Meet the Team: Dr Laura Zahra McDonald

This third interview in the series of Meet The Team with DRIVE members features Dr. Laura Zahra McDonald, who is a founding director of ConnectFutures, an independent civil society organisation based in the UK, that works with young people, communities and professionals to prevent violence, extremism and exploitation.

"The social, political and personal implications of this subject matter – around extremism, violent extremism, and the concept of radicalisation is extremely sensitive and contested."

Within the DRIVE project, you represent ConnectFutures, an independent civil society organisation based in the UK, that works with young people, communities and professionals to prevent violence, extremism and exploitation. Can you tell us more about your role within the DRIVE and what perspectives you seek to bring to the project?

We are one of two civil society organisations on the DRIVE project, so we bring a different perspective or set of skills and understanding, with a focus on practice and the practical. We are very interested in ways to harness knowledge from research and academia in an applied way, so being part of the DRIVE project is exciting and important to us. So, our involvement works both ways as we are learning new things that will contribute to our own evidence-based practice and learning frameworks. We hope we can bring our experiences of working in the field with young people, communities and practitioners to help contribute to the research and its interpretation, especially helping to contextualise information within social spaces, both on and offline, and contribute to the project outcomes.

Why is it crucial to implement a multifaceted and “whole-of-society approach”, with an emphasis on community partnership with young people when tackling radicalisation?

The social, political and personal implications of this subject matter – around extremism, violent extremism, and the concept of radicalisation is extremely sensitive and contested. Over decades, internationally, we have seen top-down approaches fail, which in many cases have also violated human rights, rendering such attempts both ethically bankrupt and usually ineffective. This is a double failure and has created long-term exacerbation of the issues, and a highly politicised, hostile backdrop to tackling violent radicalisation. These issues are complex and intersectional and require partnership work to tackle them, within an explicit human rights framework. Co-creating knowledge and practice from the grassroots up, with inclusivity, is crucial to effective, impactful and sustainable work that has the credibility and nuance required. The DRIVE project is taking these issues into account, working across communities within and between the country partners involved, to glean knowledge from a whole spectrum of people and perspectives.

In what ways can we bridge the gap between researchers and practitioners in the P/CVE?

There can be a perception of hostility between academics and practitioners, in which the two elements are pitched as antagonistic, one without thought, the other without action. I would argue that academic and experiential knowledge are two sides of the same coin, required to illuminate, understand, and make a change. By working together as we are in DRIVE, in a collaborative and creative way, we can harness interdisciplinary and multifaceted approaches to tackling the issues at hand. It is fantastic to see CSOs involved more deeply in a large research project but also the diversity of expertise from psychology, public health, sociology, religious studies, politics – a wide and deep range of methods and traditions which enable both theory and practice to gain in ways far deeper than sticking to traditional boundaries and limitations. I am also excited that the end results of the research will be able to inform practice, that is working both ways from start to end.

Your research work related to P/CVE significantly focuses on the gender dimension. Why do you think it is important to bring gender perspective - and a more inclusive approach in general - to enhance our understanding of radicalisation and violent extremism?

Beyond the obvious ethical problem, the exclusion of any group in the understanding of an issue is creating a vacuum or a blind spot. This is especially true for the subject of violence and extremism which has traditionally been mired by problematic approaches to gender, both by violent extremist groups and individuals operating and perpetuating negative gendered frameworks (often misogyny), but also by those of us studying, interpreting and practicing in the arena. The ‘boys with guns’ imagery and interest in a certain perception of masculinity and violence have limited our understanding of gender dynamics in the creation of extremist violence and its prevention. Research has revealed some of the ways intersections of gender and violence operate, for example, the relationship between domestic violence and terrorist violence by perpetrators, and also our wider social contexts in which gender dynamics - cross-culturally - shape the landscape and heighten the likelihood of violence and reduced chances of preventing it. Gender is an absolutely central intersection in understanding the issues at hand, and tackling them effectively, alongside many other factors - social, personal, environmental, and political. Even at a very practical level, for example, engaging young people within a school assembly – the way we talk about the issues, the imagery we use, the vulnerabilities we address, must all be fully inclusive, or we are failing the young people in front of us, and indeed the whole of our societies.

Are you curious to learn more about the DRIVE project and its members? Stay tuned for the next interviews!

Co-authored by Anne-Marie Martindale & Jacob Astley

The recent killings perpetrated by a young man, Jake Davison, in Plymouth in the UK - first of his mother and then of four strangers - have drawn attention once more to an internet organisation calling themselves ‘Incels’. This group of ‘involuntarily celibate’ men - which Davison was believed to be affiliated with - espouse sexist ideology and openly promote misogyny. Incel-related misogynistic driven violence is not a new phenomenon. The recent incident in the UK, however, hastens the need not only to recognise it but, moreover, to address the dangerous reality of Incel culture.

The nascent debate that the Plymouth attack generated was rapidly overshadowed by events in Afghanistan. There, ISIS-Khorosan (ISIS-K) - targeting those trying to flee the country at Kabul airport - killed over 175 people and injured many more, detonating an explosive device at the entrance to the airport. In contrast to the incident in Plymouth, the attack at Kabul airport was immediately ascribed as an act of terrorism by security experts and understood as such in the media and political circles. Although there was some debate about the drivers for the Plymouth perpetrator - most notably stimulated by the comments made by Jonathan Hall, QC, the UK Government’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism - the attacks in Plymouth were not defined as terroristic.

In observing the growing presence of misogynistic online groups, Incels appear to meet traditional criteria used to define terrorist organisations.

Given that - on the surface at least - it would seem that both the violent attacks in Afghanistan and Plymouth were motivated by ingrained values and beliefs that can be defined as ‘extremist’. This raises some interesting questions. Should those inspired to undertake acts of violence by Incel culture be considered terrorists? Indeed, should the Incel network itself be classified as a terrorist organisation?

In observing the growing presence of misogynistic online groups, Incels appear to meet traditional criteria used to define terrorist organisations. After all, members of the extreme Incel culture share an ideology, form part of a horizontal global network of individuals with dangerous views and provoke subscribers to undertake indiscriminate violence against women. Yet, with no clear guidelines on what constitutes a terrorist organisation and what does not, Incels continue to slip the net.

The merging and blurring of online and offline realms is part of a broader picture that can be associated with the tragedy in Plymouth.The speed, scope and scale of the internet affords opportunities for those that incite violence and presents sizeable challenges for those trying to prevent it. The evolving nature of the online realm, its widespread accessibility and the possibility of anonymity are factors which Incels - like terrorists - seek to exploit to propagate hate and violence.

The attacks in Plymouth were certainly not the first nor the only act of organised and extreme violence perpetrated by individuals affiliating with this group. Demonstrable connections have been made with similar acts of violence in Canada and the United States in recent years. Yet still, as a group, Incels are not formally recognised as a terrorist organisation. It could be that reluctance to recognise them as such lies in their ideology which is rooted in hatred against women, or indeed psychosocial circumstances that affect young men who may already be socially vulnerable in different ways.

In recent years, criminological researchers have been paying increasing attention to the links to be found between men who abuse women and their tendencies toward political and religiously motivated violence. The work of Joan Smith (2019) is the most recent in a long history of feminist informed work which has made these links explicit. From the intervention of Frances Power Cobbe in 1879 - who labelled wife abuse as torture - to Morgan’s powerful observations in The Demon Lover first published in 1989 and updated post 9/11, 2001, to Elizabeth Stanko’s (1997) analysis of women’s fear of crime as a technology of the soul, alongside the work of Johnson (1995) defining domestic abuse as intimate terrorism, to the work of McCulloch et al (2019) on so-called ‘lone-wolf’ terrorism.

The merging and blurring of online and offline realms is part of a broader picture that can be associated with the tragedy in Plymouth.

Taken together, this work demonstrates the links between misogyny and the lives women live in a culture of fear and intimidation by men; some of which result in death at the hands of those same men, like in Plymouth, where one of the victims was the young man’s mother. To put it simply, neither Incels nor other terrorist organisations - like ISIS-K - assign much value to women’s lives outside of their presence in the world to service and support men, raising the question as to why women’s safety and security is not only muted but routinely ignored.

So when is a terrorist organisation not considered terroristic? Why is an ideology that only targets women and supports indiscriminate hatred and violence against them beyond the reach of terrorism? What might be the resourcing implications of classifying Incels as terrorists? Might bringing this group more squarely under the purview of the security and intelligence service attention result in greater protection for women at risk?

Food for thought indeed for those wanting to understand terrorism and those for whom it has serious consequences. How to prevent those consequences for those subjected to its worst effects should be a priority for researchers, politicians, policy makers and security practitioners.

How is a Horizon 2020 project conducted? Who are the professionals working on DRIVE and which perspectives do they bring to the project? In this series of interviews, you will get to meet the team members of DRIVE and learn more about their areas of expertise and the role they play throughout the course of the project.

This first Meet The Team interview features Prof. Tahir Abbas, the scientific coordinator of DRIVE.

"Extremism and radicalisation, in my mind, are less about religion and more about politics, economics, and society."

Apart from being the Scientific Coordinator of the DRIVE project, you hold thorough experience and expertise in the field of CT and PVE. What has led you to pursue this path?

I have been looking at issues of violent extremism for two decades. The events of 9/11 spurred me on to try to explore some of these issues in more detail, especially as before this tragic day, several related concerns were going on in the city of Birmingham that made me think twice about what was happening to young Muslims concerning identity, ideas of belonging, and issues to do with the violence that was being forged into a heady mix with significant implications.

I know several colleagues who had got into this field because of some direct and indirect experience related to extremism and radicalisation, whether it was a close friend who was routinely subjected to harassment by the police or somebody they knew at school who found themselves implicated in some plot later in life. People like me, who are born in a country different to that of our parents, are habitually challenged by questions of identity and belonging. Some of us can reconcile these issues while others can see it transformed into something far more problematic. 

Extremism and radicalisation, in my mind, are less about religion and more about politics, economics, and society. Having spent many years before the events of 9/11 exploring race relations, the understandings I was able to figure out in terms of minority experiences and the implications this had for a sense of engagement and participation is no different from some of the genuine existential problems that young people face when trying to work out their paths in life per se. But a lot of this analysis is a million miles away from the programmatic approach taken by state-centric-led initiatives concerning countering violent extremism that continues to deemphasise the bottom-up, community-oriented issues related to extremism, which are more about social exclusion than anything else.

What, according to you, makes DRIVE special?

The Drive project is a unique opportunity to bring together social scientists and public mental health experts  for the first time to explore some of the most challenging concerns facing societies in northwest Europe today. We understand that there is much that has already been written and expressed concerning questions of extremism, with a lot of it being polemical and often without any empirical support. Ours is a systematic attempt to try to enhance our understanding of radicalisation through exploring the wider issues of social exclusion in northwest Europe in a way that could not have been possible until recently.

Until recently, the far-right, alt-right and incels were not on the radar of policymakers. With a range of counter-competing and in some cases reciprocal radicalisation becoming the norm, the Drive project uniquely allows the project team to explore the synergies between diverse kinds of radicalisation based on an understanding of local area experiences. In this regard, we are interested in identity politics, intergenerational change, the idea of space and belonging associated with it, and the complex generalisable relationship between the extremism put forward by elements of the far right and the extremism put forward by elements of Jihadis because both sets of outcomes are not independent of the same social structural factors. Both sets of groups are looking for something beyond their own experience to buy in to, to believe in, and to support. In some cases, by whatever means necessary.

What are the most acute challenges the youth is facing today that might drive some vulnerable and marginalised individuals to radicalisation?

Having looked at this question for the last twenty years, the most important point is the issue of belonging. Unless young people have a sense of belonging, they do not have a sense of purpose. By not having a sense of purpose, they are easily distracted and persuaded, especially if they are young and impressionable. And then they face issues of being stuck in an echo chamber of negativity that becomes an added risk factor.

It is from these situations that we find the young people making the analytical and conceptual leap from holding frustrated grievances to enacting solutions to their problems through violence. While society considers their acts of violence as the problem, for the young people implicated, their actions are the solution. What compounds a lot of this is the unidirectional thinking on the part of states and supranational bodies which adhere to a top-down agenda based on the idea that the problem is inherited within a particular faith and the ideal would be to get to a vulnerable individual before radicalisation is operationalised from within.

All this does is enhance and legitimise Islamophobia, in the case of Islamist groups, but it also takes attention away from the genuine everyday realities that face so many people who end up with violent extremism as their solution. The need to understanding the social exclusion dynamic in radicalisation studies is to build solutions that are about looking at society, and not distinguishing these radicals as somehow separate us from the rest of us. They are remarkably like the rest of us but different enough to warrant paying further attention to their particular needs and wants.

In your recent book Countering Violent Extremism (2021), you provide a detailed critique of the concept of countering violent Islamist extremism, which according to you, is largely focused on ideology. What implications and/or unintended outcomes does this have on the marginalized Muslim communities and the wider society?

The main critique I have of the current counter violent extremism paradigm is that it reproduces Islamophobia. All the tension among groups and individuals that somehow have gone wrong are seen as being due to some internal issues that are unresolvable and that these can be defined as being a result of interpretations of religion and practice. From all of the extensive research, practice and practitioner-oriented experiences, we realise that radicalisation is often an outcome based on everyday social processes.

In parts of the global south, we have instances of not just underdevelopment, inequity, and tribalism but also corruption, cronyism, and militarism and in some cases people who end up being radicalised because it is a form of employment. The far right targets unemployed and impressionable young men and offers them employment opportunities. Many who went from various parts of North Africa to what was the Islamic State did so because they were being offered paid employment, something that was difficult to sustain in places like Tunisia especially, after the events of the Arab Spring.

Overall, we need to take attention away from the fact that radicalisation is akin to someone’s faith somehow going wrong and see it more in the round. Rather, that radicalisation is a concept which aims to elaborate on what tips individuals from various stages of being radicalised and that these are much more about wider societal experiences rather than the more wicked end of the problem that policymakers tend to fixate on due to the urgency of what is seen as the problem and the need to provide solutions in quick response.

Are you curious to learn more about the DRIVE project and its members? Stay tuned for the next interviews!


Hannah Bieber and Lily Sannikova, both interns for the Drive project, reflect on key insights

What are the key challenges in researching extremism? How can we better understand the increasing importance of social media? What possible explanations could we find to understand why most perpetrators of violent extremism are men? These are just some of the questions the panellists engaged with during the first online DRIVE workshop.

The DRIVE launch event, a workshop on ‘The Challenges of Researching Extremism Today’ that took place on 22 June 2021 addressed these and other urgent questions in the study of extremism. 130-plus participants tuned in to attend an online panel discussion in which Tahir Abbas, Cathrine ThorleifssonJoel Busher, Jennifer Philippa Eggert, and Chris Allen discussed their own experiences and answered critical inquiries from the audience, moderated by Anouk de Koning. Beyond debating the difficulties encountered by academics when researching this field, the speakers also drew crucial conclusions and implications for the DRIVE project.

There is a need for bridging the offline and online world when researching extremism in the era of the digital age

Cathrine Thorleifsson (University of Oslo) opened the floor by stressing the importance of looking at online spaces, such as forums, gaming platforms and social media when trying to understand radicalisation processes. These spaces create an enabling environment for the virtual community to engage in political mobilisation, prompting young individuals to lean towards extremist patterns. The emotional dimension of online radicalisation also needs to be addressed, as offline grievances seem to translate into the online sphere.

There is, in fact, a gap in our understanding of how the online and offline spheres intertwine when it comes to radicalisation processes. DRIVE will attempt to bridge this gap by investigating both spaces.

“Often we only have discourse analyses of far-right discourses online, but we also need to look at the embodied and affective dimensions of online spaces.”

Cathrine Thorleifsson

Research on political violence should be more gender-inclusive

Jennifer Philippa Eggert (University of Warwick) highlighted the key role of gender in research on political violence and violent extremism. Integrating a gender perspective is pivotal in two ways: first, the research should address how extremist groups instrumentalise gender; second, gender equality should become more integrated into the field of political violence.

According to Eggert, gender plays an important role in shaping the role and directing the actions of extremist groups. It permeates everything extremist groups are and everything they do. The propaganda, recruitment strategies, power structures, and organisation of extremist groups rely heavily on gender stereotypes and gender norms. The DRIVE project seeks to investigate gender dynamics in extremist groups and the role of masculinity, as well as to promote inclusivity and gender equality.

“Sometimes when the researchers want to focus on gender, they end up only looking at women, which is simply not good enough as we cannot understand women alone without looking at men.”

Jennifer Philippa Eggert

Participant observation is a key but very challenging methodology when researching extremism

Joel Busher (Coventry University) and Chris Allen (University of Leicester) both underlined the challenges of researching extremist groups. Busher addressed the difficulty of integrating these groups and the behaviour the researcher must sometimes adopt in order to get access to data. Allen then added that research on specific groups could lead to their stigmatisation by the public but also to a rejection of the researcher’s work by these very groups. The more a researcher’s work is published and known, the more defiant respondents can be, which can make participant observation an arduous task.

Both speakers mentioned the personal risks that the researchers are exposed to when doing participant observation: they can be perceived as biased, or suffer from online harassment. Nevertheless, they also reminded the audience that there are safe ways of conducting participant observation in extremist groups - for instance by researching emerging groups rather than well-established ones. Despite the risks, this method is of great epistemological importance, as it enables researchers to capture the affective and emotional dimensions of extremism. As DRIVE will resort to participant observation and interviews, a clear ethical framework has been established in order to protect the respondents, communities, and researchers.

The position of the researcher needs to be reflected upon

For Joel Busher, a self-reflection on the researcher’s position when researching extremism is necessary. Researchers indeed hold responsibilities towards the participants, communities, and wider society. Chris Allen briefly stressed that researchers do not only face risks when conducting fieldwork, but also when their research gains attention through the media, social media, or university websites.

All panellists acknowledged the need for self-reflection and self-criticism when researching the field of political violence and extremism, both on an individual and structural level. Finally, Busher pointed out how uncomfortable one may feel when confronted with extremist comments and the difficulty to balance the need for gathering data and this discomfort. This affective and moral dimension of researching such a sensitive field also needs to be accounted for.

“There is a responsibility towards wider society: how do we give importance to what we’re doing without actually inflating narratives of risks and potentially driving fear and polarization.”

Joel Busher

After the panellists’ presentations, the audience was able to interact with them in a Q&A moderated by Anouk de Koning, who animated the discussion by sharing her insights as an anthropologist. For instance, she pointed out the importance of making academia more diverse to prevent stigmatisation of certain groups and interrogated the role race plays in counter-extremism and counter-terrorism research.

Overall, this first online event paved the way for fruitful discussions and worthwhile reflections on the challenges of researching extremism today that will be crucial throughout the DRIVE project. As pointed out by Tahir Abbas, this research will maintain a critical and grounded perspective because it seeks to challenge the dominant understanding on the way we think about radicalisation.

Did you miss our launch event? Rewatch it here!

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