11 February 2010 - 13 February 2010

Countering radicalisation in local communities

Chair: Baroness Manningham-Buller DCB

This conference, the latest in our series on security issues, picked up from the outcome of our counter-terrorism conference in December 2006, but with participants realising that the world had moved on quite a bit in barely more than three years.  To cover both the domestic and the international aspects of extreme radicalisation was an ambitious undertaking for a two-day debate, but we managed to cover a great deal of ground.  We were helped by the broad variety of backgrounds and professional experience at the table, although snow storms on the East Coast deprived us of part of our US input.

We had an extensive discussion of the possible causes of the radicalisation of an individual or small group to the point of violence, in which we had to recognise a wide variety of rationales at the global, regional, local and individual levels.  We found ourselves talking very much in the context of radical Islam, not because of any prejudice (far right, Irish and non-Islamic religious extremisms were touched on), but because law enforcement experience identified an extreme interpretation of Islam as a common factor. It was widely regarded as relevant that the “war on terror” generated by 9/11 had inspired a perception of a war against Islam;  that a high proportion of Muslims believed that the West was fighting a war against them and that they themselves therefore needed to fight back;  and that many people in the Middle East and other parts of the Islamic world were ready for political change, out of which – at the margins – moves into violence were always possible. 

We were also conscious that the situation was constantly evolving.  We discussed at some length the Al Qaeda phenomenon and also the impact of the Israel-Palestine situation.  The threat of terrorism existed prior to 9/11 and even if Al Qaeda was finally defeated and the Palestine issue resolved, terrorism would continue, but perhaps at a different level.  There would always be people on the extreme edge of an ordered world and the number of potential causes, real or perceived, for radical action could be endless.  Now that the example had been set of the capacity of small groups to make a huge impact with lethal weaponry, the connection between motivation and opportunity could not be comprehensively broken.  Participants raised the question of whether things were getting better or worse at this moment, but we wisely declined to go down that route.  For a start, situations differed markedly between different countries;  and then no-one could tell what might lie just round the corner.  Even if the immediacy of the apparent threat contrasted with the low number of successful attacks, at least within advanced democratic countries, we had to conclude that the situation was not yet better enough.

The prevalent view was that Al Qaeda central, as directed by Osama bin Laden and Zawahari, had been set back to some extent. But the example could not be eradicated and the franchises and affiliates, in Afghanistan/Pakistan, in the Arabian Peninsula, in the Maghreb, in the Horn of Africa  and elsewhere, were active and dangerous.  Beyond the organised groups, there could be any number of individuals with the motivation to become warriors, fired up by the part-fact, part-myth of the stories they were reading, and prepared to turn local grievances into a general jihadist narrative.  A common thread in all this was the perceived threat to Islam, however interpreted.  In some countries, not least the UK, it was the perceived threat to Islam in the local or national context, as well as the international one, which could form the proximate cause of a move to violence.  Elsewhere, for instance in and from Somalia, the grievance could arise from national collapse and the frustration or resentment that resulted from it.

Our working group on radicalising influences usefully distinguished between the push and the pull factors.  Deep discontent (the push) could arise from a whole host of reasons:  deprivation, racism, threats to Islam, identity issues, local grievances, a sense of injustice or anger over Western policy.  It was the pull factors, however, which might explain better why an individual crossed the line into lethal violence.  These influences could arise from ideology, culture or the local community, from key charismatic figures or a powerful narrative, from the discovery of a network to join or a path to follow to justice.  What was real in these stories and what was perceived did not really matter.  Enough truth was involved to make individuals feel the journey was worthwhile.  Participants looked carefully at the question as to whether ideology or grievance played the greater role, with good cases being made for both of them.  But the most convincing argument to emerge was that the move to actual violence was most likely to come where ideology and grievances resonated with each other.  It was therefore necessary to address them both. 

When we came to look at the catchment area for radicalisation, we were reminded of a significant statistic that, almost without exception, individuals or small groups prepared to go all the way to violence came from the age group between 18 and 29.  It seemed that this was the age where deep discontent, a willingness to fight and a capacity to be influenced came together in the strongest forms. Malign influences within society and disaffection amongst young people manifested themselves in different types of criminal or violent activity and could be harnessed in support of a cause.  Terrorist organisations in their recruitment approaches understood this well:  hence the importance of madrasas and, as discussed in some detail, universities.  Prisons, too, could be an intensive source of radicalisation.  They all needed greater attention in counter-radicalisation measures.

So what about the internet?  There was no doubt in all our minds that globalised communications and the infinite uses of the internet significantly enlarged the opportunities for radicalising connections.  The “war on Islam” was spread by a thousand new stories every day:  and the incidence of hits on Al Qaeda, or any number of other websites was very high amongst, for instance, Muslim students.  Even if the internet very rarely produced the means to act violently, it regularly provided the rationale and was much more likely to produce the self-starters on the path to radicalisation, as opposed to organised recruitment.  We nevertheless recognised that the internet could be made to work for both sides of the radicalisation struggle and this came into our thinking on intervention policies.  By contrast, we spent little time on the issue of funding of terrorism, partly because the availability of finance appeared to make little difference to the incidence of radicalisation and partly because it was very difficult to think of ways of choking off funds altogether (certain charities might be an exception).

When we came to examining the best forms of intervention to confront radicalisation, we realised that there were big questions to answer.  The company was clear that, as one participant put it, you cannot kill or capture your way to victory.  But was it better to address the individual, the specific, the local phenomenon or to go for a whole-of-society approach?  Was terrorism just a crime or should we be taking specially designed action to reduce its context?  What about the cultural issue?  There was a big debate in Europe, for instance, whether or not to deal with Islam in its entirety.  Was it right to try to promote “moderate” Islamic discourse or rather deal with social issues in sensitive areas in order to deter moves to criminal violence, whether or not religion was involved? 

These were not the only difficult questions.  What exactly were government actors aiming to do, prevent the radicalisation of individuals or prevent the radicalised from turning to violence?  There were good arguments for taking the latter approach, because there was very little evidence of successful de-radicalisation measures.  But who should take ownership of the intervention?  Placing a police or government label on it was likely to raise hackles.  Yet who else was going to take the responsibility for an ordered society? 

Gradually, out of the fog of these hard questions, and from the experience of approaches that had already been tried, certain criteria for effective action began to emerge.  It was not for government policy-makers or agencies to try to settle the internal questions of Islam or to make external choices of who might be considered “moderate” or “reasonable”.  “Moderate” could be an insult to a committed, peace-loving Muslim.  It was risky to try to judge, unless the law was clear, where the boundary lay between extremism and acceptable behaviour.  Violence was a different matter;  and it was the task of the authorities to design and apply the law.  This still produced grey areas, because conspiracy to commit violence might be generated by ideological, cultural or social phenomena.  But this was why it was so important to be specific in designing approaches in different territories. 

Participants were sure that there was no single or simple route to effective counter-radicalisation.  In France, where there had been no terrorist bomb attack for the past fourteen years, law enforcement aimed to deal directly with the criminal threat without attempting sensitive approaches to local Muslim communities (where there was little sympathy anyway with perpetrators of violence).  In the UK, on the other hand, where the political experience was different, it was regarded as important to try to strengthen the relationship between Muslim communities and the whole of society.  The police were coming to recognise that it was best to share analysis with local leaders, consult them on problems that came up, get people involved.  Too overt a security approach raised suspicions.  Bitter experience had taught that if you did not achieve consensus on the nature of the problem, the approach would be a failure.  Nor could you choose which leaders to go to, or explain why, because this looked like setting preconditions for engagement.  The better approach was unconditional, but focussing on the identifiable areas of need for particular groups.

In the United States, too, the trend was noticeably in favour of moving into the communities.  The earlier focus on fast-acting operational police work had not been a success.  The US was probably behind Western Europe in developing a radicalisation problem, but the current awareness of a changing situation had underlined the wisdom of community engagement.  This might need to be taken all the way through to why new immigrant groups were present in the country:  it was important to get across the message that home was no longer where people’s grandparents were buried, but where their grandchildren would be raised.  This then had a chance of influencing feelings of identity;  and it made it more likely that communities would take notice of isolated individuals, who could be brought to realise that their specific problems were shared.

We looked at the possible links between terrorism and other forms of crime.  The police experience so far was that this could be a “pull” factor.  But it was not nearly as significant as the “push” effect of 9/11 and subsequent terrorist successes.  The particular circumstances of a terrorist conspiracy, at whatever level of sophisticated organisation, tended to include strong political overtones;  and political problems could not be solved in a purely security context.  Participants therefore thought it important to focus on integration and let law enforcement back away when community issues were involved.

We also discussed how to deal with the “narrative” of radicalisation.  Participants regarded it as a mistake to allow a situation to develop where there was no alternative on offer to the terrorism rationale.  At the same time, we also recognised the difficulty of countering an ideology.  This suggested that it was more important to concentrate the problem-solving activity on grievances, while extreme ideology needed to be isolated if possible.  While Al Qaeda’s narrative tended to be a single, powerful one, the counter-narrative had to address multiple factors.  We were, after all, defending a pluralist society.  This whole area needed further careful thought.  There were good reasons for countering the propaganda even if the accompanying grievances could not be dealt with in the short term.  We also had to recognise that western governments’ reactions to terrorist strikes, especially 9/11, had themselves been used for propaganda effect.  A strategic approach was needed to take account of the relationship between radical thought and radical action, to include the recognition that a short-term security gain could mean a long-term social and political loss.

We spent some time on the significance of the internet in all this.  There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the opportunities for networking and for accessing powerfully influential material were hugely increased by the evolution of information technology.  There were differences of view between those who considered that the internet was a fact of life and that freedom of speech was a principal which could not be sacrificed even in this serious context, and those who thought that specific interventions to close down internet sites and other propaganda sources were possible and indeed essential.  This was not resolved, but the tenor of the discussion, at least as far as practitioners were concerned, moved in favour of firm action on internet sites to show where society’s limits stood. 

Out of this discussion came greater clarity on the precise roles for government intervention.  A distinction needed to be drawn between counter-terrorism operational activity and the addressing of cultural and social issues.  In the circumstances of particular localities, local government needed to be more involved than they were at present, even if it was the police who had developed the deeper experience on the detail.  We began to develop the concept of mainstreaming all the approaches which seemed to have a beneficial effect in breaking down the damaging relationship between ideology and grievance.  Within the whole concept of service to the community lay the protection of students in universities, the safeguarding of children on the internet and elsewhere, the deterring of xenophobia and the preservation of mainstream national cultural and social life.  But it was not for government to get into the realm of theology or to take too heavy-handed an approach to minority communities.  The delicate mean involved in these judgements had to be learnt from experience in each national jurisdiction.

As if this was not complicated enough, we also took on the international context.  The effects of accelerating globalisation, the speed of change, the problems for governments in controlling cross-border activities and communications and the spread of political and individual freedoms all meant that the spaces for individual action had been enlarged.  History indicated that bad motivations reached these spaces before good ones.  Globalisation had also developed multiple identities in people, which had both good and bad implications.  The effect of events in one place could quickly spread to another continent:  there were real and startling instances of where this had generated a lethal effect. 

It was difficult to grasp what the future might hold in these respects.   The big stories of oppression and injustice, and in particular the perceptions of them whatever the underlying truths and hypocrisies – over Palestine, for instance – were bound to have a continuing impact.  Violence to redress perceived injustice, wherever it was perpetrated, tended to be defended in subjective terms.  What made the counter-narrative so difficult was that so many people in a range of different communities believed that the world was not going in the right direction, for whatever reason.  We had already reached the point where, whether or not Al Qaeda continued as an effective organisation, the image was out there that the west was attacking Islam.  In fact, one of the most serious factors in the current international situation was that so many people in the Islamic world were inclined to want to fight and were looking for a cause to serve.  This, however, was not the case with their governments and a growing gap could be perceived between governments and their own people along these lines.  If this became widespread thinking even within relatively “moderate” Islamic communities, the capacity for political change would be significant. 

We looked at the performance of the United Nations on counter-terrorism so far.  Certain parts of the UN, and particularly the specialised agencies, could provide really useful operations and services to address some of the broader problems we felt were relevant.  But on hard political issues, and on the business of counter-terrorism itself, the UN’s effectiveness seemed to be fading.  Indeed, the UN could sometimes be regarded as part of the problem, in that it was seen as responding to an agenda set by the industrialised world which was not shared in the developing world.  Some participants thought that the UN could not help with the counter-narrative any more than a western government could.  This meant that effective international cooperation on counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation needed to be organised between capable institutions and agencies on an ad hoc bilateral or multinational basis – something which had already started, with particular governments taking the lead in particular regions. 

While there were few universal conclusions to be drawn from this intensive debate, there was enough consensus in some important areas for the following lines of thought to be pursued further:

·         Counter-radicalisation needed to be specific to the local circumstance.  This meant a multiplicity of interventions to confront the diversity of the threat, some of which would fail or be controversial.  But it was the right way to go;  and it had implications for resources.  At present, a huge policy area was being built on a small resource base.

·         To support this, the exchange of best practice amongst counter-radicalisation practitioners needed to be extended and magnified.

·         The research, analysis and data on causes and interventions were not yet extensive enough.  This needed early attention. 

·         In particular, we had not done enough to understand why attempts at radicalisation sometimes failed, what the fault lines were in terrorist movements and why some individuals disengaged from radicalising influences.  Challenging the narrative and isolating the propagandists would be more effective if directed at particular, well-researched points.

·         Civic education could also be part of the response.  It was striking how some individuals, tempted by terrorism, had returned to feeling human again through engagement with society.  Sharing suffering could be an important part of this;  and the internet in itself could be a useful de-radicalisation tool.

·         At a broader and higher level of policy, political change in the Islamic world meant that western governments needed to think carefully about their relationships with repressive regimes.  There were arguments for not being afraid of Islamism if it was non-violent;  and it was certainly a mistake to lump Hisbollah and Hamas together with Al Qaeda, when they were very different organisations.  There were real debates to be had about policy in these respects.

·         Finally, the West had to recognise that it had given the impression of applying double standards.  In the end the only viable counter-narrative was to live and act our values of pluralism, tolerance, the rule of law, individual freedom, shared responsibility and the acceptance of risk.  We were not being honest with ourselves about the consequences of our actions, even if we thought our  intentions were good.

This conference may have been ambitious in connecting the micro and the macro within such a complex subject.  It is a tribute to the frankness and perceptiveness of our participants that so much momentum was achieved in the discussion, with even the most experienced practitioners recognising that there were things to be learnt.  We owed a great deal to our Chairman for the care and discipline with which she kept the debate focussed.  Ditchley hopes that there will be a considerable amount for everyone to take back to their specific desks as they come to grips with the next stages of the struggle.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman : Baroness Manningham-Buller DCB
Director General, Security Service (2002-07)

The names of other participants are not being listed on this occasion.