Ten Years after Van Gogh: Time to Rethink ‘Radicalization’? Photo by Thomas Kist

Ten Years after Van Gogh: Time to Rethink ‘Radicalization’?

Although Dutch Hofstadgroup is a leading example of a homegrown jihadist group, many fundamental questions about the Hofstadgroup remain.

On the 2nd of November 2004, Dutch filmmaker and publicist Theo van Gogh was killed by a twenty-six year old Islamist extremist. Although the assassin struck alone, it was quickly revealed that he had been an influential figure in a loosely-bound group of young radical and extremist Muslims. During the arrests that followed the attack, another participant in this so-called ‘Hofstadgroup’ threw a hand grenade at police officers, wounding five. A year later, the group’s remnants staged a ‘comeback’. Led by an individual who had been released from prison in early 2005, this second-generation Hofstadgroup appeared to have been preparing one or more terrorist attacks in the Netherlands.

These events continue to exert considerable influence on Dutch society. As recently as September 2014, doubts resurfaced about the degree to which Van Gogh’s killer had acted alone, prompting a renewed investigation into the activities of the Dutch secret service at the time. Moreover, in the years since Van Gogh’s death, the Hofstadgroup has become a leading example within the literature on terrorism of a homegrown jihadist group. But despite the attention it has garnered, the many publications that have been written on it and the fact that these events occurred a decade ago, many fundamental questions about the Hofstadgroup remain.

Of course there are important exceptions; academics and journalists who have conducted in-depth studies using reliable data. Yet, as has been explored in other blog posts, the numerous potential explanations for the rise and development of this group is far broader than the empirical basis on which they rest. This problem is by no means unique to the Hofstadgroup; a lack of reliable data has plagued the larger field of terrorism studies for decades. Yet this is not the only obstacle to attaining a fuller understanding of both the Hofstadgroup and terrorism more generally. Another important point of debate is the ubiquitous use of the controversial concept of ‘radicalization’ to explain why and how people become involved in terrorism.

Although radicalization has become a household term, it wasn’t until the 2004 attacks in Madrid that policy makers, politicians and academics started using it to describe involvement in terrorism. Numerous radicalization theories exist, such as the NYPD’s ‘4-stage model’, Moghaddam’s ‘Staircase model’ and McCauley and Moskalenko’s ‘Pyramid model’. What these and other such theories share are two contentious assumptions. The first and most important one is that the adoption of radical ideas leads to involvement in radical behavior, i.e. beliefs lead to actions. The second is the notion that ‘radicalization’ is a linear and deterministic process; the adoption of radical ideas precedes involvement in radical groups, which then leads to involvement in the preparation or execution of an actual terrorist attack.

Radicalization has become the go-to concept to explain involvement in (Islamist) terrorism. Yet by emphasizing an (in)direct connection between the adoption of radical beliefs and involvement in violence, it may be obscuring as much as it clarifies. A central problem is that it lacks specificity; many people hold radical ideas, but only very few become involved in terrorism. Furthermore, terrorists are not necessarily highly ideologically motivated. A second problem with the concept of radicalization is that the adoption of radical ideas can follow involvement in radical groups as well as the other way round, once again undermining that idea that beliefs alone motivate behavior.

Radical and extremist beliefs are undoubtedly a very important factor when trying to understand involvement in terrorism, not in the least because they offer a justification for engaging in violence. There are also clear examples of terrorists who do fit the mold of radicalization theory. Men like Van Gogh’s killer, for instance, someone whose behavior was largely motivated by the ever-more extremist beliefs he adopted. The problem is that we have come to rely far to heavily on ‘radicalization’. This is problematic not only because of the problems inherent to the concept itself, to which could be added the lack of a clear definition, but also because the preeminence of this explanation has obscured the multitude of other factors that bring about involvement.

Involvement in terrorist groups, and in acts of terrorism, is not simply the result of the adoption of radical ideas. Instead, pathways to involvement are often highly idiosyncratic; governed by the interaction between a host of factors at structural, group and individual levels of analysis. Furthermore, there is no single ‘endpoint’; people do not simply become ‘terrorists’ but may fulfill a variety of different functions within terrorist groups and migrate between them. ‘Radicalization’ may be one pathway to involvement in terrorism, and even an important one at that, but it is certainly not the only one. A better understanding of terrorism requires that we broaden our scope beyond radicalization and embrace the dynamic multicausality of this phenomenon.