DRIVE Project Conference in Brussels: Challenging Conventional Thinking on Radicalisation

The ground-breaking project DRIVE, which receives funding from the European Union, recently held its main conference in Brussels, Belgium, on 11-12 June 2024. The two-day event brought together a diverse audience from across Europe, including scholars, policymakers, practitioners, and community groups representing various disciplines such as the social sciences, humanities, and medical sciences. The conference aimed to foster meaningful exchanges and challenge conventional thinking about radicalisation, which often overemphasises the role of ideology while neglecting the complex interplay of psychosocial, structural, and cultural factors that contribute to the marginalisation of individuals.

One of the key themes that emerged from the conference was the need to shift the narrative surrounding radicalisation. Many speakers argued that the current discourse tends to focus disproportionately on the ideological dimensions of radicalisation, such as extremist religious or political beliefs. While ideology undoubtedly plays a role, this narrow focus can obscure the deeper social, economic, and psychological factors that render individuals vulnerable to radicalisation in the first place.

Several presentations highlighted the importance of addressing the structural inequalities and systemic barriers that contribute to the marginalisation of certain communities. Factors such as poverty, discrimination, lack of access to education and employment opportunities, and social exclusion can create a sense of alienation and disillusionment, making individuals more susceptible to extremist narratives that promise a sense of belonging and purpose.

Moreover, the conference emphasised the need to recognise and appreciate the resilience and agency of those at the margins of society. Too often, marginalised individuals are portrayed as passive victims or potential threats, rather than as active agents with the capacity to resist and challenge extremist ideologies. By supporting and empowering these individuals and communities, we can help build resilience and counter the pull of radicalisation.

Another key takeaway from the conference was the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration in addressing radicalisation. The complex nature of the phenomenon requires input from a wide range of disciplines, including psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science, and more. By bringing together experts from diverse fields, the DRIVE Project Conference facilitated the sharing of knowledge and best practices, fostering a more holistic and nuanced understanding of radicalisation.

The DRIVE Project Major Conference in Brussels represented a significant step towards challenging conventional thinking about radicalisation and promoting a more nuanced and compassionate approach to the issue. By recognising the complex interplay of factors that contribute to marginalisation and vulnerability, and by empowering and supporting those at the margins of society, we can build more inclusive and resilient communities that are better equipped to resist the lure of extremism. The insights and recommendations that emerged from the conference will undoubtedly shape future research, policy, and practice in the field of radicalisation prevention and counter-extremism efforts across Europe and beyond.

Introduction

In today’s digital age, online spaces have transformed the way in which people communicate. The internet has been a sort of breeding ground for radicalization, often fostering echo chambers and hosting fringe communities. Exploring the dynamics of these virtual environments, this blog piece explores themes surrounding extremist messaging, information dissemination, and online spaces through speaking with Anna George, a scholar at the University of Oxford specialising in online political behaviours. We speak about fostering digital resilience in an era of misinformation    and disinformation and how online spaces can be both a place for mobilizing and minimizing extremism.

During my time at the DRIVE project, I was able to overlook the myriad way polarisation and existence on the fringes can drive exclusion and extremist views. How and why are people increasingly disenchanted with the world around them? How can online spaces specifically provide solace or further divide us?

Background and context

I had the opportunity to speak with and interview Anna George, a Social Data Science  scholar at the Oxford Internet Institute researching  online political behaviours and computational approaches to studying online harms. As she finalises her doctorate, her research has largely focused on the transmission of harmful messaging, online communities, alternative news, and extremist sentiments. Her ambitions rest on making the internet a safer space.

Mainstream social media and alternative spaces

We delved deep into our discussion, examining trends in low-quality news sources, the framing of COVID-19, the Ukraine war, climate change, and migration in extremist online spaces. What Anna’s research has been noticing is that as movements become more mainstream, they are more likely to mobilise offline. Online spaces allow people to meet other like-minded people. This can be as innocent as joining your local knitting club; however, due to the vast nature of the internet, it can quickly become more sinister. Extremist people and organisations both exploit and use the ease of the internet to broaden cross-sections of individuals who might share common views, facilitating radicalization or providing communities where extremist sentiments can be freely shared.  While individuals associated with extremist ideologies use and interact with virtual spaces for several reasons, such as the community and feeling of inclusion, Anna points out examples of when groups and lone actors can mobilise and move offline. With examples such as the attack in Charleston, USA, the Capitol Insurrection, and even her local environment of Oxford climate change conspiracy networks, we can analyse groups that used to be sparse becoming to morph together. Anna marks QAnon as a landmark turning point for rallying conspiratorial groups together, representing a conspiracist milieu lying adjacent to other extremist beliefs capable of violent goals, such  as the New World Order or the Great Replacement theories within white supremacist spaces. However, what is pointed out throughout our interview is the need to emphasise not only the capabilities of violence but also the detrimental effects of the dissemination of online disinformation through diverse supporters. What we can observe is the potentiality of conspiracy theories “going mainstream” through creating subcultures, boosting alternative media, persuading the masses, and proxy wars, all of which have political effects. 

Conspiracy narratives: trust, COVID-19, and anti-institutional extremism

As we continue our discussion, we land on a central insight in researching online spaces and why people are increasingly turning to extremist spaces: trust. Over the past 50 years or so, public trust in institutions and the news media has collapsed. The consumption, distribution, and production of news have altered thanks to the digital era and social media. This isn’t necessarily a phenomenon touching solely conspiratorial people; a lot of people are starting to lose trust in democratic governments. Anna emphasises this as a major gateway into foreign state entities playing into these claims, as at the core of extremist ideals, there is the perception that you can’t fully trust the government.  We discuss the effects that misinformation online has on undermining public trust. Anna continues in saying “it is political, because the topics that are discussed are political issues: lockdown, climate change,” stating the US to be the best example of this, while the trend is beginning to increase in the UK political sphere. The effects of this point to the weaponisation of topics.The COVID-19 pandemic sparked a feeling of alienation and mistrust in institutions. The uncertainty around COVID brought a lot of  questioning and fear, with corresponding measures taken by governments heightening anti-government  action in Europe. Low-quality news outlets and fringe movements used over-reporting on issues like vaccine hesitancy to spread anti-institutional sentiments, much of which spilled over onto mainstream social media. This environment was one that conspiracies could thrive in, as Anna points out that trends in conspiracies increase with uncertainty.  This provided an opportunity for extremist groups to spread disinformation, gaining exposure and recruitment benefits.

Accountability and Policy Initiatives: Turning Points and Lessons Learned

The topic delves into the incentives and stakes that actors and governments have in information sharing and online spaces. Anna contends that there remains a lot of confusion around this landscape and that the issue of online safety and its effects on the rise of domestic terrorism is a paramount policy avenue. We must continue to fund and research the impact of these movements, as well as the reasons why mistrust in governments and institutions is on the rise as extremist movements, populist movements, and foreign state media benefit from these narratives. She continues, calling for a multipronged approach among governments, social media companies, and civil society, drawing engagement from an educational standpoint in order to teach young people, in particular, the importance of online literacy and critical thought. In her own work, Anna performed a systematic review of computational approaches, offering methods and techniques social media companies can utilise in combating misinformation and disinformation. Interventions such as content-labelling (as true or false, trustworthy) or fact-checking videos can prime users into questioning the accuracy of content in order for people to discern for themselves the validity of sources. The UK government's Online  Safety Act (2023) is a great example of a government’s novel approach to enforcing measures to improve online  safety and the duties of internet platforms in managing harmful or illegal content.

Closing thoughts

While we covered a wide range of topics during our meeting, it is without a doubt an area of research that academics such as Anna George should push towards creating safer online and critical spaces. Topics of mistrust and disinformation regarding online spaces can aid us in gaining insight into the role of social exclusion and emotions regarding why individuals are attracted to these movements or exploited or recruited into movements through intersections of beliefs; perceptions are powerful. 

In recent years, the Netherlands has frequently been confronted with public incidents of Islamophobia. It is essential to address this issue by finding solutions that promote inclusivity and respect for diversity. This article aims to explore key aspects of Islamophobia in the Netherlands, introduce strategies to combat it and build a more inclusive society.

Dutch Islamophobia on Recent Display

In 2019, the Netherlands passed a law banning burqas and niqabs in public spaces, along with other face coverings traditionally worn by religious Muslim women. According to Dutch lawmakers, the law was intended to promote security and facilitate greater communication in government buildings, hospitals, and schools. If caught violating the law, citizens are subject to a 150-euro fine.

Though the law also prohibits garments like ski masks and full-coverage helmets, it clearly targets Muslim women and others wearing religious garments, who are already vulnerable to discrimination given their minority status in Western countries. Despite the fact that it has gone largely unenforced, people of faith have reported  higher incidences of discrimination, which is why international rights groups across the globe have criticized legislation of this nature.

The Dutch government does not register self-identified religious affiliations among its population. Even so, the European Network Against Racism estimates that 4.9 percent of the adult population in the Netherlands is Muslim. When surveyed, Muslims in Amsterdam voiced their concern that Islamophobia is “becoming increasingly normalized in Dutch society,” with the burqa ban serving as just one example of this. It should be a priority for the Dutch government, then, to ensure the safety of this especially vulnerable population.

Islamophobia has become far more prevalent following the events of September 11, which (unjustly) established for many the link between Islam and the risk of violence. Though scholarship on radicalization has existed for decades, it has become much more of a focal point following the events of 9/11. In fact, the UN reports that discrimination against Muslims sharply increases around terrorist attacks and the anniversaries of such attacks.

The Dutch History of Islamophobia

During the 1960s and 1970s, the Netherlands began recruiting labor from elsewhere, mostly from Morocco and Turkey, along with former Dutch colonies Suriname and Indonesia. Prior to this demand for labor, the Muslim population accounted for less than 0.1% of the Dutch population.

As the MENA region struggled with tensions and conflicts in the following decades, the Netherlands saw numerous waves of migrants, including laborers and asylum seekers. This was further amplified during the migration wave of 2015, which has impacted the way most European countries handle migration issues. The fact that many migrants come from nations where Islam is the most prevalent religion complicates the fact that 42% of discrimination reports in the Netherlands are (allegedly) related to migration rather than religion.

Since 2015, the European integration of migrants has become a significant challenge, often met with resistance from leaders on the right and many European citizens, including people in the Netherlands. Quotes like the following from Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch right-wing Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party for Freedom), have been reiterated across Europe for the last two decades.

“Politicians from almost all establishment [parties] today are facilitating Islamization. They are cheering for every new Islamic school, Islamic bank, Islamic court. They regard Islam as being equal to our own culture. Islam or freedom? It doesn’t really matter to them. But it does matter to us. The entire establishment elite—universities, churches, trade unions, the media, politicians—are putting our hard-earned liberties at risk.”

Political Discourse and Discrimination

Political discourse plays a critical role in shaping public opinion, which is precisely why discriminatory and inflammatory rhetoric can be so harmful. Rhetoric like that of Geert Wilders has contributed to a climate of Islamophobia in the Netherlands, leading to negative opinions about minorities and increased discrimination against Muslims. For instance, he has referred to Islam as a "totalitarian ideology," called for a ban on the Quran, and advocated for the closure of mosques across the Netherlands.

According to a 2019 report by the Dutch Human Rights Institute, discrimination against Muslims in the Netherlands increased by 10% in 2018 compared to the previous year. The recent increase in hateful political discourse may be one key piece to understanding why Islamophobia is now more prominent within Dutch society.

The impact of political discourse on discrimination against Muslims is not limited to the Netherlands. Similar trends have been observed in other parts of Europe and the United States. For instance, in the United States, former President Donald Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric contributed to an increase in hate crimes against Muslims, especially surrounding his executive order banning travel from parts of the Arab world in 2017. Though the speech of politicians may not directly incite discrimination or violence, increasingly repetitive hateful rhetoric has the power to transform public opinion, amplifying and exacerbating existing discrimination, especially targeting already vulnerable communities.

Media Depiction: Reframing Muslim Identity

The media also plays a crucial role in shaping public opinion and attitudes toward Islam and Muslims. Unfortunately, in the Netherlands, media coverage of Muslims has often been stereotypical, negative, and sensationalized, further normalizing Islamophobia within society.

One common stereotype in the media is the portrayal of Muslims as intolerant and dangerous, as the media often focuses on acts of terrorism or radicalization. Muslim voices are often absent from public discourse, but when they are featured, they are portrayed as perpetrators or victims of violence.

Additionally, Muslim religious practices/beliefs are depicted as incompatible with Dutch values and norms. This portrayal creates a climate of fear and suspicion among non-Muslims in the Netherlands and elsewhere, marginalizing and stigmatizing Muslim communities and creating a sense of alienation and exclusion.

To address this issue, media organizations should be more inclusive and representative in their coverage of Muslims. Journalists should seek out diverse perspectives and voices, presenting a more nuanced and accurate portrayal of Muslim communities in the Netherlands. Media organizations should also be held accountable for spreading false or discriminatory sentiments about Islam and Muslims.

Additionally, it is essential to acknowledge consumers’ role in the issue, as they should be aware of the potential biases and prejudices in media coverage and seek out a variety of information sources. Tis is precisely why education is a crucial component of addressing media coverage of Muslims. Educational institutions should promote media literacy and critical thinking skills, encouraging young people to analyze media coverage and identify biases and stereotypes. By promoting more accurate and unbiased media coverage, we can equip ourselves to combat Islamophobia and foster a more inclusive and tolerant society in the Netherlands.

Prioritizing Intersectionality

People in the Netherlands and other Western nations face numerous sorts of prejudice based on the intersection of their identities including race, gender, sexuality, religion, socioeconomic status, physical ability, and more. These identities are relational rather than distinct from one another in the context of discrimination.

While adjudication of discrimination often considers single-issue prejudices, discrimination more often takes place on the basis of multiple factors like race and gender, for example. In other words, people experience discrimination differently depending on their overlapping identities.

The term's use has drawn opposition from conservatives all over the world because they typically feel victimized by it. American political commentator Ben Shapiro, for example, considers it a “hierarchy of victimhood,” in which white men would rank at the very bottom. This becomes a problem for those who fear losing their current ranking or status within society.

Instead, society should focus on empowering and uplifting those who need it most, those whose identities overlap, creating what researchers have called a “cocktail of oppression.”  When combating the prevalence of Islamophobia in society, intersectionality must be central to the discussion.

Dismantling Stereotypes, Facilitating Interfaith Dialogue, and Promoting Inclusion

While there are certainly ways to minimize the prominence of Islamophobia in society, it is essential to understand that unconscious biases will always exist in modern society. We can work to be more aware of them, challenge our pre-existing beliefs, and surround ourselves with diverse perspectives. The road ahead is long, but there is no doubt it is worthwhile. The following steps are just a few of many that can be taken to address Islamophobia in the Netherlands.

The first is to increase the representation of marginalized communities in the media and popular culture and to listen to Muslim voices. Ideally, these voices should represent a diverse set of beliefs and perspectives, making Muslims feel seen and understood while simultaneously helping non-Muslims. understand cultures, beliefs, and practices that differ from their own. Media representation can provide a more complete and nuanced understanding of minorities and other vulnerable groups.

It is also important to collect and analyze data in a more nuanced manner. The Netherlands does not collect data on religion in particular, but it should be careful about generalizing those who migrated from the MENA region. Danish policy, for example, openly collects data on all “non-western” immigrants. The act of separating data in this way risks increasing discrimination within society. The UN Committee criticized Denmark’s efforts against discrimination as their data collection methods marginalize non-natives from particular regions of the world, sweeping them into a general “other” category. While the Netherlands does not make a distinction between Western and non-Western migrants, there is room for improvement. The Netherlands can learn from the Danish example by collecting data on varying populations equally.

Dutch society must also make an effort to accommodate Muslims in everyday spaces, so practices like prayer or fasting no longer seem strange or particularly novel. One way to do this is to incorporate prayer spaces in workplaces, schools, and other frequently visited buildings. This enables Muslims to steadfastly practice their faith in a setting where their peers support them. It may also be helpful to educate students or employees during the month of Ramadan so their Muslim colleagues feel supported and empowered if they choose to fast. Intercultural education promotes mutual understanding and respect between different cultural and religious communities.

Interfaith dialogue plays a key role in exposing groups to other cultures and, more generally, facilitating a peaceful European integration process. There are numerous initiatives throughout Europe that aim to promote dialogue among groups that are traditionally misunderstood or in conflict with one another.  The Hague Peace Project is one example of this, as they host a Turkish-Kurdish work group among others that have created a steady flow of projects and events stimulating interaction and peaceful dialogue between these diaspora groups in the Netherlands. Their work encouraging dialogue about human rights and diversity as part of the Muslim identity has undoubtedly created change in the city.

Final Takeaways

As a final note, it is crucial to make the distinction between equality and equity, considering actionable plans to achieve each in a variety of settings. Equitable actions help achieve long-term equality in society. Equal opportunity and access to resources are often not enough for a society with a history of colonialism and inequality. There is no doubt the Netherlands has a complicated history and has been tasked with new challenges in the twenty-first century, but these actions would set the country on a path leading to greater inclusion and understanding of cultures.

The Drive project was launched in January 2021 to help the project’s researchers understand the relationship between views that might be understood as ‘radical’ and the structural factors that may be connected to them, including space, place, identity, and structural exclusion. At the time when the project was first conceived, there were concerns, especially, about two forms of radicalism: the various forms of ideology that can be described as ‘Islamism’, and the forms of ideology that can be described as ‘far right’. Both terms, ‘Islamism’ and ‘far right’, are difficult, as very few people or organisations describe themselves in this way. Even so, the terms are widely used in general discussions, and point towards particular types of ideologies, even if they do not define them satisfactorily.

The project initially focused on the groups among whom such ideas might arise: Muslims in the case of ‘Islamism’, and particular types of non-Muslims for the ‘far right’. Our initial idea was that the individuals within these groups who would be best able to contribute to the project were those who were in some way or another close to organisations or milieus that were avowedly Islamist or far right. Because we were interested in structural factors and not actual extremists, we set out to interview people in the ‘grey zone’ near such organisations and milieus, not actual extremists.

What we found was that organisations and milieus that are avowedly Islamist or far right are even fewer than we expected. Although there are plenty of government agencies interested in people who are moving towards Islamism or the far right, such people are often hard to identify and difficult to access. The decision was therefore made to broaden the types of people we were interviewing. We are now looking to interview a broader range of Muslim minority and ethnic majority participants to explore the ways in which marginalisation, exclusion, and discrimination impact how people see themselves and others in the context of wider issues of polarisation and social conflict, which in some cases can lead to the radicalisation of the few. Any of the non-Muslims who vote for or support political parties that emphasise opposition to immigration and multiculturalism might be able to help us understand the structural factors that contribute to the forms of alienation and radicalisation that can lead towards what some call the far right. We have decided to use these expanded categories to help us achieve the project’s objectives.

This blog post was co-authored by Christopher Fardan and Katrine Fangen. It was originally published as an op-ed in Medier24, which is Norway’s biggest newspaper for media news, as well as news about journalism, communication, social media, and technology.

On 29 October, members of the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM) marched in the streets of Oslo. The organisation writes on its webpage that they wish to recreate images from 9th April 1940, when German Nazis marched down Karl Johan, the main street of the city of Oslo. The activists’ speech, held in front of the Storting, contained historical revisionism, a tribute to Quisling, the mentioning of MPs as “traitors of the people” and conspiracy theories about “population replacement” and “orchestrated mass immigration” of people without white skin colour. The participants in the unannounced demonstrations seemed to ignore orders from the police, which therefore decided to arrest them. Among the 35 apprehended activists, only four were Norwegian citizens. Despite the marginal Norwegian mobilisation, the event gained significant attention in the Norwegian media. On their webpage, NRM celebrates having “dominated the news” so much that both the Head of the City Government of Oslo and the Norwegian Prime Minister had to comment.

Extremism can be defined as statements that advocate the undermining or harming of people, attitudes that deviate significantly from liberal democratic principles, respect for universal human rights, and the equal worth of all human beings. Therefore, it is essential to take seriously the threat that extreme organisations represent, but it must be done appropriately. Hence, it is relevant to discuss how editor-controlled media ought to handle their coverage of extreme groups. It is challenging to give an unequivocal answer to what is acceptable and justifiable media coverage when extreme groups stage public demonstrations. There are, nonetheless, some points that deserve reflection.

First, the media must be aware of the political agenda of extreme groups. Extreme groups strive to draw attention through, among other things, provocative rhetoric and controversial forms of collective action. The more sensational, spectacular, and shocking , the higher the probability that it will get attention from the media.

Second, it is necessary to weigh what should be the focus of the news article and how extreme groups are labelled. Journalists should avoid using the same concepts and self-presentation as the organisations themselves deploy on their web pages. It can potentially contribute to legitimising extreme ideologies. As such, journalists are at risk of unknowingly running the errands of extreme actors. To avoid these pitfalls, the media should strive not to make sensational news cases and place the themes in a bigger perspective by, for instance, including the analyses of researchers and other experts. Further, the angle of the news cases plays an important role. For instance, if journalists primarily emphasise – and reproduce images of activists being  put down by the police, this may lead to increased sympathy for members of extreme organisations. Additionally, portraying extreme actors as repressed victims by the state authorities may nurture their claim that their free speech is being threatened. In this context, the media must consider how the angles of the news articles lay the groundwork    for further societal debate. Analyst and politician Shoaib Sultan rightfully argues that the discussions in the aftermath of such events “’should no longer primarily deal with free speech”, but rather about “the fear this creates and what can be done with it”.

Third, the media must illuminate how individuals with minority backgrounds experience demonstrations by extreme movements. This is necessary because minorities are particularly targeted by the hostile messages of extreme groups. It becomes a democratic problem when minorities refuse to participate in politics or the societal debate due to the threats of extreme actors.

Finally, the media can choose to direct attention toward messages of inclusion, cohesion, and respect for all. In this way, the media can stimulate an enlightened public debate characterised by critical thinking and democratic representation.

Image credit: Peter Isotalo / Wikimedia Commons. The photo is from a DNM demonstration in Sweden.

Far-right extremist groups have been receiving increasing attention in the media and from policymakers, as concern grows about their interaction with anti-governmental sentiment. This article looks at how far-right ideology and anti-feminism are intertwined, as well as how such ideologies can appeal to women. One aspect of interest is the increasing number of women functioning in offline and online spaces as mouthpieces for extremist groups and ideas. Misogynistic language and sentiment are often found in the far-right and adjacent movements – as highlighted by the work of the Institute for Research on Male Supremacism – with misogyny acting as a powerful motivator for male activism

With such ideologies seemingly counter to women’s interests, why is it that some women endorse such a mentality? This article suggests that women within far-right movements act as powerful recruiters and embodiments of idealised traditional values, playing on women’s frustrations and fears, to challenge not just specific notions of feminism but the core idea that gender equality is positive for society.

Equality in Far Right language

The concept that women and men are naturally unequal is consistently portrayed in far-right narratives. Podcasts and other online content highlight the biological differences between the genders to argue that a woman’s place is in the house, rearing children and ensuring that the household runs smoothly. The superiority of the male intellect is discussed openly in online spheres, such as podcasts and other forms of media that are, in some instances, managed by women. 

The promotion of far-right narratives in online spheres by women has several purposes, depending on who they are engaging with. For women, far-right discourses portray the image of what a ‘real’ woman is – a mother, a homemaker, dutifully positioned at the side of her husband. For men, far-right female activists underscore the importance of the male nature. 

These approaches are channelled through non-threatening, everyday topics and terms that are present in mainstream discussion and are often not overtly political right. Consequently, traditional gender roles are encouraged through direct yet non-aggressive content that highlights the potential benefits of being a homemaker and caretaker, whilst supplementally ‘othering’ those who choose to have a career when they do not have to. 

Insecurity

Anti-feminism caters to women and men by exploiting fears and insecurities in modern society. For instance, attacks on women during the Cologne New Year’s celebrations in 2015 were instrumentalised by far-right parties and organisations in Germany and internationally to push Islamophobic narratives. It aimed to politicise fear that women face due to existing inequalities in society, and to galvanise men to target minorities as a means of protecting both women and the security of the state. 

Harassment is one of the issues that the far-right proposes a seemingly simple solution to: by embracing traditional gender roles, women are framed as safer and more content at home raising children, whilst men  offer financial and physical security for the family unit. 

It also offers a powerful but accessible means of positively engaging with far-right movements; women are able to contribute to the cause by staying home and embracing traditional gender roles. This is often reinforced by supportive comments from far-right movements and new online communities. 

Sometimes women who take on influencer roles in the name of far-right ideologies do so in the context of the ‘tradwife’ phenomenon. The term (a concoction of ‘traditional’ and ‘wife’) emphasises the importance of rearing children, conducting household chores, and obeying their husbands. Many ‘tradwife’ influencers also tend to promote far-right ideas based on lived experiences. 

‘Choice’

To women, far-right activists portray the image of what a ‘real’ woman is, with online content including cooking and baking, etiquette, and other homecare. It draws on the feminist language of choice – influencers stating, for instance, “We gave women the choice – that’s the point! Bake banana bread until the sun comes up, if it makes you happy!”. 

In contrast, though, modern feminism is framed as forcing women in modern society to take up roles that are not suited to their skills or abilities. A society based on feminism is furthermore seen by such influencers as creating enormous pressure on women to fulfil a number of different and competing expectations – a successful career path, family and home, and marital relationship, amongst others.

To exemplify this, some far-right influencers have also highlighted the supposed threat to women from Islam and their need to be protected by men. The conceptualisation of male superiority is highlighted well in one podcast interview by a Northern Front ‘tradwife’ activist, who states that women should categorically not be allowed to vote due to their cognitive inferiority – although differences were noted by the discussants amongst women, in terms of their mental capacities.

Male-controlled Empowerment

The online ‘tradwife’ movement demonstrates the intertwined relationship of traditional gender roles and far-right movements. By camouflaging and softening the more violent elements of far-right ideologies and acting to authentically portray them in their day-to-day lives, far-right female influencers have proven successful recruiting platforms, spreading extreme ideas to more mainstream audiences. 

A certain kind of female choice and empowerment are portrayed. However, this is disconnected from traditional conceptualisations of feminism, as women are encouraged to require protection from the supposed threat that ‘other’ cultural backgrounds pose. This framing draws on a long history of Orientalist and racialised tropes and reinforces a relationship between the ‘purity’ of women and that of the nation.

Such empowerment is also determined and controlled by men. Feminism is explicitly named as an unnatural temptation for women who, not knowing better, are trying to fulfil expectations to pursue a career and a family whilst being doomed to fail. 

Such approaches aim to appeal to women who feel under pressure from societal expectations. This messaging and framing of gender roles provide an effective recruitment tool, gathering support amongst individuals who might not be otherwise connected to or interested in the far-right.

This piece analyses the main challenges encountered during the ‘Countering Radicalisation through Lifestories’ research project – which ran from 2016 to 2019 and involved the collection of roughly 300 interviews – and provides mitigation strategies that researchers could employ while engaging in collecting empirical data. The region analysed as part of this project was South Eastern Europe, specifically: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Northern Macedonia, Montenegro, the Republic of Kosovo, and Serbia. The challenges field researchers face while working on subjects relating to (non) violent extremism have been previously published in an in-depth report and policy brief entitled Countering and Preventing (Non) Violent Extremism: Research and Fieldwork Challenges.

This blog post aims to address the following questions: how viable is it to conduct evidence-based research on (non)violent extremism and prevention? What could be the possible impacts of such research on researchers? And what are the key preparatory strategies for researchers engaged in the collecting of interviews? 

For any researcher, the conducting of fieldwork on violent extremism trends and prevention is not barrier-free,and has been shown to be highly demanding, stressful, and exhausting. The common challenges awaiting researchers in the field largely centre around barriers to accessing the selected community, associated security risks, the politicisation of (non) violent extremism, collaboration with local and international actors, methodological choices, gender and work-life balance, and trauma. However, despite these significant challenges, by engaging potential mitigation strategies before entering the data collection stage, it is possible to successfully lead the research process while preventing potential harmto both the field research team and participants. 

Access Strategy

One of the common challenges faced in the field is gaining access to the selected communities. The project showed that the life story interview method, combined with the snowball sampling technique, is a best-fit strategy for gaining accessto a community. Lifestories are used to uncover voices that are excluded and/or silenced from official historical records, and thus hold the potential to deepen our understanding of marginalised groups, while offering nuanced perspectives. Snowball sampling is a proven technique in identifying individuals in the so-called culturally sensitive recruitment strategy of the more vulnerable population groups – oft-called ‘hard to reach populations’- who would be more likely to participate, as it relies on referrals from within community sources.

Collaboration 

Collaboration can also facilitate access to the selected community. To ensure access to religious and far-right groups, it is necessary to collaborate with people embedded in civil society, universities, journalistic networks, workers at the governmental and municipal level, international organisations and bilateral representations, previous and running projects on the same theme, and national P/CVE coordinators. For effective communication and collaboration, it is beneficial to have researchers speaking the language of the selected community at the native level or even preferably someone from the same community. This insiders’ approach presents drawbacks as well. It may lead to researchers becoming too involved in the theme and with participants, potentially heightening participants’ expectations that their needs will be alleviated and increasing researchers’ workloads. 

Nevertheless, sometimes collaboration attempts might not be enough to successfully remove obstacles to field access due to trust issues between the interviewees and the interviewer. In fact, researchers’ attempts at collaboration can be misunderstood in the field. To illustrate this type of mistrust, for instance, an interviewee asked me the following during the research: “...but, why do you want to know? Only state agents are interested in this topic.” To mitigate these types of challenges, researchers should first be empathetic, be transparent as to the aim of the research as much as possible, collaborate with gatekeepers, and leverage former relationships with locals. 

Gender

Gender also plays a pivotal role in accessing the selected community, with female researchers in this case more likely to maintain frequent contact and provide data over time in comparison to male researchers. Attentiveness is required, so as to not reveal too many personal details to the interviewees, and countering discriminatory beliefs by utilising preventive techniques such as taking along a male gatekeeper and/or talking about their partner and children, which can assist in establishing trust. This would not only mitigate gender related challenges; it would also ensure the safety of the researcher and maintain the quality of the research. 

Methodology

Methodological choices employed in the field affect access to selected communities. While quantitative approaches may assist in understanding phenomena based on a large-N studies, they may also cause harm – especially when dealing with hard-to-reach populations and sensitive themes such as P/CVE. Therefore, it is of importance to refrain from using it as much as possible given that the attempt to employ multiple-choice questions can hamper access to affected communities and harm P/CVE programs and local communities in the long run. This approach may alienate the community. The set-up of the questions may cause them to perceive that their voices are unwanted. Instead, one should opt for ethnographic research methods to maximise utility.

Safety

In general, the researcher and the research subjects in the field should prioritise safety. The fear of reprisals, attacks, threats, blackmailing, manipulation, and exposure to arms were among the most common fears revealed during the fieldwork conducted in South Eastern Europe between 2016 and 2019. In the presence of such risks, it is possible that some researchers, as well as interviewees, might turn away from the study. To mitigate those security risks, several steps related to an interviewer’s safety can be taken online and during one-to-one meetings, including but not limited to avoiding closed and rural places as meeting points, having a trusted local companion during meetings, and paying attention to using protected online communication tools, like VPN services and a separate mobile, only intended for the research project. As for the local communities’ safety, ensuring the confidentiality of interviewees and keeping an eye on the authenticity of stories are of utmost significance.

Politicisation

The politicisation of (non)violent extremism can also pose threats that need to be dealt with at either the state or international levels. While researchers have no power to shift local or international discourses, assessing post-research politicisation, including unexpected scenarios, may assist the fieldwork process. For instance, access to far-right interviewees in Serbia has been difficult due to political influences, although this was not the case for reaching out to religious interviewees. This type of politicisation was also observed among some influential segments of the international community present in Serbia. This simply indicates the presence of a certain degree of information control regarding far right violent extremism in Serbia. This is done to minimise the public scrutiny of Serbia locally or internationally. The goal is to portray Serbia as a progressive and democratic actor combating religious violent extremism, rather than a source or host of far-right violent extremism.Due to the political agendas of the respective governments, there was also some degree of information control in Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and North Macedonia.

Work Life Balance

Finally, the workload of a field study can be much higher than that of conducting desk research. Most of the time, researchers must continue working after normal business hours. Furthermore, various health concerns - such as catching viruses frequently, catching urinary tract infections due to lack of sanitation, and inadequate treatment due to poor quality of health services - can be common during fieldwork. In addition, exposure to content in the particular field of P/CVE for a long period can be challenging for the mental health of researchers, something reported by former researchers during the fieldwork. For instance, a researcher became uneasy over dinner and had to leave because of a discussion on the ethics of eating meat and slaughterhouses, which he associated with an ISIS propaganda video showing prisoners as animals waiting to be slaughtered. Another researcher, on the other hand, shifted from watching online extremist propaganda to analysing court reports just to "clear the mind." Long-term exposure to stress is associated with poor health in terms of memory, cardiovascular, immune, gastrointestinal, neurohormonal, and musculoskeletal outcomes. Therefore, it is important to provide field researchers with regular debriefing opportunities and psychological support systems upon return, to diminish the risk of them experiencing PTSD, depression, or other physical diseases caused by stress.

Concluding Remarks

While researching P/CVE is very difficult, this research project – which featured a heavy fieldwork component – shows that it is possible, if specific challenges are taken into account beforehand. Risks can be present within the following domains: accessing the targeted community, security, the politicisation of (non)violent extremism, collaboration with local and international actors, methodological choices, gender and work-life balance, and trauma. The research risks being halted if an appropriate fieldwork strategy is not formulated beforehand. To mitigate these risks, strategies are devised to assist researchers before entering the data collection phase, helping them to successfully spearhead the research process while preventing potential harm

First and foremost, it is important to be flexible in the field and open to changes in schedule, while keeping in mind the following key preparatory strategies.

The access strategy is a combination of snowball sampling, and a life-story interview approach. 

Collaboration can be ensured if researchers are empathetic, transparent about the aim of theirresearch, collaborate with gatekeepers, and are capable of leveraging former relationships. 

Gender discriminatory beliefs can be tackled by taking along a male gatekeeper and/or talking about their partner and children.

Due to the potential alienation of participants and long-term harm to P/CVE research in the field, methodological choices may lean more toward qualitative in-depth interviews rather than quantitative questionnaire models. Safety steps to be followed include, but are not limited to, the following: avoiding closed and rural places as meeting points, having a trusted local companion during meetings, paying attention to using protected online communication like VPN services and a separate mobile, ensuring the confidentiality of interviewees, and maintaining the authenticity of stories. Preferably, it is worth participating in a Hostile Environment Awareness Training (HEAT) course prior to such fieldwork.

Politicisation of P/CVE can be taken into account by being aware of it, even though researchers lack control over ameloritating this effect in the field.

Work-life balance is key for field researchers. Because of this, providing regular debriefing opportunities during the field and psychological support systems upon return to diminish the risk of experiencing PTSD, depression, or other physical diseases caused by prolonged stress is recommended.

Existing work on the development of responses to extremist violence notes a widespread international turn towards favouring Prevention/Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) initiatives over police-based counter-terrorism (Tsui, 2020). But in 2022, Prevention is phasing out of its decade-long obsession with ISIS. Indeed, new primary and tertiary prevention programmes are increasingly focused on an emerging contender: right-wing terrorism and political violence – with a sprinkle of male supremacism, conspiracy theorists and other growing violent groups.

But how can Jihadism-centred prevention policies apply to the emerging right-wing challenge?

Our European understanding of radicalisation and radicalisation prevention emerged in the aftermath of the 2004 Atocha and 2005 London terrorist attacks. In contrast with the inherited 9/11 status quo, terrorists were no longer considered an exterior phenomenon, but rather an inside threat to Western societies. Prevention Policy, as introduced by the EU and the key Member States, was meant to target Jihadism, a perceived new flavour of terrorists and blind-spot of European security. The identity of the terrorists, non-Caucasian and Muslim, would go on to heavily influence the perceived need for increased political action, at the national and EU level alike. Although originally conceived as an ideology-free approach to terrorism, the EU prevention model was developed in response to a security threat often framed in terms of Islam and religiosity, rather than political struggle. The theological justifications for the attack, combined with widespread mistrust of Islam in Europe, further contributed to the creation of an involuntary “Islamism bias”  in the EU’s understanding of the threat. 

The Islamist Bias in Global Prevention Regimes

Biases in counter-terrorism are not unique to the European Union; there are substantial claims of “Islamist biases” existing in other Prevention regimes: the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and others (Kundnani & Hayes, 2018). Scholarship on the development of Prevention has linked these biases to “the central position acquired by the concept of radicalisation in policy, law enforcement and academia” (Coolsaet, 2016, p. 2). In the current historical context, radicalisation and Western public concerns over migration, integration and Islam have become mixed. Indeed, some authors argue that radicalisation has come to be seen as a unique contemporary process linked almost exclusively to Muslims and Muslim/immigrant-related underlying causes (Coolsaet, 2016, pp. 27–28).

Right-wing violence, the Current Challenge

Fifteen years after the attacks in Atocha, the security landscape has changed considerably. The Jihadist threat has dwindled in size and political attention. Since 2019, the EU has picked up Germany’s and other Member State’s calls to explicitly address right-wing terrorism within the EU Prevention agenda. This development is a result of increased right-wing attacks on EU soil, starting with Halle and Hanau in Germany, in 2019 and 2020 respectively. The latest  EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report report points to right-wing activities as a pressing area for internal security, with increasing numbers of attacks and (thankfully) failed plots in various EU MS (Europol, 2021, p. 20). With the strong support of Germany and Denmark, the European Commission, as well as the Council of Europe, have begun to pay attention to right-wing Prevention initiatives: fostering best practice exchanges among practitioners, providing personnel training as well as policy-discussion forums, and funding new research projects oriented to right-wing ideology specifically. 

And this brings us right back to the original question: how can a system develop to cure illness “A” treat illness “B”? In the case of Prevention, so much of our underlying understanding of radicalisation is laden with meaning: from the identification of vulnerable communities, often Muslim, to the indicators for radicalisation developed in many countries, which often include items of religiosity and non-Western clothing. Such markers are lost on a white supremacist, or an incel (involuntary celibate). Moreover, we should not ignore the significant critiques already levelled against Jihadist Prevention; white and non-Muslim communities are just as likely to feel persecuted and alienated by stereotyping policy initiatives.

No Prevention without Representation?

The simple answer is that we do not know. There are two questions we must answer first. First, what is Prevention without (Muslim) religiosity? Second, can we adapt this concept to make it truly ideology-free? Such endeavour is already underway, in part thanks to the attention of the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN), and in part thanks to European research projects such as DRIVE. More research needs to be directed to the specific translation of Prevention policy and theory to the right-wing extremist sphere. One important area to be explored, for example, is how the religiosity/ideology dimension travels over to very different contexts, such as online communities, in-person white supremacy groups or even anti-vaxers. But everything, from radicalisation markers to the very theoretical foundations of radicalisation theory, must be revamped and refitted for the new neighbours. This will be no insignificant task and is likely to be a few years before the relevant comparative studies on Prevention can be produced. 

The second question is whether the resulting framework can still be useful to prevent violent acts. As with most things in life, the Devil is in the Details. The previous tendency on parts of academics and politicians alike to hyper-focus on the Muslim and individual-level elements of the terrorist threat yielded a biased and sometimes counter-productive model. However, a model that is far removed from the specificities of every group, or an individual trait, or even geographical spread, runs the risk of being irrelevant. In the pursuit of a more universal approach to Terrorism Prevention, attention to universal/common trends cannot eclipse the insights from the specific and the micro-level, least we risk trading a bad tool for a worse one. 

References

Coolsaet, R. (2016). ‘All radicalisation is local’: The genesis and drawbacks of an elusive concept. Egmont-Royal Institute for International Relations84. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/1854/LU-7243264

Europol. (2021). European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend report 2021 (TESAT) | Europol. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.

Kundnani, A., & Hayes, B. (2018). The Globalisation of Countering Violent Extremism Policies. Undermining Human Rights, Instrumentalising Civil Society. Amsterdam: Transnational Institute.

Tsui, C.-K. (2020). Interrogating the concept of (violent) extremism: A genealogical study of terrorism and counter-terrorism discourses. In Encountering extremism. Manchester University Press.

Weilnböck, H., & Kossack, O. (2019, November 26). The EU’s “Islamism” bias and its “added damage” in Central and Eastern Europe. OpenDemocracy. Retrieved from https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/global-extremes/the-eus-islamism-bias-and-its-added-damage-in-central-and-eastern-europe/

One of the prevailing questions in the field of extremism and radicalisation is the role of religious beliefs[1] in the mobilisation towards violence. How are religious ideas and violence connected? And, are religious ideas more prone to inspiring violence compared to other ideologies? Generally, scholars agree that religious beliefs can impact mobilisation processes, but that ideas alone are not sufficient to explain violence. Disagreement lies in the weight of religious ideas in relation to other motivational and contextual factors. As a scholar of the Middle East, I would like to contribute to the debate by adding reflections from the Lebanese civil war context. However, rather than asking if belief matters, I ask how it matters and why and when. In this blog, I highlight three points that I believe have received scarce attention in the literature. First, we need to give more thought to the bidirectional relationship between religious ideas and violence; second, we need to balance top-down with bottom-up perspectives on the instrumentalisation of religious ideas; and third, more fieldwork is required to assess the role of belief in the experiences of the people we research.

To find out how religion and violence relate to each other, I spent a year in Lebanon, the site of one of the most protracted and ferocious so-called ‘sectarian’ conflicts of the twentieth century. One of the 63 militants I talked to was Jocelyne, a former militant affiliated with the right-wing, Christian-majority Kataeb party. During a meeting in her restaurant, run by her former comrades, I asked her if she was religious before the war. She seemed somewhat confused by the question. “Not too much. Normal. Like any Christian”, Jocelyne commented. “Our parents used to force us to go to church. But something happened during the war”. During one particular battle, she shared, “God came to me”. Against all odds, she and her fellow fighters, who now work in her restaurant, not only survived but prevailed. Jocelyne discovered God “on the killing fields”. The divine encounter initiated an internal transformation, in which violent engagements were reimagined in religious frameworks of meaning and direction. “I saw myself in military dress, saluting Bibles”.

“I discovered God on the killing fields”

Jocelyne was not the only militant to find religion in a violent encounter. In a range of personal recollections, Jocelyne’s account was echoed in the interviews of many of my interlocutors, both religious and non-religious. All of them found their way to scriptures and manifestos in search of protection and meaning. As the conflict drew on, the incorporation of belief not only became more common, it became expressed in ever more dogmatic formulations.

Although the influence of religious beliefs on radicalisation leading to violence is often disputed, the impact of violence on the radicalisation of religious ideas receives much less attention. Nonetheless, this dynamic has an obvious component. Being part of a conflict may come with great prices, such as the dread of dying, the willingness to kill, or the pain of defeat. Existential worries, according to Jenny Edkins,  must be ‘tamed’ in order to maintain the apparent order of self and society. Religious concepts, as well as other intellectual frameworks, as reported by Harald Wydra and Ziya Meral, may provide crucial stages in establishing a feeling of security, comfort, and harmony. Beliefs, both religious and non-religious, may serve as bulwarks against the dread of meaninglessness. In the subject of extremism and radicalisation, the bi-directional link between religious concepts and violence is still understudied.

“No one is ready to die for something he does not believe in”

Another imbalance can be found in conceptualisations of the instrumentalisation of religion. Religion is typically portrayed as a tool, both used and abused, by militia leaders to serve personal interests. Less attention is given to the fact that religion can also be instrumentalised by militants. Militants are not only followers, they engage with the world on their own terms. One prevalent example relates to the Druze experience during the Lebanese civil war. Full knowledge of the Druze faith, influenced by Twelver Islam and Gnosticism, is traditionally preserved for ‘initiated’ members. Amira, who I interviewed on a hot summer day in the centre of Beirut, recalls how the war propelled ‘uninitiated’ militants to engage with Druze texts and beliefs. Militants started discussing theological dilemmas and sacred texts that they were not allowed to engage with before. “The whole society became more religious”, Amira recounts. “If you just go for coffee, you will now also discuss religion”.

Experiencing high levels of existential anxiety, several uninitiated members started to read, discuss, and share religious texts. Despite opposition from ‘above’, the people ‘below’ demanded the popularisation of their faith. They expressed the desire for an ideational anchor. This dynamic is not particular to militias that adhere to religious ideas. For example, Ziad, a former Lebanese Communist Party militant who I interviewed several times, explains: “No one is ready to die for something he does not believe in. For free. He thinks a lot. He thinks what he is doing is a holy issue. Even if he is not a believer”. Ziad learned the Communist Manifesto by heart, which aided in navigating his life on the front lines. Too much of the extremism and radicalisation literature ignores the agentic powers, rational choices and emotive engagements of the people that make up militant movements.

“This is our story, and you should try to be a judge, a fair judge”

This brings me to a last but interrelated point. The vast majority of data on radicalisation and violent extremism is derived from secondary data sources, with primary data sources being scarce. While secondary perspectives can lay bare important trends in extremism and radicalisation; only primary sources, micro-perspectives in particular, can deepen understandings of the personal mobilisation towards violence.

By listening, I learned that militants’ stories do not necessarily align with the macro and meso rationales that have come to form the basis of mainstream understandings on ‘religious violence’. The emotive discernments of life histories lay bare a more delicate plane of being in which religion can transform senses of belonging, meaning, and motivation. Religion can play an important (though not exclusive) role in coping with high-risk environments.

During my year-long fieldwork, I was struck by militants’ eagerness to share their life stories. Some felt misunderstood on a personal level. Others felt religious dynamics were misrepresented on a societal level. A plane hijacker told me, “I felt it was such a shame that they [the West] could only see it as a terrorist act but not the reasons behind these actions. This is our story, and you should try to be a judge, a fair judge”. Without justifying violent acts, I tried to understand his and others’ motivations. For militants to share anything beyond clichés, disclosing the most painful and sometimes shameful parts of themselves, researchers need to spend extensive time in the field. They need to build relations based on trust. And, they need empathy. Not to justify, but to understand. Within academia, we need to develop more engaging ways of researching extremism and radicalisation that stretch beyond definitional quests and emphasise the experience of religion as articulated and contextualised by the actors that are engaged in violence. After all, both religion and violence are local expressions that are experienced through interpersonal interactions.

Moving forward in the field

Alongside the intricacies of how, why, and when religious ideas matter in the mobilisation towards violence, there are a few more caveats worth pointing out. First, it is my conviction that religious and secular beliefs can have the same effect on the mobilisation towards violence. It is important to refrain from treating religion as a static, one-dimensional or one-directional factor. Instead, we need to invest more time and effort in comparing religious dynamics to their non-religious counterparts, incorporating their complexities and interrelationships. Additionally, we need to be more specific about the impact of belief, delving into the whys, hows, and when, rather than the ifs. Second, beliefs always need to be contextualised. Although religious beliefs should not be presented as a “veneer that masks underlying grievances of economic, political or personal nature”, neither should they be disconnected from their environment. After all, all beliefs - religious or non-religious - are expressed within a setting of time and space. Third, I would welcome more conversations across geographical regions, comparing the role of religious ideas in mobilisation processes. Only through critical and comparative research, will we be able to develop more sophisticated views of the role of religious ideas in violent conflict.   


[1] This reflection is primarily focused on the role of religious beliefs and ideas, leaving reflections on the role of religious communities, resources and leadership largely on the side.

The first author of this piece is Jacob Astley, an Honorary Research Assistant at the University of Liverpool

Shortly before 11am on Sunday 14th November 2021, a day intended to be one of peaceful reflection and remembrance, ended before commemorations could begin in Liverpool, when a homemade bomb was exploded inside a taxi outside the Liverpool Women’s hospital. Since declared an act of terrorism by the UK Government and counter-terrorism police, the owner of the taxi in which the bomb exploded, David Perry, has been hailed as a hero for his incredible presence of mind and bravery in preventing further deaths in what could have been a disaster of much greater scale and consequences.

The suspected perpetrator - who died at the scene - has been named as 32-year-old, Emad al-Swealmeen, an asylum seeker whose claims for permanent residency status in the UK had previously been rejected. In a speech to an audience of journalists, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, commented that the attack in Liverpool was connected to the inadequate system for claiming asylum.

The case in Liverpool was a complete reflection of how dysfunctional, how broken, the system has been in the past…”.

However, these sentiments have been criticised by those countering that the ruling Conservative Government has had over a decade in power to address perceived difficulties with the asylum process. Notwithstanding what might be considered as distasteful political opportunism, the Home Secretary’s response has led to questions surrounding the preparedness of the UK Government to tackle the causes of so-called ‘lone-wolf’ terrorism, and the possibilities for the prevention of such attacks.

After calling for a national emergency meeting of COBRA, Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, alongside the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre made the decision - announced by Home Secretary, Priti Patel - to raise the terror threat level to ‘severe’. Crucially there are five levels ranging from ‘low’ to ‘critical’ indicating the likelihood of a terrorist attack in the UK.

This is the third act of single actor domestic terrorism in as many months - the Liverpool explosion, the murder of Sir David Amess MP and the Plymouth shootings. Though not officially classified as an act of terrorism, the motives of the Plymouth perpetrator can be perceived as having terroristic intent (extreme ideas and values which were acted upon to cause harm). All of these attacks were perpetrated by individuals who appear to be motivated by different values, but all of whom have reported mental health issues. Jake Davison, the alleged perpetrator of the Plymouth attacks was affiliated with an online network calling themselves ‘incels’. Incels are self-identified ‘involuntary celibate’ men who espouse sexist ideology and openly advocate misogynistic violence; the connections between these attitudes, terrorism and violence against women are being increasingly recognised in academic research (see, McCulloch et al. 2019; and Smith 2019). Sir David Amess was murdered whilst holding a constituency surgery in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. The attacker, a 25-year-old British citizen, Ali Harbi Ali was thought to have been partially driven by religious and ideological motives. Investigations about Emad al-Swealmeen’s reasons for arriving at a hospital with a bomb are on-going. However, researchers have highlighted commonalities between what may appear, superficially at least, as discrete motivations:

While anti-immigrant, incel, and radical masculinist groups subscribe to different ideologies, one commonality lies in the belief among some of their adherents that violence can lead to recognition of injustice and catalyse socio-political change or else protect and restore a threatened social order” (Rousseau, Aggarwal and Kirmayer, 2021).

Taking this observation seriously requires that attention be directed towards media reports which suggest that Emad al-Swealmeen had intermittent mental health problems. Parallel attention might also be afforded to the Plymouth shooter, Jake Davison, who was in contact with a mental health helpline during the eighteen months prior to his attack. Simplistic causal associations between terroristic acts of violence and an individual’s mental health should be avoided, but the proliferation of single actor attacks in the UK and elsewhere indicates that mental health issues are a factor in such incidents that require further attention.

The process of radicalisation to violence is influenced by individual and social psychological processes both in local communities and larger networks. Current psychological theories emphasize the confluence of factors involving needs (individual vulnerability and motivation, which may include personality traits, developmental crises, and threats to identity), narratives (ideological justifications of violence, ways of framing situations of injustice and appropriate courses of action, and of dehumanizing the other) and networks (processes of communicating, establishing and amplifying group belonging as well as alienation and marginalization)” (Rousseau, Aggarwal and Kirmayer, 2021).

Raising the UK terrorist threat level to ‘severe’ suggests, in metric terms, that an attack is perceived to be ‘highly likely’. Clearly single actor terrorist attacks constitute a significant security risk in this regard. However, the relationship between acts of terrorism and the process of raising the national threat level remains oblique. A substantive body of criminological research evidence illustrates that the causes of terroristic acts are complex and motivated by several factors which may simultaneously include, but also move beyond mental ill-health as a contributory factor. We are members of the EU funded DRIVE European research project. The project seeks to explore the relationship between radicalisation and material and spatial dynamics (social, economic and cultural exclusion); intergenerational change; identity politics; reciprocal radicalidsation (the extent to which opposing groups become more extreme in response to one another) and mental health in Northern Europe, to comprehensively inform future terrorism prevention policies and strategies across the EU and beyond.  

Hardening the political focus on the deleterious actions of individuals with serious mental health issues and drawing public attention to problematic aspects of the UK asylum system are not unfounded nor unwarranted exercises. However, in this context - and in the aftermath of such a tragic incident - ignoring the complexity of motivations influencing those who perpetrate terroristic acts of violence would be a mistake. It is unlikely that raising the national UK terrorist threat level will address the drivers and motivations that result in acts of extreme violence. This raises a range of unanswered questions that policy makers and researchers need to address, preferably together, with urgency.

Have the UK Government ‘acted’ in order to be seen to be responding to single actor attacks?

How effective has the UK Government’s counter-radicalisation strategy been in identifying individuals at risk and preventing terrorism?

What are the implications of recent attacks in the UK in terms of joining up safeguarding policies, procedures and responses to mitigate against such attacks occurring in future?

The gaps in our understanding of these vital issues is marked and there is much to do to address the void.

*This has been reproduced with the kind permission of The University of Liverpool, The Liverpool View

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