Skip to main content

What causes Radicalisation? Main lines of consensus in recent research.


There are many theories of radicalisation as well as those scholars who argue that radicalisation in itself is a flawed concept. The Holy Grail of radicalisation theories would look like a model that would be a one-size-fits-all approach to explaining how a normal person could carry out violent actions against his or hers fellow citizens.

This essay will not seek to critique the plausibility of such a model being uncovered (although it is worth noting that none of the major theorists on radicalisation suggest that there is a universal model with predictive certainty) but will instead focus on what are commonly understood to be the various causes of radicalisation. In doing so, it is useful to make some distinctions between radicals (those people holding radical ideas) and violent radicals (those holding radical ideas that countenance violence). The Demos report ‘The edge of violence’ makes such a distinction and I refer the reader to this important discussion within this valuable report.

Whilst there are lots of radicalisation models (Ehud SprinzakClark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko and Fathali Moghaddam are examples of typical discussions) they all tend to draw on similar causes. In this essay I am going to group these along the lines of a model applied to causes of terrorism by Martha Crenshaw. This is not to equate radicalisation to terrorism (although certainly a lot of the contemporary discourse about radicalisation assumes violent outcomes), but is rather because this model provides an accessible and comprehensive means to grouping and discussing the potential causes of radicalisation.

These causes can be grouped into three categories: situational, strategic and ideological (Crenshaw included individual factors instead of ideological, but I have modified the model for reasons that are made clear below). These categories can be broken down further and in order to give a clear overview of these I have listed them in the following table with examples, on which I will expand below.

CategorySub-Categories Examples
SituationalPre-conditionsEnablingDevelopments within modernity, for example the internet.
  MotivatingRacial and religious discrimination; economic and social exclusion.
 Precipitant Foreign policy, e.g. the Iraq war.
StrategicLong term Defeat of Western modernity/morality.
 Short term Attention for aims; fear; etc.
Ideological  Non-negotiable beliefs about what is good for society.

Situational factors, enabling pre-conditions:

Modernity is a prominent and much discussed cause of radicalisation (see the output of The Fundamentalism Project for discussions on how many fundamentalist groups are inherently opposed to modernity).  Whilst ‘modernity’ in these discussions covers a broader range of developments, in this case I am referring more specifically to developments like mass transit, urbanisation and electronic technology.  In these last areas we can see how such developments can make it easier for radicalisation to occur.  For example, the internet provides a powerful and accessible means for radical ideas to be shared and reinforced amongst large audiences.  Clearly the presence of such enabling conditions do not entail that everyone using the internet, for example, will become radicalised (a caveat repeatable for all of the following sections) but the presence of the internet, of mass transit and urbanisation all bring people closer together, allowing for swift movements of people and ideas.

Situational factors, motivational pre-conditions

Living in large cities may bring people closer together and make it easier to share radical ideas, but people are less likely to be radicalised without any motivation to do so. Factors like poverty, for example, are also often cited as causes of potential radicalisation. Farhad Khosrokhavar, for example, is one of a number of scholars who points to poverty and the sense of being excluded from the benefits of modernity as being a cause of radicalisation amongst poor sections of societies. However, poverty need not be a factor, he also argues that the experiences of discrimination and social segregation encountered by middle-class, educated persons can also be a significant cause of radicalisation.

These motivational factors make it more likely that someone may want to utilise the favourable conditions presented by modern technology to subscribe to radicalised ideas. Of course, with large percentages of the world’s population in poverty and indeed many sections of wealthier societies experiencing varying levels of discrimination on grounds such as ethnicity or religion, these motivational factors alone are not enough to explain how an individual could be radicalised.

Situational precipitant factors

If motivational pre-conditions could be thought of as catalysts towards radicalisation then the precipitant factors can be understood as the triggers. These are flash points which some people will see as directly necessitating some form of a response. Common examples of such triggers include UK Government policy, such as the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq which were cited by Mohammed Sidique Khan as a reason for his role in the 7th July bombings in London. Shane Brighton and Mark Sedgwick both critique the role anger at foreign policy is seen to play in debates about radicalisation, providing nuanced arguments about the differences between legitimate disagreement and whether it is a reliable indicator of potential violent extremism.

These specific discussions aside, the idea of particular triggers to action are perhaps the most discussed (and easiest to comprehend) of the potential causes of radicalisation. Examples are easier to think of than the other situational factors, such as laws like the 1773 Tea Act (that led to the Boston Tea Party) or the self-immolation of the Tunisian trader Mohamed Bouazizi (that led to the 2011 Tunisian Revolution). However, it is also too easy to give these triggers too much prominence in the actions that follow. Whilst the above examples were important causes of radicalisation in their own contexts, it is likely that the American and Tunisian revolutions would have occurred without them.

Strategic aims – long term and short term

Whilst individuals may believe that there is a requirement upon them to act in response to a particular event, it is of course far from the case that this normally leads to violent action. For example, in 2003 over a million people are reported to have marched against UK involvement in the Iraq war, an entirely peaceful response to a situational precipitant factor. That this action was peaceful represented the strategic aims of the anti-war movement, which sought in the short-term to make a clear statement of dissatisfaction against UK policy, whilst in the longer term to halt any UK involvement in a war against Iraq.

In contrast, the short term and long term aims of al Qaeda were decidedly violent. In the short term, actions such as 9/11 sought to motivate sympathisers whilst also striking terror into their ‘enemy’. In the longer term, they sought the removal of US military forces from Saudi Arabia, amongst other aims (these aims can be found in statements translated in works by, for example, Raymond Ibrahim and Gilles Kepel and Jean-Pierre Milelli (2008)).

Ideological factors

It is perhaps the ideologies of groups which are the key area where a difference can be seen between radicalisation and violent radicalisation. For example, while the role of radical groups provokes much debate, with some commentators seeing groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, for example, as part of a ‘conveyor belt’ to radicalisation, there is a clear difference between the ideological response of Hizb to the preceding factors to that of al Qaeda’s.

Radical, but arguably non-violent groups such as Hizb are seen as providing a gateway for disaffected people (in this case, young Muslims) to develop and express increasingly radical views. Ed Husain, co-founder of a UK think tank set-up to educate about and counter such groups writes about his experiences in what he sees as feeder groups for violent extremism operating in the UK. In this case it is worth highlighting that the role of Hizb as a key staging point for radicalisation is by no means unanimously accepted, for example Emmanuel Karagiannis and Clark McCauley and Vitaly Naumkin have both argued that Hizb ut-Tahrir (though note that they argue based on research into a particular regional section of Hizb, in Uzbekistan) is not a feeder group for violent radicals. Where former members have acted violently, they argue, it has only been after disagreement and expulsion from the group that they have done so, and it is the exception, not the rule. Hizb ideology proscribes violence, at least at the present time, and this ideology is a key factor in how it responds to some of the same situational factors and even long-term aims that can be seen to influence al Qaeda members.

These considerations are equally applicable to secular as they are to religious ideologies. Assumptions that there is something unique about religion (and particular religions) that causes violence are misleading and my own research (Francis and Knott, 2011) has demonstrated how linkages can be found between secular and religious ideological responses to conflict and difference.

Individual factors

Crenshaw gives greater attention to individual factors than I have here. I mentioned above that in the cases of former Hizb members turning to violence it tended to be the exception, not the rule. This has been a common caveat expressed throughout this consideration of the factors causing radicalisation and it continues to be the case in our consideration of individual factors. Assuming that all of the above may have led to an individual being involved in a group with violent strategic aims it is still not the case that that individual will act violently. Whilst Crenshaw mentions psychological factors in her original article, it is important to note that in most cases there are no obvious indicators of abnormal psychological factors. For example, whilst the actions of the UK July 7 bombers were seen as proof of individuals who were not properly absorbed into UK society, their lives up to that point suggested otherwise and this is often, though not always, the case. Economic background, relative assimilation into ‘host’ cultures, apparent ideological background and other seemingly important factors all fail to account for why some people act violently and others do not. The background factors are as individual as those who choose this step and this in a large part explains the difficulty of theories of radicalisation to accurately predict violent behaviour.

We should also consider the role of serendipity. Just as it seems fortunate at times that some well-advanced plots have failed at the moment of execution, so it could also be the case that chance decisions or events led to those individuals being in that place at that time. However, this should not distract from attention given to the causes of radicalisation discussed above. For example, while the current and previous UK government warns universities that lonely Muslim students are potentially at risk of radicalisation, there is much less chance of any young person becoming radicalised if they have not viewed their life through a prism of discrimination or deprivation, have not seen particular events, such as the Iraq war, as requiring a direct and personal response and have not joined groups with violent ideologies and aims.

The above discussion summarises potential causes of radicalisation into several categories. As highlighted above, there are different kinds of models which predict how people may display characteristics of radicalisation within these categories as well as strong debate over the validity both of the definition and of theories of radicalisation. This essay has not sought to critique these debates, but has instead provided a basic understanding of some of the most discussed possible causes, whilst also drawing attention to the complex interrelationship between them.

Further reading:

Shane Brighton, 'British Muslims, Multiculturalism and UK Foreign Policy'

Martha Crenshaw, 'The Causes of Terrorism'

Ehud Sprinzak 'The Process of Delegitimation'


Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Dr Matthew Francis, and not of  Dr Francis researches the move to violence in religious and non-religious groups and in addition to editing this site is also Senior Research Associate in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University.

Articles are submitted to a review process involving the Advisory Board, to ensure that offensive or unsuitable material is withheld. is committed to allowing a full range of diverging opinions to be heard. If you would like to submit a piece for the Discussions and Debates section, then please submit your suggestion via the Contact-Us page.

You might also like: