Skilled Recruiters Likely Shaped Boston's Terrorists

The suspects’ uncle Ruslan Tsarni, who lives in Maryland, said in an interview on Sunday that he had first noticed a change in the older brother in 2009. Mr. Tsarni sought advice from a family friend, who told him that Tamerlan’s radicalization had begun after he met a recent convert to Islam in the Boston area.

New York Times, April 21, 2013

From 2008 to 2010 I worked with the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism in the UK, interviewing around 25 young British Muslims who had been radicalized and undertaken journeys in and out of extremism. For hour upon hour I sat with these young people—in mosques, in their homes, in cafes, around pool tables—and I took down their life stories and the fine detail of their “Islamist detour.” My findings are contained in a 150,000-word report that sits in the Home Office.

I will blog at World Affairs about the findings of my research into radicalization in the UK over the coming weeks and draw out its relevance to the threat of radicalization in the US.

For now, let’s note one key finding: there is (almost) always a recruiter. The skillful leadership of an Islamist recruiter lies at the heart of the entire radicalization process.

The notion of the self-radicalizing extremist, downloading his or her hate from the Internet and then deciding to make and set off a bomb, is basically a myth. My interviews did not support the notion of “leaderlessness” at all. Not one of them. I see no reason to think the US will be different to the UK in this regard.

Rather, my interviews pointed again and again to the critically important role in the radicalization process of the Islamist activist; always on the prowl, seizing on an individual’s youth and vulnerability and drawing him or her into a transformational “encounter”—a relationship of influence through which a new Islamist is made.  

Within the encounter—a developing real-time relationship between recruiter and recruited in which rewards flow both ways—there takes place a realignment of the mind-set of the recruit, and then later their practical life.

The recruiter offers a “frame” (a way to make new sense of the world). The Islamist frame offers seemingly convincing answers to two questions. First, “What is going on here?”—the question of cognition. Second, “Who am I/we/they?”—questions of affect and identity. The interview data suggested it was changes in affect, i.e., in emotions about self, other, and group identity, that probably had primacy in the journey into extremism.

Radicalization is skillful work. It proceeds by what is called “frame alignment,” i.e., the recruiter labors hard to align the individual’s life-project with a larger narrative beyond the smallness of self. At the heart of that new script into which the recruit is given (and seizes) a part for themselves, are a rigid, angry, politicized and ideologized distortion of “Islam” and an Islamist form of “politics.” Aligning the recruit with both is a necessary condition of the making of an Islamist, and of their taking an “Islamist detour.”

This radicalization process can be taken so far in cyberspace, but very rarely does it lack for physical spaces and social settings (which those contesting radicalization need to know about and have a presence in).

In time, the new framework of thinking is “operationalized”—that is, it is acted out in the world. This entire process is coordinated, sequenced, and managed by Islamist recruiters, or what we can think of as “entrepreneurs of identity.” It’s what they do.  

In short, there is always a recruiter and their work is the very heart of the radicalization process. Counter-radicalization begins with a determination not to be ignorant of the process and its components—the vulnerable individual, the skilled recruiter, the spaces in which the encounter between the two takes place, the ideological content, and emotional power of the Islamist frame.  

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