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Radicalization is complex. Yet a thinly-sourced, reductionist view of how people become terrorists has gained unwarranted legitimacy in some counterterrorism circles. This view corresponds with—and seems to legitimize—“counter-radicalization” measures that rely heavily on non-threat-based intelligence collection, a tactic that may be ineffective or even counterproductive. Only by analyzing what we know about radicalization and the government’s response to it can we be sure that these reactions are grounded in fact rather than stereotypes and truly advance our efforts to combat terrorism.

The government’s lead agencies to combat radicalization recognize the complexity of the radicalization process. However, they have not expressly repudiated theories suggesting it is possible to detect radicalization long before people take concrete steps toward violence.

Domestic law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and state and local police departments, have stepped into the breach, developing simplistic theories, such as the “religious conveyer belt” theory, of how American Muslims become radicalized. These theories suggest, contrary to empirical social science studies, that the path to terrorism has a fixed trajectory and that each step of the process has specific, identifiable markers, according to the report.

This accepted understanding of how someone becomes a terrorist influences the selection of investigative techniques. For example, according to the report, the assumed link between religiosity and terrorism encourages intrusion into mosques, traditionally considered off-limits to the government absent a specific connection to suspected criminal or terrorist activity.

This emphasis on intelligence collection about radicalization, much of which involves First Amendment-protected speech and activities, has undermined a much-touted prong of the government’s strategy—the attempt to engage American Muslim communities in the fight against terrorism.

“Many American Muslims believe their communities are treated as inherently suspicious by the government,” states the report. “As a result, while American Muslim communities have been invaluable partners in the government’s counterterrorism efforts, some American Muslims are becoming more guarded in their relations with law enforcement agencies. The obvious tension between the government’s various responses to radicalization is increasingly noted, but remains unaddressed: Can a community simultaneously be treated as suspect and also be expected to function as a partner?”

The report has specific recommendations for the federal government to recalibrate its approach to radicalization, including:

  • Repudiating the unfounded theory of radicalization that is popular with law enforcement agencies;
  • Establishing a mechanism to evaluate the effectiveness of the plethora of anti-radicalization measures that have been undertaken;
  • Constituting the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (already mandated by Congress) to analyze the civil liberties impact of counter-radicalization policies, particularly on American Muslims’ First Amendment freedoms;
  • Increasing the transparency of law enforcement policies in this area; and
  • Reconfiguring its outreach activities to Muslim communities to ensure sustained outreach at the local level accompanied by a serious policy dialogue at the national level.