Violent extremism, although not a new phenomenon, is increasingly recognized as a main challenge of our times. The issue is complex and our usual theoretical premises and assumptions often prove incomplete or deficient. The best way to respond to this global phenomenon as it now presents itself is far from obvious. Yet, inaction would be both foolish and intolerable. The stakes are important and the dangers associated with violent extremism potentially threaten every country or community.
It was against this ominous and foreboding background and amidst feelings of urgency and uncertainty that the Catholic University of Milan, Italian Team for Security, Terrorist Issues & Managing Emergencies, (ITSTIME), in co-operation with the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Egypt, organized a three day Advanced Research Workshop in Milan, in June 2014, on “Countering Violent Extremism among Youth to Prevent Terrorism”. The very timely event was supported by the NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme. The programme aimed, among other things, to facilitate the scientific exchange of validated evidence on how to respond more effectively to the threat of violent extremism-led terrorism. The goal was to enhance the capacity of policy makers and practitioners to design strategies that will achieve verifiable human-rights based counter-violent extremism outcomes.
This book brings together nineteen papers presented and discussed during the workshop by researchers and practitioners from around the world. Some of the evidence presented in the papers remains tentative due to the complexity of the issues and their rapidly evolving nature. The conclusions and findings suggest that continued scientific discussion are needed. The papers add new information to the scientific debate as well as provide innovative ways of addressing violent-extremism and terrorism issues. Readers, whether they are involved in policy development, prevention programme, de-radicalization programmes, or research, will benefit from the papers and the rigorous discussions and debate they reflect.
Papers which offer a more general discussion of the issues and the research to date are presented first. They are followed by a rich set of “notes from the field”, so to speak, that provide timely and useful analyses of the issue as it presents itself in various countries. Published critical information of that nature is still relatively rare and bringing it together in one book will undoubtedly facilitate its analysis and dissemination.
The reader will notice that, even if the workshop initially focussed on a somewhat narrower aspect of violent extremism, terrorism, the papers and the discussion quickly evolved to consider the emerging and puzzling issue of the recruitment of young people to join conflicts and jihads as fighters. This particular aspect of violent extremism was already gaining international attention at the time of the workshop, due in part to the activities of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. That specific situation has since then continued to preoccupy the international community and, in particular, policy makers and security officials in countries in which foreign fighters are recruited and sometimes return. Responses to this particular security threat are rapidly evolving, sometimes in ways that were not totally anticipated during the workshop. There is for example, various attempts to restrain the international movement of these would be fighters and, in some cases, to prevent them from returning to their country of origin. There are of course many unanswered questions about the effects and even potentially detrimental impact of many of these new approaches. However, the reader will find in the following chapters many suggestions which remain as valid as ever.
Protracted political crises and instability are key drivers of violent extremism. Conflicts such as those occurring in MENA countries continue to attract youth from abroad for what they see as a defensive jihad. Foreign fighters and mercenaries who move from one conflict zone to another are also perceived as threat by their own country. In NATO countries, for example, there is a serious worry that returnees from battlefields of the jihad pose a threat in their own country, as they actively recruit other youths and possibly engage them in local terrorist attacks. The exact nature of the threat that these so-called “foreign fighters” actually represents in their country of origin is not yet fully understood. There is an element of panic involved and some fears may be exaggerated. Nonetheless, inaction would come at too high a risk and science must urgently be pressed into service to offer dispassionate analyses to mitigate the risk of violent extremism. In fact, a very recent United Nations Security Council resolution requires Member States to prevent and suppress the recruiting, organizing, transporting or equipping of individuals who travel to a State other than their State of residence or nationality for the purpose of the perpetration, planning or preparation of, or participation in, terrorist acts or the providing or receiving of terrorist training, and the financing of their travel and of their activities.
As expected, part of workshop focused on the causes or drivers of violent extremism and the factors which facilitate the recruitment of youth by violent extremist groups. This important discussion is reflected in many of the following chapters. Real grievances of populations for which extremists claim to speak too often remain unaddressed and unresolved. For example, in the Syrian crisis, young people from more than 80 countries have become involved who are driven by a feeling of injustice, a humanitarian impulse, an ideology or misleading information about the nature of the conflict. In many instances, post-conflict reconciliation and peace building measures proved totally ineffectual and old grievances still provide a way for individuals and groups to rationalize their recourse to violence. In truth, there are many ways in which conflicts, violence, oppression, corruption, the illegitimate and abusive exercise of power, perceived enmities and historical grievances can fuel the indignation of young adults and provide them with a convenient rationalization for violent extremism. Whether this process in rapped in a religious, political or other ideology is often just one of the many variables that must be taken into account.
The need for proactive measures to counter the radicalization of youth has led to several prevention programmes, including many which attempted to craft and communicate effective counter-narratives tailored to weaken and discredit the violent extremist messages and recruitment efforts. The experience to date emphasizes the important role that must be played in that regard by civil society and communities. These initiatives predictably had varying and sometimes disappointing results, but the reader will find in the present collection of papers quite a few suggestions about how to improve existing approaches. At the same time, the workshop served to emphasize the pressing need for systematic evaluations of the impact of prevention measures, including their potential detrimental and unintended effects on individuals and communities.
Collectively, participants in the workshop acknowledged that there is a risk of growing Islamophobia in some West- and Central European countries facing immediate threats. They also deplored the vast amount of improvisation which has all too often led to problematic policies and, in some instances, have unnecessarily stigmatized whole communities. The collateral damages resulting from ill-advised counter-radicalization policies must absolutely be avoided since they tend to turn into additional sources of grievance and drivers of radical extremism.
In the first chapter, Emilio Viano directly launches the discussion by asking whether a balanced response to violence extremism is even possible. He offers a critique of the response of Western countries to the violent extremist threat in general and more specifically to the problem of the recruitment of new followers by extremist groups. The author warns against the errors, excesses and missteps that not only hinders prevention efforts, but also makes them counterproductive.
In the same vein, a paper by Vivienne Chin on the collateral damage of counter-terrorism measures deplores the fact that too little attention is given to the unintended consequences of counter-radicalization and counter-terrorism measures on various vulnerable groups. This, she argues, is partly the result of a tendency to look at terrorism and violent extremism predominantly as a national security rather than a human security issue. She asks whether the further marginalization and stigmatization of vulnerable groups is an inevitable consequence of our prevention measures. Her paper considers some of the available research on effective strategies, including broad inclusion programmes, to protect and support vulnerable groups whose youth is at a higher risk of being indoctrinated and recruited by violent extremists.
The theme of social inclusion is taken up again by Yvon Dandurand in his paper on social inclusion programmes for youth as a means to prevent violent extremism. He explores the possible applications of evidence-based gang recruitment prevention, gang desistence and youth inclusion programmes to prevent violent extremism and break the pathways to crime and violence. He argues that the focus of prevention efforts should be on the recruitment process rather than on the radicalization aspect. He asks whether extremist violent ideologies are not most often adopted as a consequence rather than as a precursor to joining an extremist or criminal group.
On the question of recruitment, Louise Shelley discusses how youth who live in an environment with extremely high levels of corruption are particularly vulnerable to recruitment into violent extremism. She notes how terrorists make use of an anti-corruption discourse for recruitment purposes, particularly in countries with the poorest ratings in the Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International. Corruption provides an incubator for both organized crime and terrorism, as it is at the core of failed economic development, widening economic disparity and political injustices.
Valerio de Divitiis, in his paper on the promises of the concept of human security as a means to address the terrorism-related threats, suggests that a commitment to human rights and broad human security objectives is the most promising basis upon which to attempt to prevent the recruitment and radicalization of vulnerable segments of the population. The direct relevance to terrorism prevention of the human dimension of security is becoming increasingly clear. He argues that proactive and constructive measures are necessary to immunize certain segments of society against the appeal of violent extremism.
Alessandro Burato also offers a discussion of a broad approach to prevention of violent radicalization. His paper discusses the applicability of a crisis management model to the prevention of violence, radicalization, extremism and terrorism. It emphasizes the crucial importance of risk communication in broadening our approaches and providing a basis for crisis management and more effective prevention strategies.
In recent years, policy-makers and academics in the West have focused on the need to provide an effective counter-narrative to the global jihadist movement. At the same time, Many Muslim interventionists working in de-radicalization programmes in community and custodial environments believe that challenging the perceived religious authenticity of the global jihad narrative is integral to their work. A paper by Hannah Stuart focuses on the ideological drivers behind the jihadist worldview and narrative. Jihadist groups claim that their violent actions are supported within the four traditional schools of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence, and that Islam itself mandates a jihadist view of scripture. Stuart's paper counters their theological claims by demonstrating that their arguments are not based on traditionally recognised interpretations of Islamic sources and are antithetical to the normative values displayed within classical Sunni jurisprudence.
The following two chapters focus on regional analyses of the phenomenon. The first one, by Marco Lombardi of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, in Milan, offers a discussion of the conflicting situation that the Euro-Mediterranean region is facing with the Islamic world. That development, he suggests, requires greater attention. The author engages the reader in a discussion of the paths to radicalization in their historic context. The political background and, in particular, the limits impose on political expression have contributed to that path. The situation in the region is a complex one and, to date, responses to the growing radicalization of certain individuals and their aggressive recruitment into extremist groups have largely remained ineffectual. The second chapter, by Eman Ragab of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Egypt, examines the challenges of countering terrorism in the Middle East after the Arab Revolutions. The Arab Spring, she observes, has transformed the nature of the threat and generated new patterns of terrorism. Regional cooperation in the fight against extremist violence and terrorism is more important than ever. Her paper outlines three main challenges confronting regional cooperation in the Middle East and argues in favour of strengthened regional cooperation mechanisms.
Mark Sedgwick assesses the success of a popular counter-radicalization strategy which essentially consisted of supporting Sufis as alternatives to Salafis. Four concrete examples are considered by Sedgwick who concludes that the approach has generally been unsuccessful.
Daniel Koehler, of the Institute for the Study of Radical Movements, explores the theoretical background and state of research in regard to de-radicalization and disengagement programmes as counter-terrorism and prevention tools against violent radicalization leading to terrorism. He discusses how the theory might work in practice and offers some insights gathered from two of the world's most successful programmes and: EXIT-Germany (counselling highly radicalized individuals wanting to leave the German extreme right-wing scene) and HAYAT (a German family counselling programme for the relatives of Jihadists and Foreign Fighters, as well as of individuals on the path of non-violent radicalization).
Ivo Veenkamp and Sara Zeiger, of Hedayah, the International Center of Excellence for Countering Violent Extremism (Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates) note how the focus of international and national strategies for countering terrorism in the past decade has shifted from using hard security measures alone to combat terrorism, to a more multi-sectoral, comprehensive approach, which also includes more preventive strategies known as countering violent extremism. They explain that current programs and policies that are emerging both out of the United Nations, the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum, Hedayah and the broader international community are based on an established basic methodology which first identifies push and pull factors that lead to recruitment or radicalization into violent extremism, and then designs interventions that specifically eliminate these root causes. Their paper describes programs delivered through formal educational institutions, as well as programs that build community resilience. It offers recommendations on how to make these programs more effective.
Rovshan Ibrahimov reflects on the impact of the participation of Azerbaijani citizens in conflicts in Syria and Iraq. He notes that this impact on the community has, at least to this point, remained relatively marginal. However, he also raises concerns about the potential longer-term radicalization effect of this development in Azerbaijan. Siddik Ekici, of the Turkish National Police, is concerned by the threat of violent extremism in Turkey and reflects on the Turkish experience of terrorism as a case study. This is an opportunity for him to review some of the strategies deployed by the police to prevent youth engagement in violent extremism. Kamil Yilmaz, from the International Center for Terrorism and Transnational Crime (UTSAM), observes that the Syrian civil war created conditions that are conducive to radicalization. The conflict actually acts as a gravitational force for foreign fighters. He reflects on the effects of the prolonged Syrian crisis and on how limited the available options for its impact are. Christian Barna also refers to the Syrian crisis and considers its impact on Romania. His paper describes how known supported of Al-Qaeda-aligned groups in Syria are recruiting in Romania. The paper reflects on how social media intelligence is being used to counter the radicalization of young Muslims in that country. Yani Kozaliev focuses on radicalism and extremist violence in the Balkan region, in particular in Bulgaria. His paper examines the case of al Wakf al Islami, a group which was actively recruiting and encouraging violent extremism among young Bulgarian Muslims.
Part of the discussions during the workshop focused on the role and experience of the police in preventing violent extremism and implementing counter radicalization initiatives. A detailed description of relevant community policing initiatives in Turkey is offered by M. Alper Sozer, Ali Sevinc and Suleyman Ozeren of that country's National Police Academy. They also relate the findings of a survey of police officers' attitude with respect to such initiatives.
The book closes with a fascinating qualitative study of children from the West Bank, Occupied Palestinian Territories. The paper by Guido Veronese, Alessandro Pepe and Marco Castiglioni presents recent research and the authors' own findings on children agency and activism in the Shadow of “PTSD Industry”. The study it describes aimed to identify domains of wellbeing that contribute in helping children to cope with violence and insecurity.
This collection of papers will contribute directly to building a capacity to prevent radical violent extremism. Nonetheless, the discussion that took place during the Milan workshop is not over yet and more systematic research is needed before final conclusions are reached. The recruitment of foreign fighters and its potential impact on public safety in the country they come from is also emerging as a complex issue which is now at the forefront of international preoccupations. It requires strategic thinking and more of the kind of clear analyses that are exemplified in this book. The research exchanges on these global challenges suggest the need for continued discussions among practitioners and regular updates on the progress of related research.