By Dr. LaLanya Fair  |  03/22/2024

four stages of radicalization


People do not wake up one day and just become violent terrorists. They do not act on impulse; instead, they make a methodical decision over time. This decision to commit a violent act such as a bombing starts with a personal crisis or grievance and the thought of wrongful suffering.

For terrorists, this grievance can be with a person, an organization, or a government agency who they feel has wronged them. After identifying a perpetrator, a terrorist may then begin to seek a resolution.


What Motivates Terrorists to Attack?

According to the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), there are only a few general motives for mass targeted violence. For example, an extremist may be driven by:

  • A quest for justice
  • A desire for notoriety or recognition
  • The urge to solve a personally unbearable problem


What Is the Definition of Domestic Terrorism?

The National Security Division of the Department of Justice (DoJ) prosecutes terrorism cases. According to federal law, Section 2331(5), domestic terrorism is defined as “acts within the U.S. that are dangerous to human life, violate federal or state criminal laws, have no actual connection to international terrorists, and appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence domestic government policy through intimidation or coercion, or affect the conduct of our government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.”

While an act of homegrown terrorism usually has some religious, ideological, or political objective in mind, it is the particular offender, target, and location of the violent act that distinguishes domestic terrorism from other types of terrorism.

Jerome P. Bjelopera, a specialist in organized crime and terrorism, and Mark A. Randol, a specialist in domestic intelligence and counter-terrorism, define homegrown terrorism as “a terrorist activity or plots perpetrated within the United States or abroad by American citizens, legal permanent residents, or visitors radicalized within the United States.” 


The 4 Stages of the Radicalization Process

Individual radicalization typically occurs in four stages. Often, this radicalization process can take anywhere from weeks to months.

Stage One

Stage One is an individual’s first exposure to radical ideology, often from terrorist group members. The internet, friends, and even family members can be involved at this stage. The person feels disenfranchised and disconnected from conventional America, especially the U.S. government.

There is usually some type of trigger that provokes someone to enter this stage of the radicalization process. For instance, it could be the death of a family member, a job, or some other significant event that creates a sense of overwhelming loss.

If that person does not have a support system, he or she will usually turn to other groups for solace. For instance, that individual may go online and communicate in chatrooms with like-minded people.

If that person has identified a grievance and is unable to find a resolution, he or she may then progress to ideation. Ideation is the stage when someone makes the decision that violence is the only acceptable way to resolve an issue.

During this stage, the person may start to display a fascination with previous events and radical beliefs. That individual may even glorify the criminals responsible for past attacks.

Stage Two

Stage Two is when an individual begins to accept the idea of radical ideology after hearing it over and over for months. They start to see how the extremist ideology links to their own beliefs and current situation.

The individual will identify as a victim and feel that violent action is a heroic response to the injustice. It is important to note that suicidal ideation can be a high-risk factor for extremists at this stage on the path to violence.

Stage Three

The third stage is when someone expressing extreme views moves away from the First Amendment’s protection of free speech and has the intent to commit a crime. This stage is known as the “acceptance of violence” stage. That person has moved beyond simply reading radical extremist material to advocating for violence and expressing violent extremist beliefs.

This type of individual may start conducting research and making plans for when, how, and where to attack. This process includes:

  • Selecting a target
  • Ordering weapons
  • Surveilling people of a particular group or at a particular location
  • Taking photos

Stage Four

Stage Four is the final stage of radicalization and when self-actualization happens. The person has moved beyond research and planning and starts to prepare for an actual incident.

During this stage, the individual commits to carrying out terrorist acts. That person may have practice sessions (such as shooting at targets) or taking classes to acquire skills (such as taking shooting lessons). Prior to the 9/11 attacks, for instance, several of the young men involved in the 9/11 hijackings took flying lessons in Florida.

Often, the would-be terrorist will purchase guns, ammunition, and other gear in large amounts. There may also be a virtual rehearsal or an actual dry run. A dry run may include driving the route from the attacker’s home to the intended site of the attack.

Circumventing security measures at target locations is also part of this stage. There may be more practice runs, stalking, and security tests at the target location, which can happen days or weeks before the attack or just before the attack. At this point, without intervention, the attack is imminent.

Farewell writings – including manifestos – and end-of-life plans are usually involved at this stage of the radicalization process. By this point, the violent extremist has become psychologically prepared to commit an attack.

If any obstacles arise, the terrorist may return to the planning phase. But once someone is psychologically prepared for terrorist action (or has undergone sufficient indoctrination by an organized terrorist group), there is no stopping him or her.

The attack may be hours or years away. But by Stage Four, the offender has every intention of committing violence.


Changes in Domestic Terrorism Before and After 9/11

Understanding the various stages of radicalization and why people submit to indoctrination can help law enforcement agencies and communities to develop strategies for terrorist prevention and prevent attacks at the early stages.

But since 9/11, lone-wolf terrorism has undergone a dramatic shift in terms of modus operandi. The most obvious change involves an increased commitment to the targeting of uniformed officers and military servicemembers.

The report, "Lone Wolf Terrorism in America: Using Knowledge of Radicalization Pathways to Forge Prevention Strategies" by researchers Mark S. Hamm and Ramon Spaaj quotes these statistics:

  • In the 60 years prior to 9/11, only 12 law enforcement officers were killed or wounded by terrorists.
  • In the first 13 years after 9/11, lone-wolf terrorists killed 24 law enforcement officers or military personnel.
  • White supremacists and anti-government groups committed all but one of these attacks. The significance of this change had to do with public anger at having an African American elected to the presidency.

The type of weaponry has changed quite a lot since 9/11, as well. Before 9/11, lone-wolf bombings killed or wounded 234 victims, according to Hamm and Spaaj. After 9/11, only six people have been victims of bombings related to political violence.

It has become much harder to purchase bomb-making materials since the Oklahoma City bombing. Now, government controls are much harsher to prevent violent extremism.

Today, most lone-wolf terrorists operating outside an extremist group use high-velocity firearms, which consistent with gun laws in the U.S. being more relaxed since the 1990s. These shootings have also been more personal.

Lone-wolf terrorists have a strong need to announce their beliefs and intent. In 84% of the terrorism cases before 9/11, Hamm and Spaaj note that there was proof that a terrorist distributed information about a homegrown terrorism attack before it occurred, including cases like Eric Rudolph, Leroy Moody, and the Unabomber.

Among the cases after 9/11, 76% of offenders talked about their plans involving violent extremism, and most of them did so more than once, according to Hamm and Spaaj. The terrorists used text messages, social media postings, emails, and podcasts.

There were some terrorists who were even bold enough to make appearances on TV, but most of them made statements to family members, friends, or mental health workers. Some terrorists even sent letters to Congress or the President.


The Ciancia Case: A Terrorist Attack That Could Have Been Prevented

No case showed a higher potential for prevention than Paul Ciancia. On November 1, 2013, Ciancia killed and wounded three Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers and five bystanders at Los Angeles International Airport.

Before the attack, he demanded a ride to the airport from his roommate. About that time, Ciancia sent text messages to his brother in Pennsville, New Jersey. One of the texts suggested he would commit suicide.

The suicidal text message prompted Ciancia’s father to immediately contact the Los Angeles Police Department. But by the time authorities arrived at his home, Ciancia had already committed the mass shooting.

This domestic terrorism case is just one example of a lone-wolf terrorist who made his violent intentions known in advance. With a quicker response from law enforcement, his attack could have been stopped in advance.


Preventing Violent Extremism Using the Law

Mass shootings such as the Ciancia case and other recent events have led to suggestions for changes. For instance, authorities could:

  • Make domestic terrorism a separate federal crime
  • Give law enforcement agencies more authority comparable to the authority they have in cases of international terrorism
  • Adjust existing federal law enforcement priorities to place greater emphasis on domestic terrorism 

While domestic terrorism is not a federal crime by name in our country, the illegal conduct that terrorist acts require is already a state or federal crime under some other name. With or without a terrorist motive, life-endangering misconduct – homicide or assault – is a crime under the laws of each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Homicide is a federal offense or a sentencing factor for dozens of federal crimes with various jurisdictional predicates, such as killing a federal officer or employee. Violence directed against particular segments of the U.S. population often constitutes an offense to federal civil rights or is a hate crime.

Several federal criminal provisions already use domestic terrorism as defined in Section 2331(5) as an element of a separate crime or as a sentence enhancement. Section 2331(5) also defines international terrorism without making it a separate crime.

Congress, however, has enacted criminal statutes focused on international terrorism that appear to have no domestic terrorism equivalents. For example, the federal crime of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization has no similar counterpart on the domestic side. Here, the basis for criminal liability has a different name. 

Beneath the surface, co-conspirator and accomplice liability look much like providing material support to a terrorist or terrorist group. For instance, someone who aids or abets (provides material support to) someone else’s commission of a federal crime – such as murdering members of a church congregation or assassinating a member of Congress – may be prosecuted as an accomplice before the fact.

Prosecution is only possible, however, if a crime actually occurs. Conspiracy suffers no such limitation. Federal conspiracy is an agreement of two or more individuals to commit a federal crime, complete when some step is taken toward actually committing the crime.

A person who knowingly provides material support to a confederate’s plan to commit a murder or an assassination has committed a crime, even if the murder or assassination is never carried out. Nevertheless, some people may feel that federal criminal law should reflect the view that violence committed for terrorist purposes, like the commission of a hate crime violent jihad, is worse than violent acts committed for other reasons.  

Congress seems to have sufficient constitutional authority to convert Section 2331(5) into a separate federal crime of domestic terrorism. In effect, Congress could outlaw life-endangering conduct that violates a federal or state law when violent acts are committed with terrorist intent. 

However, the principal obstacle is the need to drop or find a federal jurisdictional “hook” for instances when the offense involves a violation of state law but not of federal law. One model might be found in the federal hate crime statute – which lists a wide range of federal jurisdictional options.

Another model is the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). This legislation uses convictions for various state crimes as the basis for sentencing enhancement upon federal conviction for unlawful possession of a firearm.


Learn More About Terrorism and Violent Extremism at American Public University

Understanding the four stages of the radicalization process and the behavior of domestic or lone-wolf terrorists helps others to understand how to find solutions for preventing attacks. Changing laws and the focus of law enforcement agencies can also help to prevent these attacks on homeland security.

American Public University offers an online bachelor of arts degree in homeland security as well as an online master of arts degree in homeland security. For these degrees, students can take courses to gain more insight into identifying individuals who may be prone to extremist ideas and ideologies. These courses include:

  • HLSS323 Homegrown Violent Extremism
  • HLSS523 Domestic Terrorism and Extremist Groups

Taught by experienced faculty members with real-world experience, these types of courses examine the radicalization process, extremist groups, lone-wolf extremism, and other related topics. The courses also use real-world case studies, such as Tim McVeigh (the Oklahoma City Bomber), Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), Eric Rudolph (the Olympic Park Bomber), Richard Reid (the Shoe Bomber), and Omar Mateen (the Pulse nightclub shooter in Orlando).

Interested in learning more about homeland security? Explore the online programs at American Public University for more information.

About the Author
Dr. LaLanya Fair

Dr. LaLanya Fair is a part-time instructor for the School of Security and Global Studies. She holds a bachelor’s degree in business and information systems from the University of Phoenix, a M.S. in criminal justice and homeland security administration from Tiffin University and a Ph.D. in business administration with a concentration in homeland security and leadership policy from North


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