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Radicalization’s path: In case studies, finding similarities

In the months before he was charged with storming the Capitol, Doug Jensen was sharing conspiracy theories he’d consumed online. But it hadn’t always been that way, says his brother, who recalls how he once posted the sort of family and vacation photos familiar to nearly all social media users.

A world away, Wahab hadn’t always spent his days immersed in jihadist teaching. The product of a wealthy Pakistani family and the youngest son of four, he was into cars and video games, had his own motorcycle, even studied in Japan.

No two ideologues are identical and the gulf between different kinds of extremists, including in how deeply they embrace violence in the name of their cause, is as wide as it is obvious. But to dwell only on the differences obscures the similarities, not only in how people absorb extremist ideology but also in how they feed off grievances and mobilize to action.

For any American who casts violent extremism as a foreign problem, the Jan. 6 Capitol siege held up an uncomfortable mirror revealing the same conditions for fantastical thinking and politically motivated violence as any society.

The Associated Press examined the paths of radicalization through case studies on two continents: a 20-year-old man rescued from a Taliban training camp on Afghanistan’s border, and an Iowa man whose brother watched him fall sway to nonsensical conspiracy theories and ultimately join the mob of Donald Trump loyalists that stormed the Capitol.

Two places, two men, two different stories as seen by two relatives. But strip away the ideologies, says John Horgan, a researcher of violent extremism, and look at the psychological processes, the roots, the experiences.

“All of those things,” Horgan says, “tend to look far more similar than they are different.”

THE AMERICAN

America met Doug Jensen, 42, via a widely circulated video that exposed the mob mentality inside the Capitol. Jensen’s the man in a dark cap and black “Trust the Plan” shirt, leading a crowd chasing a Capitol Police officer up the stairs.

William Routh of Clarksville, Arkansas, had an unsettled feeling even before the riot. “I said, if you go down there and you’re going to do a peaceful thing, then that’s fine. But I said keep your head down and don’t be doing something stupid.”

In interviews with the AP days and months after his younger brother’s arrest, Routh painted Jensen, a Des Moines father of three who’d worked as a union mason laborer, as a man who enjoyed the trappings of a conventional American existence.

“This was a shock to me more than anything, because I would not have thought this from my brother Doug, because he’s a very good, hardworking family man and he has good values.”

Precisely how Jensen came to absorb the conspiracies that led him to the Capitol is bewildering to Routh. But in the months before the riot, the brothers communicated about QAnon as Jensen shared videos and other conspiracy-laden messages he purported to find meaning in.

Before Jan. 6, Routh says, “We have been being told for the last — what? — seven, eight months that if the Democrats get control, we’re losing our country, OK? That scares a lot of people.”

A Justice Department memo that argued for Jensen’s detention cites his criminal history and his eagerness to drive more than 1,000 miles to “hear President Trump declare martial law.” It notes that when the FBI questioned him, he said he’d gone to Washington because “Q,” the movement’s amorphous voice, had forecast that the “storm” had arrived.

His lawyer, Christopher Davis, countered by calling Jensen a “victim of numerous conspiracy theories” and a committed family man whose initial devotion to QAnon “was its stated mission to eliminate pedophiles from society.”

In July, a federal judge agreed to release Jensen on house arrest, citing a video showing Jensen referring to the Capitol building as the White House as a likely indication he couldn’t have planned an attack in advance “when he had no basic understanding of where he even was that day.”

But in September, Jensen was ordered back to jail for violating the conditions of his freedom. A federal officer visiting Jensen found him in his garage using an iPhone to watch news from Rumble a streaming platform popular with conservatives.

THE PAKISTANI

Wahab had it all. The youngest son of four from a wealthy Pakistani family, he spent his early years in the United Arab Emirates and for a time in Japan, studying. Wahab liked cars, had his own motorcycle and was crazy about video games.

His uncle, who rescued the 20-year-old from a Taliban training camp on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan earlier this year, asked that his full name not be used because militants have deep-reaching tentacles in the northwest where the family lives. He agreed to be quoted using his middle name, Kamal.

Kamal is one of five brothers who runs the family-owned import/export conglomerate. Each brother has groomed their sons for the business.

Wahab’s future was to be no different. He returned to Pakistan in his early teens from abroad.

His uncle blamed his slide to radicalization on the neighborhood teens Wahab socialized with in their northwest Pakistan hometown, plus video games and Internet sites his friends introduced him to that told of Muslims being attacked, women raped and babies killed.

“He felt like he hadn’t known what was going on, that he had spent his life in darkness and he felt he should be involved. His friends insisted he should. They told him he was rich and should help our people,” his uncle said.

To his uncle, Wahab seemed to become increasingly aggressive, fixated on violence.

Earlier this year, Wahab abruptly disappeared. When Wahab’s father discovered his son was at a training camp, he was furious, his uncle said.

“He told the people ‘Leave him there. I don’t accept him as my son anymore.’ But I took it on myself to bring him back,” Kamal said.

Today, Wahab is back in the family business, but is being closely watched.

“We are watching all the young boys now, and most nights they have to be home — unless they tell us where they are,” Kamal said.

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Moral outrage. A sense of injustice. A feeling that things can only be fixed through urgent, violent action.

Those are what tend to motivate people who gravitate toward extremism, says Horgan, who directs the Violent Extremism Research Group at Georgia State University.

“Those similarities you will find repeated across the board, whether you’re talking about extreme right-wing militias in Oklahoma or you’re talking about a Taliban offshoot in northwest Pakistan,” Horgan says.

Research shows people who espouse conspiracy theories tend to do poorer on measures of critical thinking, reducing complex world problems to reassuring answers, says Ziv Cohen, an expert on extremism at Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University.

That’s where the stories of Jensen and Wahab seemingly intersect. Both were seeking something. Both found answers that were enticing, attractive — and distorted versions of reality.

“For reasons he does not even understand today, he became a ‘true believer’ and was convinced he (was) doing a noble service by becoming a digital soldier for ‘Q,’” Davis, Jensen’s lawyer, wrote in a June court filing. “Maybe it was mid-life crisis, the pandemic, or perhaps the message just seemed to elevate him from his ordinary life to an exalted status with an honorable goal.”

But is that goal ever reached? Perhaps counterintuitively, research has shown that when extremists’ conspiracy theories are reinforced, their anxiety levels rise rather than fall, Cohen says.

“People seem to not be able to get enough of a conspiracy theory,” he says, “but they’re never quite satisfied or really reassured.”

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Associated Press writer David Pitt in Des Moines contributed to this report.



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