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Empirical Assessment of Domestic Radicalization

Speakers
Gary Ackerman

Interview with Gary Ackerman, Director for Special Projects, National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, University of Maryland

Mr. Ackerman is conducting an empirical assessment of domestic radicalization, with an emphasis on the process of radicalization. In this interview, Ackerman explains how he is using large empirical analysis and small scale life study analysis to discover which factors might cause an individual to make the leap from illegal terrorist behavior to violent terrorist behavior.

Gary Ackerman My name is Gary Ackerman. I am the Acting Director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, which is START for short. And we are one of the research teams on the project, of the whole program. Our project is looking at the empirical assessment of domestic radicalization, and there are a number of innovations that we are trying to achieve with this project.

What are the current knowledge gaps in the study of terrorism?

So there’s basically a number of major gaps in our understanding of radicalization. There’s many theories, there are a multitude of theories, everything from it’s all internal, driven by the individual psychology, to it’s all driven by these nefarious organizations that recruit perfectly normal people and essentially brainwash them. And there is everything in between, but those are the most extreme. The problem is that almost none of these theories has been really tested to a rigorous standard. Some of them have been tested through case studies, some of them through small samples, but none of them have really been tested, especially across ideologies. So the idea is that some of them have been tested fairly well in, for instance, with Al Qaeda–inspired groups, but not against right-wing or left-wing or ecological or other types of extremists.

So the first thing we looked at is, okay, so there is a lack of empirical data to test these, which is one of the reasons why they haven’t been tested. Another big problem is that many current studies conflate radical beliefs with radical behaviors, so they sort of look at them together and they look — and what this does — and everybody understands that beliefs don’t equal behaviors — but they sort of analyze them together a little bit mixed up.

And so, therefore, you can’t really look at the interaction between them. Do beliefs really prompt radical behaviors? If you have radical beliefs, do they lead to radical behaviors? Do radical behaviors look for radical beliefs as a justification? These are all different possibilities, hypotheses, that nobody has been able to really tease out, because they don’t really collect their data and make a very clear distinction between radical beliefs and radical behaviors.

The importance of studying the radicalization process

Radicalization’s a process. It’s a path that an individual goes on. Parts of it are social, parts of a group, parts of it are individual and personal, but either way it’s always a process, whereas most research up until now has sort of treated — you’re either radical or you’re not. You’re extremist or you’re not — where we think that the question would be is, how extremist are you? We’re all extremists to some degree, but on a scale of 1 to 10 at certain times in our lives, we are all a 1 or a 2. And only when you get to 9 or 10 are you actually engaging in violence, and only when you get to 7 or 8 are you actually engaging in illegal behavior. But we have to think of it as part of the process, and we have to understand that process. Most of the research that gets done only focuses on the very extreme part of that process, the end result. And we think that you need to look at the entire process, and to do that you need to look at life histories, look at how did people start from being the cute little kid in kindergarten to the guy who’s strapping a bomb to his body and going out and engaging in a terrorist attack.

Separating illegal behavior from violent behavior

First of all, what we’re going to do is to collect cross-sectional data on 1,800, or roughly approximately 1,800, individuals. And we are going to look across the ideological spectrum, so from radical Al Qaeda–inspired radicals to right-wing extremists, ecological extremists, to anti-abortion folks, to if we can find Hindu and Buddhist extremists — we want to be completely open to any type of political ideological extremism. And we want to collect as many as possible. Roughly half of them, these are all ones that — the only criteria is that they have to have been radicalized in the United States, and they have to have been indicted for a crime in the United States.

So radicalizing, they all have to have been killed in the commission of a criminal act, so then they always, you know, weren’t indicted. So those are our sort of main criteria. Within those 1,800 from across the ideological spectrum, we want to do roughly half that actually engaged in violence or violence-linked behavior, the commission or preparation for violence, whereas the other half we want to be people engaged in nonviolent, illegal behavior, so for instance supporting terrorism or helping with the logistics, helping an extremist group logistically, raising money for them, et cetera, et cetera.

So we want to separate that, and that will allow us, in academic-speak, to get variation in the dependent variable, to look at what’s the difference, what differentiates those who become — those extremists who engage in nonviolent activities, and those extremists who engage in violent activities. At the moment we are only looking at criminal activities, but we can at least get that differentiation there.

Individual life study analysis

What we are also going to do is to select, out of those 1,800, between 100 and 120 individuals to do detailed qualitative case studies on. And those will also be roughly split between nonviolent criminals and violent criminals within that set of extremist criminals. If you want to do a good analysis on the case studies, we actually want to do in-depth case studies of tracing their life history, their sort of life course analysis in the criminological way, but also using process tracing and several other techniques.

But once we’ve got these sort of life courses or life histories of these individuals, 100 to 120, if we separate out roughly half nonviolent crime and half violent crime, we can also tease out the process areas, because the large sample dataset can only, in a limited sense, get you the process of how they became radical. But the more in-depth case studies will be very much focused on what are the pathways towards radicalization. And we think that’s a sufficient sample size to actually get some good empirical evidence.

What do you hope to discover?

And once we’ve collected all this data and done all of the analyses to answer these questions like, does the pathway towards radicalization differ across ideologies, and if so, how? What is the real linkage between behavior and belief when it comes to radicals in the United States, and does that differ across ideologies? And then most importantly is what are the indicators, and can we get early warning indicators that are fairly reliable in differential and diagnostic for future risk of radicalization.What we might find is very specific configurations of life events, triggering events, demographic factors, et cetera, et cetera, that together make an individual at more risk of radicalization, and basically just say that there is similar analysis being done with individuals making them more at risk for being involved with gang activity or being involved in other types of crime, we want to look at that in terms of radicalization.

Policy implications

Instead of just being a purely intellectual exercise, it has definite policy implications. The first policy implication is that we might actually find clusters of factors that do provide some early warning, that might on an individual level provide early warning. We might also find clusters that at a contextual or community level, provide this community’s more susceptible.

We are also looking at things like to what extent are important nodes — recruiters you might want to call them, but people, radicalizers, who go out there and consciously radicalize other people — to what extent are they crucial or necessary in the radicalization process, because if they are then it becomes a matter of identifying and removing those people from a community, rather than trying to look at every individual in the community who might be susceptible to radicalization. If they are not necessary for radicalization, then you have to go to a different level, so those have very big policy implications.

So radicalizing, they all have to have been killed in the commission of a criminal act, so then they always, you know, weren’t indicted. So those are our sort of main criteria. Within those 1,800 from across the ideological spectrum, we want to do roughly half that actually engaged in violence or violence-linked behavior, the commission or preparation for violence, whereas the other half we want to be people engaged in nonviolent, legal behavior, so for instance supporting terrorism or helping with the logistics, helping an extremist group logistically, raising money for them, et cetera, et cetera.

Another major implication is where do we intervene and how do we intervene? If we do this longitudinal analysis and we might find points where there are relatively low-cost interventions just so that you have — with sort of gang violence, if you start — they are starting earlier and earlier, they’re saying in elementary school we can start originally, because that’s a lower-cost intervention, rather than when somebody is already involved in the criminal justice system when they’re in high school, et cetera, et cetera, you want to get —

What we are also going to do is to select, out of those 1,800, between 100 and 120 individuals to do detailed qualitative case studies on. And those will also be roughly split between nonviolent criminals and violent criminals within that set of extremist criminals. If you want to do a good analysis on the case studies, we actually want to do in-depth case studies of tracing their life history, their sort of life course analysis in the criminological way, but also using process tracing and several other techniques.

So there might be points where we can say it’s better to intervene here than intervene there, but you won’t know that until you have done this empirical data or this empirical analysis, because otherwise some people will say it’s better intervening when they’re already in prison, and some people will say it’s better intervening when they’re in Head Start — you know, early childhood — and we don’t know where or when or what to do. So now we are going to look at those intervention points.

We also might look at intervention points on a more tactical operational criminal justice point of view, as what intervention points, once a person has already gone down the path from nonviolence, what would trigger them to go from a nonviolent crime to a violent crime? We are looking at both of those. And that might be intervention points right there. You know, it might be an intervention point where we can stop people from making that last leap from nonviolent radicalism to violent radicalism. That might give us some clues about intervention, so the intervention points I think are very important.

I think also we are going to learn a lot about the impacts of various factors. As I said, we might identify these risk factors, but one of the big debates in the whole radicalization area is to what extent is it contextual, in the sense of people growing up with traumatic experiences in an environment with a low socioeconomic standard, feeling alienated from the general American society — these are all hypotheses. And they all receive some support versus to what extent is an outsider coming in and capitalizing on these elements to actually recruit somebody.

And we can then make communities less susceptible and individuals less susceptible, at the same time we can look at, our resources might be best spent by targeting the recruiters who actually are trying to capitalize on certain conditions in a community. And that might identify which nodes in the network are the most important to focus on from a criminal justice perspective.

Final thoughts

I think that one of the things I’ve said is that there is a lot we don’t know. We know a lot more now than we did 10 years ago. In fact, we have made a quantum leap in the last 10 years in understanding radicalization, but in one sense we made a quantum leap relatively speaking. In the other sense we are still taking baby steps, because there is so much we don’t know, and I think it’s very important that this larger research effort has been under way and that the National Institute of Justice is working in this capacity, because only when you are armed with knowledge can you actually make the best decisions to deal with these issues. And I think that I am — and my entire organization is — very happy and excited to be part of this effort.

Date Created: July 17, 2019