The cardinal importance of extremist ideologues in the radicalisation process – Part 1

In this piece and the following one, I would like to address one that really gets my goat: self-radicalisation.

Despite what some say, humans are the key to the radicalisation process!

There are a lot of myths out there when it comes to terrorism and radicalisation to violence. Part of this stems from the fact that the terrorism studies field has exploded (no pun intended) over the past two decades. This is what I call the 9/11 effect and a discipline that was largely ignored suddenly became the ‘it’ topic. Normally, the more minds that weigh in on a subject the better, but not necessarily.

I have found that even if there are some outstanding scholars – especially young ones which I wholeheartedly welcome given my advanced years – there are also some less stellar ones. There are also charlatans and dilettantes who pontificate about terrorism despite a marked lack of experience in this phenomenon.

For the record, I am NOT railing against one group of specialists. As a former practitioner I could be accused of favouring those from my world over academics, say, but I see value in both. Besides, there are unqualified and uninteresting former spies and cops just as there are people I don’t think should be asked for their ‘expertise’ in other domains.


All in all, despite the amazing contributions to our understanding of terrorism from multiple voices there is also a stubborn set of myths that will simply not go away. In this piece and the following one I would like to address one that really gets my goat: self-radicalisation.

Under this ‘theory’ some people are capable of going from 0 to 100 all on their own and finish by carrying out terrorist attacks solo, with no input of any kind from anyone else. I cannot count the times I have read the phrase ‘self-radicalised lone wolf’ in the media.

This inaccuracy has even been pronounced by former intelligence and law enforcement officials who should know better – or who never worked counter terrorism and hence demonstrate what I wrote above that just because you worked for CSIS or the RCMP does not make you a terrorism ‘expert’.

Not a single case

In all my time working to stop terrorism in Canada I did not come across a single case of ‘self-radicalisation’. It may, in theory, happen, but it is so rare as to be irrelevant. I have said many times, but it bears repeating; radicalisation to violence is an inherently social process. It is all about people influencing people.

A good case in point came to my attention this morning. Ibrahim ‘Malam’ Dicko was a Islamic preacher trained by the Saudis (that speaks volumes by the way) who… wait let me quote the words of a Reuters reporter:

When an Islamist preacher took up the fight in Burkina Faso’s northern borderlands almost a decade ago, his only weapon was a radio station. The words he spoke kindled the anger of a frustrated population, and helped turn their homes into a breeding ground for jihad.

Tim Cocks

Dicko denounced his country’s Western-backed government and racketeering police over the airwaves, successfully exploited the people’s conflicts over dwindling land and water resources, fed the frustrations of people angered by corrupt and ineffective government, and in essence launched the country’s first indigenous jihadi movement, Ansarul Islam.

Since then jihadist groups have seized the opportunity to infiltrate Burkina Faso from Mali such that both Al Qaeda (AQ) and Islamic State (IS) now have strong affiliates in the country. Since 2016, the violence has killed more than 1,000 people and displaced nearly 500,000 – most of them this year, in which at least 755 people had died through to October.

Even though Dicko reportedly died of an illness in 2017 his sermons still resonate. In typical Islamist extremism fashion he denounced practices that he deemed un-Islamic, including lavish wedding and naming ceremonies. Despite his handiwork, some former followers now regret their choice. In the words of one:

“We handed them the microphones in our mosques. By the time we realised what they were up to, it was too late.”

Former Ibrahim ‘Malam’ Dicko follower

The response

In response, the United Nations has spent a billion dollars a year since 2014 on a 15,000-strong peacekeeping force in Mali in which almost 200 members have been killed – its deadliest mission ever. France has 4,500 troops stationed across the region. The US has set up drone bases, held annual training exercises and sent 800 troops to the deserts of Niger. Led by France, Western powers have provided funding and training to a regional counter-terrorism force known as G5 Sahel made up of soldiers from Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania.

And still it continues. Most recently 37 people working for a Canadian mining company were killed when jihadis riddled their buses with gunfire. Six other Canadians were among 26 killed in an attack on a luxury hotel in the capital Ougadougou in January 2016.

I am not suggesting that all these deaths can be laid at the feet of preacher Dicko. Terrorism is much more complicated than that. At the same time, however, it is crucial that we do not underestimate the effect of a charismatic religious man on radicalisation to violence. If he had not spewed his poison to his listeners perhaps the problem in Burkina Faso would not be as dire as it is.

Terrorists do not arise in vacuums. Ever. Perhaps the next time you think of terrorism and its causes this phrase may come in handy: ecce homo – in this case homo radicalus.

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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