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Project Idea

OrganisationMiguel Peco, PhD.
H2020 Topic ListNot specified yet
Role within the Consortium
Type of activity* Research
Project DescriptionThe study of violent radicalization through a cognitive behavioural approach pays special consideration to the
level of analysis focused on the individual. This approach complements properly either Political Science or
Sociology in dealing with the phenomenon, at the time that highlights the active role of the individuals in their
own process of radicalization.
From a technical, cognitive-behavioural perspective, violent radicalization is seen as a progressive learning
process of violent behaviour, in which both physical and cognitive aspects, i.e. thoughts, beliefs and feelings,
are involved. Leading this idea to the extreme, and without using technical terms, it could be said that
terrorists are not born, but made.
Adopting this perspective, however, comes with great challenges derived from the complexity of individual
behaviour. One of them is the amount of involved variables, both intrinsic and situational ones, what makes
difficult to establish cause-effect relationships, to identify solid patterns of radicalization, and therefore to
predict in some way the appearance and evolution of the phenomenon. For instance, ideological or religious
extremism, action-reaction dynamics, asymmetry in conflicts, and repressive conditions, among others, have
been identified as contributing factors to violent radicalization. Apart from them, there are also other aspects
that correlate frequently with violent radicalization, e.g. grievances or basic needs not met, that may also
perform a role in the process. Finally, the individual perception of these aspects, which is subjective by
definition, is even more relevant than the fact itself. In the end, it is very difficult to find simple contexts of
violent radicalization in the real world, where truly relevant variables can be monitored.

Starting point
This line of investigation stems from the conclusions drawn from the study of the phenomenon of violent
radicalization in developed societies. This context is characterized, precisely, by the absence of factors which
normally contribute or correlate with violent radicalization. This feature allows simplifying considerably the
identification of relevant factors involved in the process of radicalization, and therefore interpreting individual
violent behaviour through applying learning principles and psychological theories.
With regards to the process of radicalization, it is referred as an individual learning process of violent
behaviour, as it was described above. However, in this particular case, it is seen as a process where cognitive
and physical behavioural aspects pursues each other in a rising trend, internally driven and externally
influenced. Although this influence of external factors is important, in the end is the individual who radicalizes
himself by increasing his violent behaviour and modifying his internal moral standards.
The previous approach challenges some commonly accepted beliefs, at the time that gives rise to two sub-lines
of research. The first seeks to validate and generalize the individual pattern that has been found behind some
certain domains of radicalization. The second, transversely to the previous one, seeks to go beyond the
individual radicalization to achieve a systemic approach of the phenomenon as a whole.

Sub-line of research 1: Applying the individual model to other domains of radicalization.
A widely accepted idea in the study of radicalization is that beliefs are first acquired and then the individual
moves into violent action. However, this idea comes into conflict with the above starting point: violent
radicalization can be seen as a process where cognitive and physical behavioural aspects pursues each other in
a rising trend. From this point of view, it is not strictly necessary that beliefs precede action. The process of
radicalization is made of small steps, and the violent actions that an individual may conduct are not necessarily
far away from his convictions. Therefore, it is easy to exceed the threshold of such convictions and therefore
progress into more and more violent behaviour. In this case, the individual could be capable to justifying his
new behaviour. And vice-versa, a radicalization of the individual’s convictions may urge to try to accommodate
his behaviour to these new convictions, resulting in higher levels of violence. This dissonance between beliefs
and violent action, or vice versa, could be the individual radicalization process engine.
The set of assumptions about the nature of the elements involved in the process of radicalization, as well as
the sequence in which they intervene, allows to create a plausible and coherent model about how some
individuals may become radicals. This model is structurally independent from specific ideologies or beliefs, so
it is believed it could be extrapolated to other domains.
This sub-line of research is intended, on the one hand, to operationalize the model as much as possible by
using computer simulation techniques. In parallel, to apply the model to other domains of radicalization, be
they of political or religious nature. This requires to identify structural elements with a similar functionality, as
well as its relevance and interrelation. The existence of elements and similar processes in other areas of
radicalization is a way to validate the initial model.

Sub-line of research 2: Radicalization in developed societies. From the individual to a systemic approach
In general, it can be said that the influence of external factors in the individual process of radicalization is
overestimated, at the expense of the individual’s initiative. Thus, in the absence of objective factors that may
explain violence, external attributions are often utilized. This is frequently made by invoking hypotheses such
as aggressive recruitment, indoctrination, brain washing practices, etc. conducted by clandestine
organizations. Although the existence of these practices is a reality in some cases, the truth is that their
intrinsic efficacy is more than questionable. Therefore, supposed successes achieved by such organization
could be a consequence of people’s enthusiastic attitude, and not necessarily a result of recruitment efforts.
Highlighting individual’s initiative in their own process of radicalization can explain facts as violent activity
inspired by the reference organization, but planned and carried out by individuals on their own. Individual’s
initiative, on the other hand, is absolutely compatible with attempts to influence people, active recruitment
practices, and the irreplaceable role that the reference organization plays during the last stages leading to full
radicalization. All the above interacting lead to imagine a set of variables, process and stages that could
constitute a genuine system.
This sub-line of research is intended to infer the above system, which will subsequently be modelled and
simulated. After that, by manipulating the variables involved, it is expected to figure out which of them are
actually relevant, as well as seeing how the system evolves as a whole. By observing the evolution of the
system it is also expected discovering its strengths and weaknesses, as well as explaining facts as why some
organizations have survived for so long without solid reasons to do so.