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With reference to the research literature write an intelligence briefing on the radicalisation of William Plotnikov, aka ‘the Canadian’  

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William Plotnikov, also known as ‘the Canadian’ was a Russian-Canadian boxer. The first Canadian convert to die fighting in the name of jihad (Bell, 2012). Plotnikov was a ‘normal’ young individual who emigrated to Canada in 2005 to obtain a better education (McCormack, 2013); however, due to numerous factors including an identity crisis, interactions with other radicals and group polarisation, he became radicalised. This intelligence briefing aims to discuss: theories of radicalisation; internal and external influences and how they apply to the life of Plotnikov. Radicalisation has been defined as the “development of beliefs, feelings and actions in support of any group to cause in conflict” (McCauley and Moskalenko, 2008). The first theory of radicalisation this intelligence briefing intends to consider is the Conversion theory (CT), originally proposed by Rambo (1999). It consists of 7 stages; Context, Crisis, Quest, Encounter, Interaction, Commitment and Outcomes. The second theory of radicalisation is the New York Police Department’s model of Jihadisation, (NYPD) (Silber and Bhatt, 2007), which consists of 4 stages; Pre-radicalisation, Self-identification, Indoctrination and Jihadisation. The Conversion Theory examines the transformation of beliefs and ideologies at an individual-level, whereas, the NYPD model examines radicalisation at a social-level.


One main radicalisation theory is Conversion Theory, a religious theory which suggests that a religious problem solving perspective directs the potential identity change towards a religious conversion. (Meeus, 2015). Fundamentally, the theory relies on the idea that all conversion processes involve with some form of a crisis. Arguably, Plotnikov experienced an age-related identity crisis, cultural identity crisis and existential crisis. Researchers have claimed that an identity crisis leads to a personal embrace of extremist religion (Filoramo, 2003), this is because an identity crisis reflects an uncertain identity, leaving one vulnerable to conversion and radicalisation. One reason why Plotnikov experienced a crisis was due to his age when he emigrated. Young individuals, aged between 12 and 18, are more vulnerable to becoming radicalised because they are searching for a sense of personal identity. This search involves an intense exploration of personal values, beliefs and goals (Filoramo, 2003). Similarly, during adolescence, self-identity is predicted to materialise, making the individual, stable and socially connected with their environment. The failure to establish a stable identity could lead to the individual being vulnerable to the processes of radicalisation, evident in the life of Plotnikov. In addition, according to Erikison’s psychosocial model (1959), Plotnikov would have been at stage 5 of the psychosocial crisis model when he emigrated to Canada. A stage that involves the development of an ego identity and role confusion, where role confusion involves the individual being unsure of themselves and/or their place in society. Arguably, Plotnikov would have been unsure of his place in society because he had only just emigrated. Ultimately, a crisis acts as a destabilising experience which leaves the individual susceptible to manipulation, leaving them marginalised and alienated from society. For an individual to focus on their identity formation and develop a stable identity, their environment must be constant. Plotnikov’s environment was far from stable as he had just emigrated and was in an unfamiliar culture. Individuals who do not have a stable and well established personal identity attach themselves to sources of group-based and external control, through heightened commitment to active groups, external agencies and religious authority (Fritsche et al, 2013). According to the NYPD model, the pre-radicalisation stage considers everything before they adapted and were exposed to jihadi-Salafi. For Plotnikov, the fact that he was an immigrant and at a vulnerable age would have increased his vulnerability of becoming radicalised.


Plotnikov was an immigrant and this could have triggered a cultural identity crisis. This crisis stems from a lack of cultural identity as he struggled to form an identity with the Canadian culture, whilst being isolated from the Russian culture. Human beings have a basic need to belong and if this need is not satisfied, it makes them more vulnerable to radicalisation and marginalised from society (Baumesiter and Leary, 1995). Researchers of the NYPD model argued that individuals that are searching for guidance and seeking a sense of belonging, are more vulnerable to radicalisation irrespective of their background and level of education (Silber and Bhatt, 2007). Moreover, the frustration of not satisfying important psychological needs such as a need to belong (Leary, Twenge and Quinlivan, 2006), the need for membership in valued social groups (Fischer, Haslam and Smith, 2010) and the need for control, certainty and meaning (Hogg and Adeleman, 2013) can lead to radicalisation. Consequently, Plotnikov did not have this sense of belonging and membership to a social group, due to failure to adapt through language difficulties combined with cultural differences disabling him from everyday activities. This could explain why he transformed into a Muslim convert, he was desperately trying to belong to a social group. This idea was supported by Lyons-Padilla, Gelfand, Mirahmadi, Farooq and van Egmond (2015) who found that marginalisation and discrimination, which stems from a lack of cultural identity, predicted feelings of insignificance, which resulted in greater support for radicalism and extremist behaviour.


Other stages of the Conversion Theory can be found in Plotnikov’s life. Between 2009-2010, Plotnikov become predominantly concerned with human existence and appeared to seek answers in holy books such as the Bible, Torah and Koran (Bell, 2012). Arguably, this could be evidence of the ‘quest’ stage of the theory, as Plotnikov seems to be searching for an alternative sense of purpose in life. Radicalisation reflects, and is a product of increased fragmentation and self-reflexivity, where people look for meaning in their lives, which supports the radicalisation process of Plotnikov. The quest stage is characterised as looking for spatial resources outside themselves, and not inner exploration; therefore, a faith community provides a secure base camp to allow the individual to find themselves (Rambo, 1999). This was further demonstrated by the fact that Plotnikov started visiting Toronto mosques, where he encountered a “Mullah who had very radical views” (Bell, 2012), thus evidencing the ‘encounter’ and ‘interaction’ stage of this theory. Due to experiencing an identity crisis, the encounter of an extremist leads the individual to be ‘born again,’ which is shaped by radical interpretations of what it means to be Muslim (Silber and Bhatt, 2007). Furthermore, Plotnikov appeared to ostracise himself from his friends and family (Bell, 2012). As a result, he lacked interpersonal connections; therefore, the mosque and his interactions with the “Mullah” solved the problem of isolation, via the halo effect (Thorndike, 1920). Being ostracised can induce a sense of reduced meaningful existence (Zadra, Williams and Richardson, 2004); therefore, clearly interactions with this “Mullah” may have provided feelings of meaningfulness and solving his existential crisis. Warner (2005) argued that people have a distinctive need to link themselves with others of their own kind, making religion more salient for immigrants, which could explain how Plotnikov became a convert. Despite there being clear evidence in support of the Conversion Theory as an explanation of the radicalisation of Plotnikov, the theory explains clearly how Plotnikov became a radical; however, it fails to suggest the process which led to him becoming so extreme, i.e. posing with guerrilla warfare. To overcome this limitation, it is important to consider other theories, for example, the NYPD model.


Moreover, during this period, Plotnikov showed clear evidence of self-identification, which was implemented in the NYPD model of Jihadisation. One of the key features of self-identification, is the concept of cognitive opening, (Wiktorowicz, 2004), a product of solving personal crisis’s. The implication of a personal identity crisis was discussed in the theory of Conversion. It seems that Plotnikov demonstrated that he experienced a cognitive opening when he started to read and explore Islam. Plotnikov could be seen to deviate from his old identity and associated himself with people who supported what he was reading. One of the key characteristics of this stage, is that the individual encounters a “Spiritual Sanctioner” (Rambo, 1995), that is responsible for forming the ideology and jihad mind-set. This was evidenced in Plotnikov’s encounter with the “radical Mullah” (Bell, 2012). The commitment stage, implemented from the Conversion Theory, was evident when he began to pray 5 times, stopped shaving, removed pork from his diet, ostracised himself, and reduced his communication with his family. This also demonstrates that Plotnikov began to disregard his former life.


In 2010, Plotnikov shows clear evidence of indoctrination, the third stage in the NYPD model, as he publically politicised his new beliefs and claims that Canada and US are a source of evil for Muslims; ‘Allah is the truth, all of you others are waste garbage’ (Bell, 2012). Furthermore, indoctrination appears to exist when he travelled to Dagastan in 2012, as he interacted with Makhmud Mansur Nidal, an extremist and suspected recruiter for Islam (Bell, 2012). Interaction is also implemented in the Conversion Theory. Arguably, this interaction acted as a validation process which allowed Plotnikov to examine and cogitate over the validity of his beliefs. This supports the claim that, theological extremism is activated through social networks (Neumann, 2013). Moreover, Borum (2011) has argued that extremist beliefs are dependent upon interactions that galvanise ‘action pathways’ of radicalisation. When Plotnikov moved to Dagestan he now belonged to a group because there was already a precedent of converts fighting rebels. Psychologists have argued that we join groups for mutual positive support and the pleasure to affiliate and avoid loneliness (Peplau and Perlman, 1982). Furthermore, the sense of belonging and being successfully connected to other human beings, interpersonally or in groups, produces an influential and highly rewarding sense of self-worth which is essential to ‘normal’ human functioning (Leary, Tambor, Terdal and Downs, 1995). Due to his age, Plotnikov was especially vulnerable to joining a religious movement. Juergensmeye (2003) argued that individuals who join new religious movements tend to be young and disconnected from their families and wider communities.


Group polarisation also contributed to his radicalisation. Thus, Plotnikov now self-identified and categorised himself with Nidal and the group of converts already fighting in Dagestan, (Bell, 2012) supporting the self-categorisation account of group polarisation (Turner, 1991). Group polarisation refers to the tendency of group members to increase the extremity of their position following discussion (Baron, Crawley and Paulina, 2003). Groups of people often take riskier decisions than individual group members, which lies at the foundation of radicalisation because it explains how people can develop more extreme views. Group polarisation can further contribute to the indoctrination process because Plotnikov’s beliefs intensified due to the presence of extreme members. Another reason why Plotnikov could affiliate with the already present convert fighters was to obtain a social identity. According to uncertainty-identity theory (Hogg, 2012), one key motivation for joining and identifying with groups is to reduce feelings of uncertainty about who we are, how we should behave, and how others will perceive and interact with us. The final stage of the NYPD, Jihadisation, is evident in 2012 when Plotnikov self-designated himself as a “holy warrior” by posing in a guerrilla-warfare style (Bell, 2012).


From the open-sourced articles, there is a clear focus on events in the years, 2005, 2010 and 2012; however, there is a lack of information between these years. This is due to the reporter perceiving certain events as being salient. Also, the information of Plotnikov’s life is only sourced from two articles. Therefore, one could suggest that the information is contaminated with reliability and validity issues. In addition, despite both theories providing logical explanations on how Plotnikov became radicalised,


In conclusion, it appears that Plotnikov endured a radicalisation process. His process consisted of: a personal identity crisis, culture identity crisis resulting in marginalisation, existential crisis, interactions with extremists and group polarisation.  The idea of crisis forms the foundations for the Conversion Theory. On the other hand, interactions with extremists lead to indoctrination, which is implemented in the NYPD model. A general problem of radicalisation theories, is that they only consider behavioural indicators. As a result, we don’t know the specific extent of his radical mind-set. Currently there has been no theory yet, that considers ideologies so this could be the basis for future research.

























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