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The Epistemology of Terrorism and Radicalisation

  • Quassim Cassam (a1)

This paper outlines and criticises two models of terrorism, the Rational Agent Model (RAM) and the Radicalisation Model (RAD). A different and more plausible conception of the turn to violence is proposed. The proposed account is Moderate Epistemic Particularism (MEP), an approach partly inspired by Karl Jaspers’ distinction between explanation and understanding. On this account there are multiple idiosyncratic pathways to cognitive and behavioural radicalisation, and the actions and motivations of terrorists can only be understood (rather than explained) by engaging with their subjectivity in a way that depends on a degree of empathy. Scepticism is expressed about attempts to model radicalisation and predict political violence. This scepticism is based on reflections concerning the nature of complex particulars. The implications of MEP for counterterrorism are briefly discussed.

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1 ‘London bomber: Text in Full’, BBC News (1 Sep 2005), <>. There is more about Khan and his background in: Shiv Malik, ‘My Brother the Bomber’, Prospect Magazine (30 June 2007), <>.

2 This is the question with which Sageman, Marc begins his seminal paper ‘The Stagnation in Terrorism Research’, Terrorism and Political Violence 26 (2014), 565580. According to Sageman, we still don't know the answer to his question.

3 The idea that the motives and objectives of people like Khan are primarily political rather than theological is made much of by Kundnani, Arun in chapter 4 of his book The Muslims are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror (London: Verso, 2014).

4 Crenshaw, Martha, ‘The Logic of Terrorism: Terrorist Behavior as a Product of Strategic Choice’, in Reich, Walter (ed.), Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1990), 724.

5 Crenshaw, ‘The Logic of Terrorism’, 7.

6 Jackson, Richard, ‘The Epistemological Crisis of Counterterrorism’, Critical Studies on Terrorism 8 (2015), 45. As Jackson notes, the voice of Osama Bin Laden has remained largely unheard among Western audiences despite a vast corpus of open letters, interviews, videos and statements.

7 It isn't just governments that focus on radicalisation. There is also an extensive scholarly literature that subscribes to this approach. For an overview see Kundnani, Arun, ‘Radicalisation: The Journey of a Concept,’ Race and Class 54 (2012), 325.

8 Contest: The United Kingdom's Strategy for Countering Terrorism (HM Government, 2011), <>, 63.

9 Gorovitz, Samuel and MacIntyre, Alasdair, ‘Toward a Theory of Medical Fallibility’, The Hastings Center Report 5 (1975), 16.

10 See Hoerl, Christoph, ‘Jaspers on Explaining and Understanding in Psychiatry’, in Stenghellini, Giovanni and Fuchs, Thomas (eds.), One Century of Karl Jaspers’ General Psychopathology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 107120. ‘Epistemic particularism’ is Hoerl's label.

11 Jaspers, Karl, General Psychopathology, 7th edition, Hoenig, J. and Hamilton, M.W. (trans.) (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 302.

12 Hoerl, ‘Jaspers on Explaining and Understanding in Psychiatry’, 108.

13 Crenshaw, ‘The Logic of Terrorism’, 8.

14 Crenshaw, ‘The Logic of Terrorism’, 11.

15 English, , Does Terrorism Work? A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 265.

16 ‘Bin Laden himself certainly underestimated the strength of the United States of America, and his hopes of destroying that superpower were clearly unsuccessful (ludicrously so, in truth)’, English, Does Terrorism Work? A History, 64.

17 Nagel, , ‘By Any Means or None’, London Review of Books 38 (2016), 19.

18 English, Does Terrorism Work? A History, 221.

19 Pursue Prevent Protect Prepare: The United Kingdom's Strategy for Countering International Terrorism (HM Government, 2009), <>, 11. Prevent first emerged in the 2006 Contest Strategy. Although my focus here is on the UK's Prevent strategy, versions of this approach have been implemented across Europe and the EU has created a Radicalisation Awareness Network; see ‘Radicalisation Awareness Network’, European Commission, <>.

20 The assumption that there is such a thing as the radicalisation process also informs counterterrorism strategy elsewhere in Europe. For example, the European Commission describes itself as supporting research and studies ‘in order to better understand the radicalisation process’ (‘Radicalisation’, European Commission, <>). For further discussion see Neumann, Peter R., ‘The Trouble with Radicalization’, International Affairs 89 (2013), 873–93.

21 Contest: The United Kingdom's Strategy for Countering Terrorism, 10.

22 Contest: The United Kingdom's Strategy for Countering Terrorism, 60.

23 Contest: The United Kingdom's Strategy for Countering Terrorism, 62, n. 52.

24 This distinction between cognitive and behavioural radicalisation is due to Marc Sageman. See his Misunderstanding Terrorism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), 90.

25 Sageman notes that ‘very few people talking about violence actually go on to use it’, Misunderstanding Terrorism, 90.

26 Richards, Anthony, ‘The Problem with “Radicalization”: The Remit of “Prevent” and the Need to Refocus on Terrorism in the UK’, International Affairs 84 (2011), 150.

27 See the account of all this in chapter 6 of Shane's, Scott Objective Troy: A Terrorist, A President, and the Rise of the Drone (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2015).

28 Papineau, David, Knowing the Score: How Sport Teaches Us about Philosophy (and Philosophy about Sport) (London: Constable, 2017), 117.

29 Papineau, Knowing the Score, 117.

31 See Sageman, Marc, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

32 Heath-Kelly, Charlotte, ‘The Geography of Pre-criminal Space: Epidemiological Imaginations of Radicalisation Risk in the UK Prevent Strategy, 2007-2017’, Critical Studies on Terrorism 10 (2017), 300.

33 Gorovitz and MacIntyre, ‘Toward a Theory of Medical Fallibility’, 15.

34 Gorovitz and MacIntyre, ‘Toward a Theory of Medical Fallibility’, 15.

35 Gorovitz and MacIntyre, ‘Toward a Theory of Medical Fallibility’, 16.

36 Gorovitz and MacIntyre, ‘Toward a Theory of Medical Fallibility’, 16.

37 Githens-Mazer, Jonathan and Lambert, Robert, ‘Why the Conventional Wisdom on Radicalization Fails: The Persistence of a Failed Discourse’, International Affairs 86 (2010), 892.

38 Githens-Mazer and Lambert ‘Why the Conventional Wisdom on Radicalization Fails’, 893. Rahman Adam changed his name to Anthony Garcia in pursuit of a career as a male model. He was convicted in April 2007 for conspiracy to cause explosions. Lamine Adam, who was subject to a control order, absconded in May 2007.

39 Anscombe, G. E. M., ‘Causality and Determination’, in Sosa, E. (ed.) Causation and Conditionals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 67.

40 Anscombe, ‘Causality and Determination’, 66.

41 Kris Christmann, Preventing Religious Radicalisation and Violent Extremism: A Systematic Review of the Research Evidence, <>, (Youth Justice Board for England and Wales, 2012).

42 See Hoque, Aminul, British-Islamic Identity: Third-generation Bangladeshis from East London (London: Institute of Education Press, 2015).

43 Anna Lockley-Scott, ‘Re-examining the Mission of Education and the Meaning of Learning in an Uncertain World’, paper presented at the 2017 Oxford Symposium for Comparative and International Education.

44 Hoerl, ‘Jaspers on Explaining and Understanding in Psychiatry’, 108.

45 Hoerl, ‘Jaspers on Explaining and Understanding in Psychiatry’, 108.

46 Olivia Bailey, ‘Empathy and Testimonial Trust’, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 84, 139.

47 Bailey, ‘Empathy and Testimonial Trust’, 143.

48 ‘Empathy and Testimonial Trust’, 148.

49 Kendall, Elisabeth, ‘Jihadist Propaganda and its Exploitation of the Arab Poetic Tradition’, in Kendall, Elisabeth and Khan, Ahmad (eds.), Reclaiming Islamic Tradition: Modern Interpretations of the Classical Heritage (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), 224–5.

50 I thank the editors, an anonymous referee, Olivia Bailey, Charlotte Heath-Kelly, Anna Lockley-Scott and Daniel Thornton for helpful comments. I am grateful to John Campbell for the initial suggestion that Jaspers’ work might be helpful for an understanding of terrorism. Earlier drafts of this paper were presented in 2017 at a workshop at the University of Warwick on the Epistemology of Counterterrorism, a conference at Sheffield University on Harms and Wrongs in Epistemic Practice and the Oriel Colloquium on Education, Security and Intelligence Studies. Work on this paper was supported by an Arts and Humanities Research Council Leadership Fellowship. I thank the AHRC for its generous support.

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Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements
  • ISSN: 1358-2461
  • EISSN: 1755-3555
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