It continues to surprise – and frustrate – me why the term “self-radicalised” continues to be used in mainstream media, by leading politicians and bureaucrats, and even in academic settings. The term suggests a few things but mainly that people are capable of developing into violent extremists merely through exposure to violent material, usually in an on-line environment, entirely on their own. Through a transformation that is never explained, taking in hour after hour of video, audio and text material extolling the benefits and glory of violent jihad somehow takes otherwise normal people (as well as some who are suffering from a litany of alienation, marginalisatiom, disenfranchisement and on rare occasions mental illness) and recreates them into terrorists.
Except that it doesn’t happen this way, or rather happens that way so rarely as to be inconsequential. What those that use the term ad nauseum fail to understand is that true radicalisation takes place in some kind of social milieu, be it virtual or in the outside world or more frequently in both. The vast majority of people do not have the ability to process the material they are exposed to and need someone to help them fathom what is happening and what they are called to do to right the wrongs visited on Muslims. That someone can come from anywhere: family, friends, spiritual leaders, teachers, on-line contacts, dead ideologues – the list goes on and on.
Another reminder of how radicalisation to violence really unfolds was provided in a New York Times article on the chief radicaliser in Molenbeek. Khalid Zerkani was a Moroccan-born mover and shaker who facilitated radicalisation and foreign travel for untold numbers in Brussels over many years. After sentencing him to 12 years in prison last July for participating in the activities of a terrorist organisation, Belgian judges described him as the “archetype of a seditious mentor” who “spread extremist ideas among naive, fragile and agitated youth”. According to a Belgian prosecutor he has “perverted” an entire generation of youth. This guy was responsible for creating terrorists in his community.
It is impossible to over-emphasise the critical role of radicalisers like Zerkani. They are the ones with the charismatic personality, enough knowledge to make someone else understand what Islam is demanding of believers, connections to get things done and usually savvy to ensure that their activities either remain under the radar of authorities or do not cross criminal thresholds where charges can be laid.
These agents of influence do not have to be devout or model Muslims – that is a fallacy. Many use drugs or drink alcohol or engage in criminal activity. And yet they are religious men (they are almost always men). Religious behaviour and religiosity are not synonymous. Sometimes they co-occur and sometimes they don’t. But radicalisers like Zerkani frame virtually everything they say within the single narrative and Islamic doctrine. For some, becoming violent extremists serves to undo previous un-Islamic conduct. And they don’t have to be highly educated either.
In my experience a radicaliser, or sometimes several, is always present. They may be hard to find but they are there. Increasingly, given the exponential use of social media, they reside on-line, giving advice, answering questions and resolving doubts on FaceBook or Twitter. A beneficial working assumption for those studying violent radicalisation is that there is someone behind the curtain: the absence of such a figure is the exception, not the rule.
Take any case of terrorism and if you study it hard enough you will find the power behind the curtain. And if you don’t you either haven’t looked carefully or you don’t have access to good information (this happens a lot as in many cases the information is classified).
Radicalisers tend to proselytise in the open: that is how they find subjects to spread their venom. Acting in plain sight means that others in the area know exactly who they are and what they are trying to achieve. We need communities to be brave and challenge these purveyors of hate or work with officials to neutralise them. Inaction is not an option.