Why are we still getting radicalisation wrong?

You  would have thought that after decades of study, dozens of books (including my own The Threat from Within) and hundreds of papers that we collectively would have a better grasp of violent radicalisation.  Countless individuals belonging to movements across the ideological spectrum have been adopting violent extremism for centuries.  This is not a new phenomenon. It has been studied to death (no pun intended).

And yet despite our efforts to “explain” radicalisation, many still get it wrong.  Despite I don’t know how many times practitioners, experts, academics, etc. keep sharing their knowledge about this problem, many seem not to be listening.

A case in point, an article in today’s New York Times by Adam Nossiter entitled “French Terrorism Suspects Appeared Anything But“.  It goes on to say that French authorities arrested three men on November 20 in a quiet neighbourhood of Strasbourg and charged them with planning a terrorist attack.  The three had the following characteristics:

  • they were well-liked, hard-working and friendly
  • they joked with teenagers and smiled at children
  • they did not live “on the margins”
  • they had stable jobs and no criminal records
  • they gave no “warning signs of radicalisation” – i.e.  “beards, robes and proselytising”

The assumption is, of course, that men exhibiting these signs could not be terrorists.  This conclusion is abominable – and scarily wrong.  All the research alluded to above has shown CATEGORICALLY that radicalisation to violence is not inexorably tied to unemployment, alienation, criminal pasts, appearance and not smiling at children.  It is sad to read that at the end of 2016 someone still thinks this way.

Truth be told, ANYONE can radicalise to violence given the right circumstances.  There is no “magic formula” that produces terrorists, no template, no profile, no model, no staircase, nothing.  It  just is.

And as for the “lack of signs” the following outtake from the article is illuminating: the Strasbourg cell had instructions to get weapons, which, together with a pledge of allegiance to Islamic State, were found in police searches.  No signs?  Then what is all this? And I will bet that there were many other “signs” that went unnoticed.

If indeed those surrounding the trio – family, friends, police – clung to the woefully inadequate notion that French terrorists must hew to the “profile” of unemployed school dropouts with long beards and short pants who wail in the streets about jihad, then this is not just unfortunate but very dangerous.  If we put blinders on and only see terrorists where our biases tell us to look, we will miss lots.  In this case, thankfully, authorities must have had intelligence that told them where to look.  And, thankfully, those same authorities didn’t dismiss what they saw because it did not fit any preconceived ideas.

We really need a moratorium on study into “why people become terrorists”.  There is little left to gain and much to lose as researchers and journalists keep producing tired old refrains about what works and what doesn’t in our efforts to identify the next terrorist.  There is still much to examine and write about in the terrorism field.  Let’s explore those avenues and stop writing garbage that has no tie to what is actually happening. Before someone takes this false science to heart, ignores something important and people die.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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