New perspectives in the fight against radicalisation: which preventive responses?

by Lara Stoppini · July 24th, 2018.

In recent years, 'jihadist terrorism' has become a transcontinental threat; there are multiple causes. The combination of unresolved political disputes and underdevelopment is a breeding ground for radicalisation and terrorism. This context has inspired important reforms in National Security System governance by political authorities.

The terms ‘radicalisation’ and ‘terrorism’ are very closely linked. It is nevertheless necessary to distinguish them, as an individual adhering to a radical ideology does not inevitably lead to them committing a violent act. Indeed, not all radicals are terrorists. Radicalisation is the process of the gradual adoption of rigid thinking that demands radical change in society by means that threaten democratic structures and institutions. It should be noted that at the international level, the United Nations does not propose a clear common definition. This may be explained by the historical will of States to maintain a form of flexibility in the management of these issues.

The expansion of this phenomenon has therefore seen that for the authorities who have invested a lot of resources, radicalisation has gradually become part of the security agenda. However, governments are gradually becoming aware that a response based solely on ‘hard power’ is proving insufficient over time. Since it is impossible to secure everything and ensure zero risk, more security may even favour radicalisation, because of its tendency to stigmatise and marginalise certain individuals. Thus, a strong political will now advocates the development of a preventive approach in the fight against terrorism, namely to provide a continuous response over the long term and to conceive the problem as a whole.

Many experts have examined the drivers of radicalisation. Radicalisation takes root in a breeding ground conducive to its development, consisting of external and internal factors. In the literature there is a wide range of causes. On the one hand, there are what are called external factors or the structural context, such as economic and social marginalisation, the failure of governance, human rights violations or the abuse of the state and security forces. On the other hand there are internal factors, namely more personal motivations, such as frustration, unemployment or lack of opportunity. This non-exhaustive list does not imply that each factor is a necessary "signal" of radicalisation leading to violent extremism, since it is a phenomenon which, in addition to not being linear, depends on multiple factors.

Despite this, governments and security agencies have been particularly interested in finding models to identify early warning signs and the stages of behaviour change. The actors in charge of the fight against radicalisation have also sought to identify a typical profile of a radicalised individual who is potentially on a path to violence. However, it appears from the literature that there are none. Despite this, there are certainly similarities between individuals, such as being second or third generation immigrants.  Nevertheless, the profiles of individuals captured by this phenomenon diverge and evolve, making it difficult for researchers to draw up a standard profile.

These models, which categorise a complex mechanism in a relatively simple way, are nevertheless very well received by security agencies, who are delighted to be able to put specific descriptions on vague concepts. Radicalisation is a mental process that is difficult to detect and delimit, which is why there is no obvious process of causality, making it difficult to articulate coherent programmatic and political responses.

Thus, to address a phenomenon that is not fully understood, it is essential to adopt a preventive perspective. Prevention combines both certain security policy principles, such as surveillance, and policies for community integration and cohesion. Of course, preventive measures are difficult to evaluate and have a less visible impact than downstream safety measures. It is nevertheless necessary to consider them in order to act upstream of the process. In order to put preventive measures in place, it is a question of conceiving the problem as a whole in order to envisage the disengagement from violence. In other words:

  1. Take into account all parameters of society such as unemployment, dysfunction of the education system or social exclusion. In other words, tackle the root causes, such as ghettoization.
  2. Design policies with a wide range of government agencies and non-government stakeholders. In addition, involve women and youth early in the process.
  3. Consult and build trust with all community sectors to identify the specific challenges they face and the solutions they offer to address them.
  4. Encourage greater sharing of good practices and lessons learned between countries.

Since the radicalisation process is not linear, preventing it is a difficult task. It can occur in different places and people likely to take this path are difficult to identify. In addition, any prevention policy can also potentially increase stigma against a certain community. This is partly why cooperation in this field, including security and political actors as well as civil society, is necessary.

Security sector reform also provides a framework and a systematic approach to help reduce some of the drivers of radicalisation. It allows, among other things, to support a holistic, participatory and inclusive vision of all actors. In this sense, it can assess security and justice institutions in order to contribute to their transparency and integrity, which, if they fail, is one of the main drivers of radicalisation.

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