The Radicalization Milieu: Pathways and Trajectories in Violent Extremism

by Marcello Tomasina

A terrorist does not arise in a vacuum, rather he is the outcome of non-linear interactions within a radicalized environment. As attacks and foiled plots continue to jeopardize national security, radicalizations pathways have fluidly adapted to different scenarios, providing human capital to contemporary terrorism and political violence. In order to thwart this threat, scholars and policy analysts have increasingly invested in the field of preventing violent extremism (hereinafter PVE), chiefly trying to unfold the homegrown terrorismdilemma.

The controversy in defying radicalization trajectories, which lies in the terrorists’ mirroring strategy of “conquering hearts and minds”,2 , finds its preeminent conundrum in the relation between extremism and radicalization. As illustrated by Hafez and Mullins (2015), earlier attempt to reveal “terrorist personalities” have largely been abandoned, with little validity found in explanations of terrorism based on a high level of psychopathology (Crenshaw, 1981; Ruby, 2002), economically deprived backgrounds and little education (Atran, 2003) or demographic and socioeconomic factors (Ehrlich & Li, 2002).

Considered the “lack of understanding or consensus on what motivates an individual to become a terrorist and engage in violent acts” (Borum, 2011), social scientists has progressively shifted toward a holistic approach.3 Markedly, radicalization is now perceived as the result of a process of increasing commitment, influenced by background, trigger and opportunity factors. A pathway build on multi-determined and multiple driven factors, where “ideologies are develop within the human ecology of nested contexts and systems” (Borum, 2011) and different pathways could lead to radicalization.

Extremism and Radicalization: Three pathways for homegrown terrorist actors

During the past decades, how to conceptualize radicalization has been extensively debated. Currently, the international community reached a quasi-agreement over its definition as “a graduate process that entails socialization into an extremist belief system that sets the stage for violence even if does not make in inevitable” (Hafez, 2015). 

More extensively, it is described as “a social and psychological process of incrementally experienced commitment to extremist political or religious ideology, a nonlinear phenomenon that emerges out of a convergence of several predisposing risk factors” (Horgan, 2003); a “random and decentralized network dynamics (Sageman, 2008); or socio-political and psychological mechanisms at various level of analysis (McCauley and Moskalenko, 2011).

While a consensus was reached on the holistic dimension of radicalizations, the abandonment of the “terrorist profiling” left a conundrum over the pathways leading from the “zero-point”, an initial stage of non-action defined by cognitive opening to extremist beliefs, to the “final stage”, the violent act.4 In an attempt to fill this vacuum, three prominent models were created to describe how violent ideologies are adopted and translated into justification for violence: Ehud Sprinzak’s “Process of Delegitimization”; Mohammed Hafez and Creighton Mullins’ “Radicalization Puzzle”; Fathali Moghaddam’s “Staircase to Terrorism”. On one hand, these theories were developed on the common assumption of a progressive commitment and increasing engagement observable in changing overt behaviours; on the other hand, they respectively explained these interactions as either the result of a narrowing psychological path or the present of existent trajectories.5 

The Stage, The Puzzle and the Staircaise

The “three-stage process of delegitimation” was developed by Ehud Sprinzak in the 90’s, as result of his work on the psychopolitical formation of extreme left terrorists groups such as Weathermen. According to the author, homegrown actors are “involved in a ‘barbaric’ dehumanization of the existing social structure to an ideological, cultural and moral level” (Sprinzak, 1998). These action are consumed in a radical Mileu, and experience in political terms as an ideological phenomenon originated by a crisis of confidence,6 followed by a conflict7 and later by a crisis of legitimacy”.The peculiarity of Sprinzak’s analysis lies in the psychopolitical approach to terrorism, described as a non-suis generis phenomenon. 

In his view, radicalization occurs as the result of a combination of psychological perceptions over legitimization and authority of the ruling order, reflected by the groupthinking identity dynamics. While the predominance of the political sphere chiefly contributes to understand the antagonistic environment proper of violent political groups, the model suffers from methodological limitations when applied to modern hybrid organizations. Developed in the 90s, the “three-stage process of delegitimation” does not account for decentralized pathways occurring as result of the new media and online radicalization.  

The “Radicalization Puzzle” was developed by Mohamed Hafez as theoretical synthesis of empirical studies on homegrown terrorist in the United States. According to the author, the field of radicalization was undergoing “appreciable theoretical and empirical advantages, […] while it continues to suffer from reliable evidentiary foundations” (Hafez, 2015). 

With this in mind, Hafez developed an empirical model to analyse the converging factors involved in radicalization within jihadism as a mobilizing political ideology. His researches resulted in the definition of specific trajectories to radicalization, respectively shaped by four dimensions: grievances,9 networks,10 ideologies,11 enabling environment and support structures.12­­ On the positive side, the empirical evaluation of these trajectories allowed the author to correlate on a local and global scale13 the impact of both psycho-social dynamics and environmental conditions on personal and group interactions. On the negative side, the results only provided an insight on highly influencing variables as standalone factors. As result, the model is limited in his effectiveness to address the continuum of commitment, internalization and affiliation to radical narratives.

The “Staircase to Terrorism” was developed by Fathali M. Moghaddam as a theoretical framework to provide a more in depth understanding of terrorism. According to the author, the radicalization process resembles a six-floor staircase, where each floor represents a particular psychological stage leading from inaction to execution of the violent act. Respectively, each floor is described as: psychological interpretation of material conditions,14 perceived options to fight unfair treatment,15 displacement aggression,16 moral engagement,17 solidification of categorical thinking, and the perceived legitimacy of the terrorist organization and the terrorist act of sidestepping inhibitory mechanisms.18

Why a Staircase to Terrorism: a three models comparison

The radicalization trail does not occur from a linear process, nor is the outcome of a unique set of variables or psychological inclinations. As described by Sprinzak’s and Hafez’s, the antagonistic relation between a subject and the political environment, foster by psychological trajectories are the bedrock for any story of radicalization. Nevertheless, the coexistence of these variables per se is not sufficient in leading a subject from a “point-zero” to an act of violence. 

Via the metaphor of a staircase, Moghaddam describes the subjective dimension of the radicalization pathway, a narrowing psychological process from inaction to action. Within the “staircase to terrorism”, each steps leverages on different variables (i.e perceived level of deprivation and fairness, egoistical deprivation, procedural justice and normality, etc…)19 to force the subject to a keener degree of commitment. The first three “floors” are characterized by ideological permeation without a moral and pragmatical involvement. Differently, the last two, are defined by keen internalization of the extreme radical ideologies, opening the subject to recruitment and operational involvement.

From an operational and analytical point of view, the holistic approach of the “staircase to terrorism” provides the most effective insight among the models assessed. On the positive side, Moghadam was able to combine variables and trajectories from previous theories while addressing specific stages within radicalization. At the same time, the definition of specific tames frame within this process opens to the creation of policies specifically address for different levels of commitment. On the negative side, the one-person analysis confined to role of the pairs to the “in/out group” identity formation and the pragmatical contribution in radicalizing and supporting the violent acting out.20


At the time of writing, the field of counter terrorism is hobbling through a theoretical and operational dichotomy. On one hand, practitioner and scholars proved to be unable to reach an agreement over the definition of terrorism, its modus operandi, structure and evolution.
On the other hand, there is a consensus over the keen threat posed by violent extremism and radicalization to western societies. In this situation, scholars are called to shed light on the dynamics of terrorism in the effort of providing tools to thwart this threat. 

As previously described, Sprinzak’s paradigm was ahead of its time in defining trajectories, rather than profiles, for radicalization; on the other hand, the nature of hybrid organizations and the introduction of new media has sensibly outdated some of its conclusions. Differently, Hafez’ and Moghaddam’s theories were built for a globalized form of political violence, in which terrorism is understood as a multi-driven and multi causes phenomenon interacting at any societal level.

With this in mind, Hafez’s frame has its strength on the empirical validity of its findings, which provide a flawless description of variables and trajectories, background and triggering factors of radicalization. On the opposite, Moghaddam’s “Staircase to terrorism” offers a unique insight within a subject’s radicalization process, accounting for the internal psychological bargain leading to a final violent act. As described by the author, “the metaphor direct us to build a solid foundation of contextualized democracy so that there will be minimal incentive for individuals to climb to higher floors and join terrorist organizations.” (Moghaddam, 2015)

In conclusion, the analysis presented advocates for the need to overcome theoretical conundrums in defining the different dimensions of terrorism in favour of policy oriented studies. As shown by the comparison between Moghaddam’s and Hafez’s models, while quantitative investigations could bring unique benefits to the cause, their outcome may be necessary but not sufficient to bring light on how terrorism unfolds on the field.

  1. For the purpose of this paper, the homegrown terrorist actors phenomenon is described via Borum (2015): “Largely, homegrown terrorism can be viewed as a sociological phenomenon where issues such as belonging, identity, group dynamics, and values are important elements in the transformation process. Religion, plays an important role, but for some it rather serves as a vehicle for fulfilling their other goals.”
  2. Since the beginning of the War on Terrorism western security community has promoted both in western and eastern societies what was define as the “strategy to win hearts and minds”. Based on psychological warfare protocols, the aim was first to prevent support from local Muslim communities to terrorists organization, second to prevent western Muslim-born or converted to be radicalized. Recently, it has grown within the security community the acknowledgment on how, on the other hand, jihadists’ organization have promoted a similar strategy in order to radicalized and recruit western citizens.
  3. For more information regarding the “Review of Conceptual Models and Empirical Research” on Radicalization and Violent Extremism consult Randy Borum, “Radicalization into Violent Extremism II.”, Journal of Strategic Security Volume 4, Winter 2011, pag 37-61.
  4. Despite the pathways for radicalization are mainly explained by the three models addressed in this analysis, the Borum (2015) developed on the FBI law enforcement Bulletin a four stage model of the terrorism mindset which allows to understand the impact of radicalization and internalization of extreme narrative within the exposed subject. According to Borum, there are four mindset stages: grievance, it is not right; injustice, it is not fair; target attribution, it is your fault; distancing and devaluation, you are evil.
  5. According to the author, terrorism was neither a sui generis plague that comes from nowhere, nor an inexplicable, random strike against humanity. Moreover, it was not the product of mentally damaged people (Sprinzak, 1998). On this regard, Sprinzak theory excluded the idea of radicalization based on specific offenders’ profile, privileging environmental and groups’ conditions instead. Based on Sprinzak (1998), the individual terrorists may not lose their former identity, but their actual behaviour can be best explained by the psychology of the large group.
  6. The crisis of confidence is the psychopolitical stage reached by a movement whose confidence in the existing government is greatly eroded (Sprinzak, 1998).
  7. The conflict of legitimacy is the radicalized continuation of the crisis of confidence, defined by a group previously engaged in anti-government criticism is ready to question the legitimacy of all the system (Sprinzak, 1998).
  8. The crisis of legitimacy is the behavioural and symbolic culmination of the two preceding psychopolitical stages, […] it lies over the extension of the previous legitimation of the system to every person associated with it.
  9. According to Hafez (2015), grievances include economic marginalization and cultural alienation, deeply held sense of victimization, strong disagreement regarding the foreign policy of the states. It could also entail personal disaffection, loss, or crisis that lead one to seek a new path of life.
  10. Networks refer to pre-existing kinship and friendship ties between ordinary individuals and radicals that lead to the diffusion of extreme beliefs (Hafez, 2015).
  11. Ideologies refers to master narratives about the world and one’s place in it. Usually they frame personal and collective grievances into broader political critiques of the status quo (Hafez, 2015).
  12. Enabling environments and support structures encompass physical and virtual settings such as the internet, social media, prisons, or foreign terrorist training camps that provide ideological and material aid for radicalizing individuals, as well as deepen their commitment to radical Mileu (Hafez, 2015).
  13. According to Hafez (2015), along with internal factors of western societies, radicalization trajectories reflect global dynamics such as the instability of the Middle East and much of the Muslim world, the failure of the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS and the extermination of violent repertories among radical Islamists from Nigeria to Pakistan. In his own words, “This means that radicalization ‘here’ may be shaped by radicalization ‘there’.” (Hafez, 2015).
  14. The vast majority of people occupy the foundational ground floor, where what matters most are perceptions of fairness and just treatment (Moghaddam, 2007).
  15.  Two psychological factors shape the behaviour on this floor in major ways: individuals’ perceived possibilities for personal mobility and their perception of procedural justice (Moghaddam, 2007).
  16. On this stage, the displacement of aggression onto out-groups has been channelled through direct and indirect support for institutions and organizations that nurture authoritarian attitudes and extremist behaviours (Moghaddam, 2007).
  17. Recruitment to terrorist organizations takes place on the fourth floor, where potential terrorists learn to categorize the world ore rigidly into us-versus-them and to see the terrorist organization as legitimate (Moghaddam, 2007).
  18. On the last floor, specific individuals are selected and trained to sidestep inhibitory mechanisms that could prevent them from injuring and killing both other and themselves, and those selected are equipped and sent to carry out terrorists’ acts.
  19. According to Moghadam (2007), several variables are involved in each stage of the “staircase”: perception of fairness, feelings of deprivation, perceived grave injustices, experience of anger and frustration, displacement of aggression, groupthinking, shame, relative injustice and deprivation, individual perception of personal mobility, distributive, interactional and procedural injustice, social categorization and discrimination among the most relevant.
  20. After a person has climbed to the fourth floor and entered the secret world of terrorist organization, there is little or no opportunity to exit alive. In this stage, social categorization is a powerful psychological process, which can lead to in-group favouritism and out-group discrimination”. (Moghaddam, 2007).
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