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Fringe Fluidity: How Prior Extremist Involvement Serves as a Distinct Radicalization Pathway
By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Madeleine Blackman
In January, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Madeleine Blackman published an article in the peer-reviewed journal Studies in Conflict & Terrorism entitled “Fluidity of the Fringes.” The authors argued for the recognition of a distinct individual-level pathway for radicalization to violent extremism, “fringe fluidity,” that involves a person transitioning from adherence to one set of extremist beliefs to another. They contended that the validity of this theory can be seen in an observable pathway between neo-Nazism and militant Islamism. Gartenstein-Ross and Blackman have adapted their article for Jihadology’s readers.
This article argues for recognition of fringe fluidity as a distinct radicalization pathway in the terrorism studies literature. Most studies about individual-level radicalization examine how relatively normal people come to accept, and act in service of, extremist beliefs that counsel violence. As one prominent study said, most individuals it examined were unremarkable before they became terrorists, in that “they had ‘unremarkable’ jobs, had lived ‘unremarkable’ lives and had little, if any criminal history.” But some individuals who come to accept and act in service of a violent extremist ideology do not begin their journey as unremarkable. In some cases, individuals transition from adherence to one form of violent extremism to another—and understanding their prior extremist involvement is essential. This phenomenon can be observed frequently enough that fringe fluidity should be understood as an independent radicalization pathway.
This article demonstrates the existence of fringe fluidity by detailing the pathway between neo-Nazism and militant Islamism. In recent years, over half a dozen case studies are readily identifiable in open-source literature of individuals who either made the transition from neo-Nazi beliefs to militant Islamism, or worked to advance both causes simultaneously. As this article shows, these individuals’ trajectories cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of the totality of their extremist involvement.
It may seem counterintuitive or surprising that there would be a pathway between these two ideologies. After all, Islamist militants tend to view infidels writ large as adversaries, while committed Nazis view many Muslims as racially suspect. Indeed, today members of the European far right generally view Muslims as their top enemy. Yet there is a clear pipeline between the two—not necessarily a pipeline with an enormous quantitative output, but one that exists nonetheless. This pipeline has some ideological basis, including the fact that both ideologies share a common set of enemies in the Jewish people and the West (as currently constructed) more broadly. Further, the pipeline has some historical precedent.
To concretize what we mean by fringe fluidity, it is not just a process of inter-cultural borrowing and sharing of animosities that facilitate a congruence of extremist perspectives between neo-Nazi and extremist Islamist elements. Rather, fringe fluidity should be regarded as its own individual-level pathway into Islamist militancy. (We emphasize Islamist militancy as the end point because, as our case studies show, this is the direction in which fringe fluidity typically flows for these two ideologies: Rather than Islamist militants developing an interest in neo-Nazism, people with neo-Nazi sympathies far more frequently come to embrace militant Islamism.) The scholarly literature has elucidated such individual-level pathways by which Islamist militants are radicalized as personal grievance, social networks, ideology, and status-seeking. Similarly, there is an identifiable individual-level pathway by which individuals who have already embraced the belief system of neo-Nazism become acculturated into militant Islamism.
Though this article focuses on neo-Nazism and militant Islamism, we believe fringe fluidity is likely more widely applicable. Various extremist causes can likely serve as starting points for an individual’s movement into other forms of extremism. We hope that future research will test whether fringe fluidity is in fact more widely applicable. It is not clear that all three of the factors enumerated above—recent cases of convergence, some ideological overlap, and historical precedent—are necessary for fluidity to exist between two fringe ideologies. Future research can examine which factors are necessary for fluidity between two extremist ideologies, but the relationship between neo-Nazism and militant Islamism is sufficient to illuminate the existence of this radicalization pathway.
This article makes two contributions to the radicalization literature. First, it explicates a new individual-level pathway. Previous scholarship has outlined the convergence of some elements of militant Islam and the extreme right based on a sense of shared enemies, but without exploring how there might be a radicalization pathway between the two. Other academic work has viewed militant Islam and the extreme right as phenomena harboring significant mutual animosity, with little overlap, but that produce “reciprocal radicalization” in the course of their competition. Thus, there have been valuable scholarly explorations of neo-Nazism and militant Islam, but this radicalization pathway has not been identified in the scholarly literature. Second, the article raises—though does not answer—the question of whether individuals who have radicalized through fringe fluidity pose a greater danger of violence than do other extremists. People who have come to embrace more than one extremist ideology may have greater impulsiveness, or a lower threshold for action.
Our article first turns to the relevant literature on radicalization. It then examines the three factors that in our opinion demonstrate the pathway between neo-Nazism and militant Islam. We begin by explaining the ideological factors that, in the view of people who made the journey between the two extremist currents, bind them together. The article then delves into the history connecting these outlooks, before turning to contemporary case studies. The article concludes by discussing the utility of recognizing fringe fluidity, and proposing a future research agenda related to the concept.
Current Conceptions of Radicalization
There is no consensus definition of radicalization, nor is there a consensus model describing how it occurs. This section describes the conceptual frameworks that scholars have advanced, and argues that fringe fluidity has explanatory power regardless of which conception of radicalization a scholar adopts.
The lack of a consensus definition of radicalization is unsurprising, and does not call into question the concept’s validity. There is similarly no consensus definition of terrorism, nor is there a consensus definition of such critical and universally recognized concepts as war, civil war, or insurgency. As Peter Neumann has noted, most definitions of radicalization can be distinguished through their emphasis on either the progression to extremist views, or else to extremist behaviors. Fringe fluidity is relevant to the adoption of both extremist views and behaviors.
The fundamental insight of fringe fluidity is that prior extremist involvement provides a pathway by which an individual may come to engage in a new violent extremist ideology cognitively or behaviorally, at least if sufficient points of convergence exist between the prior and more newly-adopted form of extremism. These points of convergence—such as the ideological overlap and shared history that can be found in the case of neo-Nazism and militant Islamism—may allow an individual to transition between even two seemingly discordant movements. With respect to radical beliefs, an individual who has already embraced some form of extremism may find it easier to accept another extremist outlook that is also deeply counter-normative.
Mohammed Hafez and Creighton Mullins have made the important observation that, despite sometimes heated debates in the field of radicalization studies, there is “some consensus on the key variables that produce radicalization and violent extremism.” They highlight grievances, networks, ideologies, and enabling environments and support structures as variables about which there is agreement. But Hafez and Mullins note that despite this agreement on variables that may drive extremism, the field is far from a consensus on the models tracing an individual’s transformation. In many ways, radicalization models can be seen as metaphors for how the adoption of violent extremist views or behaviors comes about.
One influential metaphor has been that of a process. Some scholarship has criticized