Skip to main content

Fishermen or Swarm Dynamics? Should we Understand Jihadist Online-Radicalization as a Top-Down or Bottom-Up Process?


Authors: Till Baaken, Linda Schlegel

Date of Publication: DEC 2017

Journal / Publisher: Journal for Deradicalization

Purpose of the study

Key questions were addressed

This essay explores both bottom-up and top-down features of online-radicalization displayed by jihadist groups, ranging from the dissemination and discussion of propaganda without direct involvement of the group to active one-on-one recruitment.

The classical debate in sociology between structures of organizations as opposed to individual, is mirrored in terrorism studies. While Hoffman (2006) postulates that the driving forces of extremism and terrorism are the organizational top-down structures of, for example, Al Qaeda and IS, Sageman (2004) identifies social group processes as facilitating extremism in a bottom-up manner. 

Design of the study

The article employs secondary literature to assess the mechanisms of top-down and bottom-up radicalization processes in the online realm. It is a theoretical application of established theories supported by short examples.


What role do organizational structures play for radicalization in times of ‘virtual jihad’?

Key Findings 

The current academic divide between those emphasizing Sageman’s line of thought and those adhering to Hoffman’s claims is artificial and that, in fact, both are at play in the virtual world.

Key Recommendations 

Only a holistic strategy will be successful in battling online-radicalization and must include both targeting direct channels through which the organizations execute control over recruits, and breaking the echo chamber created by social movement dynamics in the virtual world.

Reviewer's Notes

While there is ample discussion on the classification of attacks, such as distinguishing between directed and inspired attacks, it is likely that whatever type of attack was carried out, some form of radicalization preceded the attack. Only by understanding how both extremist groups and individual users engage with propaganda supplied online and which factors facilitate online-radicalization, can effective measures be developed.

Not only is online-radicalization a relatively new phenomenon, it is difficult to detect and analyze individuals radicalizing in the virtual world before they acted upon their violent ideology or became otherwise known to law enforcement personnel.

The article finds evidence for both schools of thought (Sageman and Hoffman) and concludes that the internet facilitates both types of radicalization mechanisms.

While countermeasures need to include the provision of alternative social narratives and the utilization of ‘digital natives’ to make counter-messages more effective, organizational structures need to be tackled simultaneously, not only by identifying and arresting preachers and recruiters, but also through stronger internet governance tools and collaboration with social media companies.

You might also like: