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Understanding radicalisation – Constructing counter-narratives to tackle terror

19 Jul 2015

Understanding radicalisation – Constructing counter-narratives to tackle terror

19 Jul 2015

On 13 June a group of Daesh/Islamic State (Daesh) suicide bombers delivered a deadly attack near the city of Baji in the Salahuddin province of Iraq.  A four-strong terrorist cell killed eleven people in two separate explosions as they detonated bombs placed in their vehicles at an oil refinery. One of the bombers was 17 year old Talha Asmal, who had travelled thousands of miles from his home town in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire in England to join and fight alongside Daesh.  Talha was described by his school teacher as a “conscientious student”.  His family, utterly devastated and heartbroken by the loss of their son, said: “Talha was a loving, kind, caring and affable teenager”, going on to suggest that he had been: “exploited by persons unknown who were hiding behind the anonymity of the World Wide Web.”

In committing his act of martyrdom in support of the Daesh cause, Talha has become the youngest British suicide bomber. Talha followed in the footsteps of more than 500 British citizens, believed to have left the UK to take up arms with Daesh in either Iraq or Syria.  The security concerns in the UK surrounding the radicalisation and recruitment of citizens who join Daesh are shared across many nations throughout the world.  Recent estimations suggest that 40% of the 30,000 Daesh fighters are foreign, many of them travelling from European Member States whose citizens are being influenced by the extreme narratives promoted by the violent extremist movement.

The narrative propagated by Daesh recruiters, when combined with a complex malaise of social and economic factors, is manipulating individuals towards adopting extremist perspectives, cultivating a foreign-fighter terrorist threat which presents a clear and present danger to the international community.   Understanding how and why people move towards extremist perspectives, and communicating an effective counter-narrative to prevent them adopting such views, remains the key challenge in preventing the radicalisation and recruitment of citizens to terrorist groups.

Radicalisation factors

Being able to define ‘radicalisation’ is an important step in understanding the phenomenon but a single national or internationally recognised definition has proved a challenge to multi-disciplinary academic scholars and operational practitioners.  That being said, there are many definitions of radicalisation that are used throughout the world today to support government and academic understanding. Collectively, these definitions provide a useful framework to identify the core characteristics and attributes of radicalisation. From these definitions the common themes which emerge indicate that radicalisation is a way in which an individual comes to adopt increasingly extreme views, leading to the active willingness to support or use violence in pursuit of a cause which is contrary to, and outside the norms of, civil societal laws and values.

It is widely acknowledged that nobody suddenly wakes up in the morning and decides that they are going to make a bomb. Likewise no one is born a terrorist. Conceptualisations of radicalisation have increasingly recognised that becoming involved in violent extremism is a process: it does not happen all at once.[1]  Similarly, the idea that extremists adhere to a specific psychological profile has been abandoned, as has the view that there may be clear profiles to predict who will follow the entire trajectory of radicalisation development.[2] Instead, empirical work has identified a wide range of potential ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors leading to (or away from) radicalisation. These include not only politics, religion, race and ideology, the very core motivations of terrorism, but may also include elements of a sense of grievance or injustice. It is important to recognise that terrorist groups may fulfil important needs for an individual: they give a clear sense of identity, a strong sense of belonging to a group, the belief that the person is doing something important and meaningful, and also a sense of danger and excitement.[3] For some individuals, and particularly young men, these are very attractive factors.

A further common factor arising from the study of radicalisation processes, suggests that those individuals deemed to be vulnerable and potentially at risk of radicalisation share a widely held sense of injustice.  The exact nature of this perception of injustice varies with respect to the underlying motivation for violence, but the effects are highly similar.[4] Personal attitudes such as strong political views against government domestic or foreign policies regarding conflicts at home or overseas can also play an important role in creating initial vulnerabilities.

Social networks

Of critical importance to the understanding of radicalization are the lessons being learned from convicted terrorists detained in prison. When combined with interviews of extremists returning from theatres of conflict and those arrested for suspected involvement in terrorist activities, we have come to learn that people are often socialized into extremist activity leading to a gradual deepening of their involvement over time. Radicalization is thus a social process, which requires an environment that enables and supports a growing commitment. The process of radicalization begins when these enabling environments intersect with personal ‘trajectories’, allowing the causes of radicalism to resonate with the individual’s personal experience.[5]

Some of the key elements in the radicalization process are directly related to the social network of the individual, for example, who the person is spending time with, and who their friends are, whether this activity and interaction is in the physical or cyber world.  We have also come to understand that no single radicalization ‘push’ or ‘pull’ factor predominates. The catalyst for any given individual developing extremist views will more likely be a combination of different factors, which makes prediction with any certainty a challenging task. The manifestation of individual radicalisation factors may be subtle, resulting in very weak signs and indicators of radicalization development, while other factors may be more visible. Identifying these factors remains the key to the early prevention of terrorism but it is a challenge amplified by the increasingly sophisticated use of the Internet by cyber savvy extremists.


Preventing the radicalisation of individuals must now include measures to safeguard the online community from all manner of terrorist threats.  The Internet has become a dark web of hazards for those citizens vulnerable to the rhetoric and propaganda of terrorist groups. Citizens from across the world, including men, women and teenage children, continue to be attracted by the ideology of Daesh, coerced by a sophisticated online recruitment campaign which exploits the World Wide Web. It is true that the internet has changed – and continues to change – the very nature of terrorism, and the online media machine of Daesh is currently winning the online battle for hearts and minds.

Daesh have embraced the freedom provided by the Internet which is well suited to the nature of terrorism and the psyche of the terrorist. In particular, the Internet provides Daesh with the ability to remain anonymous making it attractive to the terrorist plotter. Terrorists also use the internet to propagate their ideologies, motives and grievances but the most powerful and alarming change for modern terrorism has been its effectiveness for attracting new terrorist recruits – very often the young and most vulnerable and impressionable in our societies.

Recognising the need to counter the increasing success of Daesh, and to stem the flow of foreign fighters from Europe to Iraq and Syria, the European Commission has established the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN), created to increase knowledge and understanding of radicalisation across European Member States. A specific goal has been to empower practitioners such as police officers, to be able to deliver more effective counter-narrative messaging to challenge terrorist propaganda. The counter-narrative efforts of RAN have already brought together practitioners who work with radicalised individuals or those individuals within communities who are perceived to be at risk of radicalisation.  From their network of practitioners, RAN have revealed that short and concise videos on specific topics work best to counter extremist narratives, and that a mix of theological, rhetorical and intellectual content can engage and maintain user interest in hard to reach subjects. But of real practical value to police officers and policy-makers are the main lessons RAN have learned from existing counter-narrative campaigning and advertising which they have used to create a six-point plan.  This counter-narrative checklist provides much needed guidance and support to practitioners, encouraging them to develop their own, localised counter-narrative programmes by including the following steps;

  1. Define your target audience:The first step for planning a successful counter-narrative campaign is to think carefully about who is your message going to target and to define the target audience accordingly.
  2. Learn what motivates your target audience and how they behave online:In defining what could potentially be the interests of your target audience you should be able to hypothesise how they behave online.
  3. Tailor a bespoke message for each segment of your audience:The aim is to communicate to your target audience and any subset segments of that audience in a message that represents them and what they will relate to.
  4. Use relevant advertising channels:Carefully consider which advertising platform, or combination of platforms, will best serve your dissemination to reach the greatest number of your intended target audience.
  5. Set goals before launching campaigns:A key part of your planning is to define identifiable goals. This shall require increased familiarity with online metrics such as Impressions, Clicks, Video Views, Likes, Comments and Shares etc.
  6. Track progress, optimise and iterate:Once the campaign is launched, track progress identifying areas of development to constantly improve the campaigns impact and performance[6]

The six-point plan provides all in authority with a framework to design, develop and deliver an effective counter-narrative campaign, targeted to a specific audience to tackle radicalization. Learning from RAN will be of great interest and importance to law enforcement agencies across the world who are seeking new ways in which to prevent terrorism.  A huge appetite remains amongst police officers working in communities across the world for credible, consistent and creative counter-extremist messaging tools and techniques.  This urgent requirement highlights a vulnerability gap in the operational capabilities of law enforcement agencies to prevent terrorism and violent extremism. Bridging this gap must be a priority for any counter-terrorism programme but law enforcement agencies across the world continue to have limited access to effective tools to counter the extreme and violent narrative propagated by terrorist recruiters. To defeat terrorism in the longer term, and to prevent the radicalization and recruitment of vulnerable individuals to Daesh, more must be done to better understand the process of radicalisation leading to the development of increasingly effective counter-narratives.

[1] Andrew Silke, Terrorism: All that Matters (London: Hodder and Stoughtan, 2014).

[2] Alex Stedmon and Glyn Lawson, Hostile Intent and Counter-Terrorism: Human Factors Theory and Application (Surrey: Ashgate, 2015).

[3] Babak Akhgar and Hamid Arabina, eds. Emerging Trends in ICT Security (London: Elsevier, 2014).

[4] Silke, Terrorism: All that matters (2014).

[5] Silke, Terrorism: All that matters (2014).

[6] European Commission Racialization Awareness Network, Working Group Report: Training on online Counter-narratives (Brussels: European Commission, 2015).

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