Skip to main content

The process of delegitimation : Towards a linkage theory of political terrorism

Causes of radicalisationPathways to radicalisationRadicalisation

Sprinzak’s motivation for this article was to focus on addressing terrorism rather than terrorists. He argues that much of the radicalisation process takes place before people become what are recognised as ‘terrorists’ and that as such research (and policy) should focus on this broader process of what he calls delegitimation. Whilst this focus is quite common now, Sprinzak was one of the first to suggest that by directing research in this new way, it would be possible to uncover ‘radicalisation indicators’.

Sprinzak gives a typology of terrorist groups which arrive at violent action through: (1) Transformational delegitimation; (2) Extensional delegitimation; and (3) Split delegitimation. The first is more often found in groups operating within functional democracies and can be seen as the most complete (typical) example of radicalisation, involving a profound political and psychological change in its members (such as the Red Army Faction in West Germany).  The second category is more likely to be found in violent (and/or autocratic) countries, where the radicalisation is an extension of some basic injustices already experienced by sections of the populace (such as National separatist movements, as for example in India during British rule). The third category is different to the first two, in that the target of the radicalised behaviour tends not to be governments, the governments only being targeted as a result of the lack of their support for the group’s beliefs (a good example being racist movements, such as the Aryan Nation).

Within these typologies, Sprinzak explores different pathways through three processes of delegitimation, these being: (i) a crisis of confidence (a loss of confidence in the political leadership of the State); (ii) a conflict of legitimacy (a loss of confidence in the political system of the State); and (iii) a crisis of legitimacy (a dehumanisation of everyone involved with the political system). Sprinzak gives examples of different types of groups and how their violent response takes shape. His discussion of far-right movements as ‘particularist’ groups (strategically targeted at particular issues, for example ethnic groups, as opposed to groups that espouse universal values) would be valuable reading for those interested in researching far-right movements and his comments on the constructions of counter-cultures within movements operating in democractic countries for those investigating the ‘Occupy’ movements.

The article presents a good example of a thought-provoking and influential model which, whilst it has its limitations (the typologies are rather rigid and it is not always possible to see clear differences in some aspects of the stages of delegitimation) nevertheless provides an excellent theoretical starting point for considering theories of radicalisation.


This article is reproduced in full in Clark McCauley (ed.) Terrorism and public policy, (London: Frank Cass, 1991), pp. 50-68.

You might also like: