“Professor Maura Conway, of Swansea and Dublin universities, said counter-terrorism efforts had focused on social media in the last decade. She added: ‘However… websites never went away and today are again important nodes in extremist and terrorist ecosystems.'” (Mirror, UK, 26 July 2022)
I am opening with this crucial passage from a current news article for it being put in a clear-cut way, in order for me to emphasize my position that online radicalization need not be groomer-led.
While even social media radicalization most oftentimes appears to be groomer-led, there are posts on extremist discussion forums that are static, e.g. generic literature by religious figures or other extremists. What is more, websites are out in the open which allow for selective browsing on the part of potential perpetrators – but their experience is not at all interactive and falls short of being based on any personal encounter.
Contrary to a third-party analysis in reaction to my hypothesis that sometimes, online radicalization happens in an abstract, non-personal way, it is insufficient to state that meetings with groomers have taken place to prove that radicalization only happened in the ‘real world,’ or that the online world is secondary. In fact, whenever there was online exposure before a physical or interactive meeting, or meetings, radicalization happened in BOTH the online and the ‘real world.’
In a nutshell, there can be:
1) physical meetings with groomers
2) interactive meetings with groomers
3) exposure to interactive content, either a. with the ‘live’ participation of a groomer or b. passive exposure of a would-be perpetrator to interactively produced but old content
4) exposure to static, generic documents or to whole websites
5) a mix of the above
Whereas in the cases of 3) b. and 4), radicalization was not groomer-led. In fact, to state that grooming has taken place does not exclude that a stage of radicalization was marked by exposure to static literature or of content that is no longer interactive, its threads finished.
In the case of lone wolves, while grooming may have happened in the past, my hypothesis is that in certain cases, as to the quality of radicalization, the main reason of a terrorist attack was neither interactive nor did a decisive physical meeting with groomers take place. In other cases, this may be different.
Analysis must at least be part-qualitative and include the factor of ‘key experiences’ which fit into the psychological stages of would-be perpetrators’ experience(s) that may lead up to violent extremism.
To conclude, while interaction or ‘real-life’ grooming may be more virulent than online exposure to extremist literature, we should be careful not to neglect the consumption of static extremist documents, texts, or other formats, in physical form or on the web.
Thorsten Koch, MA, PgDip
27 July 2022