International Security Expo: Lessons on the Prevent duty

Do you think that the definition and understanding of ‘extremism’ is helping or hindering efforts to prevent home-grown radicalisation?

I think ‘extremism’ is a useful term in the abstract, so that academics and level policy-makers can categorise and understand the ‘phenomenon’. It is so important to clearly understand what is being referred to when we use a particular term, especially in regard to terrorism and counter terrorism. Academics and policy makers have for years tried to come to a consensus understanding of what ‘terrorism’ means, with limited success. Each country has its own very legalistic definitions, which have some areas of commonality but just as many divergences. Do you include state actors when you are describing terrorism? Does it only relate to violence or to the threat of violence also, and are these responded to in the criminal justice system in the same way? These are just a few of examples of the problems that come up and the development of appropriate answers to these questions is not an arbitrary process; the responses to terrorist activity is guided and driven by the understanding gleaned from these terms.

So ‘extremism’ has become the new challenge in this area. It is a hotly contested term, and many feel that the UK government has not clearly outlined what it means by the term. The risk of human rights abuses is significant if clarity of what ‘extremism’ means cannot be reached. So, I think it is essential to outline a clear and precise definition of what ‘extremism’ means and who exactly can be considered to be an ‘extremist’.

That being said, I don’t believe that a solution will come about any time soon, given the challenges with the term ‘terrorism’. I don’t believe that it is hindering efforts to prevent home-grown radicalisation, but this is where the crux of the matter lies – the differences between those who are working on this understanding and those who are being communicated with (the public). I believe that it is essential that policy-makers and academics understand the changing landscape of terrorism, and controversial terms such as ‘extremism’ and ‘radicalisation’, because they are subjective, and result in more heated debate. The public, usually through the media, receive a perception of chaos from these debates, but this is the process of understanding a highly complex and challenging problem. Every effort to understand these terms, from the perspective of academics and policy-makers, is, in my view, worthwhile and important.

However, it is equally important to understand the public’s view on these issues. I don’t doubt that the public considers the ongoing debate on terminology as pointless or detracting from the real issues. And this is understandable. People do struggle to understand the term ‘extremism’ and because it is not related to an action, but rather a state, it becomes one more concept that most people may never fully understand. This means that misperception and heightened tensions can absolutely result. And I believe many experts would agree that this perceived ‘obsession’ with definitions is not going to get the job done. But I consider it essential in understanding the complexity of the issue. On one level, you have the person who leaves their house on a given morning with a backpack loaded with explosives and decides to blow themselves up in a crowded place – that is the worst case scenario and one extreme end of the scale. On the other end of the scale, you have individuals who may or may not move into the realm of committing a violent terrorist attack, but who nonetheless enable an attack to take place. This level is that of the extremist, who dances within the law, but enables others to carry out the criminal act of terrorism itself. And the results of the activities of this so-called ‘extremist’ may not be immediate; they may take as little as days or may take as long as years to develop. So, governments are struggling to address this end of the scale. And this is why we are seeing ‘new’ terminology develop and seeing the heated debates arise because of the subjective and complex nature of the issues.

You have previously stated that: 'Until we can assess why people become radicalised, what motivates them to take the next step into criminality and what leads them to fight for a cause on distant territories, we will not be able to completely negate the radicalisation process’. Can you expand upon this?

Of course. To be honest, I think it sounds nice and neat when we make statements like this, but as is often the case, in reality it is very challenging. Ultimately, I think it is always the case that in order to address an issue, you first need to understand the issue as fully as possible. Questions such as what are the pull and push factors which set individuals along the path of radicalisation? In an effort to understand the process, academics and practitioners have used the pyramid model, where the broad base contains all of those who may have extreme political views but would never act on them and the pointed top represents those very few individuals who actually commit a terrorist act. All the way up the pyramid are different steps that a person could take which would move them closer to the top and to carrying out a terrorist act.

So, the challenge becomes at what point to you intervene? To respond appropriately to this question, you need to understand what makes someone go from reading content online (the base), to communicating with others on the topic, to organising and planning an event, to actually leaving their house and committing a terrorist act (the tip)? And, of course, the biggest challenge in that is that everything up until the terrorist act itself is not necessarily a crime and is certainly not easy to prove in a court process. The criminal justice process in the UK applies to acts of terrorism – there is no special terrorist court or process – and this means that clear evidence needs to be provided in order to get a conviction. However, much of the information obtained prior to an act of terrorism being carried out is part of a much wider intelligence picture, a significant proportion of which cannot be presented in a trial. Therefore, it becomes extremely challenging to prosecute successfully.

So instead, we need to understand each step, and what impacted on each individual at each step of the process of radicalisation. Because the same issues are not going to impact everyone in the same way all of the time. ‘Radicalisation’, whether you agree with the use of the term or not, has been around for as long as human history, it is just that it has been called different names. I think the main challenge is in identifying where and when the changes are taking place. And this relates to changes in understanding the term itself, the process and the range of causes behind that process. Al Qaeda played such a big part in our understanding of terrorism and the radicalisation process for a considerable portion of the beginning of this century. When Daesh came to the West’s attention, we started to see a younger organisation take a different path to its ‘rival’ or ‘predecessor’ (depending on your view). By tapping into the new technologies which have developed over the past decade, Daesh has succeeded in spreading its message on an even wider platform than Al Qaeda, and encouraging individuals around the world to carry out attacks in their own countries, without necessarily collaborating with others and through methods that cannot easily be identified in advance of an attack. So, we can’t easily look back on academic articles from the 1980s and the 1990s, although clearly they have something to contribute, because they can’t easily answer to technologies and communication systems that were not in existence at the time of writing. This is what makes studying radicalisation particularly difficult, and while there are of course elements of commonality over time such as political grievances and revenge, there is a different understanding of the world than existed before the technology revolution that has impacted both terrorism and counter-terrorism measures.

So, understanding the radicalisation process is essential in order to prevent an individual getting to the stage where they open their front door with the intent to kill as many people as possible. How can we stop that? What can we do to help that person take a different path? Is that even the right approach to the issue? And who should take the lead in the ‘counter-radicalisation’ process? These types of questions must be answered before we can negate the process of radicalisation.  

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