Approach to de-radicalisation processes based on psychosocial theories

The best way to understand the difficulties linked to the processes of de-radicalisation of jihadism is to understand precisely how these processes of radicalisation take place
Aproximación a los procesos de desradicalización desde las teorías psicosociales

PHOTO  -   Aproximación a los procesos de desradicalización desde las teorías psicosociales

Is it possible to achieve the deradicalisation of jihadism? The debate generated around the answer to this question remains one of the most active in specialised and professional circles in the field.

The best way to understand the difficulties linked to the processes of de-radicalisation of jihadism is to understand precisely how these processes of radicalisation take place. This is why, in this work, we will delve deeper into the four psychosocial theories which, in addition to explaining how radicalisation occurs, demonstrate the reasons why it is so complex to achieve good results in this respect.

People are social beings by nature, so the best way to understand the processes of jihadist radicalisation is to study social psychology itself. Allport refers to social psychology "as a science capable of explaining how people's thinking, feeling and behaviour are influenced by the imaginary presence or absence of other individuals".1 There are four psychosocial theories that explain how these processes of jihadist radicalisation occur: the theory of uncertainty reduction, the theory of identity fusion, the theory of sacred values and the theory of differential association.

The theory of uncertainty reduction

The theory of uncertainty reduction grew out of social identity theory2 and focuses on two key aspects such as "identity" and "self-concept".3 The main idea is based on associating people with a group in order to obtain a personality that allows them to predict how others will behave towards them.

This need results from a sense of personal uncertainty about oneself, one's priorities, tastes and ideals, so some people associate with "clearly defined" groups in order to reduce this need4 . In this way, we obtain a depersonalisation of the subject based on a prototype where the individual disappears and the community prevails. An example of a "clearly defined group" would be terrorist organisations where individuals with extreme personalities are considered similar to each other5 .

Identity fusion theory

Identity fusion theory explains the visceral sense of unity with a group. According to this theory, the 'personal self' is united with the 'social self' in its entirety, making it impossible to discern between the two without such a union implying a submission of identities.6 Fusion of identities tries to explain why some people are willing to kill for the group or even sacrifice themselves.7

Four principles make up the theory of identity fusion8 .

  • The principle of 'personal agency

This principle holds that those who are strongly attached to a group believe that their behaviour can have consequences for the group as a whole. The idea of the Islamic community9 clarifies how a principle of responsibility towards the rest of the members of the community (ummah) emanates from it.10 In the words of the Prophet Muhammad: 11

"All creatures are like a family to Allahh, and Allahh loves more those who are more beneficial to his family."

"The believers, in their mutual compassion, in their mutual love, are like a body; if one of the organs is sick, the whole body shares with it the awakening and the fever "12 .

  • The principle of "identity synergy 

The synergy of identity consists in the creation of a "unique identity" that acts individually through the combination of personal and social identity. In Islam, the community is the sum of the individuals that compose it and there is no prior principle; one is not born into a community, but a community is created by its members, who freely submit to Allah from an individual facet. This submission implies the creation of the Islamic community in which the "need to meet" is felt.

The synergy of identity flows from this need to meet. All the verses and sayings of the Prophet are in the line of a community based on mutual help and cooperation, universal brotherhood as a regulating principle of human relations leading to a unification of identities.14

  • The principle of relational links

The fact of belonging to a common group means that its members value both the common characteristics that unite them and the singularities, particularities or differences that may exist between its members; thus generating a double bond. The Koran states that each of the individuals who make up the Islamic community has a personal struggle, but must ensure that this struggle acquires a communal dimension.15 Another point of connection between the relational links of the theory and jihadist radicalism can be found in another word of the Prophet Muhammad :

"Allah has forbidden you to be oppressed, so do not oppress one another.

  • The principle of irrevocability

Identity fusion theory holds that the bonds established between members of a group remain stable over time. Sacred value theory refines this principle within the most radical Islam.  On the other hand, the fact that radicalisation processes develop through earlier social bonds is the cause of greater stability among members of a radical jihadist group.

The theory of sacred values

The human being feels the need to act on a system of beliefs and values. The dissonance between what we think, say and do generates an emotional conflict of beliefs and behaviours that are triggered in an unbearable tension.17

The speciality of this psychological characteristic is no different among jihadists, the desire for harmony between what we believe and who we are promotes processes of radicalisation. Compared to the theory of uncertainty, human beings are inclined to search for a meaning of life and an identity that allows them to fight for a cause. The natural cause that Islam preaches is that of being a 'servant of Allah' which gives radicalised subjects a vital meaning.18 For radicalised people, fighting for Islam is fighting for a glorious and just cause.19

"Believers! Fear Allah and seek ways to get closer to Him! Fight for His cause! May you prosper in this way "20

 In every human being there is a set of non-quantifiable, negotiable or interchangeable preferences that we call sacred values21 . It is essential to know some of the characteristics of these values in order to understand radical behaviour within Islam :

  • - Inviolability. This is the first of the characteristics that present "sacred values" in their character of transcendence and infinity. They are considered inviolable and there is a total commitment to other values in the world.22 The most radical Islamic interpretation severely punishes those who do not act on the basis of established scriptures, thus generating a stronger bond based on fear.

"Those who do not believe in our signs, we will throw them into the fire. Whenever their skin is consumed, we will replace it, so that they may taste the punishment. Allah is mighty, wise".23

  • Identity. Sacred values are an intrinsic part of who we are, they give us a personal and social identity. Thus, decision-making is affected by the internalisation of these values. The Qur'an states that the identity of the human being is that of being a 'slave of Allah',24 the problem arises when these values contained in the Qur'an are interpreted in a violent perspective: "Kill them where you find them and expel them from where they have expelled you. Attempting is more serious than killing. Do not fight them alongside the Holy Mosque unless they attack you there. Then if they fight against you, kill them: this is the punishment of the infidels".25

"Fight against them until they cease to incite you to apostate and worship Allah. If they cease, let there be no more hostility than against the wicked. 26 "You are commanded to fight, even if you do not like it. You may not like something that suits you and you may love something that does not suit you. Allah knows, but you do not know.27

"Those who have believed and those who have left their homes, fighting fiercely for Allah, can expect Allah's mercy. Allah is Oft-Forgiving and Most Merciful.28

"Fight for Allaah and know that Allaah hears all and knows all.29

  • Moral indignation. Sacred values are protected at all costs and a number of psychological strategies are used to this end. One proven strategy is that of moral indignation, rejection or repugnance with a cognitive, affective and behavioural component.30

To illustrate the strategy of moral outrage in order to demonstrate how these values are protected at all costs, it is interesting to analyse a scenario in which the person responsible for the administration of a hospital had to decide between saving a child's life with an expensive organ transplant or allocating these budgets to other aspects such as improving the health care team, salaries, etc. The strategy of moral outrage was used to demonstrate how these values are protected at all costs and a number of psychological strategies are used to this end. A confrontation was thus created between a secular and a sacred value which led to a feeling of moral outrage caused by the hospital director's preference for the second option. In this way, the commitment to the sacred value (the life of the child) encouraged the participants to be ready to volunteer for an organ donation campaign. 31

Extremists interpret that the ultimate end of life is God, so any act contrary to what is established in their writings means that a secular value is privileged over a sacred one, and this hierarchisation generates a sense of moral outrage. The realities of Islam and the West correspond to different levels; for Islam, religion is a sacred value, whereas in the Western world, religion has ceased to be a sacred value, giving priority to values such as freedom or equality.

  • Irrationality. One of the most predominant characteristics is the irrationality of people subjected to sacred values. Sacred values affect behaviour by giving priority to ethical rules (what is perceived as morally correct) over a cost/benefit assessment.32 Cultural beliefs about what is right or wrong are superimposed on a utilitarian analysis in decision-making.33 However, the most frequently mentioned verbs in the Qur'an are: reason, think and imagine, so a fundamentalist interpretation of the Qur'an should encourage their implementation by establishing a relationship between theology and reason.34​​​​​​​
  • Non-negotiable. Attempts to negotiate in which material incentives are offered to sacred men have been shown to generate a sense of moral outrage and greater support for violent action.35​​​​​​​

To understand this rejection of material incentives, it is interesting to understand the sense of wealth in Islam. The Islamic religion views wealth as a means and not an end; the end is Allah, who represents the sacred value, while wealth is presented as a secular value that serves as a means to this end. Giving priority to the secular value over the sacred is considered offensive and irrational in the Islamic mentality since secular values can be renounced and sacred values cannot.36​​​​​​​

  • •Immediate benefit. This is a latent feeling in those subjects anchored in sacred values. Their ability to resist social pressure and positive interpretation of what is happening in relation to their values has been demonstrated. For example, there is a study on a group of Palestinian participants that shows how they internalized the right to return as sacred and felt that the Nakba37 was closer in time to the end of the Second World War than those who did not consider the right to return as sacred38 .

The attraction of the sacred texts, linked to a greater sense of temporal proximity, generates a greater capacity for resistance and a greater willingness to sacrifice in defence of these sacred values.

"Those who believe and do well, we will present them with gardens where streams flow, in which they will be eternally, forever. There they will have purified wives and we will give them a thick shade".39

  • Personal benefit. Defenders of sacred values have a lesser predisposition to profit. For example, subjects who interpret conflict-related issues as sacred values refuse to join the resistance group in the face of a possible Israeli invasion. They were given the opportunity to train abroad to later serve Palestine, but this value, although considered important, was not sacred.40

Putting the sacred value (joining the rebel group) before the non-sacred value (training abroad to later serve the country) obviously meant giving up a personal advantage. Moreover, the Koran reinforces the defence of this sacred value with a benefit implicit in its texts:

"He who fights for Allah fights, in fact, for his own benefit. Allah can certainly spare creatures.41

The theory of differential association

Social learning theory explains human behaviour as a continuous and permanent pattern based on the progressive learning that people develop in the course of their life process, moving away from any lucidity based on personality, childhood experiences or certain vital moments.42

Thus, according to the theory, the jihadist is through a continuous learning process based on survival strategies, codes, tactics and techniques to develop his tasks. All behaviours are learned concurrently, both those that focus on an introspective and integrative introspection into society and those that are typical of jihadist radicalisation.

For Edwin Sutherland (in "Principles of Criminology", 1939 and "White Collar Crime" in 1940), the individual, far from being born a criminal, or inheriting or imitating socially reprehensible behaviour, learns to be a criminal; this learning is transferred to jihadist radicalisation through a process in which effective learning of values, attitudes and behaviour takes place. In order to better understand Sutherland's differential association theory, it is important to highlight the influences he received from Shaw and McKay's 'social disorganization'43 and Mead and Dewey's 'interactionism'44 .

Sutherland discusses nine propositions about learning that we can directly relate to processes of jihadist radicalisation:

  • Crime is learned in the same way and through the same mechanisms as virtuous behaviour.45 Terrorist behaviour is learned through a process of radicalisation similar to that by which virtuous behaviour is internalised.
  •  Criminal behaviour is learned by interacting with other people through a communication process. In line with Sutherland, studies conducted by the Real Instituto Elcano show how agents of radicalisation and prior social ties are a key factor in radicalisation processes. The most common radicalisation processes are those in which the figure of a charismatic activist exists and develops face to face46 .
  •  The decisive part of this learning takes place in the individual's most intimate relationships with family and friends. The criminogenic influence depends on the degree of intimacy of interpersonal contact. The study of the Real Instituto Elcano shows that kinship ties based on parent-child or cousin relationships are a determining factor47 .
  • The learning of radical behaviour includes learning criminal techniques (whether simple or complex), motives and impulses, languages, symbols and instruments of communication, as well as neutralisation techniques. Radicalisation is a process in which patterns of terrorist activity are internalised; but it also encourages learning about motivations and other factors justifying such acts.48
  •  The specific orientation of motives and impulses is learned from the most varied definitions of legal precepts, both favourable and unfavourable. At this point, we should be aware that legal precepts in the Jihadist world are inferior to religious precepts, given that Islamic law is Sharia law.
  •  A person becomes a criminal, or in his case a terrorist, when the definitions in favour of breaking the law outweigh the unfavourable definitions that tend to conform to it. In the case of radicalised individuals, the favourable conditions promised by the Qur'an after death prove favourable in the face of Western democratic laws.49
  •  The individual's differential associations and contacts may differ according to frequency, duration, priority and intensity. These are complex processes of interaction and communication, which is why frequent and sustained contact has a greater pedagogical influence than fleeting or occasional contact. The younger the age of the socialised person and the higher the prestige of the socialising agents, the greater the learning. This characteristic can be found in the when, how and where of the text of the Real Instituto Elcano, in which the processes of radicalisation at an early age are associated with a Top Down process.50
  •  The process of learning jihadist behaviour involves all the mechanisms inherent in any learning process. Thus, radicalisation occurs in a progressive and interconnected way: motivation, interest, attention, acquisition, understanding, assimilation, application, transfer and evaluation.51 This would be identical to the learning shown in the Real Instituto Elcano study in its section "how radicalisation occurs".

Le comportement criminel et, dans son cas, terroriste, est l'expression de besoins et de valeurs générales.



The study of these four psychosocial theories explains not only how jihadist radicalisation processes take place, but also why their de-radicalisation is so complicated.

Firstly, the theory of uncertainty reduction shows how Islam gives the radicalised subject an identity that enables him or her to overcome an uncertainty that he or she would have to face again if he or she were to embark on a programme of de-radicalisation.

On the other hand, the theory of identity fusion shows how Islam, through its sacred texts, promotes the union between the "personal self" and the "social self", explaining at the same time why this argument can be interpreted on the basis of the most radical postulates such as the readiness to kill for the group or to sacrifice oneself.

Furthermore, sacred value theory explains how Islam is presented as a system of beliefs and values capable of encompassing a 'totality' that gives the individual a vital sense of self that is difficult to renounce.

Finally, the interrelation between differential association theory and empirical evidence shows how radicalisation is a continuous learning process that occurs through interactionism and has its origin in a plural society in conflict.




[1] Allport, F.H. (1924). Social Psychology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

[2] Tajfel, H., y Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. En W. G.Austin y S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 33–47). Monterey, CA: Brooks-Cole .

[3] Tajfel, H., y Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. En W. G.Austin y S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 33–47). Monterey, CA: Brooks-Cole .

[4] Hogg, M. A. (2007). Uncertainty-identity theory. En M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 39, pp. 69-126). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

[5] Hogg, M. A. (2004). Uncertainty and extremism: Identification with high entitativity groups under conditions of uncertainty. En V. Yzerbyt, C. M. Judd, & O. Corneille (Eds.), The psychology of group perception: Perceived variability.

[6] El yo (o “ego) es un concepto psicoanalítico. Fue presentado por Freud en la llamada “segunda tópica”, junto con el ello y el supero-yo, el yo (o ego) es la parte de la personalidad que se estructura en consecuencia de la influencia del ambiente. Este yo se rige por el principio de realidad y en él funcionan los procesos secundarios (percepción, pensamiento…)

[7] Gómez, A. y Vázquez, A. (2015). The power of ‘feeling one’ with a group: Identity fusion and extreme pro-group behaviours. International Journal of Social Psychology, 30, 481–511.

[8] Swann, W. B., Jr., Jetten, J., Gómez, A., Whitehouse, H. y Bastian, B. (2012). When group membership gets personal: A theory of identity fusion. Psychological Review, 119, 441–456.

[9] El islam es también un principio de ciudadanía donde la umma representa la reunión de todos los creyentes bajo una sola entidad.

[10]Prado, A. (2010) El islam como anarquismo místico. Barcelona, España: Virus editorial, 2010.pp 35.

[11] Prado, A. (2010) El islam como anarquismo místico. Barcelona, España: Virus editorial,2010.pp. 76

[12] Todos los dichos citados por el Profeta Muhámmad pertenecen a las colecciones más conocidas y aceptadas por los musulmanes. En este caso: Al-Mustadrak ´ ala al-Sahihayn, tomo I, p. 509, de Hakim al Nishaburi.

[13] PRADO, Abdennur. El islam como anarquismo místico. Barcelona: Virus

editorial,2010.pp 35.

[14] PRADO, Abdennur. El islam como anarquismo místico. Barcelona: Virus

editorial,2010.pp 76

[15] PRADO, A El islam como anarquismo místico. Barcelona: Virus editorial,2010. p.p 22

[16] AN-NAWANI, A. Islamguiden: Los Cuarenta hadices de Imán Nawawi, hadiz 24 [en línea]. [consultado 26/10/2020]. Disponible en:

[17]Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University


[18] PRADO, A. (2010) El islam como anarquismo místico. Barcelona: Virus editorial, p 29.

[19] Atran, S. (2015). Mindless terrorists? The truth about Isis is much worse. The Guardian. Recuperado de: nov/15/terrorists-isis

[20] (Corán 08:12)

[21] Entendiendo por valor aquella “cualidad o conjunto de cualidades por las que una persona o cosa es apreciada o bien considerada.” Y por sagrado “aquello que merece un respeto excepcional y no puede ser ofendido”.

[22] Tetlock, P. E. (2003). Thinking the unthinkable: Sacred values and taboo cognitions. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7, 320–324.

Tetlock, P. E., Kristel, O. V., Elson, S. B., Green, M. C. y Lerner, J. S. (2000). The psychology of the unthinkable: Taboo trade-offs, forbidden base rates, and heretical counterfactuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 853–870.

[23] (Corán 04:56)

[24] Prado, A. (2010) El islam como anarquismo místico. Barcelona: Virus editorial, p. 29.

[25] (Corán 02:191)

[26] (Corán 02:193)

[27] (Corán 02:216)

[28] (Corán 02:218)

[29] (Corán 02:244)

[30] Cognitivos (p. ej., asignar rasgos negativos extremos como crueldad, maldad, ignorancia), afectivos (p. ej., sentir ira o desprecio) y comportamentales (p. ej., apoyar normas para sancionar)

[31] Tetlock, P. E., Kristel, O. V., Elson, S. B., Green, M. C. y Lerner, J. S. (2000). The psychology of the unthinkable: Taboo trade-offs, forbidden base rates, and heretical counterfactuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, pp. 853–870.

[32] Berns, G. S., Bell, E., Capra, C. M., Prietula, M. J., Moore, S., Anderson, B.. y Atran, S. (2012). The price of your soul: Neural evidence for the non-utilitarian representation of sacred values. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B —Biological Sciences, 367(1589), pp. 754–762.

[33] Baron, J. y Spranca, M. (1997). Protected values. Organizational Behavior and Human

Decision Processes, 70, pp. 1–16.

Tetlock, P. E. (2003). Thinking the unthinkable: Sacred values and taboo cognitions. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7, 320–324.

[34] Ideas extraídas de la lectura de: José T, J. Hermano Islam. Madrid, España: Editorial Trotta, octubre 2019.

[35] Ginges, J. y Atran, S. (2014). Sacred values and cultural conflict. En M. J. Gelfand, C. Y. Chiu, e Y. Y. Hong (Eds.), Advances in Culture and Psychology (Volume 4). New York: Oxford University Press.

[36] Conclusiones propias extraídas de una interrelación entre la “innegociabilidad de valores sagrados” y el concepto de riqueza islámica que da Abdollah Yasbi rector, Universidad Libre Islámica de Teherán. Disponible en:

[37] La  “Nakba” palestina (“catástrofe” en árabe) se refiere al éxodo masivo de palestinos árabes de la Palestina del mandato británico durante la creación de Israel (1947-1949).

[38] Sheikh, H., Ginges, J. y Atran, S. (2013). Sacred values in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Resistance to social influence, temporal discounting, and exit strategies. Sociability, Responsibility, and Criminality: From Lab to Law, 1299, pp. 11–24.

[39] (Corán04:57)

[40] Sheikh, H., Ginges, J., y Atran, S. (2013). Sacred values in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Resistance to social influence, temporal discounting, and exit strategies. Sociability, Responsibility, and Criminality: From Lab to Law, 1299, pp. 11–24.

[41] (Corán 29:06)

[42] Cid, J., y Laurrauri, E. (2001) Teorías criminológicas. Barcelona, España: Bosch,  pp. 99-101.

[43]La primera influencia que recibió Sutherland fue de Shaw y Mckay con quienes coincidió en la Universidad de Chicago. De allí extrajo la idea de «desorganización social» como factor que contribuye al delito, al ser precisamente en estas áreas socialmente desorganizadas donde se produce un «exceso de definiciones favorables a infringir la ley».

[44] “Cap. 6. Interaccionismo simbólico”. En Ritzer, G. (2002), Teoría Sociológica Moderna. Madrid, España:  Ed. McGrawHill, pp. 247-287.

[45] El principio rector para el comportamiento de un musulmán es a lo que en el Corán se refiere como Al’Amal Assalih, u obras virtuosas. Algunos de los rasgos más notables del carácter que se espera de un musulmán son la piedad, la humildad y un profundo sentido de responsabilidad y conciencia ante Dios. Se espera que un musulmán sea humilde ante Dios y hacia las personas. El islam también encomienda a cada musulmán controlar sus pasiones y deseos.

[46] Reinares, F. y García-Calvo. C. (2013). Procesos de radicalización violenta y terrorismo yihadista en España: ¿cuándo? ¿dónde? ¿cómo?, pp. 15- 20…op. cit.,

[47] Ibid. pp. 11- 205.

[48] Es un método psicológico por el cual el terrorista neutraliza sus represiones posteriores una vez originado el acto. Se considera una supresión de valores que les impedían realizar tales actos percibidos como incorrectos.

[49] “… en verdad que para los temerosos hay un hermoso lugar de retorno: los Jardines de Adn cuyas puertas estarán abiertas.” [Noble Corán 38:49-50] “Jannah” – también conocido como paraíso o jardín en el Islam – es descrito en el Corán como un lugar de vida eterna, de paz y felicidad, donde los creyentes y los virtuosos son recompensados.

[50] Reinares, F. y García-Calvo. C. (2013). Procesos de radicalización violenta y terrorismo yihadista en España: ¿cuándo? ¿dónde? ¿cómo?, p. 18.

[51] Yanez, P. (2016) El proceso de aprendizaje, fases y elementos .Revista San Gregorio, Volumen1(11), pp. 70-81.