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. No two groups are comprised of monolithic clones. No single light switch marks the shift to radicalism. The gulf between different kinds of extremists — in religious and political convictions, in desired world orders, 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 that showed the same conditions for fantastical thinking and politically motivated violence as any society.
The Associated Press set out to examine the paths and mechanics 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 play a visible role in the mob of Donald Trump loyalists that stormed the Capitol.
Two places, two men, two very different stories as seen by two close relatives. But strip away the ideologies for a moment, says John Horgan, a researcher of violent extremism. Instead, look at the psychological processes, the pathways, the roots, the experiences.
“All of those things,” Horgan says, “tend to look far more similar than they are different.”
America met Doug Jensen via a video that ricocheted across the Internet, turning an officer into a hero and laying bare the mob mentality inside the Capitol that day.
Jensen is the man in a dark stocking cap, a black “Trust the Plan” shirt over a hooded sweatshirt, front and center in a crowd of rioters chasing Eugene Goodman, a Capitol Police officer, up two flights of stairs. One prominent picture shows him standing feet from an officer, arms spread wide, mouth agape.
When it was all over, he’d tell the FBI that he was a “true believer” in QAnon, that he’d gone to Washington because Q and Trump had summoned “all patriots” and that he’d expected to see Vice President Mike Pence arrested. He’d say he pushed his way to the front of the crowd because he wanted “Q” to get the credit for what was about to happen.
He’d tell his brother the photos were staged, how the police had practically let him in through the front door (prosecutors say he climbed a wall and entered through a broken window) and that some officers even did selfies with the crowd.
William Routh of Clarksville, Arkansas, had an unsettled feeling about that day even before the riot and says he cautioned his younger brother. “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 42-year-old Des Moines father of three who’d worked as a union mason laborer — as a man who enjoyed a pleasant if unextraordinary American existence. He says he took his family to places like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park, attended his children’s sporting events, worked to pay for a son’s college education, made anodyne Facebook posts.
“I have friends that I speak to constantly that have conspiracy theories,” Routh said, “but 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.”
Exactly who Jensen is, and how much knowledge he had of the world around him, depends on who’s talking.
A Justice Department memo that argued for Jensen’s detention cites a criminal history and his eagerness to drive more than 1,000 miles to “hear President Trump declare martial law,” then to take it into his own hands when no proclamation happened. 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 in his own filing by essentially offering Jensen up as a dupe, 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.”
Six months after the insurrection, the argument resonated with a judge who agreed to release Jensen on house arrest as his case moved forward. The judge, Timothy Kelly, cited a video in which Jensen referred to the Capitol building as the White House and said he didn’t believe Jensen could have planned an attack in advance “when he had no basic understanding of where he even was that day.”
Yet less than two months after he was released, Jensen was ordered back to jail for violating the conditions of his freedom. Though barred from accessing a cellphone, he watched a symposium sponsored by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell that offered up false theories that the presidential election’s outcome was changed by Chinese hackers. A federal officer making the first unannounced visit to Jensen found him in his garage using an iPhone to watch news from Rumble, a streaming platform popular with conservatives.
Davis, who weeks earlier had asserted that his client “feels deceived, recognizing that he bought into a pack of lies,” likened his client’s behavior this time to an addiction. The judge was unmoved.
“It’s now clear that he has not experienced a transformation and that he continues to seek out those conspiracy theories that led to his dangerous conduct on Jan. 6,” Kelly said. “I don’t see any reason to believe that he has had the wake-up call that he needs.”
Precisely when and how Jensen came to absorb the conspiracies that led him to the Capitol is bewildering to Routh, who says he took Jensen under his wing during a challenging childhood that included stays in foster care and now feels compelled, as his oldest living relative, to speak on his behalf.
When Jensen was questioned by the FBI, according to an agent’s testimony, he said for the last couple of years he’d return home from an eight-hour workday and consume information from QAnon. In the four months before the riot, the brothers communicated about QAnon as Jensen shared videos and other conspiracy-laden messages that he purported to find meaning in but that Routh found suspect.
It was a period rife with baseless theories, advanced on the Internet and mainstream television, that an election conducted legitimately was somehow stolen in favor of Democrat Joe Biden. “It was just out there. It is on the internet everywhere,” Routh says.
Routh, who says he’s a Republican who supported Trump, maintains his brother and others like him were frightened by the prospect of a Biden victory. 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.”
He says he understands the anxiety of Trump supporters who fear the country may get more radical on the left. He has friends in oil fields and the pipeline industry who don’t know “if they’re going to be able to feed their families again.” As Routh criss-crossed the country as a truck driver, he says the idea Trump would lose re-election seemed unfathomable given that virtually everyone he met, everywhere he went, was pushing “Trump, Trump, Trump.”
When Routh looks at the photos of Jensen and the group he was with Jan. 6, he doesn’t see a determination to physically hurt anyone or vandalize the building. And despite the QAnon T-shirt, and despite the statement to the FBI that he was “all about a revolution,” Routh insists his brother was more a follower than a leader. Jensen is not among those charged with conspiracy or with being part of a militia group, and though prosecutors say he had a pocket knife with him, his lawyer says it was from work and he never took it out.
“He had a lot of influence from everybody else there,” Routh said this summer as he awaited a judge’s ruling on his brother’s bond motion. “And he has always been the kind of kid that says, ‘I can do that.’”
Two days after the riot, back home in Iowa, Jensen walked 6 miles (9.66 kilometers) to the Des Moines police department after seeing he was featured in videos of the chaos, an FBI agent would later testify. There, the FBI says, he made statements now at the center of the case, including admitting chasing Goodman up the stairs, that he yelled “Hit me. I’ll take it” as the officer raised a baton to move him back and that he profanely bellowed for the arrests of government leaders.
Though prosecutors suggest he had the presence of mind to delete potentially incriminating social media accounts from his phone, he also seemed uncertain — confused, even — during his encounter with law enforcement. As officials questioned him, according to an FBI agent’s testimony, he said words to the effect of, “Am I being duped?”
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 in the northwest where the family lives, militants have deep-reaching tentacles. But more than that, he worries about his family’s reputation because of its prominence. He agreed to be quoted using his middle name, Kamal.
The family has business interests scattered across the globe. Kamal is one of five brothers who runs the family-owned import/export conglomerate. Each brother in turn has groomed and primed their sons for the business. Wahab’s older brothers are already running overseas branches of the family business.
Wahab’s future was to be no different. He returned to Pakistan in his early teens from abroad. Being the youngest son in a society that prizes males, he was spoiled. His older brothers sent him “pocket money,” his uncle said. Other than school, Wahab had few responsibilities.
His uncle blamed his slide to radicalization on the neighborhood teens Wahab hung out with in their northwest Pakistan hometown — not to mention video games and Internet sites.
Wahab’s friends introduced him to dozens of sites, his uncle said. They told of Muslims being attacked, women raped, babies brutally killed. The gruesomeness was horrifying, though Kamal says there was no way to know what was true — or if any had been doctored. But for Wahab, the images were deeply disturbing.
“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 and fixated on violence with the seemingly endless hours he spent playing video games. One in particular, called PUBG, was all the rage with Wahab and his friends.
“All the boys loved it,” Kamal said. “For hours they would play as a team against the computer.”
On pubgmobile.com, the game is described as focusing “on visual quality, maps, shooting experience ... providing an all-rounded surreal Battle Royale experience to players. A hundred players will land on the battleground to begin an intense yet fun journey.” Wahab’s uncle said he’d be shouting instructions as he played, interacting with teammates.
Suddenly, earlier this year, Wahab disappeared. His parents, frantic, searched everywhere. Wahab wasn’t the first in the family to flirt with extremism. His cousin Salman had joined the local Pakistani Taliban years before. But he was different: He’d never been interested in school and was sent to a religious school, or madrassa, for his education. The family had long given up on him.
Salman swore he hadn’t seen Wahab and knew nothing of where he might be — or if he had even joined jihad.
Suspicion then fell on Wahab’s friends. Family members were certain they’d induced him to defend against attacks that Wahab and his friends were convinced were being waged against Muslims, simply because of their religion.
The family used its influence and money to press the fathers of Wahab’s friends to find the 20-year-old. They finally located him at a Pakistani Taliban training camp, where Kamal said Wahab was being instructed in the use of small weapons.
Such camps are also often used to identify would-be suicide bombers and instruct them in the use of explosives, identification of soft targets and how to cause the greatest destruction. The Pakistan Taliban have carried out horrific attacks; in 2014, insurgents armed with automatic rifles attacked a public school, killing more than 150 people, most children, some as young as 5.
When Wahab’s father discovered his son was at a training camp, he was furious, said his uncle.
“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. He said he didn’t ask Wahab about the camp or why he wanted to go — or even such basics as how he got there.
“I didn’t want him talking about any of it. I didn’t want to know why he went because then I knew he would start to get excited again and he would start thinking about it all over again,” Kamal said. “Instead, I took a firm face with him.”
His uncle told Wahab he was getting another chance — his last.
“I told him, ‘Now it is on me. I have taken the responsibility. You won’t get another chance. If you do anything again then I will shoot you,’” his uncle said. In Pakistan’s northwest, where tribal laws and customs often decide family disputes and feuds, the threat was most likely not an idle one.
Today, Wahab is back in the family business, but his uncle says he is closely watched. He isn’t allowed to deal with the company finances and his circle of friends is monitored. “Right now we don’t trust him. It will take us time,” his uncle says.
Fearful that others among Wahab’s siblings and cousins could be enticed to extremism, the family has imposed greater restrictions on young male relatives. Their independence has been restricted, Kamal says: “We are watching all the young boys now, and most nights they have to be home — unless they tell us where they are.”
Moral outrage. A sense of injustice. A feeling that things can only be fixed through urgent, potentially violent action.
Those tend to motivate people who gravitate toward extremism, according to Horgan, who directs the Violent Extremism Research Group at Georgia State University. He says such action is often seen as necessary to ward off a perceived impending threat to one’s way of life — and to secure a better future.
“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.
The world views driving extremist groups may feel fantastical and outrageous to society at large. But the true believers who consume propaganda and align themselves with like-minded associates don’t see it that way. To them, they possess inside knowledge that others simply don’t see.
“There’s a contradiction, because they are committed insiders but part of their insider status is defined by pitting themselves against an outsider whose very existence is said to threaten their own,” Horgan says. “They pride themselves on being anti-authoritarian. Yet conformity is what binds them together.”
Research shows that people who espouse conspiracy theories tend to do poorer on measures of critical thinking. They reduce complex world problems — the pandemic, for instance — to simplified and reassuring answers, says Ziv Cohen, a forensic psychiatrist and expert on extremist beliefs at Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University.
Rather than attributing a job loss to the effects of globalization, for instance, one might see it as the result of a conspiracy that someone in particular has engineered.
“It gives us answers,” he says, “that are much more appealing emotionally than the real answer.”
That’s where the stories of Jensen and Wahab seem to 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? Is comfort ever found? Oddly, and perhaps counterintuitively, research has shown that when extremists’ conspiracy theories are reinforced, their anxiety levels rise rather than fall, Cohen says. He likens the comfort to a drug — one that requires increasingly more consumption to take effect. Which helps perpetuate the cycle.
Says Cohen: “People seem to not be able to get enough of a conspiracy theory, but they’re never quite satisfied or really reassured.”
Associated Press writer David Pitt in Des Moines contributed to this report.