis form online, signs of obvious instability in members of the group may be missed, and by the time the group transitions to real world activity, such members may be too deeply embedded in the group to get rid of.
 Spencer Dryden, drummer of the Jefferson Airplane, from the song A small package of value will come to you shortly, on the album After Bathing at Baxter's.
 List of references from my unpublished 2008 paper Video portrayals of violence on jihadi websites is available on request.
 5 % of all discussions on jihadi websites exist for the sole purpose of distributing videos depicting explicit acts of terrorist violence, and such videos account for over half of all jihadi videos in circulation. This finding was subsequently duplicated in a study I did of jihadi videos distributed via YouTube. Regarding the latter, see: The Global Jihad on YouTube.
As with authority, there are characteristics of the group and of Ahmed's relationship to it that will affect his willingness to kill.
Group factors are presented by Grossman under the rubric of Group Absolution, which in my application of his model to jihadis on the Internet I have renamed Diffusion of Responsibility.
Intensity of support for killing
As with authority, the group may express support for Ahmed in his mission to kill the infidels, but so long as that group continues to exist solely on the Internet such support will always have its limits. While Zawahiri is well known to government agencies, and thus has little to lose by publicly expressing his desire for Ahmed to kill, the same may not be the case for members of Ahmed's virtual group. Their expressions in this regard will by definition be made over telecommunications channels, channels that are undoubtedly under some degree of surveillance. This is doubly so if they express their support for killing in some more public venue, such as a jihadi forum, or in comments on a blog.
Legitimacy of the group
Groups of soldiers – the primary focus of Grossman's work – are constituted by legitimate government authorities, thus legitimacy is inherent in such groups. A jihadist group, regardless of whether it exists in cyberspace or not, has no such legitimacy. The group must justify its existence not once but perpetually, or risk its status diminishing - something which, were it to occur, might not only reduce Ahmed's willingness to kill, but also increase the willingness of Ahmed or other group members to leave the group or even turn against it.
Size of group
It is interesting to note how a process (diffusion of responsibility) that is commonly associated in the literature with inaction - for example, the failure of bystanders to intervene - can also be associated with the worst kind of action. Either way the diffusion affect creates a form of anonymity behind which men may hide. It seems logical that in this regard the larger the group, the more responsibility for any action undertaken by Ahmed is diffused among the other group members. Ahmed says "I only did it because my group was right there with me, supporting me all the way," and the other group members are free to say "I didn't actually kill anyone, it was Ahmed who did it." Of course, in order to do any killing the distance between group members will have to be closed.
Proximity of the group
The group being a thing far away, existing in the clouds of cyberspace, it will have to either accept the limits on communication and action that such distance imposes, or the distance will have to be closed by members who dare to travel to meet with others. Such travel can involve a degree of risk under the best of circumstances, and the risk only increases with the distance that must be travelled and the number of borders – if any – which must be crossed. In the post-9/11 period we have seen a number of groups that formed wholly or partly online, and then progressed to face-to-face meetings in order to facilitate planning and execution of terrorist attacks. Fortunately, a combination of online surveillance, border controls, and international cooperation prevented such efforts from bearing fruit.
Identification with group
While the Internet presents a challenge for the global jihad when it comes to issues of legitimacy and proximity, it is perhaps uniquely suited to facilitating the development and expression of group and individual identity. A thorough discussion of why that may be is beyond the scope of this essay, but it seems that issues related to computer-mediated communications and the feeling of presence that such an experience engenders has much to do with it. Duration is likely to play a part in this as well.
 Psalm 133
 Grossman notes that his group absolution is basically synonymous with diffusion of responsibility, and I prefer the latter as it ties into an existing body of social science research.
 I am trying very hard to avoid getting into a discussion of Granovetter's Strength of Weak Ties theory (1973, revisited in 1983) but for future consideration, group size and group strength are likely to be important and interdependent variables. Assessing group strength on the basis of the ties that bind group members is likely to be the most problematic issue, as it will depend on how one defines the core concept of strength. In accordance with the theory, weak ties have important strengths, and strong ties have certain weaknesses.
 The best documented of such cases include those of Aabid Khan and his associates, and the Irhabi007 network. See Anatomy of a Modern Homegrown Terror Cell: Aabid Khan et al., http://www.nefafoundation.org/miscellaneous/nefaaabidkhan0908.pdf
 See for example Nicovich, S.G., Boller, G.W., & Cornwell, T.B. (2006). Experienced Presence within Computer-Mediated Communications: Initial Explorations on the Effects of Gender with Respect to Empathy and Immersion. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10(2).
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