”Radicalisation refers to a short- or long-term process where persons subscribe to extremist views or legitimize their actions on the basis of extremist ideologies.”

(Danish Government, 2016: “Preventing and countering extremism and radicalization . National Action Plan”)

The concept of radicalisation has been developed to understand why young men, who were born and raised in Western democratic countries, perform actions of terror in Europe as so-called home-grown terrorists – and also what has driven young people to go to Syria and Iraq to fight for Jihad as so called foreign fighters.

In terms of a clear conceptualisation, there is no commonly agreed definition of radicalization and extremism among researchers and policymakers. Thus, it is not merely a question of real or online-based radicalizers/groomers seducing vulnerable individuals into a process leading to violent extremism. However, there is generally agreement of the fact that no one becomes radicalized over-night, and no one is motivated by a single trigger factor. On the contrary, radicalization is perceived as a process, where individuals gradually develop beliefs and attitudes that depart radically from the mainstream in society. Some individuals transgress the boundary between radical thoughts and violent action. But radical thoughts do not necessarily result in violent behavior. Consequently, some experts distinguish between cognitive and behavioural radicalization.

Furthermore, radicalisation and extremism are relative and context-dependent concepts. This implies that their significance depends on what is considered as “mainstream”, “normal” and “legal” in a given society: “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”.


Part 1 Module 1 Randy Borum, 2011

During the last 20 years, researchers and practitioners developed a great variety of models to explain the process of radicalization. Among the best-known models are those developed by Randy Borum and Fathali M. Moghaddam (Borum, R., 2011): “Radicalization into violent extremism II”. Journal of Strategic Security no. 4 ).

Randy Borum aims to combine the common factors in processes of radicalization in a four-stage model.

The model illustrates how the experience of grievances, discrimination and vulnerabilities gradually transform into being caused by external factors, be it persons, groups or society in general. Step by step, the young people direct their aggression at some enemy: ”target attribution: it´s your fault “. The last stage involves hatred and demonization and/or dehumanization of the responsible party, and at this stage some individuals may commit violent acts.

Likewise, Fathali M. Moghaddam´s model is called the “staircase to terrorism“.

In the staircase model, the process of radicalization initiates with experiences of grievances and injustice. Thus, the ground floor of the model may include a lot of individuals. Many young people would agree to the experience of injustice, and they may often sympathize with and even support, those who choose to act and do something about it.

An increasingly small number of individuals proceed to the higher floors of the staircase model. However, only a very few individuals climb to the final floor, where they “sidestep inhibitory mechanisms“ and commit violent acts.

Other models introduce more intermediate steps. However, despite the variations, this type of procedural models generally raises similar, important questions such as: 

  • Which factors trigger the radicalization process?
  • Why do individuals with the same characteristics not become radicalized?
  • When and why do some individuals take the last step into violent extremism?
  • Is it possible to interrupt the process and perhaps get re-involved on the same or another step later on?
  • Which factors and mechanisms are determinative for individuals to stop the process?
  • When and why do individuals progress from one phase to the next?


The general position among researchers and practitioners today is that there is no single cause for radicalisation, but rather a complex mixture of contextual factors on different levels:

“Radicalisation is a context-bound phenomenon par excellence. Global, sociological and political drivers matter as much as ideological and psychological ones”.


The European Commission, Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation (2008): “Radicalisation processes. Leading to Acts of Terrorism”

There is no single model that can integrate all factors and mechanisms. Research has identified a long list of factors leading to radicalization. For example, Magnus Ranstorp (The Root Causes of Violent Extremism” – RAN Issue Paper 04/01) emphasized the following factors:

Individual factors

Feelings of alienation from society, humiliation and victimhood, conspiracy theories.

Social factors

Exclusion and discrimination, isolated communities, unemployment, pool level of education, contact with peers belonging to radical networks.

Political factors

“Western countries are at war with Islam”, islamophobia.

Ideological / religious factors

Violent interpretation of Islam, view that Western society is immoral.

Culture and identity crisis

Lack of belonging, rebellion against values of mainstream society and parents.

Trauma and other trigger mechanisms

PTSD, deceased family members.

In other interpretations (Mhtconsult 2010 and 2012), the trigger factors have taken their point of departure in concrete and external signs such as:

  • Image-based signs of change: where young people change their image, for instance in their way of dressing, their use of political-ideological or religious symbols etc.
  • Behavioural signs of change: where young people change their behavioural appearance in a visible way.
  • Attitude-based signs of change: where young people change their views, sympathies and sets of values.
  • Relational signs of change: where young people change, discard their existing circle of acquaintances and become associated with new social, political or religious groups.

Even though there is no complete consensus on what is prevention, many of the risk factors are well known. This knowledge is operationalized into concrete preventive precautions and interventions on the basis of working definitions.

There has been a great emphasis on the need to find effective strategies to combat radicalization by mobilizing and empowering local governments, educators, social and youth workers and civil society. The aim is to create awareness and resilience among non-radicalised individuals against the appeal of violent extremism.

Even though there is no complete consensus on what is prevention, many of the risk factors are well known. This knowledge is operationalized into concrete preventive precautions and interventions on the basis of working definitions.

There has been a great emphasis on the need to find effective strategies to combat radicalization by mobilizing and empowering local governments, educators, social and youth workers and civil society. The aim is to create awareness and resilience among non-radicalised individuals against the appeal of violent extremism.

Generally, the preventive activities are divided into 3 types in the so-called prevention triangle (Hemmingsen, A., 2015):

Part 1 Module 1 Hemmingsen, A., 2015

The general level of prevention is also called the primary or generic prevention. On this level, the target group is all children and young people as well as – in an indirect way – the professionals working with children and youth in the local community. The emphasis is on creating awareness and knowledge and to reduce potential risk factors by focusing on personal positive resources. Thus, the overall aim of the general prevention efforts is to empower young individuals to become active democratic citizens.

There is a high degree of overlap between the general prevention and the objectives and activities of normal professional activities in education and youth work. General preventive activities can consist of:

  • The building of resilience
  • The training of social collaboration and communication
  • The strengthening of critical thinking and democratic understanding and values

The specific level of prevention is also called the secondary or indicated or specific prevention. On this level, the target group is clearly defined and the preventive activities must be designed to match the target group. The target group can be:

  • Individuals living in risk zones with many cases of radicalisation (for instance Molenbeek in Belgium).
  • Individuals showing interest in or already in contact with radical movements and groups
  • Individuals showing worrying behaviour

Activities can be:

  • To co-produce a prevention programme with a local community from an area with cases of radicalisation in order to empower young people from this area to become spokesmen to-wards local authorities and professionals working in the field of prevention.

One example on this level is the COCORA project (2017): “The COCORA Handbook Collection”.

The targeted level of prevention is also called tertiary prevention. The target group is individuals who are engaged in violent extremism. The objective is to diminish escalation of radicalization (deradicalisation) and supplying exit programmes for those who want to drop out or are estimated to be open to receiving support for dropping out.

The activities can be:

  • To support change of behaviour patterns and the connection between thought and behaviour by using cognitive dialogue methods.


As we have seen, there are many backgrounds and very different factors involved in radicalization processes among persons and groups. It is not possible to establish a simple causality and one-dimensional explanation to why persons become radicalized. As shown above, attempts have been made among researchers to establish specific profiles of people, who become radicalized9, or to create lists of signs that professionals have to look for, in order to spot persons at risk, or in a process of radicalization (Borum, R.,2004).

Likewise, models of identifiable phases that persons will go through in radicalization processes have been suggested (Silber, M. D. & A. Bhatt, 2007). However, these attempts at creating lists and models have been criticized on several backgrounds from the point of view that there is a danger of simplifying the varied processes among individuals and groups in different contexts. There is a danger of drawing too general conclusions on a narrow base of evidence, derived from few and selected cases of persons who has committed terror attacks, as well as a risk of producing a counterproductive discrimination and stigmatization because of stereotypical profiles based on certain lifestyles, ethnic backgrounds and religiosity, leading to suspicion of large numbers of people (Velthuis, T. & Staun, J., 2009).

In conclusion, it is not reliable to produce a clear-cut list of signs for professionals to use as a screening device. However, a variety of researchers and policymakers point out that professionals in schools play an important role in anticipating and preventing radicalization and extremism (Rambøll, 2016; Asterisk 2016; Soei, A., 2018).


According to researchers and policymakers internationally, the challenge of preventing extremism and radicalization among youth has to be approached through engaging children and youth in their societies and communities, ensuring their possibilities and wish to participate to renew democracy. The school is a formative institution and plays an important role in the continual formation of a vibrant and engaging democratic society. Crucial for this development is the schools succeeding to establish the frames for the students’ sense of inclusion and belonging, their trust in being part of the classroom community and the wider society with rights and possibilities to participate, and their development of a critical and questioning sense. As such, it is a school concern if students feel a lack of confidence in the class and the surrounding society, experience discrimination and stigmatization, or if students express negative prejudices about groups of people and perhaps show a legitimation of violence towards parts of the population. These are signs of worry, which the school has a responsibility, as well as a possibility to address.

The question then is how professionals in the school context can work with these important and challenging issues?

A meta-study of 34 studies about interventions in the school context aimed at the prevention of radicalisation, point to five decisive aspects which can activate a positive effect, leading to the prevention of radicalisation (Rambøll, 2016).

These aspects include:

  • The establishment of trustful relations between teacher and pupil, and among pupils.
  • Space for dialogue, reflexion and critical thinking in the class and school context.
  • A teaching environment which contributes to empathy, understanding and tolerance of each other and of viewpoints different from one’s own. That different perspectives are being made visible, that pupils are exposed to a variety of viewpoints and lifeforms, gain abilities to see things from the others perspective, and can express their opinions without being met with prejudices.
  • That the pupils gain knowledge and competences about human rights, understandings of democracy, conflict and how to tackle conflicts, engaging in political disagreements and a general insight into possibilities and rights as a participating member of society.
  • That every pupil experiences a sense of belonging, respect and inclusion in the class and school, and in teaching and learning situations. That the teaching environment hereby supports civic inclusion.


The meta-study confirms what other research points to, the fact that capacity building and CPD of teachers and other school staff can have effects on the prevention of radicalization (Bonell, Joe, Phil Copestake a.o., 2011). Capacity building primarily works to prevent radicalization when it aims at qualifying the teachers’ ability to support and facilitate reflective debates and dialogue in the classroom in such a way that all the students get room for expressing their viewpoints, in an environment where disagreement and pluralism is seen as a constructive and basic condition in a community (Rambøll, op.cit. Laird Iversen, L., 2014). The teacher must facilitate a context where it is considered fruitful and legitimate to reflect on norms and ideas as well as ideals and lifeforms that are otherwise taken for granted. The teacher must work towards establishing a constructive ‘community of disagreement’ in class, to manage divisions and polarization, and to establish a safe space where it is considered constructive to question our everyday prejudices, in order to strive to get behind categories and stereotypes, and build trust and belonging in the class-room as well as in a wider community characterized by pluralism.

This approach and way of thinking is supported by an understanding of democracy as essentially plural and conflictual, and of democratic interaction characterized by disagreement, ongoing struggle for ideas and compromise, as opposed to an aim of reaching consensus (Mouffe, Chantal, 2004). Unity based on same-ness and stable consensus would be a contradiction in a democracy and a sign of a democratic crisis. Accordingly, democratic civic engagement is viewed, not as something where you first have to learn certain codes or master certain competences, before you gain access and are allowed to participate as a democratic citizen (Biesta, Gerd, 2013). This would be countering the idea of democracy and equality as human beings and citizens. You are included as a member from the start, and democracy has to be shaped and reshaped by young and new citizens as well as by others, as people engage with their visions and ways of democratic participation. The schools’ role in this process is to create the fertile context for this democratic critical societal engagement and belonging to develop among the youth.


If the school has a vital role to play in the prevention of extremism, some researchers on the contrary point out that schools and teachers actually can participate in the construction of radicalization and oppositional positions among pupils (Gilliam, L., 2010).

The school is based on certain cultural codes, ways of speaking, literature and often a dominant religious identity, that is connected to the middle-class majority population (Bourdieau & Passeron, 1990).

The knowledge that is valued at school and defined as the standard that achievement is measured in relation to, is connected to this part of the population.

Children from ethnic minorities and/or other socio-economic backgrounds than the dominant ones meet this cultural hegemony in school, and experience exclusion and cultural marginalization. The children sense that the majority culture is so dominant, that they feel markedly different if they don´t fit within the expectations to the “normal” child. The feeling of being different, not recognized, identified with a questioned religion and ethnicity, and unable to live up to the specific norms and criteria, can lead to the creation of a counter identification. Sometimes an anti-school culture, and sometimes a search for other communities to gain recognition. It can lead to a vicious circle of alienation from the school where you feel you can’t succeed and participate, oppositional behavior, further exclusion, etc.

This research points to the risk of the school being part of a construction of marginality, which can lead to the creation of a counterculture, where youth build an identity around being different from what they can´t be part of at school. Contrary to this, if the school and teachers are conscious about these mechanisms, their important role as a micro society, and gain capacities and motivation to work towards inclusion, belonging and trust as participating citizens among children and youth across diversities, they can have a tremendous effect, including the anticipation and prevention of radicalization and extremism.


Rahim, E. (2010), Marginalized through the “Looking Glass Self”: the development of Stereotypes and Labeling, Journal of International Academic Research, Vol. 10, N.1

Stephens, W., Sieckelinck, S., Boutellier, H., (2019), Preventing Violent Extremist: A Review of the Literature, Studie in Conflict & Terrorism, DOI

Center for the prevention of radicalization leading to violence:

Danish Government (2016): “Preventing and countering extremism and radicalization . National Action Plan”.

Borum, R (2011): “Radicalization into violent extremism II”. Journal of Strategic Security no. 4

Moghaddam, Fathali M. (2005): “The staircase to terrorism. A psychological explanation”. In American Psychologist.

The European Commission, Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation (2008): “Radicalisation processes. Leading to Acts of Terrorism”.

Ranstorp, M. (2016): “The Root Causes of Violent Extremism”. RAN Issue Paper 04/01.

Mhtconsult (2010, only Danish version): “Active citizenship through targeted inclusion. Mapping and analysis of me-thodical development and competence needs in encounters with radicalized youth among frontline workers in the City of Copenhagen”.

Mhtconsult (2012): “Deradicalisation – targeted intervention. Report on Danish pilot experience with deradicalisation and prevention of extremism”.

Hemmingsen, A. (2015): “The Danish Approach to Countering and Preventing Extremism and Radicalisation”.

One example on this level is the COCORA project (2017): “The COCORA Handbook Collection”.

Borum, R. (2004): “Psychology of Terrorism, Psychology of Terrorism Initiative”. Sagemann, M. (2004): ”Understand-ing terror networks”.

Rambøll (2016, only Danish version): ”Literature Study on prevention of radicalisation in schools”.

Silber, M. D. & A. Bhatt (2007): “Radicalisation in the West: The Homegrown Threat”. PET, Center for Terror Analysis : “Radikalisation and terror”.

Velthuis, T. & Staun, J. (2009): “Islamist radicalization: A root cause model”.

Rambøll (2016), Asterisk (2016), Soei, A. (2018a, only Danish version): ”Omar and the others. Angry young men and citizenship”.

Soei, Aydin (2018b, only Danish version): ”The school is the most important guard against racicalisation”.

Asterisk (2016, only Danish version): ”Pedagogics can prevent radicalisation”. R

AN Policy Paper (2018): “Transforming Schools into Labs for Democracy. A Companion to Preventing Violent Radicalization through Education”.

Bonell, Joe, Phil Copestake a.o.(2011): “Teaching approaches that help to build resilience to extremism among young people”.

Rasmussen, L. Kofoed (2019, only Danish Version): ”The role of the school in the prevention of radicalisation”.

Rasmussen, L. Kofoed, Neergaard Hansen, Dalum Christoffersen, Jensen, U. Højmark (2018, only Danish version): ”Democratic communities. Prevention of polarization and exclusion in school”.

Certa (2015, only Danish version): ”Resilience against radicalisation and violent extremism. An explorative study of resilience within selected communities”.

Laird Iversen, L. (2014, only Danish and Norwegian version).” Disagreement communities. A look at democratic interaction”.

Mouffe, Chantal (2004): “Pluralism, dissensus and democratic citizenship”.

iesta, Gerd (2013): “Learning Democracy in School and Society.

Gilliam, L. (2010, only Danish version): ”The unintentional integration: the school’s contribution to migrant childrens Muslim identity and community”.

Lagermann, L. Colding (2019, only Danish version) ”Colour-blind expectations”.

Bourdieau & Passeron (1990): “Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture”.

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Coordinator – Centro per lo Sviluppo Creativo Danilo Dolci – Italy