Research Spotlight: The Process of Online Radicalization and Terrorism

By Robyn Torok, P.hD., Edith Cowan University

In short, what is the study about?

This study examines an alternative model about how individuals are radicalized online to support the basic foundations of Islamic terrorism. This does not mean that individuals will become terrorists but it is the precursor that individuals hold beliefs about the need for violence.

Rather than look at what individuals believe, this study focused on the how question. In other words, how do individuals get radicalized online?

In the online radicalization process, at-risk individuals become isolated from other perspectives and become indoctrinated by a network of individuals with whom they find kinship and acceptance

What are the main concepts of online radicalization?

The study uses concepts from historian and philosopher Michel Foucault who looked at the concept of psychiatric power within a mental institution. His main idea was that power was not a top-down force, but rather a network of forces that used individuals and discourses to try and normalise the behaviour of patients.

This study applied this concept to online radicalization as follows:

  1. The online environment can be thought of as an institution which people voluntarily enter and focus on areas of interest. Individuals become more and more isolated on the rationalities they are seeking out with like-minded individuals gravitating toward each other.
  2. The online environment is critical to changing thoughts and behaviors. Online discourses attempt to ‘normalize’ thinking to that of a group; in the case of the study, it was Islamic radicalization. Having grievances toward the West and a belief in the need for violence become ‘normal’ for those within the online institution of Islamic radicalization.
  3. The online environment allows for more distributed and networked forms of power. It is not a leader indoctrinating others; rather it is a network of individuals, each recreating and reaffirming radical discourses. Long standing radicals become the servants of new members, listening to them, helping them with concerns and obstacles creating not only a web of new mental frameworks but also a web of friendship and support.

What does an online model of radicalization look like?

Firstly, like a castle or an institution, an individual enters an isolated place which is dedicated to a single purpose. They do this with disciplined regularity and explore their new purpose. An individual may spend a regular time online away from others seeking out radical Islamist material.

Secondly, by seeking out such material an individual is being constantly exposed to a new set of discourses, a new mental framework that says that Muslims are the victims of Western aggression and the solution is to respond with violence through jihad. Competing, moderate voices are shut out of this institution with individuals being carefully directed to key pages that reinforce the ‘truths’ of Islamic radicalization. Targeting the emotions is especially critical in creating new beliefs.

Thirdly, individuals then become embedded in a networked web of power where there is the illusion that others are serving them and showing an interest in them. Individuals are encouraged to create their own posts within a careful framework of radical Islam. It is critical to understand the relationship between discourse and power.

What would be the most important take-home messages from the study?

Individuals who spend a lot of time seeking out certain types of material such as radical Islamic material or who are directed to this material from other pages or sites are likely to become radicalized through the above mechanisms. It is critical that parents are aware of their child’s online activities so that radicalization, Islamic or otherwise can be avoided.

How are these findings important in practice?

The internet and social media are like institutions where individuals can become isolated and new mental frameworks and beliefs can become normalised through networks of power.

Understanding these mechanisms can lead to better prevention and intervention strategies to help prevent radicalization.

What research is needed further?

It is important to also look at the relationship between online and offline activities especially in making the jump from an Islamic radical to a terrorist. In addition, there is a need to further refine this model to more explicitly look at discursive factors.


The full paper: Torok, R. (2013). Developing an explanatory model for the process of online radicalisation and terrorism. Security Informatics, 2, 6. DOI: 10.1186/2190-8532-2-6
Robyn’s ResearchGate page
Robyn’s conference papers on Islamic radicalization

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Latest update: April 19, 2017
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