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    Can potential terrorists be de-radicalized?

    © Belga
    © Belga

    In recent years immigration ghettos in Europe have been turning out home-grown terrorists under the influence of extremist ideologies. Still we do not know what drives some people to commit violent terrorist attacks while the overwhelming majority of people, living under the same conditions, continue to pursue a peaceful live and aspire to become integrated into society. If the explanation is that some young people somehow have become “radicalized”, believing in a jihadist ideology at odds with the mainstream interpretation of their own religion, then what is needed is “deradicalization”, a process intended to erase the wrong radical ideas and make them coming to their senses.

    Radicalization and deradicalization have indeed been the dominant concepts in the discussions in recent years on how to explain and counter the emerging threat of homegrown terrorism in Europe. But this is to oversimplify and confuse the issue according to a recent study by political science professor Rik Coolsaet at Ghent University.

    His study – “All radicalization is local”: the genesis and drawbacks of an elusive concept – was published by Egmont, the Royal Institute for International Relations. He has been involved in EUs expert groups on counter-terrorism and traces the concept of radicalization and its different meanings from the very start.

    The very first commissioned EU report was submitted in 2008 but never published. After that the original expert group never convened any more. In hindsight, wasn’t that a wrong decision?

    “The main difficulty back then was that EU dealt with a problem which clearly was, and still is, largely a member state competence,” professor Coolsaet explains. “The issue of root causes was complex and sensitive. Just like the member states, the Commission wanted to understand what root causes were at play, while refraining from using this term that could be interpreted as justifying terrorist acts. So, they opted for a seemingly more neutral concept: ‘radicalisation’.”

    “Furthermore the Commission realized that it didn’t have any real knowledge about this process. But neither did the member states. Consequently, a group of experts with different background was convened to help the Commission understand what was at hand. As experts we had signed a confidentiality clause not to disclose any sensitive information that we were supposed to receive from EU.”

    “At the end we didn’t receive any information and all data used in the report was our own. So, when the Commission decided for some reason not to publish the report, we felt entitled to publish it on our university websites.”

    Since then it might appear that EU neglected or underestimated the terror threat until the birth of the Islamic State. Europe started to face new terror attacks by homegrown terrorists under the influence of foreign preachers or by jihadists returning from the battle fields in Syria and Iraq.

    But professor Coolsaet thinks this would be a wrong impression. “The European Commission and especially its counter-terrorism coordinator continued to push member states to keep the counter-terrorism issue high on the agenda.”

    Far from all homegrown terrorists grew up in deprived a environment, having encountered discrimination and poverty.  The report states that profiling and social indicators are of little value to predict who will turn to violent extremism. Does it imply that anyone can become a terrorist?

    “What we know for sure is that there is no single driver which makes individuals, both young and old, terrorists,” replies professor Coolsaet. “We also know that religious ideology isn’t the main driver.”

    He refers to a French judge with many years of experience who claims that religious ideology was the driver in only 10 % of the cases – the rest were about personal motives. “So, I wouldn’t call religion the main common denominator of the current wave of foreign fighters.”

    Despite his theoretical reservations against the radicalization concept professor Coolsaet uses it to describe a socialization process in which group dynamics is more important than ideology. How does deradicalization work in practice in such a context?

    Professor Coolsaet underlines that local authorities are in the best position to identify youth in the danger zone. “We already have some good examples of that in Belgium, e.g. in Vilvoorde, where the mayor regularly meets social workers and police to discuss problematic behavior which might lead to radicalization and terrorism or for that matter other deviant behavior.”

    “The authorities then decide on who is the most suitable professional to approach the person in question – it could for example be the teacher, the imam, the police, or the sport instructor. What they want to achieve is disengagement from a path that leads to violence and terrorism. Trying to change a person’s radical ideas by lecturing on them will hardly have a chance to succeed.”

    What about Molenbeek? According to professor Coolsaet, Molenbeek has belatedly started the same type of preventive work but is still lagging behind as regards the cooperation between the local authority and practitioners in the field.

    A source in the European Commission tells The Brussels Times that effective disengagement would also require Arabic speaking interlocutors and should include the prisons which have served as a breeding ground for terrorists.

    Professor Coolsaet adds: “A discussion on religious ideology – what is written in the scriptures and how they should be interpreted in modern times – will likely fail. Those who become terrorists are “doers” – not thinkers. They aren’t traveling to IS because of its ideology but because of its winner’s image and catalogue of opportunities for whoever joins them. However, once there and being exposed to the IS ideology will undoubtedly contribute to solidifying an extreme ideology among the foreign fighters.”

    One important lesson in counter-terrorism is not to merge prevention and law enforcement measures. “It’s not a matter of either or. Both types of measures are necessary,” professor Coolsaet says.

    “Prevention measures are important to change the social context and prevent a new generation of young people from becoming terrorists in the future. These are medium and long term measures and we’ll see their effects in the next 10 years. In the meantime you need of course to strengthen law enforcement in all its aspects.”

    In his paper professor Coolsaet writes there are no one-size-fits-all deradicalisation programmes. “The jury is still out there as regards their added value.”

    Are there really no evaluations of the programmes?

    “Countering radicalization and terrorism is a member state competence,” he replies. “It is up to them to evaluate the programmes. In general, social prevention programmes are difficult to assess because of lack of hard data and straightforward results. Unfortunately no evaluation mechanisms were built into the deradicalization programmes.”

    “In countries like Germany the programmes were delegated to the Länder in cooperation with NGOs but central oversight and common criteria for the work of the NGOs are lacking. The programme in UK met early on suspicion on part of the Muslim community and this clearly hampered the endeavor to evaluate it.”

    Professor Coolsaet participated recently in an academic expert conference in Paris on transnational jihadism “between East and West”. One conclusion from the conference was that more comparative work is needed.

    The discussion in the aftermath of the Brussels attacks indicates that Belgium failed bitterly in both prevention, by better integrating immigrants, and in law-enforcement, by arresting in time the perpetrators many of whom were already on the radar of the authorities. Have other countries been more successful in preventing large-scale terror attacks?

    He is careful in his assessment of Belgium. “What characterized the most recent terrorist attacks, starting with the attack in May 2014 against the Jewish museum in Brussels and followed by the attacks in November 2015 in Paris and the attacks in March in Brussels, was that they were carried out by one French-Belgian network of IS fighters.”

    “This was the most active network ever in the two countries and consisted of many members – too many to keep a constant watch on. Bilaterally Belgium and France have been sharing information. However, no intelligence service with a presence in the IS region received any data that could have prevented the attacks.”

    “Many member states have long been opposed to sharing intelligence information, as promoted by Belgium since 9/11.  The perhaps most important lesson learned from the recent terrorist attacks is that all member states must share intelligence information”, he concludes.

    The European Commission is currently working on a Communication on how to prevent radicalisation. According to sources in the Commission, the main idea is to reactivate the RAN, a radicalisation awareness network which was created already in 2011 and replaced in 2015 by a Centre of Excellence. It remains to be seen if the Communication will come up with any new ideas on how to prevent radicalization and fight terrorism.

    M. Apelblat

    The Brussels Times