Radicalization in Western Europe: Mental State or Social Challenge?

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Radicalization is a politically sensitive topic in an increasingly polarized sociopolitical environment. Arguably, polarization undermines social cohesion as much as ethnic terrorism or jihadist attacks. Τhe catalytic process of stakeholder radicalization undermines social cohesion by legitimating violence as a substitute for debate and negotiation. In this scheme, understanding the process of radicalization is key in formulating both an individual ethical stand and a collective attitude towards the process.

Radicalization is a complex and multi-layered phenomenon that gives rise to misunderstandings. There is no consensus on its origins, societal impact, and rehabilitation prospects. While radicalization is not a new phenomenon, its trends and channels of individual engagement of radical discourse and practice have evolved to transform the global security environment. From an incidence of global terrorist networks to the peak of so-called lone wolf extremists, recruitment tactics and attacks’ modus operandi have changed. In parallel, right-wing and left-wing extremism fuel anti-system attacks, often not violent but increasingly resorting to injurious means.

In its 2020 annual report on terrorism trends, EUROPOL warned that “in left-wing and anarchist extremist circles, the readiness to use violence also seems to be growing. While many right-wing extremist groups across the EU have not resorted to violence, they contribute to a climate of fear and animosity against minority groups (…) [which] may lower the threshold for radicalized individuals to use violence against people.” While, for example, ethno-nationalist or separatist groups in France and Spain remain inactive, the threat posed by radicalized individuals persists – now in a more multi-faceted way.

Radicalization encompasses a whole array of different channels. From the big networks (Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram), to ethnic or separatist terrorism (ETA), to renewed far-right or far-left movements and, finally, lone wolves or solo perpetrators not belonging to a cell but potentially influenced by an external group’s ideology.

Macro and Micro Approaches to Radicalization

There are two guiding methodologies in clustering such violent movements: one is to place an emphasis on individual choice, describing radicalization as a clinical issue and, conversely, placing an emphasis on radicalization as a process of identification with a collective identity. The methodological choice we make also determines how to treat the issue of de-radicalization, as a case of primarily rehabilitation or social reintegration?

In the phased and complex process that is embracing a radical belief which uses or condones violence, both macro and micro factors can come into play with a luring effect.

On the one hand, macro or wider societal circumstances change the security landscape. Dr. Steve Hewitt, Senior Lecturer on security and intelligence in the Department of History at the University of Birmingham (Twitter handle: @TerrorisingHis1), recalls how the 2003 invasion of Iraq led by the United States and the United Kingdom “was a big driver for extremism and violence in the UK, and the Blair government was even warned by the Joint Intelligence Community about this”. Statistically, it is clear that terrorist attacks have increased worldwide since the military invasions of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003). Western foreign policy, along with its perceived double standards on how to treat countries (let us compare and contrast Israel and Iraq, for instance), is a macro factor towards radicalization. “Radical” in this sense stands for a determination to use violence by making the case that democratic debate is not open to all stakeholders on an equal footing and real change demands force.

Creating an underdog culture is inherent to all terrorist activity. The 2019 Europol report notes that “Al-Qaeda’s strategy relied on building alliances with local tribes while exploiting political grievances at the local and international level, including in Europe.” High immigration or asylum rates also play a role in convincing people the status quo is at risk and developing hostility. The mainstreamed use of the internet or social media is yet another macro factor, in providing new, rarely regulated, opportunities for mobilization and recruitment, as well as expression of extremist political views.

Hewitt highlights that even ‘’the success of security agencies in uncovering big plots caused a shift in our security environment and enabled increased lone wolf attacks, which are extremely difficult to surveil should a solo actor take up everyday objects as new weapons of terror. Despite being around for a long time, dating back to anarchists in the 19th century for instance, the present security environment has led to an exponential escalation in lone-actor terrorism.

On the other hand, micro factors related to individuals’ personal circumstances as social beings with needs also catalyze radicalization and violent extremism.

Being a victim of violence is a micro factor, one of exposure. Pedro Altungy, Researcher and Professor in the Personality, Assessment and Clinical Treatment Department of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, offers the example of a child growing up in Palestine that is raised in war and feels his community is without value, thus should an organization like Hamas give him meaning the appeal is undeniable – “A person who has been a victim, clearly can become a terrorist – not because he is mad or insane, it is actually understandable in rational and logical thinking. The point is the moral and ethical background”.

Altungy’s plea is that “if we want to prevent terrorism, we should address people being in situations very prolific for becoming a terrorist”. Altungy links the experience of discrimination, retelling the story of how expatriates, migrants or second-generations migrants face the psychosocial trauma of questioning their identity and seeking a place or community of true belonging or significance. Detective Superintendent João Paulo Ventura of the Portuguese Judiciary Police emphasizes the importance of a sense of belonging: “We are talking about young people who have problems with social integration, doubts about their own identity. They were born in Europe, but do not feel European, and neither do they belong to the countries of origin of their ancestors. Extremist or terrorism is an outlet, an alternative course”.

Altungy notes that great involvement in social activism is another, pro-social, alternative to garner a sense of belonging. At the core, the difference lies in how we act upon our personal grievances or extreme views, just like someone with extreme views may commit a violent act and another equally-extreme stay peaceful.

Bridging the gap?

It is largely agreed that there is no such thing as a profile-type of a terrorist or extreme radical. Too many isolated or combined factors are at play, no matter how keen politicians are on ”broad patterns with nice explanatory models”, quips Hewitt. Moreover, each country has different legal interpretations of the threshold between what is extremist behavior and what is allowed given our human right to freedom of speech and assembly. Understanding the multifarious path to radicalization better informs future government strategies.

Such a clear vision of what is at stake is especially important when extremist political parties muddle the fine line between politics and violent extremism. Indeed Ventura states the importance of noting the escalation of violence in extremism, that criminal extremist already exists before terrorism: “It starts with almost innocuous things and then suddenly, we are at terrorism. In many cases there was not even a manifestation of explicit violence”. So is the political scene in Europe, increasingly rattled by far-right and far-left parties often prone to violence.

Building off the macro and micro factors enabling radicalization, the role of community is absolutely key in rehabilitation and social integration of radicalized or de-radicalized individuals. In fact, the role of the community can be destructive or constructive when it comes to isolating individuals to a sense of loss and need for outlier alternatives, or healing their wounds and preventing them from seeking significance in ideological movements or radical networks.

All experts interviewed note that rehabilitation is a community effort, not only at the hands of security forces or state programs. A broad holistic discussion by all stakeholders is crucial, society as a whole needs to rehabilitate de-radicalized individuals or returning terrorist fighters with an understanding and inclusive outlook to avoid recurrent ostracism. It is key to educate society towards this new type of social integration crippling Europe. As well as equip countries wth employment or other relevant economic measures to integrate instead of alienate. Otherwise, it can add fuel to the fire.

Hewitt draws attention to the controversial discussion over Prevent, the UK’s flagship counter-terrorism strategy, wherein a 4 year old was referred for repeatedly mentioning Fortnite, the polemic online shooting game. Controversy arose in him being Muslim, with critics noting that such referral would never have been instinctively considered had he been white. In other words, such de-radicalization programs may be counter-productive, potentially feeding xenophobic narratives and therein contributing to radicalization. The same goes for children of returned terrorist fighters, who would be ostracized from kindergarten to the labor force with no fault of their own, simply fueling personal grievances, culminating to inter-generational preventable, radicalization. Ventura, however, reminds us that the issue is not as linear as it appears to be given that “returned children of terrorist fighters are victims, but they are also a risk factor – there are security issues that intersect with humanitarian emergency problems”.

Towards a Synthesis

Radicalization and integration is a two-way street. A more informed and trained society can develop more nuanced approaches to dealing with radical discourse and identities, reaching out to individuals with contextually sensitive strategies, thereby building communities able to accept difference and not propagate vicious cycles of exclusion. There are too many different factors at play for us to be able to pinpoint who will radicalize, or how the next global and local terrorist attack will take place. What we do have control over is how society thinks, judges and excludes or includes.

Expert testimony consulted for the purposes of this report suggests that societies need to consult with their radicalized and violent elements to build resilience.  An informed counter-terrorism strategy requires education in evolving trends and channels of radicalization, pointing to nuanced and contextually informed preemptive steps towards social integration. The role of community is essential and the onus of successful counter-terrorism strategies cannot be left up to the authorities alone. More often than not, social or communal efforts go a long way in creating alternative to radicalization trajectories, creating welcoming spaces in which tolerance beats alienation, creating resilience vis-à-vis radical discourse by fighting prejudice and allowing “the fringe” to emerge as a stakeholder.

In a world too big and too fast to control, effective are the strategies that are founded on self-reflection and wide consultation, creating communal resilience and cultivating individual responsibility.

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