Radicalization Revisited

Emerging research is prompting us to re-think how we approach CVE. CVE expert Guilain Denoeux asserts that in Jihadism 4.0, the fourth wave of jihadi violence that began in 2012, radicalization dynamics have shifted. Especially in conflict zones and the West, the salience of ideological radicalization has declined. It is no longer accurate to assume a standard radicalization sequence in which individuals start with jihadist ideas and progress to violent behavior. Indeed, the drivers of ideological radicalization may be different from the drivers of behavioral radicalization and the former might not pave the way for the latter. This shift calls for different CVE programming, which we address in this blog post.

In conflict settings, individuals and communities embrace more extremist views and/or engage in more violent behavior as they strive to cope with the breakdown of order and generalized violence that follows it. Large-scale radicalization takes place as a result of the forces unleashed by those crises. In all the war-torn countries that have experienced a surge in VE activity in the past decade (i.e., Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Mali, Iraq), this phenomenon has owed less to pre-existing radicalization dynamics than to the longstanding decay and hollowing out of governmental and political institutions, and to the subsequent breakdown in the state’s capacity to provide for basic governance, security and the regulation of disputes. In these environments, macro-level processes (e.g., Sunni victimization in Iraq) that reflect national-level drivers and geopolitical dynamics tend to play a more salient role in radicalization than individual beliefs.

Recognizing this dynamic has several interrelated implications for practitioners concerned with how to prevent or combat VE in conflict zones. First, CVE efforts should focus on the “upstream” structural factors that cause vulnerability to crisis in the first place. Too much emphasis placed on trying to identify individuals or communities “at risk of being radicalized,” and on seeking to blunt or disrupt relevant individual-level or community-wide “radicalization dynamics,” may come at the expense of necessary attention being given to macro-level interventions. Second, conflict risk assessments along with prevention and mitigation interventions should be front-and-center in CVE programming. Third, the parallel tracks of CVE interventions, conflict programming and democracy/governance assistance must complement and mutually inform each other rather than being viewed as competitors for scarce assistance funds. We must recognize where CVE objectives necessitate doubling down on issues of political inclusion and reform, good governance, anti-corruption, conflict prevention and resolution (both within and between communities), neglected peripheries, and social marginalization.

By contrast, youth marginalization and rebellion drive radicalization in the West. In light of the available evidence, it has become increasingly clear that the majority of jihadists in the West do not use violence because they have been “ideologically radicalized.” The backgrounds of Western jihadists are frequently characterized by criminal activity, violence, drinking, casual sexual liaisons, and a lack of interest in or knowledge of religion and politics. They do not arrive at jihadism through religious study or via a cogent critique of Western policies in Islamic countries. The actual line of causality runs not from religious conversion to jihadism but in the other direction: any interest in Islam recruited youth came to display manifested itself late in the day, after their “conversion” to jihadism.

Instead, marginalized and rebellious youth have an emotional need that violent extremism fulfills: it is this emotional need rather than the ideology that draws them in. Contemporary jihadi culture is, first and foremost, an experiential one. It draws individuals in because of the emotions it satisfies, including the sense of brotherhood and intense communal life it provides. Strictly religious endeavors play a relatively minor role in jihadi culture, which instead revolves around group activities that promote camaraderie and brotherhood. If, as Professor Olivier Roy argues, Western jihadists are rebelling against the status quo of their parents, or as anthropologist Scott Atran suggests, Western youth are drawn to the “thrilling cause” of jihad, we may need to dilute the focus on countering ideology. Conventional CVE programming of counter-narratives and moderate voices do not address these emotions. Just as jihadi recruiters understand the emotional needs of youth rebels, so too must CVE policy makers and implementers. In Western countries where mental health care is a low priority, how to provide the requisite psycho-sociological support needed is easier said than done. The CVE community needs to support youth programming that recognizes the centrality of the search for community and brotherhood among vulnerable youth as well as the quest for adventure, personal significance and recognition.

There is reason to suspect that some of these forces are at work in non-conflict, non-Western settings. The next step would be to research radicalization dynamics in those settings to see if these ideas apply in part or in full.

For more on this topic, please see the full report by Guilain Denoeux.

Blog posts on the MSI website represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of MSI.



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