Le’ Notes #29: Networks and social groups in radicalisation

This post discusses the role of networks and social groups in the radicalisation process.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege to attend a screening of Noor Huda Ismail’s latest documentary, Jihad Selfie. He documented the life of 17-year old Aceh boy, Akbar, who got a scholarship to study in Turkey and was inspired to join ISIS, highlighting the role of the internet and social media in expediting the recruitment process. It did open my eyes to the infinite potential of social networks as a pathway towards radicalisation.

Cultural preconditions

Before we get to discussing the role of networks, it seems appropriate to revisit the cultural explanation of radicalisation, since it ties in nicely with the construction of social groups. Social groups are bound together by a specific culture, but what exactly are the conditions that make a culture enable radicalisation?

I have discussed earlier in Note #27 about culture as a potent enabler in aiding radicalisation. In that Note, I discussed Hofstede’s “onion” theory of culture. However, I felt that Hofstede’s framework was rather inflexible to be adapted to the study of radicalistion. It was, initially, designed for inter-cultural business. Hence, many of Hofstede’s parameters can only be applied to the study of radicalisation after a lot of tinkering. After some digging through more books, I found Moghaddam’s explanation of cultural preconditions to be more fitted towards an analysis of radicalisation.

In a chapter titled Cultural preconditions for potential terrorist groups, terrorism, and societal change in the edited volume “Understanding Terrorism: Psychosocial Roots, Consequences, and Interventions“, Moghaddam argues that there are several cultural preconditions that increase the probability of an individual becoming more radicalised. It should be wise to remember that a cultural explanation does not provide a definite certainty of a person becoming an extremist. In The Caged Virgin, as I have reviewed previously, Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s sister did not choose the same path as her — she instead chose to retreat back into her initial culture, while Hirsi Ali chose to become an “apostate”.

I now see how important upbringing is, not only because that is how one’s life starts but also in Islamic culture that is how the cage is built. Psychological conditioning is very powerful, and it takes great energy and force of mind and will to break out of it. – Ayaan Hirsi Ali, The Caged Virgin, p. 23

Moghaddam outlines 11 different preconditions that may exist in a culture which may lead to a higher risk of radicalisation. These conditions are separated for the sake of analytical clarity, however, it is important to remember that they may overlap and interlink with one another. We can’t simply pin down 1 precondition and assert that it alone is the sole cause of radicalisation. Furthermore, the presence of these preconditions only increase the probability, not make radicalisation a complete certainty.

  1. Existence in isolation: Cultures that exhibit a tendency to stay secretive allow ethnocentrism to breed and increases the influence of “revered elders” to propagate dangerous ideology. Limited external input/criticism of the group’s ideology also contributes to the group’s inflated sense of self and aggrandisement of the group’s ideology.
  2. Categorical worldview: Cultures that propagate a categorical worldview (e.g. “Jews are bad; we’re the best”) allows individuals to breed hatred towards an out-group while increasing in-group love.
  3. Perception of present conditions as unjust or illegitimate: A sense of injustice or illegitimacy that is suffered by the group allows terrorist groups to prosper and provides a justification to carry out action to address such conditions. When coupled with isolation and a categorical worldview, these groups will usually move to the fringes rather than the center.
  4. Perception for the need of radical change: The existence of a great injustice that stymies the group encourages a desire to return to a “Golden Age” (e.g. Make America Great Again)  where everything was all right. This desire provides a justification to engage in activities that oppose the existing status quo.
  5. Perception of a lack of legal means to achieve change: The view that the current power as absolutely corrupt and incapable of caring about social justice for the oppressed group convince the group to engage in illegal means to bring about change.
  6. Any means necessary to achieve an ideal society: The group thinks that since the world is already against them, they need to achieve their ideal form of government by any means necessary, usually through violence.
  7. Belief in acts of terror to destabilise society: The group believes that society needs to be “woken up” first to see the corruption done by their governments, which hopefully leads to destabilisation and the prospects of building a new world on top of the ashes of the old one.
  8. The group can bring about social change: The group inherently believes that they themselves can bring about meaningful change through their own actions.
  9. The group believes that social change can improve the group’s own situation: By acting (through acts of terror), the group believes that it can achieve betterment as a whole. This can be embodied in promises of a better government (the Caliphate, for example) or even afterlife pleasure for the individual.
  10. The group has an inflated view of itself.
  11. It is difficult to leave the group. Members that want to quit often face dual pressures from society and their immediate group. They are afraid that if they leave the group, the government won’t go easy on them. On the other, they are reluctant to leave the group especially when there are strict punishments and/or the fear of social exclusion.

The role of networks: bridging the community

Now, for an individual to become radicalised and be a part of a terrorist group, they need to be introduced to the “community” of fellow extremists and adopt the extremist’s cultural traits.

Marc Sageman, in Understanding Terror Networks, argues that the way jihadists use and construct their social network are important in understanding radicalisation and terrorism.

A terrorist network is usually constructed of nodes and hubs. In the illustration below, the red dot signifies a hub, which is basically a collection of smaller individual nodes. If we were to think of ISIS Central as a big hub, its wilayat represent smaller, regional hubs, and the smaller groups in mosques or their bases are smaller nodes.


At the lowest level, a node can represent a “clique”, which are usually built upon common similarities among its members. These cliques are localised, usually small, and the members share long-term bonds. An estimate of a clique’s size is usually 5-10, based on Dunbar’s number.

The clique provides a means to construct one’s social identity, since it allows the development of intimate relationships and strong emotional feelings. It helps build in-group love and often, out-group hate. Often, acts of terror aren’t carried out for religious reasons, but for the sake of defending the in-group. This is further expounded in Sageman’s follow-up book, Leaderless Jihad, where he outlines four overlapping “prongs of radicalisation” that provide fuel for radicalisation within communities that have yet to be connected to the “struggle” of extremist groups. These include:

  1. Moral outrage: usually triggered by media depictions of victims of war, which invites a defensive reaction (e.g. “My brothers are suffering from American imperialism”).
  2. A “war against Islam”: an example of out-group hate
  3. Resonance with personal experience: potential recruits are easier to influence if their personal experiences resonate with the jihadi narrative (e.g. facing injustice or oppression). This is why Trump’s Muslim ban won’t work.
  4. Mobilisation by networks: the last step before the radicalisation process actually begins. People that have been through the above experiences are sought out by recruiters and then begin the radicalisation process.

When a person, who may be suffering from what Moghaddam in From the Terrorists’ Point of View calls the “good copy” problem, they may be inclined to join cliques that provide a sense of worthy identity. It may also be the case that a person joins a clique and begins to adopt their ideas and habits. Since the clique provides a means to discuss issues and ideas, it is likely that the person may absorb and then adopt the clique’s stance on such issues, such as the global jihad. Experiencing, either directly or indirectly, the Islamic struggle of their fellow “brothers” in Syria primes the individual (and the clique), making it easier for recruiters to mobilise these people and connect them to the Islamic community.

This is the basic premise of Noor Huda Ismail’s documentary. In Jihad Selfie, Noor Huda also examines the role of the internet in expediting the formation of the connection between the individual and the larger jihadi community. Akbar was influenced by his friends’ posts on social media. The “coolness” of them in battle fatigues attracted Akbar, who then began to connect with ISIS recruiters.

This was also discussed by Sageman in Leaderless Jihad. The internet is a powerful networking tool that increases the mode and scale of participation. What was once an isolated study group in a university mosque may virtually develop into an international discussion group, where members can share their experiences and contribute to the overall meta-narrative. Sageman differentiates between “passive” and “active” modes of the internet. He argues that simply reading the accounts posted on a “passive website” (think of a company website)

Sageman differentiates between “passive” and “active” modes of the internet. He argues that simply reading the accounts posted on a “passive website” (think of a company website) only serves to reinforce already made-up minds. Instead, what actively drives radicalisation is the engagement conducted by experienced terrorists with the laypeople in secret chat groups or even forums. People are easier to persuade if they think they’re actually being involved in the conversation with a human being rather than reading whatever ISIS posts in Dabiq. It is also easy to join in these conversations; you simply need an internet connection and a laptop. It is also difficult for authorities to track down these conversations, especially when they chat in encrypted messenger software.


We have seen how cultural preconditions serve as a catalyst for an individual to join a terrorist network. While they may not work all the time, the existence of certain cultural preconditions may increase the probability of individuals becoming radicalised. Again, it comes back to the individual in tolerating such strong cultural impulses.

We have also seen how networks are an indispensable tool for the recruitment process, and how the internet has helped expedite the process. It is basically about making bridges between an individual and a larger community to foster a sense of in-group love and, unfortunately, out-group hate.



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