What is radicalization? A 2009 report by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) defines it as “the process by which individuals—usually young people—are introduced to an overtly ideological message and belief system that encourages movement from moderate, mainstream beliefs towards extreme views.”  However, radicalization does not always lead to violence. As the RCMP notes, “a radical is a person who wishes to effect fundamental political, economic or social change, or change from the ground up”. That means the word “radical” should not necessarily be seen as a pejorative term. It can refer to a diverse range of people who are working hard for legitimate causes in their communities.  Therefore, it is important not to equate radicalism with terrorism.

Needless to say, radicalism becomes problematic when it is leads to acts of violence, such as terrorism. Examples of violent radicalism in Canada include the FLQ bombings and kidnappings in the 1960s/1970s, the 1984 Air India Bombing, and the attempted 2006 plot by the “Toronto 18” (though only 11 were convicted on terrorism charges). Evidently, some groups reject the use of peaceful means to achieve their ideological objectives, and that is what separates them from other radicals.

Many theories have been put forth to explain why certain individuals become radicalized to the point where they are willing to commit violence. Psychoanalytic and cognitive theories focus on individual motivations. For instance, a person may perceive terrorism as the most rational choice to achieve a particular goal. A member of a minority who has low-self esteem and feels excluded may use terrorism to affirm his or her ethnic or religious identity. Other individuals may resort to violence simply because they are attracted to thrill and excitement. However, as American neurologist Jeff Victeroff notes, most of these theories are based on unfounded speculation due to the lack of empirical evidence on psychological traits of terrorists.

A study by Scott Matthew Kleinmann—a scholar from King’s College in London—found that the majority of homegrown Sunni militants in the US were radicalized through group-level socialization. After studying a sample of 83 radicalized Sunni militants, Kleinmann concluded that radicalization mostly results from “recruitment by movements or radical friends and family members”. Conversely, mass-level factors, such as perceived injustices against Islam, generally play a minor role in radicalization.