Between 2012 and 2016, at least 50 individuals from the Belgian neighborhood of Molenbeek abandoned their home to join the ranks of the Islamic State in Syria. This rate of defection to a radical cause from one small Western European community was unprecedented. The problems the residents of Molenbeek were facing—lack of employment, education, and general incivility—are not uncommon in other neighborhoods. So, what makes this neighborhood so different?

Addressing this question, our team decided to understand the impact of these neighborhoods in light of three psychological forces called the 3Ns: Need, Narrative, and Network.

Need

The need refers to people need to feel valued. When a universal need is severely frustrated, people are strongly motivated to restore it. Feeling humiliated or experiencing social injustices can cause feelings of insignificance. Identifying a quest or cause can help people restore their need for significance. Interviews conducted by the European Institute of Peace (EIP) reflect this loss of significance in Molenbeek. For instance, one neighbor said that “if you have an Arab name and Molenbeek as the address listed on your CV, you are automatically disqualified from the job market.” Others expressed hopelessness that significance could be found through traditional means, saying that they “simply don’t see the opportunities. Why would one pursue education if it doesn’t help?”

Narrative

The narrative consists of perceptions about what is significant to those around them. In particular, do they think others endorse the use of violence to achieve significance? Or do these “narratives” promote nonviolent solutions? Reflecting this point, one interviewee pointed to ‘pseudo mosques’ as integral to feeding narratives of violence or nonviolence. One interviewee mentioned that outsiders “don’t know what is going on in the mosques, parks, and coffee shops.” Another added that “at a certain point, ‘pseudo mosques’ start the day with the intent to preach radicalism.”

Network

Finally, the network unites the need and the narrative. The people we value are the ones who will support or reject the violent narrative. They are the ones who matter most when people determine what is meaningful and what are acceptable means to significance. In this vein, an interviewee, speaking about the Muslim community in Molenbeek, commented that “they feel empowered among themselves and don’t want to open up to other communities” indicating the dependence on the neighborhood for support. Other interviewees suggest that some youth turn to violence in “an attempt to conform to an older brother or group of friends.”

In sum, when a person suffers a loss of significance, a need to regain significance is awakened. This need leads the person to focus on their group or neighborhood’s narratives to guide their mission to regain significance. When the individual then shares that narrative with friends or family, the extent to which their network endorses violence as the only means of achieving significance determines the ultimate use of violence.

Young Muslims in Spain

Applying this model, we conducted field research in four settings in Spain, assessing different risk and protective factors outlined by the 3Ns. Our research on 365 young Muslims showed that the most vulnerable environments—those exhibiting high rates of unmet needs for significance, widespread violent narratives, and social network support for violence as a mean for significance—led to a higher perception of conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims and enhanced endorsement of terrorism as legitimate. In contrast, their beliefs that they could successfully integrate into society were diminished.

Based on these findings, we believe preventing radicalization requires interventions tackling these forces. These could include addressing social inequities that contribute to feelings of insignificance. Or lifting community voices that advocate prosocial means to meeting the need for significance. Or challenging the perceived social norms about how much one’s friends and family actually believe violence to be the answer. Different narratives are out there, if we can get people to listen.


For Further Reading

EIP (2017). Molenbeek and violent radicalisation: ‘a social mapping.’ European Institute of Peace (EIP), Brussels.

Kruglanski, A. W., Bélanger, J. J., & Gunaratna, R. (2019). The three pillars of radicalization: Needs, narratives, and networks. Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780190851125.001.0001

Lobato, R. M., Moyano, M., Bélanger, J. J., & Trujillo, H. M. (2021). The role of vulnerable environments in support for homegrown terrorism: Fieldwork using the 3N model. Aggressive behavior47(1), 50-57. https://doi.org/10.1002/ab.21933


Roberto M. Lobato is project manager and researcher at the Euro-Arab Foundation for Higher Studies (Spain). His research focuses on social identity, processes of radicalization, political violence, and terrorism.

Manuel Moyano is Associate Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Cordoba (Spain). The areas of his works focus on psychosocial risk assessment, psychology of conflict and intergroup relations, psychology of violent radicalization and terrorism, forensic, and criminal psychology.

Jocelyn J. Bélanger is Assistant Professor of Psychology at New York University Abu Dhabi. His work focuses on violent extremism and environmental sustainability.

Humberto Trujillo is Full Professor of Methodology for Behavioural Sciences at the University of Granada (Spain). His research is broadly concerned with indoctrination and recruitment in terrorist context and the relationships between criminality and political violence.