Discussion of radicalization often focuses on the prefix: ‘Muslim’, or ‘Islamic’. And it is easy to understand why. Terror committed by those who purport to act in the name of Islam has led to murder and mayhem since ‘9/11’ in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. The perpetrators have sought to create the notion of some global campaign against their enemy, and this has, inevitably, structured counter terrorism policy, politicians’ rhetoric, and media editorials. But radicalization – and the violence that can sometimes lead from it – is by no means a phenomena unique to those who purport to act in the name of Islam. Anders Breivik, shooting teenagers in cold blood in Norway; Timothy McVeigh, bombing fellow Americans in Oklahoma City; David Copeland, nail bombing and killing in London – all were violent radicals. Such radicals come in different forms – nationalists, Islamists, neo-Nazis, fundamentalists of a range of religions – and are often portrayed in terms of psychological disorder, or in terms of the normative evil of the ideology or religion of their own group. Such radicals very deliberately do not reflect the mainstream; the mainstream is, to them, a threat to core values. And their definition of core values varies according to their ideology or theology. But what if such radicalized people, sitting at the extremes of society, marginalized by the mainstream, and sometimes violent, could be understood collectively? What would a more generic approach to ‘radicalization’ look like? In this short piece I want to argue that radicalized identities need to be understood through three perspectives: grand narratives and associated discursive activities (overarching arguments and themes); a range of material practices (such as symbols on clothing and property); and through particular forms of leadership and organization (especially as influenced by the internet). And to illustrate this, I will take examples not from those purporting to strike for Islam, but from groups of neo-Nazis.
First, in relation to narratives and discursive activities, radicalized groups need to have a clear story that can be communicated to others, that resonates with everyday life, identifies problems and those that create the problems, and offers ready-made solutions. There needs to be a grand narrative that explains the materiality of suffering for those involved – whether that be something felt by the individual, or by some on behalf of others – the ‘brothers and sisters.’ It connects to a ‘zeitgeist’, a mood, a discourse of grievances and solutions. That is, the grand narrative links local experiences and grievances to ‘broader’ causes and solutions, thereby describing situations of injustice in terms of larger processes that absolves the individual of responsibility for the suffering that he or she may feel, and articulating that suffering in terms of injustice: ‘you don’t deserve to suffer in the way you do, they inflict this suffering on you’. And in the construction of this grand narrative that links the local to larger scales, arguments and grievances are connected, kinships are written between people who have never met, and communities are constructed across national borders. Thus, local external boundaries are re-described and, in so doing, rendered to have different – and more powerful – meanings. Such Grand Narratives may be complex and dynamic, but have that which can be identified and communicated as ‘core values.’ One good example of this is the neo-Nazi ‘Fourteen Words’, a slogan with a name that can be used to ground disparate interests around a core claim. The ‘Fourteen Words’ are: ‘We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children’. The slogan enunciates all that is at stake in the neo-Nazi Grand Narrative; the ‘future for White Children’ and ‘the existence of our people’, and of course it demands action – ‘we must secure…’ It evokes a sense of obligation, of duty, of guilt, in the ‘need’ to act when threats are so great. In addition, the ‘Fourteen Words’ works to substantiate a non-state entity – the ‘white race’ – which needs to collaborate across state boundaries. The ‘Fourteen Words’ were coined by David Lane, from violent American organization The Order. When Lane died in prison in the United States, serving consecutive sentences totaling 190 years, the event was marked by demonstrations in his support not only in America, but also in Russia and Ukraine, taken by neo-Nazis to be material evidence of the claim to trans-national solidarity at the heart of the Grand Narrative.
Second, as those demonstrations indicated, a Grand Narrative is not in itself sufficient – such a discourse has to lead to material practice. Part of that is about representing the self visibly in accordance with the radicalized identity, through dress and the use of symbols. In Germany, where it is possible to choose the combination for a vehicle number plate, neo-Nazis have selected certain codes that are comprehensible to the like-minded: 18 for the first and eight letter of the alphabet; 18 for AH, Adolf Hitler, and 88 for HH, meaning Heil Hitler, or 14/88, in reference to the 14 Words and Heil Hitler. Sometimes clothing, imagery and symbolism is important to represent identity to the mainstream, but sometimes it is solely about creating a sense of solidarity amongst the radicalized. Heroes and symbols need to be identified along with their purposes, and their utility in underscoring the robustness of the radicalized collective. On the website of The English Defence League (a nationalist, but anti-Nazi movement), a contributor can make a link to the Neo-Nazis through code: ‘… and what does it matter [if] we have followers of 1488 in the edl …’ This occurs in the material realm in particular with the marking of territory. In 2003/4, black swastikas were sprayed on Jewish and Muslim cemeteries in the Strasbourg and Colmar areas of Alsace, France, in attempts to ‘reclaim’ land. In the south of England, the Crawley Advertiser was outraged in 2007 when neo-Nazi graffiti was sprayed onto the walls of public toilets in the Maidenbower Square. Marking territory is an important element of radicalized practice. However, the use of symbolism is also a vitally important feature of the virtual realm, through which like-minded individuals can develop the markers of their identity, new symbols and, of course, plan for action.
Along with the Grand Narrative and its material practices, the third dimension is the role of leadership and organization. The internet provides opportunities for the transmission of messages and solidarity, but also for the assertion of leadership amongst virtual communities that are radicalized. Indeed, there is an important novelty about contemporary radicalization in the role and function that the online world provides. Some have suggested that the internet allows radicalized groups to produce what may be described as a ‘virtual training camp’ for terrorists. Internet message boards are much harder to police than physical meetings; and so this is a world in which dynamism within radicalized communities can take place, with ‘zealots’ increasing the group’s hostility to and isolation from the mainstream, criticizing the ‘sell outs’ for being insufficiently radical. That is, a process of groups or individuals ‘outbidding’ each other for radicalized credibility is facilitated by the online world, allowing the envelope of radicalized thought and practice to be expanded. But there is a limit – the radicalized whole must follow such outbidding, or else the ‘out bidders’ will find that they have become small splinter groups of a larger radicalized whole. Zealots might become the leaders of the move into violence, or into more extreme violence, asking by their actions whether others will follow. One example is the violence of Anders Breivik in Norway in 2011, and the publication of his manifesto online, seeking to spark a war against the ‘Islamification’ of Europe. In Britain in 2010, Ian Davison was convicted of developing ricin to attack groups in order to overthrow the government on behalf of the neo-Nazi group, the Aryan Strike Force, or ASF. Counter terrorism division lawyer Stuart Laidlaw described Davison and his son as ‘Nazi zealots’, who sought to commit acts of terrorism in the interests of white supremacy. Yet the internet is also profoundly leveling. Jeff Shoep, the Commander of the US National Socialist Movement, recently the largest neo-Nazi grouping in the US was accused of leaving his partner and children for a ‘non-white woman’. Shoep – and his new partner – were subjected to online hatred designed to undermine both his position in the Movement, and also the Movement itself.
Radicalized groups can therefore be identified through the development and communication of Grand Narratives that focus on the duties of people to stand up for groups who are the victims of injustice, and whose very existence may be at stake. The narratives connect the local to larger scale processes and injustices, and by their very nature, demand action. That action comes through acts of sharing identity – clothing, symbolism, marking territory – although also of course through violence against others. And that action is mediated through leadership functions that are often products of the internet age, fluid, dynamic, with struggles for leadership, legitimacy and authority, and by struggles between different groups, some of which may become splintered from the radicalized whole, allowing them greater freedom for violent action.  Such phenomena exist within a range of radicalized groups, and are not just linked to those purporting to act in the name of Islam, as these brief examples from the neo-Nazi movement seek to illustrate. Radicalization is a societal process, not a religious one, and needs to be understood in that frame.
- Andrew Hoskins, Awan Akil, and Ben O’Loughlin Radicalisation and the Media: Legitimising Violence in the New MediaLondon: Routledge, 2011.
- George Michael ‘David Lane and the Fourteen Words’ Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, Volume 10, Issue 1 March 2009, pp.43 – 61.
- Anne Stenersen ‘The Internet: A Virtual Training Camp?’ Terrorism and Political Violence, Volume 20, Issue 2 April 2008, pp. 215 – 233.
Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Stuart Croft, and not of RadicalisationResearch.org. Dr Croft is Professor of International Security at Warwick University, UK. As part of his long-standing research within security studies Dr Croft has led a £6.5 million research council programme of research into radicalisation and violence around the world and has recently published on notions of ‘Britishness’, ‘jihadi-ism’ and identity construction. His latest book – ‘Securitizing Islam – will be published by Cambridge University Press in February 2012, and he is currently working on a book on theorising radicalisation, focusing on neo-Nazis.
Articles are submitted to a review process involving the Advisory Board, to ensure that offensive or unsuitable material is withheld. RadicalisationResearch.org is committed to allowing a full range of diverging opinions to be heard. If you would like to submit a piece for the Discussions and Debates section, then please let us know.
1. See, for example, ’14 Words’ National Front at http://www.national-front.org.uk/14words.htm [accessed August 2010]
2. See George Michael ‘David Lane and the Fourteen Words’ Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, Volume 10, Issue 1 March 2009, pp.43 – 61.
3. See ‘Terrorist, ’14 Words’ Author, Dies in Prison’ Intelligence Report, Fall 2007, Issue Number: 127, Southern Poverty Law Centre http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-report/browse-all-issues/2007/fall/domestic-terrorists [accessed August 2010]
4. See for example Kate Connolly ‘Alert over neo-Nazi number plates’ The Guardian 18 December 2008 at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/dec/18/rise-neonazi-numberplates-rightwing-germany [accessed August 2010]
5. ‘Kyle Asbo Steve bayliss’ on the EDL messageboard reproduced in ‘‘Why do people call us racists?’ EDL supports debate the state of the nation’ dated 20 July 2011, Islamophobia Watch at www.islamophobia-watch.com/islamophobia-watch/category/uk?currentPage6 [accessed August 2011]
6. John Lichfield ‘French neo-Nazis turn on Muslim graves attacks’ The Independent 21 June 2004 at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/french-neonazis-turn-on-muslim-graves-attacks-732972.html [accessed August 2010]
7. ‘Nazi graffiti shock’ Crawley Advertiser 3 October 2007 at http://www.crawleyobserver.co.uk/maidenbower/Nazi-graffiti-shock.3252226.jp [accessed August 2010]
8. For an examination and counterview, in relation to Al Qaeda, see Anne Stenersen ‘The Internet: A Virtual Training Camp?’ Terrorism and Political Violence, Volume 20, Issue 2 April 2008, pp. 215 – 233.
9. See ‘County Durham terror plot father and son are jailed’ BBC News 14 May 2010 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/wear/8682132.stm [accessed August 2010]
10. See ‘The discarding of 6 children for a non-white woman: Jeff Shoep’s niggardly behavior’ 26 July 2008 at http://jeffreyshoep.blogspot.com and ‘NSM Leader Shoep has black in-laws!’ 11 April 2010 at http://raymondasmith.blogspot.com/2010/04/introducing-johanna-shoeps-first.html [both accessed October 2010]
11. See Andrew Hoskins, Awan Akil, and Ben O’Loughlin Radicalisation and the Media: Legitimising Violence in the New Media London: Routledge, 2011.