Civil Society Organizations: Non-Traditional Actors in the Process of Radicalization


In the ongoing attempts to disaggregate and understand the complex array of factors contributing to the rise of terrorism, “radicalization” has become a generalized and often catch-all term in the aftermath of 9/11, denoting the process whereby individuals or groups decide to turn to terror.

Unsurprisingly, there is no agreed upon definition of radicalization, just as with terrorism. As pointed out by the European Commission Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation in 2008, “there is no uniform usage of the terms ‘radicalisation’ and ‘violent radicalisation’ in the social sciences and humanities literature.” As noted in this analysis, some argue that such activity “inherently involves concrete violent behaviour while others qualify the mere acceptance of certain ideas which condone or justify violence as an indicator of violent radicalisation.”1

Notwithstanding this lack of consensus, there seems to be broad agreement that civil society can and should play a key role in countering radicalization. Moreover, while other actors – such as religious communities, governments, and the media – are perceived as potential agents of both radicalization and deradicalization, this does not seem to apply to civil society, which is overwhelmingly considered a moderating force.

This paper examines ways that politicized local2 (as distinct from global) civil society organizations, as remarkably influential actors, can play a role in propagating and legitimizing radicalized narratives, particularly in the context of providing development aid. We argue that given the lack of careful and indepth analysis of this aspect, policy makers and the international community overlook a significant impediment to deradicalization efforts. The first sections provide a concise theoretical background on radicalization and specifically on the potential role of civil society. The following analysis provides examples of radicalization within three different aid contexts, illustrating different possible trajectories. The paper draws significantly on research conducted by NGO Monitor in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Additional case studies demonstrate that this process is not specific to one conflict, but rather, is indicative of structural issues in foreign aid broadly, across regions and policies.

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  1. Rogelio Alonso et al, “Radicalisation Processes Leading to Acts of Terrorism” (report, European Commission, May 15, 2008),
  2. Gerald M. Steinberg, Israel Studies, forthcoming

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