Radicalization, Sub-Culture, and Modern Policy
What we get wrong and what we can do about it
Radicalization occurs for any number of reasons mostly due individuals having unequal access to political and economic power. The consequence of this unequal power leads to attacks such as the Norway attacks carried out by Anders Behring Breivik on January 11, 2011 or the van incident carried out by Alex Minassian in Toronto on April 23, 2018. These two examples illustrate that attacks can occur anywhere.
Some may associate radicalization with religion such as Islamic radicalization in the name of jihad and terrorism. Such religious radicalization has created powerful terrorist groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and Al-Shabaab in Somalia who arm themselves with the ammunition needed to recruit new members.
Regardless of the type of radicalization, there is an inherent systemic failure in policy that contributes to the continued rise of radicalization.
The very roots of radicalism often begin with an unequal access to political and economic power and gains momentum due to the movement not being taken seriously. Some individuals may adopt an extreme right or left ideology that shapes their view on the world. Let’s take a look at two individuals who perpetrated two terror attacks.
Anders Breivek adopted an extreme right view and sent his friends a 1,500 page manifesto detailing his ideology. Alek Minassian praised the ‘Incel’ killer, Elliot Rodger, who carried out a revenge attack and blamed women for being a virgin at age 22. The word ‘incel’ stands for involuntarily celibate and is the name chosen by an online community of misogynists. In both cases, these men found and adopted their radical ideologies from some movement developed by an online community.
Religion can form the basis of a radical ideology. A well-known one is radical Islam often associated with jihad. Islamists can start a movement by rallying their followers around the common struggle. The common struggle provides those who are in war-like environments, economic strife, or in political deadlock with an alternative way forward. Furthermore, the movement seeks to show followers that they are different than their fellow Muslims.
Islamists begin creating this unique movement identity by imposing different rules and adopting a fundamentally different version of Islam. For example, the Islamists could force women to wear the hijab or the burqa. In addition, the Islamists can draw a different interpretation of the holy Quran and implement a more stringent form of Islam such as Boko Haram’s implementation of Sharia law.
One person starts a movement with an ideology, but they cannot grow it themselves. They need to garner support and gather followers such as the case is with ISIS or any other designated terrorist group. Any Western power like the US, France, or the UK aim to prevent such groups from carrying out an attack on their homelands.
Western attempts at containment
The West has implemented policies to contain recruitment and movement of fighters to Syria or Iraq or from joining militant groups. For example, US President Donald Trump has implemented Executive Order 13769, a travel ban on citizens from Iran, Somalia, Syria, Libya, Yemen, North Korea, some officials from Venezuela, with the US Supreme Court issuing a 5–4 ruling in June 2018 saying the President is within his rights to issue the executive order. The premise for the ban is protecting US citizens from aliens who pose a threat based on their religious affiliation to Islam and the countries’ geopolitical history. The focus of this policy is aimed at immigrants.
In addition, the US has a policy/programme aimed at deterring young people from joining gangs, but not from extremist ideology. The concern raised here is once again that the focus is on immigration and geopolitics rather than the root of the problem. The issue has become a political platform to advance a protectionist, anti-immigration agenda.
In sharp contrast, the UK adopted a ‘Prevent strategy’ aimed at stopping terrorism or people becoming terrorists. In this approach, the Government can look at communities and prevent people from joining militant groups such as al-Qaeda. It could be said this seems to take a more internal look rather than the external look. Nevertheless, it has not worked effectively as there was a Manchester terror attack on May 22, 2017.
Some critics have gone on to argue that it’s discriminatory and ill placed in academic institutions. The academic community was nervous as it calls for academics to spot extremism instead of bonding with their students. Further, academics are not trained counterterrorism officials yet they are being asked to do so based on some guidance issued by the UK Government.
The West’s radicalization misunderstanding
Both approaches try to prevent radicalization as they are targeting existing communities. Yes, the US’ Muslim ban targets immigrants, but these immigrants are coming from Muslim majority countries. Research shows that new converts to Islam are more likely to fall subject to radicalization than Muslims born into the faith with new converts in France, Germany, and the Netherlands four times more likely to fight in Iraq and Syria. Naturally, the data could lead governments to implement policies targeting or preventing people from converting to Islam.
Such infringement reduces the quality of life. People may feel they are treated unfairly or are facing discrimination. Instead, there should be more opportunity to identify and support those who may be at risk for radicalization. Identifying those at risk may be a challenge unless we can reliably determine a profile that terrorist groups would use in recruiting new followers.
Ideal candidate profile
Terrorist groups survive by recruiting a geographically diverse group of recruits to carry out attacks across the globe. Or, should a lone attacker not join any group, they can follow a group’s teachings to help that attacker become more radical in their views. Now, what kind of person falls vulnerable and prey to radicalization?
In principle, there are four main groups of candidates — those with mental illness, those with narcissistic personalities, those in Europe who may feel revengeful or disconnected from society, and those who feel attracted by the authoritarian ways of jihad. Each group has its distinctive characteristics.
People in the first group with mental illness may have a distorted reality. They may feel worthless and without a purpose which radicalization could give them. It’s an opportunity for these recruiters to provide the mentally ill with a different reality that ultimately provides a sense of purpose and belonging. The same could be said for the narcissist who feels a sense of entitlement and a care free attitude.
The third group of candidates are those who may feel discriminated in Europe or feel disconnected from a European society. They feel disconnected as they are second generation Muslims who lose connection with their home country, culture, and language. It is estimated that about 60% of those in Europe who embrace radical jihad have not integrated into European society. One of the leading causes for lack of integration is European countries’ views on Islam as per a 2016 Pew study:
Finally, the last group of candidates are those who can read something on the internet and feel emboldened. They may feel comfortable and in tune with what they read akin to Breivik or Minassian. This group could be the most dangerous, since their views may not become apparent so easily or so far in advance to send a warning signal.
Lacking social support and policy
Governments are strapped with competing national or international interests. One interest that should surface more quickly and readily is the help needed for those who are mentally ill. An example where that support could have saved lives is in a Hamburg supermarket attack that was spontaneous in killing 1 person and injuring 6 more. German authorities noted that the attacker was mentally ill before the attack took place. It’s possible that preventative actions through support could have prevented this deadly attack. On the other hand, one could argue that any supportive mental services may have not influenced this individual from thinking about or reconsidering the attack. Regardless, if the mentally ill receive adequate support, then the possibility to reduce these attacks increases.
If the support is there, then cultural acceptance must follow. In other words, people need to view the person in such way that they can seek treatment and be accepted by society. The stigma associated with mental illness should disappear with it. If society fails to accept that person, then this leads to depression, sense of worthless, and falling back into being at risk of becoming radicalized.
Let’s consider the other two groups who feel disconnected, discriminated, or attracted to jihad’s authoritarian ways. In this case, there is a social component that governments can offer. They need to support those groups with a social policy that encourages multiculturalism and openness. For example, organising more internships at government level or encouraging employers to work with more young people in exchange for a tax deduction can help to keep youths away from places where they can reach out to find radicalized materials.
Reintegrating those who were radicalized
There is one group of people who may feel unsure and may have some difficulty with living in society. This group of people are those who left to go to war in Syria or Iraq and have since returned to their resident countries. Now, the question is what to do with them.
In the UK, Rory Stewart suggests they be killed while Max Hill has suggested ‘reintegration’ for those who authorities have decided not to prosecute. Once again, there is a need for a kind of programme that guides people and helps them to become contributing members to society. Of course, there are some who should face prosecution for crimes committed, but that may not include all of them. Respective governments should evaluate individuals on a case by case basis.
The largest roadblock to implementing social policies and appropriate infrastructure is the politicization of radicalization such as Islamic radicalization. The issue has become a political issue for politicians to support their own political agendas. The general negative view of Muslims in some European countries has led to people like Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán becoming the main stream European right with his anti-immigration stance and refusing to accept migrants as per the EU’s quota system. It’s a demonstration of branding all Muslims as extremists or, as Orbán says, “Muslim invaders” instead of refugees running away from conflict.
In addition, the politicization of radicalism can lead to the argument that multiculturism does not exist. The consequence is that Muslims may face more discrimination. This discrimination loops back into one of the candidate profiles most at risk for radicalization. This means that we create a vicious circle with an anti-Muslim or anti-multiculturalism political landscape that exacerbates societal issues and drives a person to disconnect and become at risk for radicalization.
The issue of radicalization is a desperate call for help. The call of help entails creating a cultural and societal shift in how the issue is viewed while still respecting individuals’ rights and countries’ individual political systems. In addition, there may be a call for more awareness and censorship of the internet and what constitutes freedom of speech and what constitutes radicalization.
Radicalization’s global reach means that societies should work together to combat the issue globally. Individual, divided efforts seed roots of doubt and a fractured approach.
Finally, Western powers who are most affected by terrorism and hence globalization need to shift their views by accepting new converts to Islam. These governments should provide them support and a means to steer away from an illusionary trap that creates a sense of purpose.