What Causes Domestic Radicalisation in the West?

Analysis by Alex IRELAND

Although many who commit acts of terror in Europe claim Islam as their motivation (though many others do not, as I will address later), it is important to distinguish between the violent ideology to which they were radicalised, and what made them susceptible to radicalisation in the first place. A focus only on the former completely misses the wider picture, and leads to dangerously ineffective and counterproductive policies.

Some broad patterns can be distinguished in terms of the people who are susceptible to radicalisation, although it must be stressed that the vast majority are not radicalised, and some people who have been do not fit these patterns. That said, in terms of physical attributes, most are male, and most are young adults – in their early to mid-20s when they are radicalised. For many there is a strong sense of powerlessness or frustrated expectations in how their life is going – they may live in neglected neighbourhoods, work low-status jobs that they are unhappy with, or be socially awkward and excluded.

For example, Mohammed Emwazi (otherwise known as ‘Jihadi John’) is known to have been bullied, and was described by former classmates as “painfully shy”. An MI5 memo notes that whilst those involved in domestic terror in the UK have very varied levels of educational achievement, almost all are employed in “low-grade” jobs. The experience of frustration and powerlessness opens an individual up to potential radicalisation, because radicalisation can provide them with feelings of camaraderie, social inclusion, and a sense of purpose and glory.

ETA 2006
Members of ETA, the now-disarming Basque separatist group, fire blanks at a rally in 2006 – un usuario de Indymedia Barcelona, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Most people in such circumstances do not turn to terrorism. Some turn to gangs (an alternative source of camaraderie and social inclusion), or crime in general. Some, especially in the USA, commit acts very similar to those of terrorists – many mass shootings cannot be classed as terrorism because there was no political motive, but bear striking similarities in terms of the perpetrators’ emotional state. Many turn to neither ordinary crime nor terrorism.

It requires an ideology to turn someone into a terrorist, since terrorism is an inherently political act –it is the use of violence or intimidation in pursuit of a political goal. Terrorism without political motive is simply crime.

A person may acquire a violent ideology in a number of ways. They may already have grievances for real or perceived attacks upon their person, or against groups that they identify with, and find that this provides them with something to fight for at a time that they are desperately searching for some kind of purpose. Members of ETA, a (currently disbanding) Basque separatist group responsible for the deaths of hundreds of civilians, feel grievance over Spain and France’s refusal to grant independent nation status to the Basque people. Likewise, many radicalised Muslims are aggrieved by Western foreign policy in the Middle East, and are tempted to act upon this by already-existent frustration and disaffection that may be in their lives.

Existent grievances are not necessary for radicalisation, however. Some people are radicalised by simply falling in with a radical support network. Already vulnerable and seeking out a sense of social inclusion, if the group that a person encounters espouses radical ideas – and if this person has little meaningful contact with non-radical people – it is very easy to acquire an extreme ideology over time.

It is important to note at this point, however, that a radical set of beliefs will not in itself cause terrorism – for example, plenty of people subscribe to far-right anti-immigration beliefs without carrying out terror attacks in the name of those beliefs, like Anders Breivik did in Norway. It still requires a willingness to commit violence which cannot simply be created by ideology, however much certain ideologies demand it. This willingness for violence may be nurtured or entirely caused by the previously mentioned feelings of frustration and powerlessness, and may be brought to bear by a hateful ideology, but may equally have manifested itself in non-political violent activities if it hadn’t been for the radicalisation.

Russell Square Ambulances
Ambulances at Russell Square responding to the 7/7 London bombings, 2005, which were carried out by radical Muslim terrorists – Francis Tyers, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

In terms of jihadist terrorism, there are a number of reasons why such an ideology is currently particularly potent in the West. To begin with, many immigrant groups in the West (in particular in France and Belgium) are poorly integrated into the rest of society, and a large proportion of these poorly-integrated groups are of a Muslim background. For example, the Belgian neighbourhood of Molenbeek in Brussels, which houses a large Muslim population and has been linked with the recent Paris terror attacks, has an unemployment rate of up to 40% and suffers inadequate attention from government services and funding. This makes Muslims disproportionately represented in the class of people who are susceptible to radicalisation.

Added to this is the fact that there is much fuel for grievance for Muslims living in the West, from racism and demonization at home, to unhappiness with Western countries’ foreign policy in the Middle East, which can harm groups that they may identify with on religious, ethnic, or cultural grounds. Furthermore, populations that are poorly integrated into the rest of society are more vulnerable to radicalisation by groupthink – one radicalised individual managing to radicalise many more – because the targeted people have little contact outside of that support network.

But a sense of proportion must be maintained. Whilst terror attacks carried out in the name of Islam are currently capturing most attention in the West, radical Islam is not unique as an ideology of terror. For example, during the 1970s and 1980s a number of radical leftist terrorist groups operated in Europe, such as the Revolutionary Cells (RZ) in Germany, a group most notorious for co-hijacking an Air France plane and holding its passengers hostage. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 in the USA, was motivated primarily by a hatred of federal government, and in reprisal for two deadly sieges by American law enforcement (unrelated to the bombers themselves), and Anders Breivik, who killed 77 in Norway in 2011, did so in the name of driving Muslims and other immigrants out of Europe. In the USA, almost twice as many people have been killed in right-wing-inspired terrorist attacks as have been in jihadist-inspired ones since 2002, and in Western Europe, jihadist-inspired attacks have made up less than half of significant terror attacks over the same period. Terrorism arrest statistics for Western Europe bear out the same story.

Although it is tempting to focus only on the ideology which has radicalised a domestic terrorist, this misses the point. Most people are not susceptible to such radicalisation, and so a focus on what does make people susceptible is required. When we chase only the symptoms – the individual ideologies which have motivated terrorists – we miss the underlying causes, and simply risk allowing new extremist ideologies to replace the old, or push violence-prone people into ideology-less violent crime instead.


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