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Definitions Favorable to Terrorism? SSSL and Radicalization: A Case Study Approach

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Published onJan 01, 2019
Definitions Favorable to Terrorism? SSSL and Radicalization: A Case Study Approach


Although social structure and social learning (SSSL) theory has oft been proposed as a general theory of crime, it has rarely been applied to that which qualifies as ideologically-motivated. We seek to rectify this notable gap in the research by examining the suitability of an SSSL framework to radicalization; an understudied, yet vital process to enacting evidence-based counterterrorism efforts. Utilizing a “most likely” case study approach, we find several themes consistent with SSSL principles, primarily within its social learning constructs. We conclude that SSSL does indeed offer promise for explaining all forms of crime including acts of terrorism.


Surprisingly few contributions have specifically applied social learning theories to acts of terrorism despite being utilized to explain other forms of collective violence like that of gang activity (e.g. Winfree, Bäckström, & Mays, 1994; Winfree, Mays, & Bäckström, 1994). This deficit is especially pronounced in one iteration of these theories: the social structure and social learning (SSSL) model. However, the exceptions that do exist (Akers and Silverman, 2004; Akins and Winfree, 2016; Hamm, 2007; Jensen et al., 2016; Wilmer and Dubouloz, 2011) offer promise in elucidating the terrorist process that is often most of interest to policy-makers; namely, that of radicalization.

In an effort to address this lacuna in the research, the intent of this exploratory study is to assess the applicability of SSSL perspectives in understanding the radicalization processes among extremists in the United States. Specifically, to determine the role of theorized constructs present in the SSSL model, we draw upon two case studies of convicted environmentalist extremists: Daniel McGowan and Walter Edmond Bond. Presented as a “typical” case (Gerring, 2008; Gerring and Seawright 2008) of an environmentalist extremist, McGowan played an especially nuanced role within “the Family,” a cell of the radical eco-movement responsible for a series of arsons in the early 2000s.  Utilizing a case study approach, we discover several elements consistent with a SSSL framework within McGowan’s radicalization. We then compare McGowan to a counterpart in the movement, Walter Edmund Bond, to further explore the theory’s generalizability in the radicalization context.

Social learning theories

Social learning theories enjoy a rich tradition within Criminology and have undergone several iterations and developments (Akers, 1973; 1985; 1998; Akers and Sellers, 2000; Burgess and Akers, 1966; Sutherland, 1947; Warr & Stafford, 1991; Warr, 2002). In sum, this branch of theories attempts to decipher one of the robust findings in the field: namely, that delinquents have delinquent friends (Akers, Krohn, Lanza-Kaduce, & Radosevich, 1979; Krohn, 1974; Matsueda and Heimer, 1987; Warr, 2002). At its most parsimonious, social learning theories maintain that this relationship is the result of an excess of definitions favorable to crime. These definitions are learned in close, intimate personal groups (Sutherland, 1947), through operant conditioning and imitation processes (Akers, 1985). Social structure variables, such as those identified in social disorganization, conflict, and strain theories, are said to influence these processes (Akers, 1998). These variables can lead to what is termed “differential social organization” or something that “distinguishes one community, region, society, or social system from another” (Akers and Jennings, 2016: 237). This particular iteration of social learning perspectives, known as “social structure and social learning (SSSL),” has been presented as the quintessential general theory of crime (Akers, 1998). These claims seem to be consistent with the extant research, where SSSL constructs have been found to predict offending in a number of contexts (Pratt et al., 2010).

One context of particular interest to this investigation is Akers and Silverman (2004), who employ SLT principles in their explanation of terrorism. The first of these principles, Sutherland’s (1947) differential association, is defined in later iterations as the “normative and interactive dimensions of the primary and secondary-group relationships and affiliations” (Akers and Silverman, 2004:20). The authors maintain that these relationships and affiliations can manifest themselves through both attitudes and behaviors. For example, an individual terrorist is more likely to be amenable to violence if such violence is intrinsic to their group’s ideology and/or actions. It is through the process of differential association that definitions, or “one’s own attitudes and beliefs, rationalizations, justifications, and definitions of the situation” (pg. 20), are then formed; those that are both conducive and oppositional to the act of terrorism. Akers and Silverman (2004) also contend that these definitions can go on to serve as internal discriminative stimuli, which “provide cues or signals to the person that this is the right or appropriate time and situation in which to engage in the behavior” (pg. 21), and can further reinforce violence in specific situations. Behavior is then encouraged or discouraged through a process of differential reinforcement (“a balance of rewarding and punishing consequences of behavior, of anticipated or actual consequences of behavior” (pg. 21)), depending upon whether it is rewarded or punished (or there is anticipation of either). Finally, learning can also occur through imitation (“learning by observing others’ behavior” (pg. 21)), whereby the terrorist observes techniques and applies such techniques to their own terrorist actions.

The terrorism literature holds findings consistent with the main premise of social learning theories; namely, that learning can occur, and is reinforced, in close-knit “cliques” (Borum, 2011; Hogg and Adelman, 2013). Nonetheless, and outside of Akers and Silverman’s (2004) conceptual piece, these theories have only had a handful of direct applications to terrorism (Akins and Winfree, 2016; Hamm, 2007; Jensen et al., 2016; Wilmer and Dubouloz, 2011). Hamm’s (2007) groundbreaking work used a case study approach to identify which skills are needed for acts of terrorism and how those skills are transmitted. Another exception is Atkins and Winfree (2016), who in studying the global jihadist movement, highlighted the role of social media within differential association and imitation. Finally, Jensen and colleagues (2016) discovered that membership in close-knit, insular cliques, though not the presence of radical family members, was a significant factor when assessing the propensity of individuals’ participation in violent extremism. Jensen et al. (2016) concluded that despite increased interest in countering the threat from lone actors, “radicalization to violence remains a process that is distinctly social” (pg. 38). The next section reviews what else is known about this uniquely social process, with specific focus on the importance of close relationships as key to its facilitation and maintenance.


Efforts at explaining participation in political violence, specifically through the lens of small-group dynamics, commonly emphasize the importance of close social influences in communicating norms and moralizing behaviors to the newly formed recruit (Hafez, 2016; McCauley, 1989; McCauley and Moskalenko, 2008; Sageman, 2004). Della Porta (1995), in her study of German and Italian militants in the 1970s, found that intense devotion to comrades can lead to a clique of friends whom radicalize collectively. This focus on close social networks has most notably been applied to violent jihadist cases by Sageman (2004; 2008), whose research emphasizes the dynamics of in-group bonds and out-group animosity as integral to the radicalization process.

The potential influence of close personal relationships on the development of extremist beliefs is not limited to friends and peers, however. Familial ties may play a unique role when considering how some individuals come to develop extremist beliefs and how small groups are able to evade counterterrorism efforts (Dalgaard-Nielsen, 2010; Hafez, 2016; Horgan 2009; Kleinmann, 2012; Milla, Faturochman, and Ancok, 2013; Slootman and Tillie, 2006). In short, it is easier to convince and recruit people who already share a common identity, rather than constructing an entirely new one (Hafez, 2016).

Collectively, the radicalization literature has offered important insight into the complex processes involved in this phenomenon. Such processes seemed to inordinately involve, consistent with SSSL’s contentions, the significance of peer and familial relationships. However, the majority of this work focuses on those that ascribe to a radical jihadist ideology, when other movements have been much more active in the United States; namely, the radical eco-movement.

The radical environmental and animal rights movement

The radical eco-movement is one the most frequent perpetrators of ideologically-motivated crime and terrorist activity in the United States (Carson, LaFree, & Dugan, 2012). While the use of violence has been rare, around 17% of incidents do meet the threshold of terrorism, defined as, “the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation” (LaFree and Dugan 2007: 184). Incidents that fit this classification, like a number of large scale arsons in the late 1990s and early 2000s, prompted local and federal law enforcement to deem the movement a significant terrorist threat during this time (Lewis, 2005; Chermak, Freilich, and Simone, 2009). Interestingly, this threat has all but desisted. In fact, 2015 saw only one attack that would qualify as related to the movement, which did involve a molotov cocktail, but did not cause any injuries (Global Terrorism Database, 2017).

Yet, empirical research on the radical environmental and animal rights movement has thrived in the past decade (Carson, LaFree, & Dugan, 2012; Carson, 2014; Chermak & Gruenewald, 2015; Gruenewald, Allison-Gruenewald, Klein, 2015; Joose, 2007; Liddick, 2006, 2013; Smith and Damphousse, 2009). Collectively, results from this literature suggest that the movement is largely decentralized (Joose, 2012), with less planning time involved in “direct actions” (Smith and Damphousse, 2009). The radical eco-movement has also been found to target a range of facilities from universities to automobile dealerships (Carson, LaFree, and Dugan, 2012; Leader and Probst, 2003), with a preference for local, soft targets (Gruenewald, Allison-Gruenewald, Klein, 2015; Smith and Damphousse, 2009). Members of the movement also tend to base target selection on avoiding personal injury (Chermak et al., 2013; Gruenewald, Allison-Gruenewald, and Klein, 2015), but do attempt to inflict the most property damage possible, creating an average loss of over $800,000 (Carson, LaFree, and Dugan, 2012).

Radical environmental and animal rights activists represent a unique demographic, even among ideologically-motivated criminals. They tend to be older (average age of 28), are more likely to be female, college educated, in a serious relationship, and less likely to be mentally ill than those in other movements (Chermak & Gruenewald, 2015; Cunningham, 2003; Jensen et al., 2016; Liddick, 2006). While a small contingent do subscribe to extreme philosophies like that of “green anarchy,” the majority hold nonviolent convictions (Carson, LaFree, and Dugan, 2012). Biocentrism and deep ecology, viewpoints that are frequently alluded to by activists, view all life as sacred, and consequently, stand in direct contrast to many other terrorist ideologies.

This unusual profile that has emerged for the average “eco-terrorist” has prompted the majority of scholars to apply rational choice-based theories to understanding their motivations (Carson, LaFree and Dugan, 2012; Carson, 2014; Deshpande and Ernst, 2012; Gruenewald, Allison-Gruenewald, Klein, 2015; Yang, Su, & Carson, 2014). Other research has employed situational action theory (Carson and Bartholomew, 2015) or the techniques of neutralization (Liddick, 2013). However, it could be argued that elements consistent with SSSL’s main constructs are inherent to the findings within this research trajectory; in particular, the learning of definitions favorable (and unfavorable) to crime, the reinforcement of those definitions, and the modeling of behavior. The next section gives an overview of how we plan to explore these constructs in explaining the radicalization of what was two of the movement’s most important figures.

Current study

The review of the extant literature denotes a few key gaps in the state of knowledge regarding social learning theories, terrorist radicalization, and how the former informs the latter. First, and despite being proposed as a general theory of crime, scholars have been limited in their application of SSSL to the study of terrorism. Although other investigations speak to mechanisms that are consistent with its primary tenants (Borum, 2004; Della Porta, 1995; Everton, 2015; McCauley and Moskalenko, 2008), there are few direct explorations of its framework to radicalization. Second, outside the knowledge that entry into terrorism is a complex and multi-faceted process, the literature on this phenomenon is relatively limited, exacerbated by its almost singular focus on jihadists. Additional research is vital to informing counterterrorism policy. Finally, the radical eco-movement remains an understudied, yet invaluable subject for understanding the complexities involved in ideologically-motivated behavior. It is through this movement that we can best assess the promise of SSSL’s as a general theory and the many elements involved in radicalization.

Consequently, and following the suggestions of Freilich and LaFree (2015), we “broaden inquiry to include criminology’s other major frameworks” (pg. 2). Specifically, we examine the role of SSSL’s theoretical constructs in explaining terrorist radicalization; an understudied, yet vital line of inquiry for policy-relevant research. The next sections lay out our methodology for the selection of our subjects, Daniel McGowan and Walter Edmund Bond, along with describing the procedures involved in our case study approach.


To assess the role of SSSL constructs in the context of terrorist radicalization, we rely on the case study method. Case studies are uniquely situated to handle the complex and dynamic social interactions hypothesized by SSSL scholars for several reasons. First, they allow researchers to “retain the holistic and meaningful characteristics of real-life events—such as individual life cycles and small group behavior” (Yin 1984: 4). This is nuance that is critical in contextualizing SSSL perspectives, but would be lost in other research methods that utilize large-n statistical approaches. Second, and perhaps most important to the study of a phenomenon as multifaceted as that of radicalization, case studies allow for, “the ability to capture and explain change” where viewpoints can be conceptualized as a “developing process rather than a stable state of thinking and acting” (Pennington, 2015: 904). This method also gives the analyst a way to operationalize theoretical constructs that are otherwise difficult to measure through finite numbers. Third, case studies are a useful procedure by which theoretical perspectives like SSSL can be clarified and understood by exploring causal order (Seawright and Gerring, 2008; Vargas, 2014).  Case studies have recently been employed in order to understand the complexities of gang activity (Vargas, 2014), procedural justice (Pennington, 2015), and most relevant to the current research, terrorism (Gartenstein-Ross, 2014).


To identifying our primary “typical” case (Gerring, 2008; Gerring and Seawright 2008), we started with the Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) database, a newly-released dataset collected and maintained by researchers at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). These data include individual-level information on the backgrounds, demographics, group affiliations, and personal histories of 1,867 extremists who radicalized within the United States from 1948 to 2016 (Jensen et al., 2016).

Analyses of the PIRUS data have shown that environmentalist and animal rights1 extremists in the United States are distinct from other types of extremists (e.g., Islamist, far-right) on a number of attributes, but also share some attributes of central tendency useful for identifying a “typical” case (Jensen et al., 2016). According to the 118 environmentalist and animal rights extremists included in the PIRUS data from 1982 to 2016, the modal age at which they first participate in ideologically motivated behavior is 25 years old. Additionally, 73.7% of the individuals were male; 96.1% were white; 70.5% were members of small, insular “cliques” of fellow extremists; 80.4% were not single (never married, divorced, or widowed); 50% held employment, while 65.5% of cases came from a middle-class socioeconomic background. Moreover, only 4.2% of environmentalist and animal rights extremists engaged in behavior that caused or intended to cause violence or injury toward people, while a mere 10.8% had a history of criminality prior to their radicalization (National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, 2017).

Table 1 compares these broader population figures to the particulars of McGowan’s life-course. As shown, McGowan typifies the broader population on every key attribute, and thus makes him a suitable candidate as a “representative” case for this exploratory analysis (Gerring, 2008; Gerring and Seawright 2008). In regards to the clique attribute, McGowan was a member of the “The Family,” an organized cell of Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front activists responsible for 20 criminal actions from 1995 to 2001. McGowan served over a 5 year sentence for his participation in two of these actions; namely, arson at the Superior Lumber Company in Glendale, Oregon on January 2nd, 2001 and at Jefferson Poplar Tree Farm on May 21, 2001 in Clatskanie, Oregon.

Table 1. Case comparison to typical profile

PIRUS variable

% of environmentalist/animal rights extremists from PIRUS (n=118)*



Age at first known illegal extremist behavior

25 years (mode)

25-26 years

19 years


73.3% male




96.1% white



Clique membership

70.5% members

Member of clique

Not a member of a clique

Marital status

80.4% single



Employment status at time of first known illegal extremist behavior

50.0% employed



SES background

65.5% middle-class

Middle-class background

Lower-class background





Pre-radicalization criminal history



Yes (illegal drug use and low-level vandalism)

Note: ‘*’ denotes that the percentages presented in Table 1 include only cases with valid data.

For our second subject, we sought to select a case from within the same ideological milieu, but which was more atypical of the broader population on several of these shared tendencies. Walter Edmund Bond was also a single, white male who engaged in acts of nonviolent, ideologically motivated criminal activity. However, his background is sufficiently different as to provide a compelling comparison; a troubled family at the lower end of the socioeconomic stratum, a history of criminal behavior, younger than most activists, and unemployed when he first engaged in extremist activity. Perhaps the most interesting attribute of Bond’s radicalization trajectory, and which holds the most relevance to assessing the causal mechanisms presented by SSSL perspectives, is that was not a member of an insular, extremist clique. Bond was responsible for a series of arsons targeting the Sheepskin Factory in Denver, Colorado, the Tandy Leather Factory in Salt Lake City, and a restaurant in Sandy, Utah. He is currently serving his 147 month sentence in a federal facility.

The radicalization of Daniel Mcgowan


Daniel McGowan was born in 1974 in Brooklyn, New York to a transit officer and an elementary school cafeteria worker (Curry and Hamachek, 2011; Lee, 2007;, 2009). He was the youngest of four children, with an especially close relationship with his sister, Lisa. When he was three, the family moved to Rockaway beach in Queens, living in what McGowan describes as a mostly “working class” neighborhood.

Growing up in this area, his exposure to the frequent closure of Rockaway beach for contamination, had a significant influence on McGowan. As he notes, this experience, “left a really big impression on me of how poor neighborhoods get the lion’s share of the pollution. I didn’t need an environmental textbook to tell me that” (Lee, 2007). However, these beliefs did not appear to manifest themselves until later in life. As his sister Lisa described him, McGowan growing up “wasn’t the political kid fighting for anything” (Curry and Hamachek, 2011).

McGowan was a high school athlete at his Catholic high school, Christ the King (Curry and Hamachek, 2011). He also became active in student organizations at this time, such as Students against Drunk Driving and the National Honors Society (U.S. v. McGowan, 2007). McGowan went on to attend college at SUNY Buffalo, graduating in 1996 with a double major in Business Administration and Southeast Asian studies, noting that the former was chosen for its practicality (Curry and Hamachek, 2011; Lee, 2007;, 2016). After college, McGowan traveled for several months around Thailand and then started his first job at a large public relations firm in New York (Curry and Hamachek, 2011).2 During this time, McGowan ran into a woman collecting signatures at Union Square. She introduced him to the Wetlands Environmental Center, which he describes as the place “where it changed.” In a separate account, McGowan says that he learned about the center from a copy of the Earth First! Journal (Gold, 2016).

The Wetlands Environmental Center was founded by Larry Bloch, an activist with two main intentions: to entertain and to promote activism (McKinley, 2012). The center held concerts and weekly “Eco-Saloon” sessions, focused on environmental and animal rights-related topics. McGowan describes being especially affected by the viewing of documentaries, which highlighted environmental destruction in graphic depictions. Specifically, he has stated that he:

had never seen with my own eyes what kind of world we lived in. I feel like I am in perpetual mourning and I have been from the moment … I took the blinders off and was like, holy crap, what the hell are we doing? And I got involved pretty much instantly (Curry and Hamachek, 2011).

From here, McGowan became actively engaged in letter writing campaigns and protests. He describes one his first events at the center as a letter writing campaign for Ron Coronado, who was serving time for the arson of a Michigan State research facility (Gold, 2016). McGowan notes that he, “went to one of these meetings and was blown away by what they were talking about. I didn’t really know much about it. I’d grown up in New York City, my dad’s a cop, and I didn’t have hammered-out beliefs on prisons and criminal justice.” McGowan continued to write letters to Coronado, meeting him after Coronado’s release from prison.3

Entry into crime

One of McGowan’s first key protests occurred in July of 1997,4 in conjunction with the annual Earth First! National Gathering Round River Rendezvous.5 Before this event, McGowan notes he had not even slept outside and that the event was his first real exposure to nature (Curry and Hamachek, 2011). At the end of each “Rendezvous,” activists typically participated in some sort of direct action. In 1997, the action was a protest against the proposed opening of a copper and zinc mine in Crandon, Wisconsin by Exxon Coal and Minerals, which activists feared would pollute the nearby Wolf River (Jabolnski, 2013). McGowan was arrested, along with 14 other protesters, after trying to enter the offices of Crandon Mining Company in nearby Rhinelander, Wisconsin (Tribune News Services, 2007). He describes this arrest as “eye opening” and pinnacle to learning about the “environmental resistance movement” (Curry and Hamachek, 2011).

Concurrent to these events were a series of visible protests6 in which police utilized controversial tactics. One such protest occurred in June of 1997, when three activists were repeatedly pepper-sprayed after stationing themselves on a tree scheduled to be cut down for commercial development (Daily Emerald, 2000). The activists were attempting to block the tree’s removal until the city council could meet, exacerbating their resulting disenchantment in the political system (Curry and Hamachek, 2011). Two additional high profile incidents took place in October of this same year, when demonstrators staged sit-ins at Pacific Lumber Company and Representative Frank Riggs’ office. Once again, footage documenting the use of pepper spray on activists, including the “swabbing” of eyes and close range spraying, was widely disseminating within the environmental community. These latter incidents have since resulted in lawsuits filed against the Humboldt County Sheriff and Eureka Police departments (LaGanga, 1997). McGowan maintains that these types of events were important to his transition as they, “erode people’s belief that anything can change” (Curry and Hamachek, 2011).

A consequence of reading about these incidents coupled with his own arrest, McGowan began to shift his perspective on working within the legitimate system. He notes that at this time he felt that there was little point to civil disobedience, that it was not getting them anywhere, and that “no real change happens without pressure ... without force ... into intimidating governments and corporations into changing their behavior” (Curry and Hamachek, 2011). McGowan then began to consider the possibility that criminal actions, on the other hand, could at the very least, “slow down logging” and that “while there was a preponderance of other tactics being tried, these tactics weren’t being tried” (Lee, 2007).

Entry into terrorism

McGowan moved to Northern California in 1998, initially to work for the Headwaters Forest Campaign,7 an organization aimed at the protection of the redwood ecosystem. However, and due a high profile incident where an activist was killed by a falling tree, McGowan was told there were “no spots” for him upon arrival (Goodman, 2007). He describes himself as “already quite radicalized” at this time, but stated that he “couldn’t believe people accepted what was going on” (Curry and Hamachek, 2011). McGowan notes the influence of seeing firsthand the large amount of logging in the area, which motivated him to question the use of “gentle” tactics. Specifically, McGowan describes that his involvement in the more radicalized end of the movement was a, 

natural progression, but it also coincided with my increasing grief and rage I was feeling about the environmental destruction I saw. We’d drive to the edge of town and you saw the logging mills, or you went into the forest and stumbled upon a clear cut. It just blew me away. I had to find a way to channel that grief and rage (Lee, 2007).

Collectively, these events became the impetus for McGowan’s first real act on the radical end of the spectrum: the “Black Bloc” at the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in November of 1999. Although previously utilized as a tactic in other demonstrations, the WTO protests brought a special notoriety to Black Blocs; a strategy where activists wear black and conceal their faces to send a message that “consumer America is destroying the world” (Curry and Hamachek, 2011). Such notoriety was mainly due to the estimated 17 million dollar loss caused to downtown businesses like McDonald’s, Starbuck’s, and U.S. Bank. Over 600 arrests were made, primarily for obstructing traffic and refusing to disperse, but no one was seriously injured (Seattle Police Department, 2000). McGowan stated that it, “felt good to take out my rage on these corporate windows because they had caused so much destruction in my mind” (Curry and Hamachek, 2011). Perhaps most significant to the protests was its role in introducing McGowan and his girlfriend at the time, Suzanne Savoie, to members of “the Family” (Curry and Hamachek, 2011).

As noted, the Family was a cell of animal rights and environmental activists, some of whom had escalated into criminal activity after the Warner Creek protests (Curry and Hamachek, 2011). Before McGowan’s introduction, the group consisted of 12 separate individuals responsible for 11 arsons, with the first direct action dating back to December of 1995. Up until this point, the Family’s targets had included everything from wild horse corrals to a variety of forestry targets. Perhaps the most infamous of these actions was the arson of a Vail ski result, which resulted in several million dollars of damages.

In 1999, McGowan moved to Eugene to keep in touch with these and other activists he had met at the WTO protests (Curry and Hamachek, 2011). Eugene had increasingly become the home base for the radical contingent of the movement. McGowan notes that he planned to work for the Earth First! Journal (Goodman, 2007), whose mission is a focus on, “the institutional, economic, political, social and cultural dynamics of hierarchy, power and privilege that define mainstream society also permeate the radical environmental movement” (, 2013). McGowan also spent time volunteering for Eugene PeaceWorks and projects involving Lane County homeless youth (United States v. McGowan, 2006).  He was described by friends as the “disgruntled one,” as he had a “nasty attitude” and was “bitter;” always challenging others’ ideas (Curry and Hamachek, 2011). His former girlfriend, Savoie, has said that he was extremely involved in the issues and very social at this time. Similarly, law enforcement identified him as a leader in the movement and as someone to whom people looked for guidance.

McGowan acknowledges that he had become a different person and while noting he was already radicalized, he does describe moving to Oregon as leading to a sense of increasing disenchantment:

I was blown away by Oregon. I had never seen trees like that before. I had never seen forests or animals or anything like that. And so, I had—it had a really profound impact on me. And I was already quite radicalized, but I was—couldn’t believe the fact that people accepted what was going on there. I couldn’t believe the clear cuts on the mountaintops. I couldn’t believe the animal cruelty that I saw (Goodman, 2007).

McGowan relays that it became clear to others in the movement he was interested in doing “other stuff” (Curry and Hamachek, 2011). After meeting the unofficial leader of the Family, Jake Ferguson, McGowan says that “some things (were set) in motion.” Ferguson was not only the groups’ originator, but also a “hard-rocking, drug-addicted musician and prolific anarchist arsonist” (Smith and Damphousse, 2009: 492).

McGowan became involved in the Family’s “Book Clubs;” named for their utilization of books as a tool for secret communication. These clubs were considered to be subcells of the Family’s larger network and served as places for the training of, “clandestine methods of committing direct actions, including the manufacture of mechanical and electrical timing devices for setting off improvised incendiary devices, reconnaissance of targets, lock picking, and computer security” (United States v. McGowan, 2007). Smith and Damphousse (2009) describe trainings in secure communications from members with technological backgrounds, including how to use anonymous e-mail accounts. These meetings were also a way for members to reinforce their ideological purpose to plan for future actions (Deshpande and Ernst, 2012). Two of these actions were the arson at Superior Lumber Company in Glendale, Oregon on January 2nd, 2001 and at Jefferson Poplar Tree Farm on May 21, 2001 in Clatskanie, Oregon (United States v. McGowan, 2007).

McGowan has indicated that Superior Lumber first came to his attention after seeing their lumber bundles on the commercial train in town (Curry and Hamachek, 2011). He describes that he was initially recruited by Meyerhoff, “a radical anarchist who eventually called for violent action against persons, not just facilities” (Smith and Damphousse, 2009: 485) and Savoie, to serve as a lookout. Kevin Tubbs, “a college-educated animal rights radical with degrees in philosophy and fine arts” (Smith and Damphousse, 2009: 485) and Ferguson were also a part of the action, which resulted in $400,000 dollars in damages.  After the arson, McGowan was tasked with writing the communique and sending it to the “North American ALF and ELF Press Office,” a way that members of the otherwise decentralized network could credit their actions to the movement (Deshpande and Ernst, 2012).

After seeing the media coverage, McGowan describes feeling like he had accomplished something, particularly when the high damage amount was reported (Curry and Hamachek, 2011). Specifically, he states that there is, “something really strange about when you attach a statement to an arson it suddenly becomes newsworthy … it is like propaganda with teeth” (Lee, 2007). Consequently, he was motivated to take a more active role in the second arson at Jefferson Poplar.8

McGowan’s more active role involved, “lay(ing) out soaked gasoline sheets and towels connected to a homemade incendiary device, designed to set fire to a fleet of SUVs and the company office” (Lee, 2007). Meyerhoff and Savoie were once again participants, with Nathan Block and Joyanna Zacher taking other roles in lieu of Tubbs. The incident caused almost a million dollars in damage.

The radicalization of Walter Edmund Bond


Walter Edmund Zuehlke was born on April 16, 1976 in Iowa (Animal Press Liberation Office, 2010; Bond, 2014; DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis, 2014) and had a “childhood marked by parental instability and substance abuse,” which led to “the development of his ardent positions against social ills, such as drug abuse” (DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis, 2014). Bond’s biological father was heavily addicted to methamphetamine and cocaine after his return from serving in Vietnam. He was also known to be a part of an outlaw motorcycle gang. Bond refers to his father by his first name, “Mark,” and notes that his biological parents divorced when he was 12-months-old. Mark was sent to federal prison for his involvement in drugs, with Bond describing him as a “deadbeat dad, a liar and a scumbag.”

Bond appears to have a much stronger connection with his stepfather, James, whom he met when he was “in diapers” (Animal Press Liberation Office, 2010; Bond, 2014; DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis, 2014). James adopted Walter and consequently, Walter took James’ last name. Walter describes his stepfather as “the only father I have ever known” and a “good man with a bad problem.” This problem, alcoholism, led to divorce from Bond’s mother when Walter was twelve. Bond’s mother subsequently moved them to Denver to be around family.

It was around this time that Bond moved into a house with “12 relatives.” He talks about how this experience exposed him to, “all the horrors that people of color are privy too. Racist cops, soup kitchens, drug abuse, sexual abuse, violence and of course, prison” (Bond, 2016). Bond also expresses being exceptionally close his cousin Eric, who is portrayed as “doing whatever he wanted” (U.S. v. Bond, 2010).

Bond’s mother also appears to have issues with substance abuse (Animal Press Liberation Office, 2010; Bond, 2014; DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis, 2014). Bond acknowledges that he frequently smoked marijuana with her after the divorce from James and that they both became frequent drug users. He describes his peer group at this time as “other kids like me. Friends with broken homes and druggie parents. Biker kids. Punk rock kids. Nerds, geeks and the throwaways” (Animal Press Liberation Office, 2010) who would “make all kinds of clip art under the name ‘Anti-Statist Counter Culture’ (Black, 2013). In another account, Bond describes everyone he knew at this time as either dealing or using methamphetamine and remarks that he was “part of a huge social circle in the Denver punk scene” (Animal Press Liberation Office, 2010). Bond dropped out of school after the eighth grade and began a “nihilist lifestyle,” which was marked by being “very reactionary and angry at the whole world, parents, school, and everything” (Black, 2013).

When Bond was 15, he discovered the “Straight Edge” music scene, which he identifies as instrumental to saving his life (Animal Liberation Frontline, 2011; Bond, 2014). Bond states that Straight Edge, “means no drugs, no alcohol, no promiscuity for as long as I live. It furthermore means standing against drug culture and apathy” (Animal Liberation Frontline, 2011). Choosing this lifestyle as a way to rebel against his family, Bond spent most of his adolescence as a drummer for “Defiance of Authority:” a Straight Edge band. When he was 18, Bond relays coming home to find out that his mother, whom he describes as “feral and free,” had left with her third husband to live in the Pacific Northwest; he would not see her for 7 more years (Animal Press Liberation Office, 2010; Bond, 2014; DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis, 2014).

Entry into crime

Although predated by illegal drug use and low-level vandalism, Bond’s first ideologically-motivated crime was the setting of a pentagram on fire inside a church to protest religion when he was 18 (DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis, 2014). He did not serve any jail time for this act.

When Bond was 19, he began what he describes as a transition to that of an “animal liberation and veganism activist” (Animal Liberation Press Office, 2014; Office of Intelligence and Analysis, 2013) as the result of his first official job with Dakota Mechanical. This company was responsible for building two pork production facilities where Bond notes that, “the horrors I witnessed there had a profound effect on me” (Animal Liberation Press Office, 2014). In particular, the bludgeoning of an escaped pig by his coworkers coupled with their ensuing celebration had a powerful influence on this metamorphosis. About this incident, Bond says:

Then came the day that changed me. We were wrapping up all our tools and cleaning up when a hog who had been knocked out with an electric jolt, had his throat stuck, and had been hung upside down to bleed to death woke up, convulsed, and freed himself of the foot-hold. He came running off of the kill floor straight toward me and the rest of the crew. Three IBP workers gave chase. One with a pipe wrench and two with baseball bats. They began to beat the hog to death. I turned away as I thought anyone would … I was wrong. As I turned, I was face to face with the rest of my crew. While listening to the thuds and squeals of a blunt force death a mere 30 feet behind me, I watched as my co-workers whooped and cheered, high-fiving each other each time there was a thud, laughing and celebrating the violent death of a sentient being (Bond, 2010).

Bond stopped eating meat immediately after this incident and eventually transitioned to a vegan. He also observes that he, “went home and began to study Animal Rights” and “worked at Animal sanctuaries and rescued Animals whenever I could” (Bond, 2010). In his writings, Bond also reflects on his shame that he did not get involved sooner:

I found myself wondering why do we as a “civilized” society allow this to happen. Why did I not personally intervene when I had the chance? Why did it take me several years after bearing witness to this atrocity to seriously begin speaking out and fighting against it? (Bond, 2011).

Bond’s refined ideology became “Straightedge Veganism,” which he describes as, “the first time that doing what’s compassionate and right was presented to me in way that appeared, and well … Dangerous.” Bond states that after the slaughterhouse incident he was, “not interested in ultra pacifist hippie ways of answering all the horrors I had witnessed” (Pieslak, 2014). He conveys that he also became involved with the “Hardline” movement in conjunction with Vegan Straight Edge, which “approached the issues morally and ferociously” (Pieslak, 2014). About this particular movement, Bond says that it was a “fairly holistic and codified world view and way of life” that is “militantly pro-life as it is Vegan and also against all sex outside of that between a man and woman, specifically for pro creative purposes” (Pieslak, 2014).

At 21, Bond moved back to Iowa and became acquainted with one of his two “full-blooded brothers,” Trapper, who was raised separately in Mark’s household (Animal Press Liberation Office, 2010; 2011; Bond, 2014). About Trapper, who would later become an informant for the government, Bond notes:

I had never had a brother before and I loved him with all my heart. I loved him blindly. He would steal from me and I would ignore it. He would lie straight into my face and I would excuse it. My brother was always a master and genius at sensing a person’s emotional vulnerability and using it to his maximum advantage.

Frustrated by Trapper’s methamphetamine addiction and the police’s lack of response, Bond burned down the drug dealer's house (Animal Liberation Press Office, 2010; Bond, 2014). About this incident, Bond states that he, “had been through so much because of other peoples’ (and my own) drug use that I took drastic measures and attacked the source of all this insanity. The dealers themselves” (Animal Liberation Press Office, 2010). He notes that this arson was responsible for the arrest of several dealers and states that his “four years of imprisonment was a small price to pay for such a positive result” (Animal Liberation Frontline, 2011).

During his first incarceration, Bond depicts everyone on the outside as estranged from him out of “self-preservation” (Animal Press Liberation Office, 2010). He became increasingly immersed in “Animal Rights, biocentrism, philosophy, world history, evolution, religion, mythology, law, social justice movements, politics, sociology; anything I could get my hands on that was non-fiction.” This immersion included materials like the book “The Declaration of War: Killing People to Save Animals and the Environment,” (DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis, 2014), which he describes as, “the best book ever written as it pertains to the reality of animal liberation and the tactics that must be employed” (U.S. v. Bond, 2010). This manuscript, ascribed to an anonymous author, has sentiments like “we cannot end hunting, but we can put an end to some hunters” (Husar, 1992). Bond appears to also have been persuaded by the work of Peter Singer, an animal rights activist, and his book, “Animal Liberation” (Office of Intelligence and Analysis, 2013). According to its description, Singer’s work reveals “shocking abuse of animals” and “offers sound and humane solutions;” none of which appear to advocate violence. Bond also references his affection for Abbey’s “The Monkeywrench Gang” and Foreman’s “Confessions of an Eco Warrior” (Pieslak, 2014), which both promote the use of economic sabotage to various targets. Bond has affirmed that, “Some people go to Penn State, I got my education at the State Pen” (Bond, 2010). This included his GED, which he earned while in prison (Bond, 2014).

Bond was released after serving a little more than three years of his sentence (Vaughan, 2014). He returned to Denver, where he began work at a health food store and became even more absorbed with veganism and animal liberation (Animal Liberation Press Office, 2010; Bond, 2014). Bond was heavily involved in “leafleting at shows and in the streets, tabling at Pride events, protesting, or volunteering at animal sanctuaries” (Black, 2013; DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis, 2014). He began “flyering all over Denver” until his “thumb and fingers were blistered” and started a blog to “revise the vegan hardline philosophy” (Bond, 2010). However, he became disheartened when he saw many of these flyers on the ground or when he heard Vegetarians talk about their unwillingness to give up cheese. About his outreach efforts he states:

I came to the conclusion that most people don’t want to change, most people don’t want to learn what’s going on with Animals because they don’t want to feel bad or responsible for it, and most people are not going to sacrifice their time energy or money to make a change. BAM! The facts, welcome to reality! All that was left in my life was to fight back on the Animals behalf of shut up because I was sick of the sound of my own voice (Black, 2013).

Although he did have a small network of close friends and family during this time (Bond, 2010; U.S. v. Bond, 2010), Bond became to view the majority of his peers as uncaring, uncommitted, and inauthentic. He describes one animal rights meeting as a “creepy form of speed dating” full of “intellectual egoism” (Bond, 2010). Specifically, he states:

When it was my turn, I mentioned my stand against “free range,” I was met instantly with eye rolls and rationalizations about it being “a step in the right direction” and “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” even, “I’m Vegan but I am so glad that meat-eaters now have a humane and cruelty-free alternative!” My response was, “I can’t believe I am listening to a group of Vegans promoting animal use!” After this, a huge argument ensued and I left that meet-up determined to expose “free range” and once again educate everyone I could. Only this time with more zeal and vigor than ever (Bond, 2010).

Even Bond’s fellow hardcore and straightedge friends had become to him, “more into practicing dance moves and playing video games than putting their back into their beliefs” (Bond, 2010). He references distancing himself from “the people and the music” and becoming burnt out.

About this group, Bond says:

Apparently, the bulk of the straight-edge scene is about collecting records and keeping it to yourself. That and politics, politics, politics. Instead of the primary focus being on animal liberation or drug-free living, it seems that half of straight-edge is about being a Christian, Right-wing American Patriot that resemble a bunch of clean-cut cops with tattoos. Bullying people at hardcore shows and staying dedicated to the “boys only” mentality. While the other half are wanna-be Beatnik, Bohemian anarchists that go ten steps out of their way to be offended about everything, but won’t do anything except philosophize and try to squeeze the words “patriarchal” and “heteronormative” into as many conversations as possible (Bond, 2010).

Bond then had his neck tattooed with the word “vegan,” describing this as a, “life changing event” that “literally changed my personality” and “pushed (him) over the edge” (Black, 2013). Bond also identifies one specific turning point during this time:

For a few months, all I did was work. I was depressed because I felt marginalized and ineffective; I began daydreaming at work about what I would do if I had no fear, nothing to lose. I would be a member of that clandestine underground, I would be an Animal Liberation Front operative. The more I thought about it, the happier I became. Then one day while stalking the potato chip isle at work, it hit me: there’s no time like the present. I quit my job and left my normal life in isle seven of a health food store (Bond, 2010).

In another account, Bond states that his “transformation from a legal activist to a clandestine one came on the day I finally decided that I couldn’t stand one more hollow conversation about ‘The Big Picture of Our Movement’ … at this point I quit my job” (U.S. v. Bond, 2010).

Entry into terrorism

Bond’s transformation to a “clandestine activist” became marked by another tattoo; this time, aboriginal artwork was added to half of his face (Bond, 2014). He describes knowing first and foremost that he would work alone9 as he did not have a peer he “considered up to the challenge” (Bond, 2010; DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis, 2014). This is confirmed by federal law enforcement, which found “no evidence that Bond joined a violent extremist group or associated with violent extremists in conducting his arson attacks” (DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis, 2014). This is despite Bond referencing organized entities like Earth First! as “spectacular” and leaders Dave Foreman and Howie Wolkie described as “pioneers and super effective activists” (Pieslak, 2014). Bond also identifies ALF as a “set of principles and not a group in any organized way” (Pieslak, 2014) and states that “the ALF is any Vegan or vegetarian that harms no life and decides by illegal means to liberate Animals and/or cause economic damage to those that profit from Animal use and abuse” (Bond, 2010). He has also noted that he does not know anyone in ALF, Animal Rights Militia, or Justice Department, but feels solidarity with them (U.S. v. Bond, 2010).10

When choosing targets, Bond was careful to select entities that would allow for maximum damage because he believed the government would call him “a terrorist for breaking a McDonald's window” (Bond, 2014). To do so, Bond focused on older, more fire-susceptible buildings where the possibility of detection would be less likely. He acknowledges that he learned from other Animal Liberation Front (ALF) actions not to use an incendiary device and was able to get most of the supplies for the arson from alleys and trashcans (Bond, 2014).

Bond’s official transition to terrorism occurred when he burned down The Sheepskin Factory in Glendale, Colorado on April 30, 2010, resulting in half a million dollars in damages. About this incident, he says:

The day after I burnt down the Sheepskin Factory I felt awesome! Before that action I had so much tension, disenchantment, and activist burnout, and that one act washing it all away. Nothing will ever compare to directly intervening and stopping a grave injustice. I also, all at one, felt in control of my life, perhaps for the first time … I brushed my teeth that morning and looked in the mirror thinking, ‘I am a member of the Animal Liberation Front,’ just like all my heroes. And every moment after that as long as I was alive, free and continuing my campaign, I was winning (Bond, 2014).

Bond’s next act was the arson of the Tandy Leather Factory in Salt Lake City, Utah on June 5, 2010, which caused around $20,000 in damages (Stettler, 2014). He then targeted a restaurant in Sandy, Utah, leading to $10,000 worth of repairs. Bond then claimed responsibility for the acts on the “Voices of the Voiceless” website, an entity of ALF, as an “ALF Lone Wolf.” Specifically, he posted:

Be warned that making a living from the use and abuse of animals will not be tolerated. Also be warned that leather is every bit as evil as fur, as demonstrated in my recent arson against the Leather Factory in Salt Lake City. Go vegan! (Stettler, 2010).

Interestingly, Bond has been careful to separate out these acts from violence, but also concedes it can be an effective tactic:

For me personally the philosophy of on non-violence is not a rigorous dogma to be upheld at all times and in all situations. I personally would never use physical violence against people in the name of any cause, because I am not a violent person and this world is suffering from so much violence already I do not want to add to that. But I do not fault anyone for wanting to keep all available tactics up for discussion when the issue is the slaughter of billions of innocent lives and the death of Mother Earth (Pieslak, 2014).

In another account, Bond describes himself as “in no way a pacifist,” but again reiterates he would only use violence for defensive purposes (U.S. v. Bond, 2010). After the third arson, Bond became increasingly fatigued. He says that, “the stress of being homeless and ALF campaigns had caught up with (him)” (Bond, 2014). As a result, he told Trapper about the arsons, who then turned him into the FBI for a reward. Bond was sentenced to five years in federal prison and mandated to pay over a million dollars in restitution (InGold, 2014). At his sentencing, the judge received 50 letters of support. Bond remained unrepentant at the time, referring to himself as a “prisoner of war” (InGold, 2011).

Findings and discussion

Table 2 shows the results from the case study as detailed below. As a whole, McGowan’s case was reflective of SSSL main components, especially those regarding the learning processes involved. Interestingly, Bond, despite his role as an atypical case and lone offender, demonstrated many of these elements as well.

Table 2. SSSL variables within case studies

SSSL variable

Akers’ definition



Social structure

Strain/anomie, social disorganization, conflict theories

Middle class

Homeless, family and employment instability

Differential social organization

“Distinguishes one community, region, society, or social system from another.”

Environmental inequality

Lone actor

Differential association

Normative and interactive dimensions of the primary and secondary group relationships and affiliations

Girlfriend Savoie; The Family; Coronado

Motivated by lack of action by peers


“One’s own attitudes and beliefs, rationalizations, justifications, and definitions of the situation.”

Definitions favorable to terrorism

Definitions favorable to terrorism

Discriminate Stimuli

“Provide cues or signals to the person that this is the right or appropriate time and situation in which to engage in the behavior.”

Black Bloc; Superior Lumber

Opposite as predicted with peers; Sheepskin Factory


“Learning by observing others’ behavior.”

Book clubs

ALF actions; internet/books

Note: Akers’ definition is with Sellers, 2004 and Jennings, 2016.

Social structure variables 

Interestingly, McGowan’s case study lacks much reference to the traditional social structure component of SSSL. As primarily a middle class, educated, white male, the theoretically defined constructs inherent to social disorganization, strain/anomie, and conflict perspectives are largely missing from his experience. Consequently, differential social location, both within groups and the social structure, are less representative of McGowan’s life.

It could be argued that McGowan’s childhood exposed him to issues of environmental inequality and led to a kind of differential social organization. However, this organization did not directly lead to the mediating constructs of differential association, definitions, differential reinforcement, and imitation as outlined in Akers’ model. Similarly, and while much of the radical eco-movement’s ideology is based on principles inherent to conflict theory, McGowan’s relative privilege seems to minimize the role of these factors in his own life.

On the other hand, Bond has many of these factors present in his life history narrative. Bond was homeless at times and often lived in poverty, primarily due to his familial instability. He appears to have moved around quite a bit between communities, only first holding a stable job when he was 18. Certainly, constructs present in social disorganization, strain/anomie, and conflict perspectives were present in his experience including residential mobility, a lack of informal social control, a means-ends disparity, and issues with the capitalist economic system.

Social learning variables

While McGowan’s case study does not adequately reflect the social structure predictors elucidated in Akers’ model, there are several instances of social learning mechanisms. However, and as stated above, these variables do not appear to be mediators caused by structural conditions. Rather, they served as standalone causes of McGowan’s radicalization.

As noted, Bond did have social structure variables present in his life, and it could be argued that such variables provided the context for his radicalization. Nonetheless, Bond’s learning occurred primarily through literature, the previous actions of other terrorists to whom he was unaffiliated, and some internet browsing. In other words, there is no evidence that Bond learned his behavior directly through an association with peers. Instead, he became motivated to act because of what he viewed as his acquaintances’ hypocrisy and non-action, which became especially noticeable to him in several unfruitful “all-the-more Vegan-than-thou” conversations. Furthermore, and despite maintaining a blog online and communicating with followers, it does not appear that the internet was a large source of peer networks.

Differential association

McGowan’s case study illustrates several elements consistent with SSSL’s construct of differential association throughout both his radicalization and desistance. Before and after his involvement in the arsons, McGowan was surrounded by individuals who held values and behavior that reinforced compliance. McGowan has stated at the time of his sentencing that he was, “incredibly lucky to have the best support network that I have ever seen. That intense support-moral, legal, financial and otherwise-has made all the different to me and it’s why I write today with acceptance of my current situation and with clear conscience” (United States v. McGowan, 2007). This network includes both members of his primary-group, who held morals, attitudes, and ethics supportive of legal behavior, and secondary-group organizations/reference groups, with similar value systems.

The primary-group who had the most influence on McGowan, particularly in regards to his deradicalization and disengagement, is that of his family. McGowan’s father, a law enforcement officer, has indicated that while he never agreed with his son’s philosophies, they still maintained a supportive and loving relationship (Curry and Hamachek, 2011). Letters written on McGowan’s behalf at the time of his sentencing describe him as “loyal brother and son” and a “dedicated uncle” to his niece, who is the child of his sister Lisa (United States v. McGowan, 2007). Lisa served as an especially important influence on McGowan, described in these same letters as having a relationship that is “especially close.” McGowan also lived with his sister, including during his house arrest after she used her own house as collateral. As noted, it was Lisa’s birthday party where McGowan was reminded of the importance of his family and where the initial meeting for his wife, Synan, occurred. Both of these prosocial influences were the impetus for McGowan to move back to New York City, where he maintained a “strong bond” and an “unflagging love” with Synan (United States v. McGowan, 2007). McGowan also appears to have a number of law abiding friends responsible for his compliance during this period. Letters written by those within his primary-group describe him as “the kind of friend I wish everyone could have” and “always available for support and kind words when I am in need of them.” He also credits his friends in Canada as reinforcing the role that legitimate action can have in social change.

It was only when McGowan became increasingly isolated from these types of primary-group relationships, particularly those within his family, that he became a self-described “different person” (Curry and Hamachek, 2011). Looking back at this time in his life, McGowan has stated that he wished that he had people who would have guided him to a “different path” (Curry and Hamachek, 2011). It is possible that McGowan’s relationship with Coronado, initially through letter writing and then in person, was one of the first of these types of associations (but we cannot be certain given the aforementioned lack of information regarding this relationship). Coronado, who has served time for several ideologically-motivated acts including arson, has publicly voiced his own justifications and rationalizations (Rietmulder, 2015). However, it was members of the Family (13 of whom he was indicted with) who were most influential to McGowan’s radicalization, starting with their interactions at the WTO Black Bloc. As noted, McGowan has divulged that he was first recruited for the Superior Lumber arson by his girlfriend, Savoie, along with Meyerhof. He has also identified Ferguson as responsible for bringing him into the more radical fringe. Collectively, McGowan associated with individuals who held beliefs supportive of, and disproportionately engaged in, acts of ideologically-motivated crime and terrorism before his involvement in such acts.

Outside of the Family, there were several secondary reference groups and organizations to which McGowan identified. Prior to his radicalization, these included athletics, student organizations, and his high school/collegiate institutions. Social justice and environmental organizations were also instrumental to McGowan’s deradicalization, through again reinforcing the role of legal entities in creating social change. These consist of McGowan’s work at the Rainforest Foundation and Women’s Law, along with his volunteer efforts at RNC Not Welcome and Running down the Walls. Other political and social reference groups did the opposite for McGowan. Although not necessarily promoting a radical ideology, the Wetland Environmental Center served as the starting place for his shift in attitudes and beliefs. Earth First! further reinforced rationalizations and justifications for his illegal, albeit nonviolent behavior.

On the other hand, Bond had few, if any, prosocial primary-group relationships. His father, stepfather, mother, and brother all suffered from drug addiction, with the latter turning him in for reward money. His childhood appears to be marked by instability and abandonment. However, Bond does mention the death of his “beloved grandmother, Gwen” as a significant personal challenge (U.S. v. Bond, 2010). There is also no mention of a partner.

It also appears as if Bond’s secondary reference groups and organizations were primarily prosocial, but had the opposite effect on his offending. As a lone offender, Bond was in part motivated to act by the hypocrisy he saw in these groups and organizations. Thus, Bond does not demonstrate the traditional conceptualization of differential association as predicted.

Definitions and differential reinforcement

McGowan’s radicalization demonstrates a progression in definitions to those that became increasingly positive and neutralizing to acts of ideologically-motivated crime and terrorism.11 Consistent with the premise laid out by SSSL, these definitions were contingent on with whom McGowan was associating. The beginning of this progression shows definitions favorable to activism, established through his interactions with Coronado, the meetings at the Wetlands Center, and perhaps most important, documentaries viewed at this organization. As noted, McGowan says that these films opened his eyes and motivated him to act, while the meetings forced him to work through beliefs on criminal justice. McGowan’s definitions then escalated to those favorable to nonviolent, ideologically-motivated crime through his interactions with Earth First!. In particular, the River Rendezvous exposed him to the possibility of environmental resistance with his arrest reinforcing his commitment to this end of the spectrum. Although the mine eventually opened, this event appeared to serve as a discriminant stimulus of sorts for McGowan by creating positive associations with this form of activism.

Although not directly involved in the series of visible protests involving controversial police tactics, McGowan notes the importance of these events in his progression of beliefs. Here, we can see the influence of a type of “virtual group” (Akers and Jennings, 2016; Warr, 2002), despite McGowan’s radicalization occurring primarily offline. Namely, the viewing of these protests through mass media led to McGowan’s disillusionment, where his belief in civil disobedience became eroded, motivating him to seek out the more radicalized end of the spectrum. McGowan then began to form rationalizations and justifications for techniques that had not been tried and embraced force as the best avenue for change. His direct viewing of logging trucks in Northern California only served to solidify these beliefs and motivated him to “find a way (to channel his) grief and rage” (Curry and Hamachek, 2011). The Black Bloc was the first way he felt he was able to do so, noting the positive reinforcement he received in creating the extensive damage.12

McGowan’s belief system then transitioned to one that became favorable to acts of extremism and just as quickly, reverted back to those that embraced working within the legitimate system. His differential association with the Family created rationalizations and justifications that were used to neutralize extremist behavior. In particular, McGowan’s participation in the first arson at Superior Lumber and its perceived success as discerned through news coverage of the extensive damage positively reinforced his decision to become more active. Alternatively, the failure of his group in their choice of Jefferson Poplar Farm served as a key event in his desistance, through a form of negative punishment. When it was discovered that the farm did not engage in genetic engineering, positive stimuli like feelings of accomplishment were removed.  The removal of this stimuli, coupled with McGowan’s increasing discomfort with the collateral damage resulting from these acts and discussions of more violent tactics, forced him to revisit his philosophy. His visit to Canadian friends who worked in social justice, reminded him of alternatives to extremism hardening his belief that “burning things down (was) futile” (Curry and Hamachek, 2011).

Although not necessarily formulated through close, intimate peer groups in the way SSSL would predict, Bond also had a metamorphosis in his definitions. In response to his drug-addicted family, Bond embraced a conformist lifestyle. This continued until he was overwhelmed by perceived injustices, starting with his brother’s addiction and his frustration with the justice system.  Bond then reacted similarly to the treatment of animals brought on by his exasperation with how legitimate peers were complacent toward the issue. In a sense, Bond reacted in the opposite way one would expect with SSSL; with conformity from antisocial peers and with deviance from conformist peers.

It also could be argued that Bond became differentially reinforced by his first action. After the Sheepskin Factory action, we see elements of purpose and accomplishment in his words. In the same vein, his deradicalization comes about as fatigue sets in from the actions coupled with his realization that little ground has been gained from even the most radical of efforts. In many ways, this disillusionment is what overlaps McGowan and Bond the most.


The process of imitation was present several times in McGowan’s transition from activism to crime to terrorism, and again back to activism. McGowan was first introduced to the former through directly witnessing the behavior of those at Wetlands; namely letter writing and nonviolent protest. He then transitioned to nonviolent illegal behavior following his time at the River Rendezvous, when he accompanied others to participate in his first direct action. Perhaps most illustrative of imitation were the Family’s Book Clubs, which provided training sessions for the diverse skill set needed to carry out the arson. Similarly, McGowan’s participation in the first arson at Superior Lumber as a lookout allowed him to witness how such skills were applied.

Bond’s offending also had elements of imitation, but again, not in the traditional sense of how SSSL is operationalized. Instead, Bond appears to have learned certain elements of his attacks through previous ALF actions, including what to do and what not to do. Given no peer connections have been established, it is assumed that the mechanism of this learning was via the internet or the previously identified literature. In one account, Bond does acknowledge using the internet to research targets, but it is unclear from where else this information was discerned (U.S. v. Bond, 2010).


This study sought to explore the applicability of an SSSL framework to terrorist radicalization. As a whole, the social learning, but not traditional social structure processes were well-represented in McGowan’s experience. As such, structural variables did not begin the chain of causality as specified in SSSL. Instead, the learning constructs of differential association, definitions, differential reinforcement, and imitation appear to have directly influenced McGowan’s transition from an activist to a criminal, a criminal to a terrorist, and from a terrorist back to an activist.

Interestingly for Bond, our comparison case, structural variables were very much present. However, and given his role as a lone offender, these constructs were not responsible for creating definitions favorable to terrorism in ways traditionally predicted by SSSL. Instead, deviant peers appeared to spawn conformity in Bond, while those who were mainly conformist had the opposite effect.

This importance of learning variables to McGowan’s trajectory into and out of extremism is also consistent with many of the perspectives found in the radicalization literature. Specifically, those frameworks that emphasize the significance of close social networks upon individual behavioral outcomes are of particular relevance (McCauley, 1989; McCauley and Moskalenko, 2008; Post, 1988; Sageman, 2004). Despite a recent increase in the interest of lone actor behavior in the United States (Gill, Horgan, and Deckert, 2014; Spaaij, 2011), McGowan’s case study demonstrates the influence of primary social groups at each stage in his adult life, including fellow extremists, friends, and family, through their central role in shaping norms and thus, influencing behavior. As McGowan became more entrenched within different groups, his views on various tactics shifted to accommodate that of the group, primarily as a reaction to the positive enforcement. These mechanisms were also present during his transition away from illegal extremism after the incident at the Jefferson Poplar Farm. In a dynamic process instigated by an event of profound disillusionment with the group’s strategy of resistance, McGowan eventually reformulated his social network to reflect his newfound stance on legal activism. Such instances of “cycles” of activism to extremism and back to activism are understudied and suffer from a lack of empirical data, but provide a potentially fruitful avenue for future research.

As Bond’s case study demonstrates, however, close social networks and the learning processes associated with them are not necessary conditions for individuals to engage in extremist behavior. In lieu of ideologically aligned pro-social groups, Bond found suitable replacements for close peers through self-guided research on the Internet and with the radical environmentalist movement in the United States more specifically, which maintains a decentralized and largely anonymized organizational structure. Moreover, it is possible that frustration and disillusionment with members of one’s pro-social group for their ambivalence toward a critical political issue may have actually served as a catalyst for more extreme forms of behavior. More research is needed to determine if this dynamic is generalizable to extremists outside of the environmentalist context, or lone actor extremists, or if it is a unique feature of Bond’s radicalization trajectory.

Our findings from McGowan’s case study offer some important insights for counterterrorism policy. First, law enforcement and counterterrorism strategies should not over-commit their resources to countering the threat from lone actors at the expense of disregarding the important role played by peer relationships, both online and in-person. Despite the profound changes the world has undergone in the way it consumes and distributes information through online channels, radicalization to extremism remains a thoroughly social process (Jensen et al., 2016).  Second, any counter-extremism policy that seeks to move beyond a simple deterrent ought to incorporate friends, family, and other positive social networks in an effort to build alternative pathways out of extremism. Programs like EXIT-Germany and Hayat, both of which are partners with the German federal government, offer a model in which to inform U.S. counterterrorism programs. Third, the importance of McGowan’s close social ties throughout his radicalization and mobilization raises some serious ethical implications concerning counterterrorism techniques commonly used by law enforcement. Specifically, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is known to rely heavily on confidential informants and in some instances, undercover agents, to enter communities and befriend individuals thought to be at risk of engaging in extremist behavior to gather potentially incriminating evidence (Schreiber, 2001; Ward, 2006; Zimmerman, 1995). Law enforcement agencies need to consider the role of these undercover actors and whether their very presence reinforces some of the SSSL principles, which might accelerate the radicalization process among some individuals.

It should be noted that this study is not without limitations, which can inform future research. The issues with case study research are well-documented (for critiques of case-study research see King, Keohane, and Verba, 1994; Geddes, 2003; for support see Brady and Collier, 2004; George and Bennett, 2005) with most of them concerning external validity. The experiences of McGowan and Bond could be unique to them and consequently, cannot be generalized to all extremists. Our study is careful to acknowledge the complexity of the interpretive issues that go with committing to an ideologically-driven movement and it is possible that not all relevant processes have been outlined here.

Similarly, and in constructing these case studies, we relied on recent open sources, including, but not limited to, Twitter, blogs, interviews with various media representing each offenders’ own reflections, and court documents. Stemming from the limitations associated with not being able to conduct our own interviews with each subject, we want to acknowledge the inherent challenges in constructing life-history narratives exclusively from secondary and open sources. While a cost-effective way of gathering data, such sources, save for directly transcribed interviews, have already been processed and interpreted by the original author, which raises the problem of maintaining consistent objectivity throughout the narrative. Another potential risk of relying on publicly available source material is missing crucial context for certain life events. Information on internal normative processes within closed groups is central to the theorized constructs within the SSSL perspective; information that may be absent from open source accounts. Future researchers seeking to adapt this data collection method ought to consider the difficulties built into this approach and take appropriate steps to counter any deleterious effects.

Additional studies should continue to examine the radicalization of alternate subjects, particularly those that adhere to more violent ideologies or those who represent non-protypical subjects. It could also be that social structural elements have a more discernible impact with these types of offenders. Relatedly, additional quantitative research is needed to examine whether SSSL is representative of the larger extremist population. The newly released PIRUS dataset offers promise for this trajectory of research. Ultimately, evidenced-based counterterrorism policy cannot be considered as such without the presence of robust, empirical research.

As the current administration continues to strip environmental regulation and groups like the Antifa become more and more active, left-wing terrorism may very well witness a resurgence in the United States. This pattern would fit with the cyclical nature of movements, often affected by larger, macro-level forces. Studies like this one are imperative to understanding these forces, and ultimately, countering, this behavior.


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Jennifer Varriale Carson is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and the Coordinator of Undergraduate Research at the University of Central Missouri. Her work primarily focuses on policy and program evaluation through the use of quasi-experimental methods and can be found in a number of outlets including Criminology and Public Policy, the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, and Crime and Delinquency.

Patrick Andres James is a researcher and project manager the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), based at the University of Maryland. Patrick's research interests include domestic extremist groups and narratives, the intersection between hate crimes and extremism, and foreign fighter mobilization. Prior to joining START, Patrick worked with the One Earth Future Foundation in Broomfield, CO and the Program on Terrorism and Insurgency Research based out of the University of Denver. He earned his B.A. in International Studies from the University of North Texas and his M.A. in International Studies from the University of Denver, focusing on political violence, asymmetric conflict Middle East policy, and international security issues.

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