Undergraduate Honors Theses


Radicalization Theory: An Imminent Threat

Thesis Defended

Spring 2019

Document Type


Type of Thesis

Departmental Honors


Religious Studies

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.


Radicalization theory is a four-step sociological model constructed by American law enforcement to explain how “radical” beliefs propagate in a community and ultimately lead to domestic terror attacks. The theory isolates Salafi Islam as the virulent ideology that inspires Muslims to commit violent acts. Research presented in this thesis demonstrates that this theory, which has traditionally formed the pillar of Western counterterrorism operations, fails to adequately model terrorist behavior and is unsuccessful at accurately predicting terror attacks. Despite this, the theory continues to be highly influential in informing both domestic and foreign policy within the United States.

This thesis examines the cases of two American men accused of terrorism, Tarek Mehanna and Anwar al-Awlaki, to demonstrate how radicalization theory exaggerates the threat posed by religious violence. These cases are used to explore how the theory dissolves the important legal distinctions that are necessary to separate a foundational critique of the state from a terrorist threat. They are also used to analyze how radicalization theory limits the range of what is considered an authentic display of religion. As a conclusion, this thesis examines the social and historical factors that have caused radicalization theory to continue to inform policy, even in light of its inability to effectively conceptualize terrorism.

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