The process to radicalization and violentization

During these last years, some countries around the world have been attacked by terrorists’ violence and the number of citizens who choose to become foreign fighters has increased. Experts in terrorism and radicalization have been carrying out hypothesis concerning which kind of external factors could lead a common person to become a foreign fighter. Factors such as social conditions, influence of personal networks (e.g. family and friends) and social networks have been identified as key components in the radicalization process. In the attempt to fully understand the phenomenon many researchers have addressed these questions: “What is changing inside these people’s minds and why?”, “What determines the starting point of the radicalization process?” and, more importantly, “Is this internal transformation similar to that of a common criminal?”

Different sociological theories may help provide answers to each of these questions. During the last fifteen years, modern sociologists and criminologists have proposed criminal theories that have been considered extremely useful in studying the process of radicalization.

One criminologist in particular, Lonnie Athens, studied violent criminals and developed a model on the process of violentization  in 2009. (1) Although the sample group that Athens studied was different, his model shares many similarities with the models developed by experts studying radicalization.


Interestingly, Athens’ process has the same structure of many of the most important models on radicalization that were proposed by different experts in the same period, namely: the ACPO model – the model proposed by the New York Police Department (NYPD) – the Sageman’s process as well as the Gill’s pathway model. As for the Athens’ theory, all of these models identify four specific steps. Taking, for example, the radicalization process identified by the Federal Bureau Investigation (Fig. 1) and comparing it with the Lonnie Athens’ one, it seems evident that the two processes have many aspects in common.

Secondly, both the process of violentization and radicalization, do not consider the entire transformation as a deterministic path. Thus, these processes instead rely on the belief that no one is predestined to become a violent actor or a terrorist. Instead, it entirely depends on the individuals’ personal experience and how these are excepted or not by their own referent community (be it by society, family or even by an individual admired by the subject). However, although the previous step always indicates the base for the following one, this does not mean that, once the person has begun the process, the future criminal or the possible foreign fighter will always follow every step. Each stage of this internal transformation, in fact, always envisages emergency exits. This specific and fundamental aspect is also highlighted by the FBI department of counter terrorism: the transformation “[…] is a fluid process that does not have a time table and does not always lead to action. US converters, under the right circumstances, may enter, exit or even re-enter the radicalization process at any stage.” (2)

Simply put, we can imagine a long tunnel with different escape routes. The decision to escape depends both on intrinsic and extrinsic factors.

The first step of the transformation involves a damage of the individuals’ ideology and beliefs. The converter experiences a rejection coming from their own referent community regarding their way of thinking or a point of view considered too extreme. This can represent a traumatic moment, especially in a process of religious change. A common citizen, in fact, could develop an internal frustration and delusion towards their own native religion and could in turn lead to an initial conversion of their own personal belief system. However, for what concerns foreign fighters, the start of a conversion could also be encouraged by an initial contact with extremists.

Moreover, the models also provide information about the fundamental role of personal experiences. Sometimes external factors such as those mentioned earlier (social conditions, personal and social networks), could be secondary in explaining why a person has become a foreign fighter.

When an individual undergoes a traumatic experience and comes to the realization that their loved ones reject their way of thinking or acting, it can lead them to become a renegade until they meet a new group of people that accept their behaviour (in this case an extremist group). As a result, they have the possibility to re-experience their lost sense of family. This is one of the main reasons why recruiters consider people with a different lifestyle as a perfect target group. Extremists offer popularity and fame to exactly those people who are in search of it.

The second stage can be considered a moment of deep indecision. Athens explains how the individual is extremely confused about what is happening and searches for guidance in new people. In both processes, the individual accepts the idea of committing violent or extreme actions in order to solve a conflict, even if they do not feel comfortable in doing so. In cases of terrorism, according to an official report by the FBI, “[…] the strength of this commitment can be supported by the convert’s social connections with other like-minded individuals. […]. Such connections reinforce the convert’s initial beliefs and legitimize them”. (3)

During the stage of violent performances in one case and indoctrination in the other, the individual is considering the use of violence as a good way of proceeding. According to Athens, this is a crucial step towards becoming a violent criminal. One important component of the process involves becoming an active participant in a group and being seriously convinced that further actions will be necessary to support the cause.

In some cases, the direct participation in a group could have the opposite effect. Moving to the battlefield and living as a foreign fighter does not satisfy the expectations: life in the battlefield is hard, living conditions are very poor and sometimes doubts can arise. These are good points to take into consideration when deciding to make an emergency exit.

Finally, the last stage shows a complete inclination to the use of violence against the civilians or against the enemy combatants. The potential offender identifies itself as someone with a new identity and as belonging to a new community. They actually experience a new sense of belonging in a group in which whose members share and exalt their actions by providing them with everything they need. By taking into consideration this aspect, the FBI counter terrorism section argues that “[…] facilitation is the key component of any terrorist attack […]. Facilitation can include providing financial assistance, safe houses, false documents, material, attack plans, surveillance or travel assistance.” (4)

The continuing research on these processes has provided sufficient evidence to conclude that nobody is born as a violent criminal or as a terrorist. Moreover, the work of experts has also made it possible to identify which kinds of steps the entire path entails. Undoubtedly, the processes of violentization and radicalization have influenced each other; whether this happened consciously or unconsciously we will never know for sure.

The author

Mariaeugenia Benato (Bergamo, 1993), is a graduate student of Politic and International Security at the University of Alma Mater Studiorum of Bologna. After completing a bachelor’s degree cum laude in Psychological Sciences and Techniques, she decided to focus her interests in the field of international crimes and security. She has previously carried out different projects concerning the study of violent criminals and in 2016, she did an internship at UNICRI in the counter-terrorism program.


  1. Violentization offers a unique explanation of violent crime for four reasons: (1) the theory explains the formation of violent criminal acts, the development of violent criminals, as well as the transformation and maintenance of the communities in which they evolve and later commit their crimes; (2) the theory identifies the stages through which violent encounters, socialization, and communal organization/disorganization unfold; (3) the theory treats violent criminals as active agents in their violent criminal acts; and (4) it is constructed from an insider’s viewpoint because the researcher has undergone similar experiences as the people whose actions his theory explains. Lonnie Athens, Violentization: A Relatively Singular Theory of Violent Crime.” Deviant Behaviour: An Interdisciplinary Journal (2015) 36: 625-39.
  2. FBI counterterrorism Division (2006). The radicalization Process: From Conversion to Jihad
  3. FBI counterterrorism Division (2006)
  4. FBI counterterrorism Division (2006)