Brussels attacks: how radicalization happens and who is at risk

Two bombings in Brussels have killed dozens of people and injured over 100, only days after one of the Paris attackers was arrested in the city’s Molenbeek suburb. The Islamic State (ISIS) has reportedly claimed the attack.

As they recover from the shock of the attacks, people are asking why this happens, and who the people carrying out these suicide missions are.

That such attacks could be launched from inside a European country once again calls attention to a serious crisis: the radicalization of citizens outside the Middle East by extremist groups.

A willingness to embrace violence

The actions of the shooters like those in San Bernardino, Paris and very probably Brussels are difficult for most people to understand. But the work of scholars specializing in extremism can help us begin to unravel how people become radicalized to embrace political violence.

Security experts Alex Wilner and Claire-Jehanne Dubouloz define radicalization as a process during which an individual or group adopts increasingly extreme political, social or religious ideals and aspirations. The process involves rejecting or undermining the status quo or contemporary ideas and expressions of freedom of choice.

Newly radicalized people don’t just agree with the mission and the message of the group they are joining; they embrace the idea of using violence to induce change.

And some members of these groups become radical enough to actually get involved in violent operations personally.

So how often does this radicalization process happen in the U.S.?

A recent report published by the Program on Extremism at George Washington University provides troubling statistics on Islamic State (ISIS) support in America:

As of the fall of 2015, US authorities speak of some 250 Americans who have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria/Iraq to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The report goes on to say there are some 900 active investigations against ISIS sympathizers in all 50 states. As a result of these active investigations, 71 suspects have been charged for terrorism-related activities – and those charged share some interesting characteristics.

The average age of the suspects is 26 years, and the vast majority of them (86 percent) are male. About 27 percent were involved in a plot to carry out violence on U.S. territory. The suspects are diverse in terms of race, social class, education and family history. Forty percent of those arrested are converts to Islam. A large majority – 58 out of 71 – are American citizens.

Countries in the Arabic Peninsula have the highest rate of ISIS sympathizers, but the number on U.S. soil is higher than many would expect.

Twitter census

A group like ISIS attempts to grow its number of supporters from the mass population by using propaganda. Here social media plays a crucial role.

Take the example of the Australian physician who now serves in a hospital run by IS in Raqqa, and serves as a recruiter on YouTube.

Other facilitators like this doctor might provide different types of support – such as financial, logistical, technical or material.

A Brookings Institute report, The ISIS Twitter Census, uses social media metrics to map the geographical distribution of IS supporters. It also reveals tweeting patterns, follower ratio and the number of accounts followed.

The most interesting finding shows that the U.S. is fourth in the world and the U.K. 10th for IS-supporting Twitter users who can be located.

While these numbers are small set against the total number of Twitter accounts connected with ISIS (46,000), they still indicate a surprisingly strong online support base for ISIS in these two countries, which are clearly high up ISIS’ target list.

The top locations claimed by IS-supporting Twitter users. Brookings Institute

The findings from these two reports also highlight some of the key recruitment and radicalization mechanisms use by ISIS.