In the years since the 9/11 attacks in the United States, counterterrorism experts have had to change their approach to dealing with potential terrorism. Radicalism within Islam had been on the rise for decades prior and has only flourished since. The roots lie within a centuries-old ideological conflict within the religion, with a small minority turning to a more militant and violent expression of the faith. The West has long treated the threats as coming from within Muslim countries. More recently, however, Western governments have now been faced with a new threat: homegrown radicalization.
Believing that radicalism is a staged process beginning with sympathetic feelings towards violent acts, a recent study by Queen Mary University has led researchers in an unexpected direction. The study released in March surveyed more than 600 men and women living in London and Bradford of South Asian Muslim heritage. They measured their sympathy to 16 different acts that are widely considered terrorism, including such things as suicide bombs.
They found that the younger, more educated, and higher-income participants were more likely to express sympathy for violent acts. While a very small portion (about two percent) of those surveyed expressed sympathies, the characteristics of those that did were very surprising. It has been believed that inequality issues were a big cause of homegrown terrorism and these findings seem to refute that. Other stereotypes, including families that didn’t speak English at home or those suffering from depression were actually less likely to support violence.
The study is the latest an ongoing effort to inform early intervention strategies to help stop terrorists before they are created. Most efforts have focused on de-radicalization after capture. This approach has been taken not just with those attracted to the extremes of Islam, but with those who have left other violent organizations such as neo-Nazi groups.
The goal now is to stop radicalization before it starts.
In Germany, a national hotline is paid for and run by the government to help families worried about friends and relatives turning to radical Islam. Desperate family members go to extremes to try to stop a loved one from joining a group or fighting in a conflict. Often, however, families are too late, finding out that their loved one has gone to join “the fight” after leaving a note, never to be seen alive again. Since the hotline was established two years ago, they have received over 900 calls. Families are referred to four organizations within the country that handle individual cases.
Demand is huge and resources are limited. Europe has been at the forefront of preventive rehab for radicalization, with initiatives that include school and job counseling. Another program called Wegweiser, which means signpost in German, was started by Kemal Bozay, the son of a Turkish immigrant in the German city of Bochum. The organization has centers in three cities, and works with the large Islamic communities to prevent radicalization among teenagers. Social workers intervene on soccer fields and playgrounds when they see recruiters trying to talk to the kids. The workers offer solutions to steer them away from fundamentalism.
The one consistent thing amount those that are radicalized is the search for alternatives to their current situation.
The British study and those that have been working with radicalized teens have found a common thread of feeling isolated and a need to define who they are. Many of the extreme versions of Islam often appeal to the children and grandchildren of Muslim immigrants because of the simple black and white answers to life’s problems, and a sense of purpose. The normal angst of being a teenager, including anger and the tendency to not take any injustice lightly, make them vulnerable to recruitment efforts that offer a sense of belonging and community.
For the same reasons some teens turn to drugs, these teens turn to fundamentalism.
It’s with this in mind that groups like Wegwieser are finding such a demand for their services. They are trying to help stop these disaffected youth from making decisions that will forever alter – if not end – their life. There is plenty of opportunity for them to pursue their misguided version of faith and justice. The conflict in Syria is estimated to have had more than 12,000 foreigners involved since the conflict began in 2011. Now Europe is bracing for the return of these well trained rebel fighters to Germany, France, and the Netherlands.
This is why Kemal Bozay, founder of Wegwieser, has decided to focus on a pre-emptive strategy. By working with the community and the families to heal their troubled youth, they hope to prevent their destruction. As he points out, “So far, as a society we’ve only reacted when it was too late.”
Photo via Thinkstock