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Techniques Conversion > Radicalization

Transgression | Organization | Recruitment | Action | See also


The process of radicalization, including social, ideological and purpose conversion, is something that is of great concern in times when radicals take extreme action. Here are some notes on how a person may become radicalized. They may be remembered by the acronym 'TORA'.


The process of radicalization often starts with with some form of transgression by the other side, breaking rules that the person's side holds as very important.


A common transgressing action is mistreatment, typically by the authorities or military personnel using methods that cause extreme physical pain or mental distress. The mistreatment may be of the person who hence becomes radicalized, but often it is other people who are lionized as heroes or martyrs.

For example, extreme methods of interrogation of suspects in Northern Ireland in the 1970s led to them becoming radicalized and their story leading to many others taking a strong position. More recently Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay are clear candidates.

Mistreatment can be historical and reasons for radicalization can go back generations. Past wars, massacres, persecutions and so on can fester for hundreds of years.

Mistreatments today such as rape and child abuse are also extreme transgressions that effectively radicalize those who would severely punish the perpetrators. Many of us who think we would never be radicalized still hold extreme views on such topics.


If there is no direct mistreatment then the inherent badness of the other side may be inferred from their transgression of an inviolable law or value.

They may say things or take actions which are shocking and unthinkable, thereby proving their unworthiness. They may have betrayed a trust, defiled a holy object, conducted black rituals, blasphemed or otherwise shown a terrible lack of respect for people or social rules.

Religion has been a source of radicalized conflict for many centuries.


A radical needs a movement, a cause. At some point, the outrage at the transgression is converted into organization for consequent action.


A critical response to transgression is that some people at least are outraged or feel such a strong sense of betrayal to the extent that they seek justice, typically the extreme vengeance of retributive justice that lies outside national laws. This may be because the laws are seen as inadequate or because they represent governments who are the target of the outrage.


At some point, a core organization is set up to drive the ideals and action. This typically happens in two ways. One is where an individual leader starts alone. Secondly, the core may arise more spontaneously as concerned individuals find one another.

People in the core (often a single leader) may write or use a critical text or otherwise use charismatic oration to establish the central message.

Cores can also be diffused, for example where they are based on central texts which are interpreted and acted upon in localized core organizations.


After initial development of the core message and core group, the organization starts to develop. This may be done formally or remain relatively informal. Key parts of this are in promoting the message, recruiting new people and driving action.

This focus leads to a need for more people to spread the message and take action. The purpose of the core is then to sustain the focus and drive the rest of the organization.

The organization may be strictly hierarchical, but it may also be very diffuse, with independent cells adopting the ideals and acting on their own.


While the organization may start with a relatively peaceful principle, at some point it evolves or divides such that the viewpoint intensifies to the point of concluding that talk is not enough and action is needed. At first this may involve activist activities such as public rallies. Eventually, it can easily spill over into the view that violence is needed.

When organizations divide, they may oppose one another and can self-destruct, which is one reason why a number of extreme groups never have much real effect. They may also become symbiotic, for example where the non-violent arm does not directly oppose the violent arm, and can in effect act as a step on the way towards the radically violent group.


When the transgression leads to some people seeking revenge then they may seek to organize in some way, recruiting and converting others to the cause.


The call to arms goes through many channels, typically targeting groups where members may already feel the sense of injustice, such as minority religions, the unemployed, low-status people and so on. Other vulnerable people may well also be targeted. Peaceful groups with similar basic beliefs are often a key source of recruits.

Communication may include preaching, emails posters, one-to-one calls and so on. While these do not radicalize alone, they often take the first step in communicating urgency or outrage. Later, the volume and intensity of messages create enough tension to trigger action.

Initial communication may be subtle and seemingly about other subjects. Religions can be like this, first creating a desirable place, selling friendship and salvation before radical action.

Sooner or later, the subject of discussion turns to the basic transgression, including the mistreatment or immorality and the consequent sense of outrage. This creates anger and a desire for action.


A key part of the message is to demonize the other side, dehumanizing and objectifying the 'enemy' as less than human. In this way, values about not harming others can be bypassed as they become 'things' that can be safely harmed or killed without any guilt about breaking social or personal rules.

In this, polarization typically uses forms of amplification, negative stereotypes and simplified schema. By showing that the other side is so extreme and unreasonable, the simple conclusion is reached that the proposed response of extreme action is the only possible route forward. The arguments used may well be full of fallacies but the passion and underlying messages are clear.

Polarization also creates excitement, converting what could be seen as mundane to something more arousing and thrilling.


A critical part of radicalization is often in the way the message is socialized, becoming a central part of everyday conversation outside of the rallying call.

Extreme groups often work in local 'cells' that encourage a them and us perception. These are relatively autonomous while sharing the broad polarized message of outrage an extreme action. One reason for this structure is so members related closely with one another as much as the overall cause. Like regular soldiers, their close personal connection with one another keeps them focused and committed.

For socialization to work best, this conversation should be contained, with any contrary messages being kept at bay. Where possible, the people will be isolated to insulate them from external dissuasion. Where this is not possible, inoculation may be used to help them ward off other views.

Groupthink, risky shift and other social means of ensuring conformance and normalizing extreme measures may also be used to keep people on track.

Socialization also helps give meaning to what may otherwise be a dull life, to the point where people will become ready to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.


The actions that may required are normalized, for example by repeat showing of videos of extreme violence, talking about examples of actual events and getting the target person to approve of and commit increasingly radical acts.

Any doubt is jumped on quickly, with the person made to feel guilty or threatened with punishment or ostracization. Aggression may be used to frighten them into conformance. Softer methods may also be used but which subtly coerce their thinking.


At some point, the need for action is raised and the radicalized person moved towards proving their passion.


The need to act and the required action may appear through the direction of a group leader, though it may also emerge via less structured groups talking about what they might do. Action can range from protest to acts of terrorism and may start small and escalate either with success or frustration at limited success.

A way that commitment is built is with sequential requests, such as Foot In The Door (FITD), where small initial requests that are easy to comply with are later followed up with larger requests.

When there is a religious background then scriptures that can be interpreted as requiring or permitting violent action will act as a mandate or at least not inhibit extreme responses to what may be seen as heretical action.


Fulfilling the requirement is often linked to a promise of glory, from the admiration of peers to a guaranteed place in heaven.

People who have already taken such action are held up as heroes. They and their actions are glorified and the radicalized people made to feel almost in that state of being deeply admired by many. All that is needed is heroic action.

This in particular works with with people who are seeking meaning in life and who are feeling ignored and irrelevant. 'At last I can make a difference' is a common thought.


Preparation for action is also a part of the radicalization process, as it sets the person on a road that is easy to start and increasingly difficult to back out of. This is particularly true when the person is working with others towards joint action. This may involve simulation, practice and continued indoctrination.

See also

Polarization, Diffusion, Outrage, Terrorism, radicalization and the polarizing politics of outrage


Conversion Books

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