The Road to Radicalisation

Posted: July 13, 2019 in Pool Re
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Second up, a piece for Pool Reinsurance in-house publication Terrorism Frequency. Pool Re is an interesting institution which is specifically focused on the terrorism reinsurance market and was established in the wake of the 1990s IRA campaign in the United Kingdom. Their reports bring together expertise on a variety of topics, in this case their in-house experts on terrorism data, as well as the extreme right and extreme left, alongside myself and the excellent Andrew Silke.

Beyond these new pieces, spoke to the media including to the Telegraph about Ayman al Zawahiri’s latest comments about terrorism in Kashmir, to Public Radio International about radicalisation in France, the BBC about Turkestani’s in Syria, and an earlier interview with AFP about Xinjiang and Central Asia has now appeared in Portuguese.

The Road to Radicalisation – Ideological Trends and Processes

Amongst the reams of academic literature written on the topic, there is no single explanation or answer to how or why radicalisation happens. This process of radicalisation is a highly individualised one, driven by personal choices framed against a broader ideological backdrop.
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People seeking an identity or explanation for their role in the world are drawn to the relatively straightforward answer provided by an extremist ideology to join groups and conduct terrorist acts. Yet, the reason that they got themselves mentally into the space that meant they were seeking an alternative explanation for the world around them is highly personalised and driven by their own experience. Having said all of this, there are some broad trends that are observable in the process of radicalisation that seem to have evolved over time, and seem to vary across ideologies.

Islamist

For example, while violent Islamist radicalisation has long been perceived as being the domain predominantly of young men, more recently there has been an escalation in discussion around the role of women in extremist networks. Data shows us that women have long played a role in violent Islamist networks, but the impenetrability of most battlefields meant that in the past few would actually go and join groups abroad. Rather, they would stay behind and champion the cause through the dissemination of extremist material or through helping to inspire or instigate their partners to play a more active role. Women like Malika el Aroud, the twice widowed head of an online network sending people to Afghanistan, became significant radicalisers and recruiters, while only the occasional woman, like Muriel Degauque, would show up as suicide bombers.

This has now entirely transformed, with women seemingly playing this role from the frontlines, with growing numbers reportedly becoming involved not only in helping build and sustain networks, but also even in attack cells. While it is not clear the degree to which this changes our understanding of radicalisation, it has changed our understanding of how networks operate and the role of women within them.

Extreme Right-Wing

Looking at the extreme right-wing end of the scale, there has been a noticeable change in the profile of extremists who are becoming involved with the community moving increasingly towards a profile not dissimilar to those that are found on the violent Islamist end of the scale. Previously, the extreme right was largely characterised by older white men who tended to be isolated. This has changed more recently, with a growth in younger people and women becoming involved in communities that increasingly look closer to those found on the violent Islamist end of the scale. This has been most vividly captured in the UK through the emergence of the network National Action, a loud online and offline activist organisation that used to organise protests, and which has moved in the direction of planning covert terrorist activity. Unlike their predecessors on the extreme right, it has been a network bringing together younger activists all drawn by a common ideology and talking in terms not dissimilar to those that are traditionally found on the violent Islamist side of the coin. Using terms like white jihad and talking about launching stabbing attacks, the threat picture is one which apes that seen previously in cells inspired by ISIS, leading the UK Government to focus on the group as a particular terrorist threat.

In fact, this threat is not that new and is part of a growing continuum of threat from the extreme right that has been visible in Europe for some time. In continental Europe, an earlier expression of this threat can be found in the National Socialist Underground in Germany. And even in the UK, one of the precursors showing how this threat picture was connected up around Europe could be found in the outlier case of Pavlo Lapshyn, a young Ukrainian engineering student who won a scholarship to come to the UK and then launched a one-man terror campaign in 2013 against British Muslims in the West Midlands. Starting with the murder of Mohammed Saleem, Lapshyn then launched a series of bombs against Mosques in the West Midlands, with fortune largely sparing the communities he targeted before he was captured. His history in Ukraine before coming to the UK was of an angry young man with a history of making bombs and an active footprint online with extreme right forums. His appearance in the UK showed how the threat from Central and Eastern Europe was a mobile one which could threaten the UK.

There are other aspects of radicalisation which appear to be changing. While there was always some question about the degree to which mental health was an issue in radicalisation, in more recent years this has become more prominent. Cases like the attack on New Year’s Eve of revellers in Manchester was the latest expression of a threat which seemed to cross the divide between radicalisation and mental health, with the culprit examined through both lenses by authorities. The UK in particular has been very aware of this growing trend for some time – and while the research around whether this is a new phenomenon or merely a previously underexplored one is still unclear – the response has been to develop ‘vulnerability hubs’ in Birmingham, Manchester and London to respond to this side of the threat. These hubs are designed to bring together mental health practitioners, police officers and nurses to create a specially designed tool to manage this aspect of the threat picture.

A broad rationale

What is unclear is what is driving these changes. The broad rationale that can be found in most individual cases of terrorism remains a sense of personal grievance that is linked to a perceived injustice in society, which is mobilised by a terrorist ideology or network. The weighting of these varies from case to case, with some motivated more by personal issues than any ideology. But broadly speaking general anti-establishmentarianism remains a major driver of radicalisation, with extremist ideologies as the lens through which people can express themselves.

This is not something that is new to organised human society. Communities will always have a political spectrum, and on the edges of those spectra there will be individuals who feel like their messages are not being heard and need to express themselves through violence.

As we have seen in recent times, the growing radicalisation of the middle ground in politics has meant that the extreme edges (on the right in particular) have been brought further into the centre, giving adherents a sense of their ideology becoming more significant and relevant, spurring them into greater action.

Fringe ideologies

Going forwards this is going to be a growing problem, in particular as the growth in the online world has provided an environment in which more fringe ideologies can develop a sense of identity and community amongst themselves which previously they would have been unable to find. This creates a context in which radicalisation can become more diffuse, and micro-ideologies can assume greater power. Given the rise of the lone actor terrorist as a phenomenon across ideologies, and the lowered threshold of access to ever more dangerous technology, there is a menacing potential fusion on the horizon which thus far has expressed itself in one-off attacks. What we have still not understood entirely is how this changes our understanding of radicalisation and how it works.

Conclusion

The problem of radicalisation appears a perennial one, but how it expresses itself through different ideologies appears to broadly follow trends that go in similar directions; but as we move into a world where traditional groups hold an ever-more diffuse appeal and micro-ideologies start to emerge, how the threat picture expresses itself and who we need to pay attention to will become ever more confusing.

Comments
  1. faizan says:

    Hi there,
    I am a regular follower of your blog and really find them interesting and informational. Keep writing good and amazing content really looking to read more of those.

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