A truly astonishing statement came out of a recent OSCE conference on countering terrorism hosted by Germany. Astonishing not for its insight but for the fact that it was made in 2016. Here is what happened, according to a report in Deutsche Welle:
- For a long time, there was an assumption that the internet was increasingly to blame for radicalization, (German Interior Minister Thomas) de Maizière said. But now, he pointed out that it’s clear that “people are always the trigger.” The internet can, however, speed up the radicalization process.
What is startling to me is the older assumption noted above: the mistaken theory that once prevailed that technology was more important than people in the radicalisation process. This myth has been all too prevalent and the German Minister’s words notwithstanding it will not go away any time soon. That it had to be put to rest after decades of research is not a good sign: bad analysis leads to bad policy. For the information of Mr. de Maizière, true experts have always known that people were the key.
Where this bogus theory came from is anyone’s guess. I have heard it repeated by many, ranging from researchers to senior government officials. What is telling is that this mantra is produced with little – or more usually no – supporting data. It seems as if the notion miraculously became collected wisdom and was accepted with little argument. I know that I have spent over a decade trying to correct this error with the obvious limited impact.
Tied to the conviction that the Internet radicalises people, as if the Internet is a rational actor, is the equally inaccurate use of the term “self-radicalisation”. I can only assume under this interpretation of radicalisation that some think a person can passively tune in through the Internet to violent extremist Web sites and through an interminable stream of text, video and audio somehow come out as a terrorist. That would be a fascinating process to study if it were true, save that it isn’t. In my 15 years at CSIS I came across nary a case of “self-radicalised, Internet-driven” violent extremism. Not one.
The takeaway here is that while the Internet and social media are playing increasingly important roles in the radicalisation pathway of any given individual, especially in the West – how could they not given both the ubiquity of and people’s obsession with these media – it all comes down to personal interaction. Even if a person’s transformation takes place largely in the virtual world it is still dependent to a very large degree on exchanges with like-minded fellow travelers. There are few exceptions, if any, to this process. So can we stop speaking of violent extremism in these mistaken terms please?
As an aside, another problem that also does not seem to be going away is the proliferation of conferences to talk about terrorism, like the one at the OSCE. It is not an exaggeration to say that an interested observer could attend a gathering charged with discussing violent extremism, radicalisation, narratives, counter narratives, de-radicalisation or any other related topic somewhere in the world on any given day. Undoubtedly something new or something of value comes out of these symposia but we really need to start doing more and talking less. Yes, we can always learn more but the state of the problem demands action now. Our knowledge base is robust enough based on existing academic work and the wealth of experience that our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies hold to justify trying a number of strategies, learning what works, making adjustments, measuring our progress and getting on with it. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, “do-do is better than jaw-jaw”.
To sum up I remember a TV ad by the old Hamilton-based steel firm Dofasco that went: “Our product is steel but our strength is people.” An important reminder of how radicalisation really works.