Skip to main content

Radicalization to Extremism and Mobilization to Violence: What Have We Learned and What Can We Do about It?


Author: Stern, Jessica

Date of Publication: 2016

Publication: The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 668(1):102-117

Purpose of Study

Key Questions

How are individuals mobilized to join terrorist groups? 

How can the U.S. government make use of what scholars have learned about the process of mobilization to develop better policy responses?

Design of Study


Semi-empirical: This paper summarises findings from a collection of empirical studies plus other literature. Building on a decade-long community-based research program focused on understanding and supporting the mental health of young Somali refugees. To assess individual factors associated with resistance to or support for radicalization, they developed a survey instrument by working together with community partners. The Activism and Radicalism Intention Scales (ARIS) was used (adapted in response to the input provided by community partners).

Number of Participants

In one study the questionnaire was administered to more than four hundred ethnic Somalis. Another surveyed two hundred Muslim immigrants in the United States.


US and Canada


The article explores: 

Individual mobilization to radicalism from the perspective of a researcher and analyst, exploring what we know about the psychological and social factors that motivate young people to join extremist groups and how that knowledge relates to the recruitment of individuals into ISIS 

The recruitment of Westerners to radicalism, because Western recruits are the most significant threat to U.S. security. 

Specific ways for governments to respond, noting the limits of what  government can do and arguing that mobilization to extremism must be addressed with broad, multi-institutional social strategies.

Key Findings

Given the rarity of terrorist mobilization—even in societies where the terrorists’ stated grievances are broadly shared—it stands to reason that there must be individual risk factors that explain why some members of an aggrieved group join terrorist groups while most do not. Individuals are influenced and radicalized at several different levels. Risk factors for radicalization and mobilization start with a grievance, more or less widely shared, often about some form of social injustice. But not every person, living in difficult social conditions, is willing to take up arms to aim at non-combatants. Individual traits are important, significantly complicating the study of mobilization.

The author has been interviewing violent extremists for many years, finding that individuals are mobilized to join terrorist organizations as they would any other organization: They concur with the group’s mission; or they are persuaded to join by friends or family members; or they are attracted by the spiritual, emotional, or material benefits of belonging. Individuals are influenced at several different levels—personal psychology or history, group dynamics, and social conditions.

Some participants who held attitudes that were supportive of violent activism also were highly civically and politically engaged; others were not. A third group was moderately supportive of violent activism and also likely to be involved in gangs and other types of delinquency. 

Despite these differences, some common predictors of both prosocial and antisocial forms of activism have emerged. Moderate levels of trauma exposure and discrimination tend to be associated with support for both nonviolent and violent activism. 

There is a correlation between support for violent activism and social marginalization. 

Time on the Internet is another risk factor. 

Strong social bonds, and in particular a sense of attachment to the United States or Canada, are protective factors. Those who identify with neither their heritage culture nor American culture are most prone to feeling marginalized and insignificant.

ISIS seduces personnel with a promise of protection and redemption.

Key Recommendations

Recommendations for responding to ISIS’s propaganda and mobilization of youth include:

  • Amplify the stories of the real wives of ISIS and other defectors.
  • Take on ISIS’s version of Islam in a way that appeals to potential ISIS recruits.
  • Highlight ISIS’s hypocrisy.
  • Publicize ISIS’s atrocities against Sunnis.
  • Aggressively suspend ISIS social media accounts.

The nations fighting ISIS need a counter-narrative campaign. The campaign should be led by individuals who know how to access at-risk youth. A commission needs to study how ISIS and related groups market themselves and develop a plan for competing directly in those markets, while at the same time developing a strategy for expanding into other markets.

Author proposes a model that is helping experts access at-risk youth directly is called P2P: Challenging Extremism. This ongoing initiative provides an opportunity for university students from the United States, Canada, the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, Australia, and Asia to create online communities whose goal is to counter the extremist narrative by becoming educated influencers.

Reviewer Notes

Key words: radicalization; mobilization to violence;

risk factors; terrorism 

The article covers: The topic of individual mobilization, plus a review of societal conditions that correlate with terrorism.

You might also like: