What we get wrong about radicalisation

European ISIL recruits and foiled jihadi plots – what counterterror policies are missing.

Alienation and social isolation are key factors in understanding how some young people become drawn to extremism, writes Shabi [AFP]

The conviction days ago in the UK, of a 19-year-old man found guilty of plotting to behead a British soldier, sent shockwaves across the country. And one of the key components of that shock, in the case of Brusthom Ziamani, who recently converted to Islam, is the speed at which he was radicalised.

Months ago he was watching Hollywood movies and posting about Parkour on social media; then Ziamani started lionising the killers of British soldier Lee Rigby, in 2012, and was caught last summer, carrying a hammer, knife and “Islamic flag”, apparently on the way to attacking a soldier. British police have described the foiled plot as the most serious since the foundation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Ziamani’s conviction comes within weeks of deadly “lone wolf” attacks across Europe – most recently in Copenhagen and Paris earlier this year. Security chiefs have been warning about the dangers of lone wolf terror, saying that it is “only a matter of time” before a similar attack happens in the UK.

Remote radicalisation

Perhaps in part because security operations have grown more successful at disrupting the terror plots of organised groups, the lone attack – radicalised by remote – has become much more of a concern.

Inside Story – What’s behind religious radicalism?

Meanwhile, ISIL has been actively calling for such measures. In mid-January, a video was released by the group, urging followers in Europe to attack civilians: “Resist with all means, kill them, slaughter them, burn their cars and homes.”

And last week’s sickening slaughter of 21 Christian Egyptians by ISIL in Libya revealed that the group now has a franchise in that country, too. ISIL soon announced plans to use Libya as a “gateway” from which violent jihadis could launch deadly attacks on Europe.

What’s immediately apparent, from the details revealed of Ziamani’s radicalisation, is that he was a target for violent jihadis to prey upon: His Jehovah’s Witness parents threw him out of the house following his conversion to Islam, leaving him homeless and vulnerable.

Counterterror experts – in particular those actively engaged in social and community work at the grassroots level – have long said that alienation and social isolation, being overlooked by and not having a stake in society are key factors in understanding how some young people become drawn to the terrifying, violent purpose and agency of murderous extremism. Not everyone who experiences those things will turn to violence – of course – but it does seem to be a precondition.

The lure of ISIL

Dean Obeidallah, who attended last week’s White House summit on countering violent extremism, wrote that the most common theme talked about was: “The lure of ISIL and al-Qaeda is to offer people on the fringes of society an opportunity to be a part of something.”

He added that groups such as ISIL are adept at preying on “economically disadvantaged and marginalised, offering them self worth, similar to gangs”.

The piece also suggests that the critically celebrated film, the Battle of Algiers, about the Algerian insurgency against French colonial rule, is now being cited in these circles because it raises a crucial theme: ISIL, like the Algerian National Liberation Front, which engaged in terror attacks against the French, actually seeks to provoke harsh crackdowns, retaliations and Islamophobia after terror strikes upon Europe. The marginalisation and anger that follows any anti-Muslim backlash can be used as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that the West hates Islam, and must be fought.

The marginalisation and anger that follows any anti-Muslim backlash can be used as a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy that the West hates Islam, and must be fought.


This is one of many reasons why such measures – including heavy-handed, racially-profiled surveillance and micro-monitoring of Muslims – are counterproductive.

Another, suggested by several community workers and counter-extremism analysts I have spoken with in the past, is that security forces actually need to develop trust, not antagonism, with communities.

When I spoke with Arun Kundani, author of “The Muslims Are Coming!” – a critique of counter-radicalisation strategies, in September last year, he said: “The danger here is that you end up losing human intel because you’ve demonised the whole community. Rather than be seen as a potential source of useful information, the whole community is criminalised instead.”

Extremism is not a “Muslim community” issue – it is a problem that must be shouldered and countered by all of us, if deradicalisation is to be effective.

Meanwhile, it’s clear that ISIL has been using the internet and social media to aggressively recruit to its death cult – using all the tools available, while governments have not been so fast and able to put together an effective counter-narrative that can permeate online.

But what’s also emerging from the Ziamani case is that security services are still welded to using old and long-discredited policies. Britain’s Scotland Yard, the force responsible for policing London, has said that it tried three times to enter the now convicted Ziamani into its “Prevent” deradicalisation programme – and he refused.

The trouble is that Prevent has for some time been a source of resentment, seen as a surveillance programme for Muslims, as opposed to a genuine attempt to try and counter radicalisation. It also shines an invasive spotlight on people who hold political views while being Muslim; making it impossible to critique foreign policy in the Middle East without being perceived as a potential terrorist. This, again, creates dangerous conditions – if these valid criticisms can’t be made openly, where are they to go?

In the UK, there has been a tendency to take suggestions to deradicalise and reintegrate returning jihadi fighters – some 500 Brits are thought currently to be fighting in Syria and Iraq – as somehow being a soft touch. The current coalition government favours more draconian measures, such as banning re-entry to Britain or removing people’s citizenship (which is a breach of human rights). But there is much to be learned from other European countries – such as Denmark, which, after Belgium, has proportionally the highest number of citizens who have joined ISIL, and has taken a reintegration approach.

This incorporates a criminal justice element – suspected crimes are investigated and prosecuted if necessary – and has been successful not only in rehabilitating former jihadis, but also using those individuals as a valuable resource to help deter other potential wannabe fighters.

For years now, community workers in the UK have tried to advise the government and have wanted to be consulted or more engaged in this increasingly urgent challenge of preventing violent extremist radicalisation. But so far, it just doesn’t seem to be happening. 

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.