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by The Clarkbar84 3 months ago in history
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A Stairway to Terrorism

Photo by Monica Sauro on Unsplash

Terrorism can strike at anytime and anywhere; it is a mechanism that people use as a fear tactic to influence the way that others will think. Terrorists believe that nothing else will work or that all roads have led to the point that violence is the only answer. They use their methods when it comes to changing political views or laws when they feel that their religion is in danger or when they do not share the same beliefs like the ones around them. However, one does not become a terrorist overnight; it is a slow descent into the void of terrorism, through a process that has come to be called radicalization. Many psychological and behavioral factors have been researched to find the steps that cause one to radicalization; in this paper, two of those radicalization models, Moghaddam’s Staircase to Terrorism and Borum’s Pathway, will be compared to aid in finally entering and understanding the mind of a terrorist.

Moghaddam’s Staircase to Terrorism

Dr. Fathali M. Moghaddam is an American psychologist from Georgetown University, and he created a process for radicalization that has come to be known as Moghaddam's Staircase to Terrorism. Dr. Moghaddam believes that to combat terrorism more effectively, critical assessments had to be made in the acts of terrorism and more attention to the psychological and social aspects that lead to terrorist attacks (Moghaddam, 2005).

Moghaddam’s Staircase to Terrorism is now one of the five models used in discussing the radicalization of terrorists (King, 2011). Moghaddam’s model is shaped like a staircase because it is like steps that the individual takes toward full-blown terrorism. Moghaddam’s staircase is broken down into six stages or steps, and as the individual moves up throughout the stages, they feel like they have fewer choices until the point that the only outcome is to destroy other people or themselves (Moghaddam, 2005).

Dr. Moghaddam breaks these stages down in the following order: “Ground Floor: The Psychological Interpretation of Material Conditions,” or the foundational stage, he believes that to understand why terrorists go to the top of the staircase then one must be able to perceive and feel the frustrations of the individuals on the ground floor. Dr. Moghaddam’s focus on this floor is the perception of fairness; this is how the individual feels compared to the people around him/her (Moghaddam, 2005).

If an individual begins to look for ways to change what they consider unjust treatment, then they embark on the “First Floor: Perceived Options to Fight Unfair Treatment.” On this floor, an individual looks to make a change and wants to believe that the world is just and that one’s efforts will be rewarded if one strives for justice or change (Moghaddam, 2005).

The second floor is considered "Displacement of Aggression" this is when the individual begins to no longer look at the issue that they felt was causing the injustice or frustrations and begins to focus their aggression on groups or individuals they feel are the root cause of the issue at hand. In this stage, the individual that is misplaced by the aggression may begin to seek out others that want to take steps toward the ones they are considering enemies. (Moghaddam, 2005).

Those individuals that begin to look for others with like minds step onto the third floor of Moghaddam's staircase and reach "Moral Engagement.” This is where the soon to be terrorist disengages from the mainstream of society and begins to see that violent acts may be the way to go. This stage is where recruiters of terrorist organizations will strive to recruit and will feed on the individual’s isolation and fears. Recruiters will use two levels to position themselves, one being that they need to reform society and two that individuals that feel they are mistreated and lost or abandoned can come and find a home where they are wanted. (Moghaddam, 2005)

Once an individual is recruited, they have entered the fourth floor of Moghaddam’s staircase and reached “Solidification of Categorical Thinking and the Perceived Legitimacy of the Terrorist Organization (Moghaddam, 2005),” at this level, most recruits have lost the chance to leave the organization alive. They tend to become part of terrorist cells or suicide bombers, during this time the recruit is given a ton of positive attention and treated much like a celebrity, this is where the mentality of it is the "us vs. them" comes into play (King, 2011).

Finally, the individual will reach the fifth floor, which is "The Terrorist Act and Sidestepping Inhibitory Mechanisms. (Moghaddam, 2005)” This is the step where the now terrorist will commit his/her acts of violence against civilians and the members they believe are causing the issues at hand. Thus, the individual fully commits to the acts of terrorism and has completed the radicalization through Moghaddam’s staircase.

Borum’s Pathway

Dr. Randy Borum is a professor at the University of South Florida. He studies and analyzes extremist groups, countering their violence and irregular warfare. Dr. Borum created a radicalization model that is now one of the five models currently followed. His model is broken down into four stages that are referred to as Borum's pathway (Borum, 2011). Dr. Borum uses an unsystematic approach against a large group of extremists that have diverse ideologies to see what the common factors are in the radicalization process.

Dr. Borum's focus was attempting to explain how grievances and hatred towards a group cause some to find it as a justification for violence. His pathway was originally just a training model for law enforcement and was not meant to be a social science theory (Borum, 2011).

The first stage in Borum’s pathway is “Grievance” this is the stage where the individual feels that an event or condition has caused grievance and that something is not right. The second stage is "Injustice," this stage is where the individual begins to blame the person, policies, or nation they believe are causing the injustice. The third stage is “Target Attribution," during this stage, the individual begins to isolate and makes the target of their hatred the villain of the story, blaming them for everything that’s wrong with the current system. Finally, the fourth stage is reached, this stage is, "Distancing/Devaluation," during this stage the individual has radicalized and wholeheartedly believes that the target is evil, justifying the use of violence against them to pursue change (Borum, 2011).

Analysis (Compare and Contrast)

Moghaddam’s Staircase to Terrorism and Borum’s Pathway is currently both models that are used in showing the radicalization process of terrorists. Borum’s pathway is a four-stage process that is more of a direct approach to terrorism. It states that one feels an injustice has been done, and they feel that it is not right, so they move to put a stop to it, by the fourth stage they are full-blown terrorists. Moghaddam's, however, is more detailed in steps starting as six stages, with each stage going deeper into the psychological aspects of what is making that individual become a terrorist.

While Moghaddam's pathway is detailed, it is designed as an overall concept of terrorism throughout the world. Borum’s Pathway was designed to be used in law enforcement agencies; it was initially posted in an FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (King, 2011). Since the FBI is designed to deal with domestic cases, then Borum's Pathway was never meant for the big picture, it was just an outline of what would cause a person to go down the path of terrorism, which is why it is not detailed in nature, but straighter and more direct.

However, both models work in their functions, and they complement each other in the field of terrorism. For a quick reference, one can refer to Borum’s pathway and get an idea of where the individual may be on the road to radicalization; then, they can use Moghaddam's Staircase to Terrorism for a more detailed understanding of the process. Even in Dr. Borum's paper, "Radicalization into Violent Extremism II," he goes into detail on Moghaddam's Staircase.


Though there are five models for radicalization, currently, there are no solid models for the de-radicalization process of a terrorist. According to Dr. Alex Schmid, a researcher at The Hague and Director of the Terrorism Research Initiative (TRI), “At this stage, we still lack rigorous evaluations that allow us to determine the relative merits of various policies with a high degree of certainty. (Schmid, 2013)” Some of the common psychological factors that happen to a terrorist when they decide to remove themselves is a change of heart, no longer agreeing with the views of the organization, a change in priorities as in wanting to focus on a family or starting to question why the individual still wants to fight (Horgan, 2019).

Even with the lack of research done on de-radicalization, there are nine programs within thirty-four countries that are working towards the process. Some of the programs include educating the ex-terrorists on how to have their beliefs without using violence against others, training and agencies being implemented to begin counter-radicalization programs, promoting global programs to help against social inequalities, and prison programs to reform ex-terrorists in controlled environments (Schmid, 2013). These programs are designed to help in reducing active terrorists, reducing violence, and aid in changing the views of terrorists to a more acceptable approach to their beliefs (Schmid, 2013).


Terrorism has been around for centuries; it is used to promote violence and fear to produce a change to either what individuals feel is unjust or feel their ideas have not been heard. Attempting to attack terrorism head-on will always cause more conflict and will push more individuals into terrorism. In both Moghaddam's Staircase and Borum's Pathway, the road to being a terrorist is paved in many steps, each of those steps involves a particular set of events to occur to push that individual to the next tier. If one wishes to combat terrorism truly, then one must strike at the heart and figure out the psychological aspects of one that wishes to walk the path of terrorism and one that turns away from it. This is where the radicalization models could come into use, by seeing where someone is on the path of terrorism, they may be able to have positive influences to change their mind.

This is possible, as seen in the de-radicalization process, the individual that was once a terrorist changed their views or wished to focus on something else. Terrorism is not a battle of good vs. evil: it is a battle of human vs. human, and each human has a set of values and emotions that can be harmed and cured. It is a battle of understanding one another and finding common ground without the use of violence.


Borum, R. D. (2011). Radicalization into Violent Extremism II: A Review of Conceptual Models and Empirical Research. Journal of Strategic Security, Vol 4, No. 4 pages 37-62.

Horgan, J. (2019, December 28). Deradicalization or Disengagement? A Process in Need of Clarity and a Counterterrorism Initiative in Need of Evaluation. . Retrieved from Perspectives on Terrorism.:

King, M. &. (2011). The Radicalization of Homegrown Jihadists: A Review of Theoretical Models and Social Psychological Evidence. Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol 23, Issue 4, 602-622.

Moghaddam, F. M. (2005). The Staircase to Terrorism A Psychological Exploration. American Psychologist, Vol 60, No 2. 161-169.

Schmid, A. P. (2013). Radicalisation, De-Radicalisation, Counter-Radicalisation: A Conceptual Discussion and Literature Review. ICCT.


About the author

The Clarkbar84

My mind has stories forming all the time; they tend to get wrapped up in life and never on paper. My works are scattered within real life.

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