Are Riaz Akhtari and Ghouse Mohammad, the two radicalised youth behind the barbaric killing of a tailor in Udaipur, just typical drifters who have no specific reason for becoming terrorists other than adventure-seeking? Or whether they got radicalised by embracing extremist belief systems or violent narrative that identifies particular groups as “enemies”? Why is this question so important? Because the gruesome manner in which Kanhaiya Lal was murdered and the video of his brutal execution posted on the internet could mark a critical turning point in Islamist radicalisation in India.
It needs to be pointed out that only the jihadist fighters from the Islamic State (ISIS) or radicalised Islamists in Pakistan (we still can’t forget the gory beheading video of Daniel Pearl in February 2002) have indulged in such barbaric acts of terror. According to Judith Tinnes, the ISIS murdered more than 2,400 people in camera-recorded executions between January 2015 and December 2020. No other jihadist organisation has ever come close to matching this horrible benchmark, and none has enjoyed such global notoriety for releasing beheading/murder videos of innocent victims. As Simon Cottee has rightly written in a recent book Watching Murder: ISIS, Death Videos and Radicalization that “ISIS may well have been muted by the end of 2017, but the group’s horrors continue to live on in the dark recesses of the internet, where gore enthusiasts watch, edit, share and comment on video footage of its most monstrous depredations, including torture and mass murder.”
Factors that influence radicalisation
The possible variables associated with radicalisation are varied, particularly so when radicalisation is of Islamist variety. Personal factors and collective grievances such as socio-economic marginalisation and discriminatory laws, religious or ethnic faultlines, social networks and interpersonal ties, ideological attractions, and enabling environments are some of the key factors. In fact, all radicalised individuals and groups have this tendency to define their main objective around some socio-political grievances. And some of the most popular models on radicalisation situate the significance of grievances within the early stages of the process of radicalization in which justification of violence begins with some condition being perceived as unsatisfying or unjust. But since grievances are regularly instrumentalised by perpetrators of extremism and terrorism as justifications for their violent actions, this factor has got discredited in radicalization research.
It is often difficult to fit an individual into a neat category that could clearly explain his drift into violent Islamism. However, both of the Udaipur killers and others who have been arrested confirm one dominant profile of most violent radicals – they are young. This fact makes the individual particularly susceptible to influences from people around them as they build and rebuild their reality, and create motivations to justify their violent actions.
Radicalisation is a complex social phenomenon that changes people’s psychology and behaviour, but not always uniformly. Research in social psychology has indicated that individual perceptions of reality are frequently at variance when the person is alone as compared to when he or she is in a group. Radicalisation is seen as a process affected by group dynamics such as kinship, friendship and enhanced social status that can be gained by joining a radical Islamist group. Since radical Islamist and jihadist ideology provides a highly polarised and ‘us vs. them’ cognitive worldview, joining such a group can help an individual with identity crisis reduce uncertainty.
As the majority of people do not want to be seen as defying the group wisdom, the very uneasiness created by being alone with a different perception of reality within the group pushes people to change their perceptions. Thus, religious indoctrination often begins in the group (this includes all kinds of groups in virtual/cyberspace) as the individual is keen to be socialised. Constant exposure to all kinds of media, including social media, is now an integral part of the social setting that guides an individual to change motivations. We have been informed by the Rajasthan Police that one of the killers was in regular touch with the Pakistan-based Islamist organisation Daawat-e-Islami, which has a large following in Pakistan and has been vehemently against any attempt to change the country’s controversial blasphemy law. This association confirms the group dynamic factor; exposure to violent narrative from this organisation could have magnified perceived grievances and helped push Udaipur killers to terrorist violence.
We are yet to know fully about the psychological make-up of the radicalised killers. But since Akhtari is reported to have spent time in a West Asian country, his interrogation would provide vital information about how his stay outside India may have made him more radical by embracing apocalyptic thinking. Perceptions of ‘Islam under threat’ can be a particularly important factor in the radicalisation process. Since perceptions of injustice, hopelessness, and absence of a meaningful life have been detected among many violent Islamists and Jihadists, it will be relevant to examine as to what extent such factors played a role in their radicalisation.
What is cognitive radicalisation
Some people allow themselves to become radicalised, harbouring extremist beliefs and a yearning for fundamental change in their societies; this is termed as ‘cognitive radicalisation’. We can also view cognitive radicalisation as ideological radicalisation which is distinct from violent radicalisation. Many experts have warned of counterproductive-effects of homogenising feelings, perceptions and emotions in understanding radicalisation because it does not acknowledge the vast space between cognitive radicalisation and violent radicalisation. Not all cognitively radicalised individuals resort to violence to achieve behavioural radicalisation, and a vast majority of them remain forever inert. It has been pointed out that “on the cognitive radicalisation pyramid, there are those who sympathise and empathise with, or outright justify sub-terroristic radical violence or terrorism … against persons and property that is usually nonlethal and falls short of the law’s definitions of terrorism.” Nonetheless we are clueless as to what exactly leads to the shift from cognitive to behavioural radicalization.
Despite path-breaking studies being conducted on the issue, a clear picture is yet to emerge on what specific factors are more responsible for radicalisation than others. Some scholars also focus on sociological factors such as globalisation and the disintegration of traditional identities based on community or tribe. As per this, radicalisation happens when individuals attempt to reconstruct their identities in an environment marked either by confusion or hostility or a combination of both. This is particularly felt by second-generation Muslim immigrants as they fail to feel emotional attachment with their parents’ communities in their home countries but also experience exclusion in the West. Notwithstanding the growing sense of political alienation among Indian Muslims, this factor cannot really explain radicalisation in India where Muslims have been closely integrated.
A key characteristic that Akhtari and Mohammad seem to share with their counterparts in jihadist organisations is the level of their religious fanaticism – they had apparently become radicalised with no possibility of return to normalcy or disillusionment with Islamist ideology. They are reported to have secured the number plate with 2611 (the symbol of the November 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai) for their motorbike as early as 2014, and this explains that the process of cognitive radicalisation had begun much earlier. Since frequent exposure to and engagement in violent Islamist or jihadist rhetoric accelerates the process of dehumanising one’s adversaries and enemies, all psychological barriers to violence were completely broken down to achieve behavioural radicalisation when they had made up their mind to commit the brutal act of terror.
Scholars have termed radicalisation as a long process rather than an outcome limited in time. Fathali M. Moghadam’s “staircase” concept of explaining terrorism prioritises ‘context’ as far more significant than individual ‘personality factors’. As argued by Moghadam’s, “The higher individuals move up the staircase to terrorism, the lower the degrees of freedom. In other words, the power of the context increases, and the behavioural options decrease, on the higher floors. After an individual has become part of a terrorist group or network and has reached the highest floor, the only options left open are to try to kill or be killed or captured. Personality factors are less influential, and the context is all-powerful, on the highest floor.” Seen in this perspective, Udaipur’s violent executioners had reached the highest staircase where the only option left before them was to kill their innocent victim, and the individual factors were rendered less significant in their final push towards terrorism.
The behavioural radicalisation in a group has also been explained through the “pyramid” model in which the terrorists sit at the apex of a pyramid. The argument is – “The base of the pyramid is composed of all who sympathize with the goals the terrorists say they are fighting for…From base to apex, higher levels of the pyramid are associated with decreased numbers but increased radicalization of beliefs, feelings, and behaviors.” Individual differences regarding personal reasons as well as ideological commitment to the cause might be greater on the lowest levels, but when the individuals move up to the topmost floor of the staircase to terrorism, they share striking similarities to one another. But still it is not easy to understand why only a few committed individuals move from the base to the apex of terrorist violence while most do not make an effort to reach that extreme.
Since demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 and the March 1993 terrorist bombings in Mumbai, Islamist radicalisation in India has been a complex phenomenon that has changed throughout the last four decades in response to new contexts and ideas. Both cognitive and behavioural radicalisation in the Indian scenario has involved factors and triggers that keep on changing with evolving circumstances, including the attempts to mainstream Islamophobic vocabulary in political discourse and abusive remarks on Prophet Mohammad. Without any doubt, Riaz Akhtari and Ghouse Mohammad represent a dangerous manifestation of the process of Islamist radicalisation which is bound to take new forms in our digital age. That is why analysing the various radicalisation processes can help improve our understanding of the challenges and prospects of de-radicalisation.
The author is assistant professor, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Rajasthan. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)