Do radicalized Muslim prisoners differ from non-radicalized Muslim prisoners with regard to Kruglanski’s (2004) quest for significance (QFS), need for (cognitive) closure (NFC), and their frame alignment regarding ideological and religious issues? To answer this research question N = 26 male inmates from Bavarian prisons were interviewed. The radicalized prisoners or extremists (n = 13) had been identified as Salafi or Jihadi adherents by the Bavarian Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bayerischer Verfassungsschutz) and therefore had a security note. The comparison group were non-radicalized Muslim inmates (n = 13); the vast majority had a migration background. The audio files of the interviews were transcribed and Mayring’s (2010) qualitative content analysis was applied. The obtained interview material was analyzed twice (each time with a different focus) for psychological differences and characteristics between the two groups of Muslim prisoners. In the first analysis, the interviews were investigated with regard to conspiracy theories, dualistic conception of the world, political sensitivity, collective and individual victimization and religious rigidity. Extremists exhibited a stronger frame alignment with respect to general conspiracy theories, dualistic conception of the world, collective victimization, and political sensitivity. Results also substantiate the idea that extremists exhibit more rigid religious behaviors than non-extremist Muslim prisoners. Contrary to our expectations, the two groups did not differ in various biographical features, for example whether they grew up in a family that actively practiced their religion. In the second analysis, we found that although the overall pattern regarding QFS turned out as expected, the radicalized inmates did not achieve higher values than their non-radicalized counterparts. However, we obtained substantial differences for subcategories of QFS. The extremist prisoners reported more norm violations as a trigger for QFS and more opportunities for gaining significance than non-extremists. This was also true for non-legitimate as well as non-criminal opportunities to gain significance. There was a substantial difference between extremists and non-extremists regarding the overall NFC characteristics. Radicalized prisoners tend to avoid ambiguous situations or uncertainty, they prefer clear, structured processes and firm beliefs. The results suggest that it is possible to differentiate non-radicalized from radicalized Muslims as they showed less quest for significance, less need for closure, less political sensitivity and a less rigorous view on religion.
Processes of Islamist radicalization, which are supposed to occur especially in the context of imprisonment, have long been the focus of international social attention (LaFree & Freilich, 2017). A current report by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) counts 22 terrorist attacks in Europe between 2015 and 2020 that were related to prisons or the imprisonment of one or more perpetrators (Basra & Neumann, 2020). These include, for example, the attacks against the French satirical magazine »Charlie Hebdo« in January 2015; the two assassins Chérif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly had met during their imprisonment (Basra & Neumann, 2020). No instances of a complete radicalization during imprisonment have yet been documented in Germany; however, there are several international reports of terrorist assassins who first came into contact with Islamist ideology during imprisonment or radicalized themselves to a decisive degree there. One of them was Anis Amri, who was responsible for the attack on the Berlin Christmas market in December 2016 (Endres & King, 2018).
For current extremism or terrorism research, a profound knowledge of radicalization processes and the motivations behind them is indispensable. This is because, for example, terrorists do not seem to suffer from mental disorders more frequently than other people (Horgan, 2003). A common personality profile of extremists has not been identified either (Bjørgo, 2011). Instead, indications of many different influences on the complex process of radicalization were found (cf. Borum, 2011). LaFree et al. (2018), for example, identified a number of differences between violent in comparison to non-violent extremists. Violent extremists more often lacked stable employment, they had more radical peers, more mental health problems (somewhat in contrast to earlier findings) and a criminal record.
According to Neumann (2013; p. 874), »virtually all academic models of radicalization (...) conceptualize radicalization as a progression which plays out over a period of time and involves different factors and dynamics. They differ when it comes to length and complexity, but they all subscribe to the idea that ‘becoming extremist’ is a process, and that studying radicalization is about discovering the nature of that process«. Bouhana and Wikström (2011) define this process from a developmental-psychological perspective and focus on the attitudes and propensity in terms of 1) the internalization of Salafi or Jihadi interpretation of Islam, and 2) the propensity to engage in extremist activism, either religiously or politically or both.
Another useful definition of Islamist radicalization was provided by Pisoiu (2014, p.796): »Islamist radicalization is an individual process, occurring in interaction with various levels of social environments and at the intersection of various types of discourse. More importantly, it is not something specific or derived from the quality of being Muslim«. Islamism is to be understood as a form of political extremism (BMI, 2019). It is based on the conviction that Islam as a religion should not only have an influence on the private lives of individuals but should also be decisive for the political and social order as a whole (BMI, 2019). In a study on Islamist radicalization in Denmark by Goli and Rezaei (2010), radical Islamists differed from moderate Muslims in four characteristics: The first is their endorsement of Islam as a religious ideology. The second characteristic is the interpretation of Islam as an all-encompassing set of rules that regulate all aspects of private and social life (e.g., based on Sharia law). Third, radical Muslims pursue the goal that the entire world should be conquered by Islam. And, fourth, that in order to achieve this goal, violent means, e.g., Jihad, are also considered justified.
Some factors that impact the radicalization process have already been identified. However, they do not necessarily affect every person or context, but only under specific circumstances. According to Kruglanski and Fishman (2009), these factors are therefore neither necessary nor sufficient to explain the emergence of terrorism. Rather, they argue, it is the combination of various factors that contributes to the radicalization of individuals. Therefore, a multi-level perspective is important. For instance, on the macro or societal level, social-movement theory (SMT; Wiktorowicz, 2004a) explains how many young Muslims find a strong identity in Islamic fundamentalism. Furthermore, there might also be processes of relative deprivation or poor social-economic integration. Processes on the macro level also interact with individual or psychological characteristics on the micro level such as feelings of discrimination or a sense of humiliation (Veldhuis & Staun, 2009).
The prevailing theories can be roughly divided into process or stage models and factor or root cause models (Veldhuis & Staun, 2009). Process models assume a series of events or phases that a person goes through during the radicalization process. These usually follow a fixed sequence, build on each other and influence each other (Taylor & Horhan, 2006). Not every stage has to be taken, though. The most important stage models of radicalization are the ‘staircase to terrorism’ by Moghaddam (2005), Sageman’s four stage process (Sageman, 2004), McCauley and Moskalenko’s (2008) 12 mechanism of political radicalization, Quintin Wiktorowicz’s al-Muhajiroun model (Wiktorowicz, 2005), and Silber and Bhatt’s (2007) NYPD’s four-stage radicalization process. These approaches to explain the radicalization process through pathways or stages have been criticized. One reason is that they are usually based on information delivered by subjects with a ›successful‹ radicalization. As they draw on retrospective insights, the reasoning takes place backwards as well. Such a procedure depends very much on the selection of the subjects. Another aspect of interest is why many persons who had similar experiences and who lived under comparable circumstances did not enter such pathways; this may be a matter of protective factors preventing a person from extremism or radicalization (Lösel, 2020).
In contrast to the process models, psychological factor models take less account of the time sequence of radical classification. Instead, they focus on the interaction of different influences that affect the person. Webber and Kruglanski (2017) define a trifactorial model based on the »3 N«: needs, network and narrative. In this context, needs describe individual psychological factors or motives. Two motives are assumed to substantially increase vulnerability for radicalization. One of these is described as a Quest for Significance (QFS; sometimes, this theory is called Significance Quest Theory; see Kruglanski, Jasko et al. 2018). There are different ways to trigger the QFS of a person. Striving can be understood as a discrepancy between the current actual state and the desired target state. It thus has both a situational component (actual state) and a relatively stable characteristic of the person (target state). The first component depends on external circumstances such as humiliation or injustice experienced. The target state, on the other hand, depends on the person's own demands or aspirations, which in turn can be shaped by a wide variety of experiences (Kruglanski, Jasko et al., 2018). From these considerations, Kruglanski and colleagues derive three categories of events that can trigger the quest for significance: an experienced loss of significance, threats of loss of significance, and the possibility of gaining significance. A further motive that is discussed as an important factor in the radicalization process is the Need for (Cognitive) Closure (NFC; Kruglanski, 2004). According to the theory, the inability to bear ambiguity and the need for simple answers contributes to the fact that, when the need for significance is stimulated, individuals can become enthusiastic about a collectivist ideology that answers all open questions seemingly clearly and without contradiction. Jihadi radicalization is also based on perceived injustice, identity crisis and a need for belonging (Krugslanski & Fishman, 2009). These motivations culminate in the pursuit of significance and longing for a strong collective identity, a process that alleviates feelings of alienation and identity crisis.
The radical network is another important component that contributes to the radicalization process. Belonging to a community in which people share similar attitudes and values and behave similarly provides security and stability. In addition, a community gives its members identity and structure, for example, through fixed rules (Webber & Kruglanski, 2017).
The narrative describes a worldview shared by a group. It can thus be understood as a collective belief system that an individual adopts. An ideology that justifies terrorism consists of several components: First, it draws attention to a particular grievance experienced by a group. This can consist, for example, of injustices or suffering inflicted on the group. Furthermore, the ideology defines an external culprit for this grievance – an enemy – from whom a threat emanates. Ultimately, morally justified means to remedy the grievance or fight the enemy are defined. Through these means, the members of the group can obtain honor and recognition from other followers (Kruglanski, Gelfand et al., 2014). An ideology thus serves as a narrative through which an individual justifies the means to attain significance. Terrorists exert violence and other radical activities to accomplish their QFS. As fundamentalist ideologies often suggest a simplistic dichotomous »black and white« world view, they are particularly attractive to insecure persons prone to unequivocal answers (Webber & Kruglanski, 2017).
Another important concept that is closely related to ideology in the context of social movements is framing (Snow, 2004; Wiktorowicz, 2004b). Frames can be understood as cognitive schemas that help individuals to organize their perceptions and experiences (Snow, 2004). In the context of collective action, »frames also perform this interpretive work (...) in ways intended to activate adherents. (...). (Frames are) ...decidedly (...) agentic (...) in the sense of calling for action that problematizes (...) existing authoritative views (...). (Snow, 2004, p. 385). In this sense, Jihadi recruiters deliberately place specific frames to make their ideological contents meaningful to targeted religious seekers (Wiktorowicz, 2003; Ritter, 2017). Through involvement in voluntary discussions or movement activities, the individual begins to internalize the ideological norms and values of the extremist groups. This individual process called frame alignment (Wiktorowicz, 2004b) is considered to be a psychological vulnerability, which is defined as an individual’s openness to engage in extremist activities. If frame alignment does not take place, the individual interrupts their religious seeking process.
In Wiktorowicz’s four stage model frame alignment is stage 3 after religious seeking (stage 2) and cognitive opening (unfreezing) and finally socialization (stage 4). The last stage involves supporting the Jihadi movement and engagement in risky activism in order to gain physical as well as metaphysical rewards. Frame alignment is a process that has been investigated in this project for the first time (Ritter, 2019).
The goal of this paper was to explore whether there are differences between extremist and non-extremist Muslim prisoners with regard to Quest for Significance (QFS), Need for Cognitive Closure (NFC), and frame alignment (in terms of ideological and religious aspects). It is plausible to assume that extremists and non-extremists are located on different stages in a process model. They should therefore differ in relevant characteristics, for example, psychological or biographical ones. We therefore conducted biographical interviews with radicalized and non-radicalized Muslims in Bavarian prisons. We analyzed the same structured interviews and the same transcribed verbal interview material twice, but with a different focus and with a different coding scheme (see Table 2). The first analysis looked for differences between extremist and non-extremist Muslim prisoners with regard to frame alignment, whereas the second analysis focused on differences between the two groups with regard to QFS and NFC. The goal of this article is to present a synthesis of the findings of the two investigations on a highly selective sample of Muslim prisoners. We also try to give an overview on how the different characteristics of the extremist and non-extremist Muslims are verbally expressed in an interview setting. The research presented here can be seen as exploratory. We aimed at finding substantial and pronounced differences between the two groups of extremists and non-extremists. In order to carve out such differences we applied one-sided statistical tests (e.g., t-Tests), but we did not test any specific hypotheses. Therefore, next to statistical results including their small p-values which we used as an equivalent for effect sizes supporting substantial differences, we present verbal expressions to illustrate the possible differences between radicalized and non-radicalized Muslim prisoners. Our aim was also to present empirical evidence for the theories presented above.
For the recruitment of eligible Muslim prisoners for our interviews, the Criminological Research Unit in Erlangen and the Bavarian Ministry of Justice provided us with a list of Muslim extremists who had been identified as Salafi or Jihadi adherents by the Bavarian Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bayerischer Verfassungsschutz). Accordingly, they had been assigned one of two different types of security notes that characterized prisoners either as ‘members of the Salafi scene’ (security note Salafism) or as ‘individuals associated with a Jihadist network’ (security note terrorism). What were the official criteria for assigning a security label? With regard to the members of the Salafi scene the Bavarian security authorities had knowledge of connections to the Islamist/Salafist scene and that they were involved with Islamist/political Salafist propaganda material (e.g., books, sermons). The main characteristics for the security note ›Salafism‹ were personal use and/or dissemination of Islamist/political Salafist material in the correctional system (also across institutions) and/or identification of Islamist/Salafist symbols and/or letter contact with persons from the Islamist/Salafist scene (with Islamist/Salafist content). The individuals with a security note ›terrorism‹ had been identified in the correctional system due to their clear Jihadist affiliations. Their main characteristics were involvement with and/or dissemination of Jihadist propaganda material within the judiciary (including across institutions) and/or identification of Islamist/Salafist and Jihadist symbols. The major difference between the two groups is that the ›terrorism‹ group can be seen as more prone to (Jihadi) violence. The ›terrorism‹ label does not necessarily imply that the individual was convicted for a terrorist offence in Germany (Penal Law: § 129 a StGB) or abroad (Penal Law: § 129 b StGB); however, in our sample, most of the individuals in the ›terrorism‹ group were. At the beginning of the research project there were 40 indexed Muslim extremists. We were not told of any person-specific reasons to the assignment of the security notes. Later on, the list of indexed inmates was extended to a comparison group of non-extremist Muslim prisoners who had no security note. The access to the prisons was facilitated and supported by the Bavarian Ministry of Justice.
A cover letter, in German and in Arabic, was sent out to each potential volunteer who met the participation criteria. In this letter they were asked to participate in the project. The letter did not reveal to the prisoners that the research project was about Islamist radicalization; instead we claimed to look for interview partners who are willing to talk about their current live situation, their biographical development and about their worldview including their religion. In each prison we had a specific contact person from the local psychological or social-work specialist service or also from religious pastoral care. Four interviews were conducted with an interpreter for those prisoners with low German language abilities. Only a small proportion of the prisoners who were asked by our contact persons declined to take part in the study; the participation rate was 80.6 percent. Reasons for not approaching prisoners for participating in the study were being on remand (in order to avoid getting the interviewers involved in judicial proceedings), speaking a language for which no interpreter was available or mental health problems, and two persons took part in a deradicalization program which might have interfered with our study goals. One interview had to be conducted behind a glass partition for security reasons. The detainees were informed that a study was currently being conducted at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. Furthermore, the prisoners were told that the interviewers were subject to professional secrecy and that their answers would not affect their prison terms or conditions.
The list of extremists was provided by the Criminological Research Unit and the Bavarian Ministry of Justice. But how to find an appropriate comparison group? For this purpose, a second list of Muslim prisoners without an obvious history of radicalization (N = 1270) was provided by the Criminological Research Unit and scanned for suitable matching partners. For the first analysis, a sophisticated matching algorithm (see Ritter, 2019) was applied using criteria, scores and assigned weights for the matching procedure. The criteria encompassed 1) criminal record (number of terms of imprisonments, including youth custody; weight = 3), 2) age (weight = 3), 3) migration background (weight = 2), 4) type of crime (weight = 1) and 5) length of sentence (weight = 2). Matching partners reached good fits in terms of age, satisfactory fits in terms of criminal history, migration background, and type of crime, and insufficient comparability with regard to lengths of sentences. We attempted to match the 13 non-radicalized prisoners with the identified extremists based on a score which indicates the goodness of the matching. Due to drop-outs from the list of extremists at the time (in 2019), a perfect match was achieved only for 11 pairs. For the second analysis which took place one year later (2020), two additional extremists could be added. Here, the total sample consisted of N = 26 male inmates, of whom 13 belonged to the extremist group (EG) and 13 to the comparison group (CG), with 11 from the first analysis for each group. In the extremist group were two subjects who converted from Christianity to Islam; the non-extremist group did not include any converts, however one non-extremist grew up with a Christian mother and a Muslim father. The composition of the samples for the two analyses can be taken from Figure 1.
Five inmates of the extremist group had the security note ›terrorism‹ and eight had the security note ›Salafism‹. Many but not all extremists were aware of having this security label. The detainees of the comparison group were on average 25.33 years old (SD = 4.35); the extremist group was on average 30.54 years old (SD = 9.81); the mean age of the ›terrorist‹ group was 25.20 (SD= 3.70) and the mean age for the ›Salafism‹ group was 33.88 (SD = 11.14). Most inmates were grown up in families which came originally from an Arabic country. While there were ten inmates whose family came from Arabic countries (including Turkey) in the CG, one inmate’s family was from Germany and two were from other countries (Albania). In the EG there were also ten inmates whose family came originally from an Arabic country or Turkey, with additionally three inmates from other countries, one from Germany and two from other countries (Czech Republic and Chechnya). Six inmates of the comparison group and one inmate from the extremist group were born in Germany.
For the extremist inmates, the average length of the prison sentence was M = 67.46 (SD = 49.06) months, for the non-extremist Muslims: M = 40.91 (SD = 33.09); thus the sentences for the extremists were about two years longer than for the non-extremists. Almost half of the non-extremists (46.2 %) and almost two-thirds of the extremists (63.7 %) mentioned war experiences.
A more detailed description of the two samples was only available for 24 out of the 26 detainees (EG: n = 11; CG: n = 13; cf. Ritter, 2019). Here, the majority of the non-extremist group (61.5 %, n = 8) reported that both parents were unskilled laborers and/or they also reported financial difficulties in childhood or adolescence. The rest of this group 38.5 % (n = 5) mentioned that their parents possessed real estates and never had any financial difficulties. In the extremist group, 64 % (n = 7) revealed that their parents were skilled workers who had no financial problems, while one inmate (9.1 %) reported that his parents were unskilled workers. Of this group 27 % (n = 3) reported that their parents possessed real estates and never faced any financial problems.
We labelled a family as not religiously active if they only celebrated feasts but did not pray regularly, fast or go to the mosque; in contrast, a family was considered religiously active if at least some family members regularly practiced (i.e. prayed or fasted) and the family regularly celebrated religious feasts. The proportional frequencies in percentage of the religious upbringing of extremists and non-extremists showed no statistical differences. In the extremists’ families, 36.4 % were not religiously active while 63.6 % were, compared to respective shares of 38.5 % and 61 % in the comparison group. 77 % of non-radicalized prisoners in comparison to 64 % of the radicalized groups reported having experienced violent child rearing practices (e.g., excessive corporal punishment). The proportion of extremists who lost their fathers exceeded the share of the non-extremist prisoners by around one third as 54.5 % extremists compared to 38.5 % lost their fathers either due to the death of the father or a separation from the family. The shares of participants who had a drug problem were roughly equal. 64.2 % of extremists and 69.2 % of non-extremists reported about at least one period of persistent drug consumption.
We conducted structured interviews between July 2018 and February 2019 in 15 Bavarian prisons using an interview guideline. The interviews were performed by female researchers and lasted between two and three hours. The selection of themes of the biographical interviews can be taken from Table 1. As a small sign of appreciation, the interviewees were granted 3 € for taking part in the interview (the chosen amount in euros corresponds to the earnings in a prison workshop which would have been lost due to participating in the interview). It was also announced that the interviews would only be recorded if the interviewee agreed on it. One prisoner of the comparison group and four members of the extremist group did not want the interviews to be recorded; in this case we took written notes. After the interview we thanked the interviewees for their time and effort; no explicit feedback or debriefing was given afterwards.
|Theme Section||Example Question|
|Greetings, Introduction||Are you worried about the interview?|
|Opening of the Conversation||Is there a current topic that particularly concerns you?|
|Imprisonment||How do you get along with the other prisoners?|
|Biography||Who belongs to your family?|
|Career Development, Performance Range||Have you professionally achieved everything you wanted to achieve?|
|Leisure and Private Life Before Prison||Who were you usually with?|
|Youth and Youth Violence||Have you ever had an argument with other young people?|
|Criminal History||How did you experience the judicial trial?|
|Religion||Who taught you about Islam?|
|Politics||Who is behind the most important developments in the world?|
|Desired Living Conditions||What would an ideal world look like?|
|Justice and Discrimination||Have you ever felt personally treated unfairly?|
|Services Offered in Custody||Are you visiting a group or participating in any courses?|
|Future Orientation||What will your life look like in 10 years?|
|Ending the Interview||Is there something important that we have forgotten?|
Categorical System and Content Analysis
The interviews were analyzed according to the qualitative content analysis by Philipp Mayring (2001; 2010). Qualitative content analysis is characterized by an interpretative understanding of the text, which allows latent meanings of spoken phrases to be included in the analysis. Categories of the features of interest are formed. Text sections are precisely defined and further differentiated during the process so that the complete category system describes the text material adequately and exhaustively regarding the relevant features (Schreier, 2014). Apart from the development of at least some of the categories on the material, Mayring (2010) also emphasizes the importance of theory guidance in qualitative content analysis. Thus, this work is based on the theories described above by e.g., Kruglanski, Gelfand et al. (2012), Wiktorowicz (2004a,b) and Wikström and Bouhana (2013).
Even before the creation of categories began, all interview material was carefully read and the most interesting verbal phrases were annotated. This was followed by the creation of the category system, which is considered the core of qualitative content analysis (Schreier, 2014). This was done both deductively, i.e., theory-based, and inductively using the interview material (the total category system may be requested from the first author). As suggested by Schreier (2014; see also Becker, 2020 in Chapter 4), the material was divided into coding units (also called segments or sections here) before assigning the codes. Each code was then transferred to a complete coding unit. Such a text segment corresponds to a substantive meaning section of the conversation. The length of the coding unit could range from a single word to several sentences. In order to systematically define the coding segments, rules for defining the coding units were written in advance of the analysis and tested for their applicability on the material and modified. All text segments were assigned either one of the codes from the category system or a »blank code«.
Our analyses were based on a theoretically based and explicitly defined categorical system in order to rate the prisoners’ frame alignment, ideological and religious differences. Mayring’s content analysis allows for qualitative and quantitative elements (Mayring, 2010); that is, it was counted how often a certain remark belonging to a category was coded; therefore, categories were tested for substantial group differences and correlations. In addition, excerpts from the actual interviews are presented to give the reader an idea of the respective verbal statements on which the interview codes were based.
The audio files of the interviews were transcribed to WORD files by several project members. Attention was paid to a literal reproduction of the interview contents: Grammar and language errors were incorporated into the text and pauses in the conversation were noted. The two analyses used the same interview material but with a different coding; the applied category system for the two studies can be taken from Table 2.
For the first analysis, we used the categories conspiracy theories, dualistic conception of the world, political sensitivity (including grievances of Muslims), perceived collective and individual victimization, and religious rigidity (including correct execution of religious duties; (Ritter, 2019). A conspiracy theory refers to the ‘belief that an event or situation is the result of a secret plan made by powerful people’ (Cambridge Dictionary, 2014). A dualistic conception of the world divides the world in two opposing forces, or more precisely, in a favorable group a person identifies with, and people who are members of an unfavorable outgroup. Political sensitivity is conceived as ‘the quality of being easily upset by the things [...][politicians or other influential institutions or persons] say or do’ (see Cambridge Dictionary, 2014), in the present context specifically to the detriment of Muslims. Rigidity is generally defined as ‘the quality or characteristic of not permitting any change’ (see Cambridge Dictionary, 2014). Extended to a Salafi interpretation of Islam, religious rigidity is conceived as the characteristic of not permitting any change of the religious practices and principles derived from Quran and Sunna, namely the living of Prophet Muhammad. We also investigated the correct execution of religious duties as a related category of religious rigidity. We conceived victimization as an attributional social information process that renders certain groups responsible for experienced, perceived or anticipated injustices against oneself (individual victimization) or the group oneself identifies with (collective victimization).
For the second analysis with a focus on QFS, a main category was created for each of the causes or triggers for QFS and the means to gaining significance (Becker, 2020). Based on the existing literature, further preliminary subcategories could be derived from these: For the main category of triggers, the subcategories mentioned by Webber and Kruglanski (2017) were chosen first: These include the loss of significance, the threats of loss of significance, and the possibility of gaining significance. For the possibility of gaining significance, the subcategories violation of norms, threats of violence and non-criminal opportunities to gain significance were initially chosen as subcategories (Kruglanski, Gelfand et al., 2014). Non-criminal opportunities to gain significance describes the wish of the prisoner to be fully integrated into the society, but he did not specify any specific means how to accomplish this goal. For means to gain significance the subcategories legitimate means and non-legitimate means were selected. In the case of NFC, there was only one main category. The facets described by Webster and Kruglanski (1994) were selected as subcategories. These are namely ‘preference for order and structure’, the ‘discomfort with ambiguity’, the ‘desire for predictability’, ‘narrow-mindedness’ and ›decisiveness‹.
|Dualistic Conception of the World|
|Grievances of Muslims|
|Correct Execution of Religious Duties|
|Level 1Level 2||Level 3||Level 4|
|Triggers for QFS||Loss of Significance||Violation of Norms|
|Threats of Loss of Significance||Threats of Violence|
|Possibility of Gaining Significance||Non-criminal Opportunities to Gain Significance|
|Means of Gaining Significance||Legitimate Means||Non-legitimate means|
Note. QFS = Quest for Significance; NFC = Need for Closure.
In both analyses, the studies’ respective category system was applied to the interview material and sample material of different interview sections that were compiled from all subgroups of the interview sample. Care was taken to ensure that both verbatim and retrospectively reproduced interviews for which there was no audio recording were included in the sample material, as well as interviews that had been conducted with an interpreter. The MAXQDA analysis software (Version 20.4; Verbi Software, 2019) was used for the complete coding procedure. In the first analysis the inter-rater reliability was assessed. Two independent raters analyzed the coding system by searching through the text material of three transcribed interviews (two from the EG and one from the CG). The obtained inter-rater reliabilities (i.e., kappa coefficients) for the different categories were as follows: conspiracy theories (–> = 0.66), dualistic conception of the world (–> = 0.75), political sensitivity (–> = 0.80), collective victimization (–> = 0.61), individual victimization (–> = 0.83) and religious rigidity (–> = 0.66). The average of the kappa coefficients over all categories was = 0.72, suggesting a satisfying inter-rater reliability and that the categories which were derived from the text material were adequately described and coded. In the second analysis an intra-coder reliability was calculated after several months in order to evaluate the consistency of the ratings of the categories. For QFS, the obtained kappa coefficient was –>–> = 0.96 and for NFC –> = 0.93. This was taken as a sign, that the categories which were derived from the text material can be consistently coded over time.
For the statistical analyses which tested the group differences between extremist and non-extremist Muslims, SPSS version 26 was used. Only the main categories and their subcategories were considered in this analysis. For the first analysis, the summary score for each coded segment was used to calculate the mean differences (see Table 3). The listed numbers represent the average number of coded segments. In analysis 1, no subcategories were used. For the second analysis a different unit for calculating the mean differences was applied. Since the interviews varied greatly in duration and detail in some cases, and longer interviews thus cause more frequent mentions, the number of relevant text segments was divided by the total number of text segments of the interview to adjust for the length of the interview. Group comparisons were then calculated for the relative frequencies (proportions) of the mentioned codes (see Table 4). In analysis 2, four levels of subcategories were used. The scores for the main category (i.e., QFS) of each group can be composed by adding up the scores of two neighbored categories (i.e., Triggers for QFS and Means of Gaining Significance; except for rounding errors). This is also true for the addition of scores from level 2 and 3; however, only significant differences for sub-subcategories were listed for level 4 (therefore they do not add up to level 3 scores). Because of the small sample, t-Tests were only conducted if the raw scores were normally distributed. If the values were normally distributed, we used dependent t-Tests in the first analysis, because the interviews were matched and independent, and we use independent t-Tests for the second analysis. If the values were not normally distributed, we applied the Wilcoxon signed-rank test in the first analysis and the Mann Whitney U-test in the second analysis (see Table 3 and 4).
The content analysis based on Mayring (2010) serves as a scaffolding for quantitative and qualitative analysis of interview transcripts. Based on the developmental-psychological theory of radicalization (see Wikström & Bouhana, 2013) and on empirical evidence on extremist framing (Ritter, 2017), a deductive categorical scheme was set up to measure qualitative differences as to 1) conspiracy theories, 2) dualistic conception of the world, 3) political sensitivity (including grievances of Muslims), 4) collective and individual victimization and 5) religious rigidity (including correct execution of religious duties).
|t = 2.35*|
|Dualistic Conception of the World||3.09
|z = 2.32*|
|t = 1.97*|
|Grievances of Muslims||3.36
|t = 1.85*|
|t = 2.65*|
|t = 0.16|
|Religious Rigidity||2.73 (1.19)||1.64 (0.51)||t = 2.63*|
|Correct Execution of Religious Duties||3.09
|t = 1.74+|
Note. The values represent the means of summary scores of the coded segments. If the data were normally distributed, t-tests for dependent samples were conducted; if the normality assumption was violated the Wilcoxon signed rank test was performed and the corresponding z-values are listed; instead of the rank values, the respective means and SDs are displayed. All tests were one-sided. +p<.10, *p<.05.
First, extremists were compared to non-extremists in terms of enemy stereotypes embedded in expressed conspiracy theories; it was tested whether extremists were more likely to blame enemies such as »the West« or the infidels, the Americans, corrupt Arab governments, Iran or Shiites, Israel or the Jews. The assumption of a normal distribution was supported. The subsequent paired-sample t-test between the extremist and the comparison group was significant. Extremists verbalized on average (M =1.64) more conspiracy theories than non-extremists (M = 0.64). In addition, there was also a qualitative difference, whereas extremists deduced from traditional extremist frames, whereas non-extremists blamed only distant enemies, such as Americans or Israel, but they neither referred to local corrupt actors nor to spies.
Extremist (conspiracy theory): Subject (S): »So [...] this lawyer I had, as if he was collaborating with the police [...] It’s the same in Syria, it is such a dictatorial system [...]. And earlier they did exactly the same. So they sent a lawyer who works for them, yeah. [...] But [...] when a lawyer approaches you to help you, but you don’t trust him [...].« [dictatorial systems in Syria and Germany]
Non-extremist (conspiracy theory): S [thinks]: »I think the USA sucks.« Interviewer (I): »Mhm. You can definitely look at it critically. For what reason?« S: »Because they suck. Um, in the USA there.... What do they have themselves? They used to be (...) Indians. There live... actually only Europeans are there. Everything that is there comes from us, so.«I: »Yes, that's an argument.« S: »They don't have anything of their own. And... that's supposed to be the biggest world power or what?«
With regard to a dualistic conception of the world, the scores of the extremists and the non-extremists were normally distributed. A paired-sample t-test found substantial differences between the two groups: Radicalized Muslims mentioned more categories of extremist stereotypes (M = 3.09) than Muslim prisoners without a history of radicalization (M = 1.55). Also, political sensitivity and grievances of Muslims were examined. Extremists talked substantially more about political topics in an interview (M = 8.00) than non-extremist Muslims (M = 4.91), and they seemed also to be more affected by the grievances of Muslims (M = 3.36) than non-extremist prisoners (M = 2.65). The results of the t-tests confirmed that there were no differences between the groups in terms of individual victimization (extremists: M = 4.46; non-extremists: M = 4.27). However, substantial group differences for collective victimization evolved (extremists: M = 7.30; non-extremists: M = 3.70).
We expected that extremists would differ from conventional Muslims in terms of the quality of religious rigidity. Based on respective a-priori categories, differences between the scores of the two groups were found to be normally distributed (Shapiro-Wilk test: D(11) = 0.846, p = 0.066). A paired-sample t-test pointed to a great difference between the extremist (M =2.73) and the comparison group (M =1.64), rendering extremists more religiously rigid than non-extremists.
Extremist (religious rigidity): [Answering the question if you should live based upon the Prophet’s principles:] S: »Like the Prophet? [...] Yes, but if you do so, [...] then I need to carry the sword. Because he is called [...] the Prophet with the sword, with the burning sword [...] because he has already waged wars, hard wars, for his faith to establish it. And, yes, then I have to crack down on it.« I: »Ok. As far as I know, it’s like that [...] daily life is affected.«//S: »Yes, it’s about the beard, it needs to be clean because there [shouldn’t] be any food, any water [...].«
Non-extremist (religious rigidity): I: »Because you said something about biography...«S: »...of Mohammed.« I: »about Mohammed, exactly. Can you – ... because I was fantasizing about Ramadan in prison... – can you live out Islam as your religion here without any problems?« S: »Yes, of course.« I: »Is that possible?« S: »Yes, of course!« I: »Okay, that's good. Mhm. Would you theoretically have to fast in prison, too? Or are there exceptions?«S: »If you can, then do it.« I: »If you can, then you should. And if you were in a prison, for example, where it's not possible, then it's not so dramatic if you don't do it?«S: »Yes, I mean that is a condition where nothing is normal, so. And... it's only in your favor if you do it. I: »Okay. Ok. But you don't fast yourself?« S: »No.« I: »mhm, how important is it then, because you said it is important to live like the prophet. How important is it to do everything right in everyday life?« S: »Honestly, no, I would like to do it the way he did it, but I can't get it together.«
In terms of correct execution of religious duties, the differences were close to significance (extremists: M = 3.09; non-extremists: M = 1.36); suggesting that extremists emphasized on average the correct religious duties more often than their Muslim counterparts in the comparison group.
In sum, this analysis examined ideological frame alignment and biographical differences between extremist and non-extremist Muslim prisoners. It revealed several similarities and differences: Compared to non-extremist Muslims, extremists exhibited a higher frame alignment to conspiracy theories, political sensitivity in general and implicitly related to Muslim grievances, and collective as well as individual victimization. Extremists also exhibited more pronounced religious attitudes and behaviors with a more rigid fundamentalist quality than non-extremist prisoners (religious rigidity).
It was hypothesized that extremists differ from the comparison group (CG) in terms of their quest for significance (QFS; Kruglanski et al. 2012) and need for (cognitive) closure (NFC; Webster & Kruglanski, 1994). Next to QFS, two lower categorical levels were created (level 2): triggers for QFS and the means to gain significance. Based on the available literature, further lower levels of the categories were derived. For the category triggers for QFS, the lower level 3 categories mentioned by Webber and Kruglanski (2017) were selected first: Those include the loss of significance, the threats of loss of significance and the possibility of gaining significance (Kruglanski, Gelfand et al, 2014). In the case of the NFC, there was one main category.
(with different levels)
|Level 1||Level 2||Level 3||Level 4|
|t = 0.67|
|Triggers for QFS||24.78
|t = 0.73|
|Loss of Significance||21.06
|t = 0.47|
|Violations of Norms||1.95
|Threats of Loss of Significance||3.14 (2.07)||2.61 (1.89)||t = 0.68|
|Threats of Violence||0.09
z = -2.14*
|Possibility of Gaining Significance||0.58
|U = 25|
z = 3.26**
|Non-criminal Opportunities to Gain Significance||0.45
|U = 37|
z = 2.60*
|Means of Gaining Significance||14.78
|t = 0.09|
|U = 63|
z = 1.10
|t = -2.03*|
|General NFC||9.15 (4.16)||6.23 (2.08)||t = 2.26*|
Note. The values represent the means of proportions of the mentioned coded segments. If the data were normally distributed, t-tests for independent samples were conducted; if the normality assumption was violated the Mann Whitney U-test was performed and the corresponding U and z-values are listed; instead of the rank values, the respective means and SDs are displayed. All tests were one-sided. +p<.10, *p<.05, **p<.01.
For all statistical comparisons, the test of a normal distribution was based on the Kolmogorov-Smirnov-Test; in addition, Levene’s test for the homogeneity of variance was performed. In case of heterogeneous variances the Welch-Test was conducted instead of the original Student’s t-test for independent samples. For a nonparametric test, the Mann-Whitney-U-test was applied (all descriptive and test statistics can be taken from Table 4).
Quest for Significance (QFS): It was found that both, the overall characteristics of QFS and the main categories triggers for QFS and means of gaining significance were normally distributed. Therefore, t-tests were performed for independent samples. With regard to the General QFS characteristics, the group of Islamist offenders had a higher mean percentage of coded segments than the control group (extremists: 39.62 %; non-extremists: 37.57 %), but this difference was not statistically significant. With respect to the main category of triggers for QFS, the mean percentage of responses was also somewhat higher among the presumed Islamists than among the control group (extremists: 24.78 %; non-extremists: 22.94 %); this discrepancy was also not significant. The same pattern could be found for the means of gaining significance: The mean values in the extremist group were higher than in the control group (but not significantly different; extremists: 14.78 %; non-extremists: 14.64 %).
With regard to the subcategories of reasons for loss of significance, the sub-subcategory violation of norms revealed a significant difference between the two groups. Extremists obtained significantly higher scores than the non-extremist prisoners (extremists: 1.95 %; non-extremists: 0.97 %). The category violation of norms refers to a committed violation by the self that leads to feelings of guilt, shame, or other negative emotions.
Extremist (violation of norms): »S: Afterwards, it was about his deed. Since mmh, the detainee also became very emotional at times.«
Non-extremist (violation of norms): S: »[...] and with me it was just naturally bitter that I have built the mess in that, where it was not yet known or ...I didn’t knew, ok, fiancée, uh, ... was pregnant. I am least of all ... most of all sorry, let's say [...]«.
With regard to the threats of loss of significance the sub-subcategory threats of violence revealed a substantial difference between the two groups (extremists: 0.09 %; non-extremists: 0.32 %). Extremists received a lower score than the non-extremist prisoners. The control group had reported significantly more often during the interviews about situations in which their physical integrity or the physical integrity of others had been threatened. For the subcategory possibility of gaining significance, significant differences between the two groups were also detected with higher mean percentages for extremists (0.58 %) than for the non-extremists (0.09 %). This means that the group of suspected Islamists reported opportunities to achieve significance significantly more often than the control group. In the subcategory possibility of gaining significance, the sub-subcategory non-criminal opportunities to gain significance also revealed differences. The extremists thus spoke more often about the possibility of attaining special significance through non-criminal opportunities than the control group (extremists: 0.45 %; non-extremists: 0.09 %).
For means of gaining significance, the sub-category legitimate means did not reach the level of significance but the sub-subcategory non-legitimate means did (extremists: 1.27 %; non-extremists: 2.19 %). This latter category refers to non-radically motivated criminal acts. This resulted in a higher mean rank for the control group than for the extremist group.
Extremist (non-legitimate means): S: »[...] Yes, I started buying and selling anabolic steroids illegally in the gym, that was my goal now, where I wanted to achieve something. Where my goals were behind it, yes. [...]«.
Non-extremist (non-legitimate means): S: »He motivated me, so this man looking for an apartment, ehm, motivated me, ehm, to get my money in this [added note: criminal] way. I guess that's your right and you must have that. After that/He told me he's going to get me in there in the company and I'm going to get you your money«.
Need for closure (NFC): With regard to the general category, there was a significant difference between extremists and non-extremists (extremists: 9.15 %; non-extremists: 6.23 %). Radicalized prisoners had a significant higher tendency toward cognitive closure, they were less tolerant of ambiguity than non-radicalized prisoners. People with high scores on NFC tend to avoid ambiguous situations or uncertainty. In contrast to the non-extremists, the extremists prefer clear, structured processes and firm beliefs.
Extremist (need for closure): S: »Yes, I [...] These people [dressed with suits or uniforms], you see, they are Nazis, but this one is not so bad. But those in a suit and tie, they are even worse.«I: »Lawyers?« S: »Real Nazis, also the prosecution. I: »Public prosecutor's office, okay, I would also like to ask about that, you say there is racism [...]«. S: »Extremely here.«
Non-extremist (need for closure): I: »So some people think that you should do a lot of things the way the Prophet Muhammad did it – do you think that's true, or do you think that's actually not that relevant to the religion?« S. »Well, I never dealt with that, I always took over the...religion, the...things from my family, the way my family taught me, that's how I took it over.«
The Spearman correlation between the main categories of QFS and NFC was rs = 0.46, p < .05 suggesting a medium high effect size. Inmates who mentioned aspects of QFS are also inclined to report facets of NFC. There were no substantial differences found for any of the subcategories of NFC and these findings are not included in this article.
In summary, it can be concluded that neither in terms of overall QFS nor in terms of the subcategories triggers for QFS and means of gaining significance, the extremists obtained substantially higher values than the non-extremists. We detected significant group differences only for sub-subcategories. Salafi prisoners reported more norm violations as a trigger for QFS; threats of violence were significantly more often perceived by non-radicalized Muslims. Possibilities of gaining significance together with non-criminal opportunities were significantly more often mentioned by Extremists. This was also true for non-legitimate means to gain significance together with a desire to lead a well-respected life. In terms of the overall need for closure (NFC), Extremists also presented themselves as avoiding significantly more often ambiguous situations or uncertainty.
We explored differences between extremist and non-extremist prisoners in an interview setting. The questions were not directly geared to radicalization as the interviews primarily contained biographical, political and religious aspects. No inmate mentioned directly any sympathies for a Muslim radical group. The interviews were subjected to a qualitative content analysis (Mayring, 2010). Subsequently, their statements were investigated with reference to quest for significance (QFS), need for (cognitive) closure (NFC) and frame alignment. We also wanted to give an overview on how these characteristics were verbally expressed in interviews. No substantial difference in QFS was found between the extremist and non-extremist groups. However, we detected a higher proportion of answers by radicalized Muslims, both in terms of the overall QFS characteristic as well as the triggers for QFS and the means of gaining significance. These patterns were also evident in terms of loss of significance and the threats of loss of significance (here, the difference was significant). There were also significant differences on the subcategorical levels for possibilities of gaining significance. Extremists mentioned significantly more means and opportunities for gaining significance. Threats of violence, on the other hand, were more frequently experienced by non-extremists. Overall, QFS might well be elevated in both groups, compared to non-extremists and non-criminal Muslims, as extremism and criminal offenses can both be seen as behavior aimed at self-aggrandizement. QFS is an important factor in the radicalization process, as mentioned before, it has a state and a trait component assigned to it. The state component is important in the early stages of the radicalization process such as a trigger for QFS (e.g., based on humiliation or experienced injustice) and the trait component plays a major role in terms of the status in the Jihadi scene or network, where a member can move up the ‘career ladder’ to receive honors or respect. The interviews were done retrospectively, focusing mainly on the present situation in prison, therefore the explored QFS state must have been in the past and consequently low at the present, while the trait component still can be high. Further interviews should take the timing of the QFS into consideration (e.g., QFS before and in prison) and focus more on the different state and trait components.
The extremists’ statements contained substantially more references to the general NFC than those of the non-extremists. Because QFS and NFC were significantly correlated, they interact and fit together in terms of an individual’s narrative or worldview.
In addition, extremists exhibited a stronger frame alignment to conspiracy theories, dualistic conception of the world, political sensitivity and (collective and individual) victimization. Results also suggest that extremists admit more religiously rigid behaviors than Muslim prisoners without a verified history of radicalization. Contrary to our expectations, radicalized Muslims did not differ from Muslim prisoners without a security note in terms of distinct biographical features. Prisoners from both groups grew up in families that actively practiced Islam and equally suffered from individual burdens throughout their life courses, such as substance abuse problems or growing up without a father. This might indicate that for individuals equally at risk, later experiences (in particular, contacts with criminal or extremist networks) will be decisive for the direction a deviant life-course takes.
Especially our first analysis provides evidence that radicalized Muslims internalized more typical extremist frames (see also Ritter, 2017). They simply report more topics that are implicitly related to the grievances of Muslims, such as the Iraq War or the 2015 refugee wave in Germany. When it comes to antagonistic groups, they also voice the typical combination of enemy stereotypes, such as international actors like the United States, and local corrupt state actors, such as the German domestic intelligence service. This result is in accordance with the theoretical assumption of ideological frame alignment (Wiktorowicz, 2004 a, b). A result which is complimentary to this research is that extremists seem to be more prone to conspiracy theories. It seems that radicalized Muslims practiced Islam more strictly prior to their imprisonment as well as during their period of detention. We also found that a rigid and correct way how to practice religion plays a distinct role in the mindset of extremists. This factor that has already been theorized as a motivational force for acting upon the principles of Jihadi Islam (Pyszczynski et al., 2006) in terms of a quest for transcendental rewards after life (e.g., virgins in paradise). Such a rigid view of Islam can be seen on social media by radical hate preachers such as Abul Baraa, who give advice on whether all kinds of activities of daily living are haram or halal. Among those ›rated‹ issues were being a taxi driver, having a talisman or a Nazar amulet, and conducting certain sexual practices.
The fact that extremists are more sensitive to collective victimization than non-extremist prisoners and that they are more concerned with political topics that implicitly relate to injustices against Muslims might have played a pivotal role in their radicalization process (Kruglanski et al., 2009). On the other hand, stressing these topics might be a later process to justify their extremist course and alleviate cognitive dissonance.
Limitations of the Study
Our study has a number of limitations. Firstly, although – compared to the prevailing use of single-case casuistics in extremism research – we sampled about a third of all extremists imprisoned in Bavaria at the time – we cannot assume to have a representative sample neither for the EG nor for the CG. The list with indexed prisoners was worked off, however, about one fifth of the eligible inmates did not take part in the study (e.g., due to language problems or safety reasons). We interviewed any voluntary and eligible inmate and while we applied strict prerequisites to take part in the study (e.g., indexed Muslim inmates), we tried to minimize the influence of self-selection. We interviewed only radicalized prisoners from one German state (i.e., Bavaria); we are planning on conducting interviews also in a neighboring state. Here they might apply different security labels and we would be able to compare certain characteristics of those non-Bavarian inmates. Secondly, the sample is rather small. This has consequences for low statistical power; in addition, single possibly extreme cases (statistical outliers) can have a large impact on the results. Thirdly, we did not verify the reports of the inmates with regard to any activities related to Salafism or terrorism. If they mentioned it by themselves, in most cases, they denied any connection to Salafism or terrorist networks, but if it occurred, when interviewees denied any documented involvement in these movements, we treated this like any other information about their biography. Although we did not conduct the interviews to prove or reject any allegations by the Bavarian security authorities, we cannot exclude potential influences of social desirability. However, we set up the interviews such that they were performed in a warm and empathetic fashion; each interviewee had full control over what he revealed and what not. The vast majority of interviewed inmates were friendly and willing to talk about their biography and world view. Fourthly, we took the prison labels as given. We were informed about official criteria for assigning such labels, but we were not told any person-specific details. Fifthly, there were limitation regarding the interview procedure which were conducted by three different female research assistants (by the way, none of the inmates refused to shake hands with the research assistants or mentioned any disgust against women). While the comparison group was interviewed in a fully confidential setting, extremists were partially interviewed by two interviewers or even in the presence of prison staff.
In sum, we were able to support several aspects of the theory of Kruglanski and his colleagues (Kruglanski, Gelfand et al., 2014) under the condition that the security labels of the Bavarian Office for the Protection of the Constitution were largely correct. Our data show that many of the characteristics that are considered relevant for radicalization could also be found, at least to a moderate degree, in non-extremist offenders. Therefore, in principle, they are also susceptible to radicalization. Of course, it is also conceivable that a criminal career and radicalization are two different options for people to act out their needs.
The obtained differences also support the idea of radicalization as a long process with different psychological stages. In a previous study based on prison files (King et al., 2018) we were able to detect differences between Muslim prisoners with different security notes, belonging to the ‘Salafi scene’ and those labeled as ›terrorists‹. The ›terrorists‹ had been extensively ideologically indoctrinated, trained in military operations and they were more prone to support or conduct terrorist attacks. At the same time, they seemed to be more psychologically stable than their Salafi counterparts: they revealed less problems with alcohol and drugs, and they were subject to disciplinary actions in prison less frequently.
Taken together, the findings might have practical implications for prison authorities and particularly for prison officers commissioned with radicalization issues, in case, any extremist recruits or contacts a vulnerable individual who complains about victimizations, suddenly shows an interest in politics and starts practicing his Islamic religion more rigidly.
This article is based on the research project ‘Islamic radicalization in prison settings – potentials and processes of radicalization’ which was funded by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG); reference number: STE 923/10).
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