In a House of Commons speech yesterday, UK Prime Minister David Cameron stated the need to dismantle ‘the conveyor belt of radicalisation…at every stage – in schools, colleges and universities, on the internet, in our prisons and wherever it takes place’. In the immediate wake of the Woolwich attack, he also stressed the importance of challenging ‘the poisonous narrative of extremism on which this violence feeds’.
This Insight outlines the work that the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) has undertaken since 2008 which is directly relevant to the government’s newly-formed tackling extremism and radicalisation task force.
Priorities for Government
The murder of Drummer Lee Rigby may have inspired a copy-cat attack on a French soldier in Paris two days later and followed the Boston bombings of 15 April. Taken together, these incidents represent the convergence of a number of trends which have been of growing concern to the security services in these countries.
As security policies are reconsidered and recalibrated over the coming months, a number of other key priorities can be identified which coincide with the research done by ICSR:
• ‘Homegrown’ radicalisation and the role of the internet
• European citizens travelling abroad for jihad
• The changing structure and strategy of the global jihadist movement
• A ‘backlash’ from the far right and ‘cyclical radicalisation’
• Countering extremist narratives
Homegrown and Online Radicalisation
Recent events have heightened fears over the threat of homegrown terrorism and radicalisation posed by English-speaking ideologues, radical Islamist movements in the West, extremism in prisons, extremist content on the internet and the phenomenon of so-called ‘lone-wolves’. In response to these phenomena, the US and UK have developed counter-radicalisation strategies, which will be revisited in light of recent events. Relevant publications by ICSR authors on these matters include:
• As American as Apple Pie: How Anwar al-Awlaki Became the Face of Western Jihad, Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens
• Countering Online Radicalisation: A Strategy for Action, Peter R. Neumann & Tim Stevens
• Countering Online Radicalization in America, Peter R. Neumann
• Preventing Violent Radicalization in America, Peter R. Neumann
• Jihad at Home, Shiraz Maher & Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens
• Al Muhajiroun and Islam4UK: The group behind the ban, Catherine Zara-Phillips
• Choosing our friends wisely: Criteria for engagement with Muslim groups, Shiraz Maher and Martyn Frampton
• Prisons and Terrorism: Radicalisation and De-Radicalisation in 15 Countries, Peter R. Neumann
• A Typology of Lone Wolves: Preliminary Analysis of Lone Islamist Terrorists, Raffaello Pantucci
European Citizens Travelling Abroad for Jihad in East Africa and Syria
Many Western jihadists have been drawn by the romantic allure of travelling abroad to fight jihad against the perceived ‘enemies of Islam’. Destinations have varied over the years, with Syria and Somalia being two of the most popular recent choices.
In Lights, Camera, Jihad, ICSR researchers explored how Somalia’s jihadist militia al-Shabaab has developed media strategies aimed at mobilising Western Muslims. ICSR provided the first empirical assessment of the number of Europeans joining the anti-regime fighters in Syria and our researchers also interviewed members of al-Shabaab in Kenya.
• Lights, Camera, Jihad: al-Shabaab’s Western Media Strategy, Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, Shiraz Maher and James Sheehan
• European Foreign Fighters in Syria, Aaron Y. Zelin
• Al-Shabaab Recruitment and Radicalisation in Kenya, Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens
The Changing Nature of the Global Jihadist Movement
Following the death of Osama bin Laden, confronting increased pressure on its leadership in Pakistan, and facing uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa in which it seemed to have little to offer, al-Qaeda has been forced to adapt.
In the West the group and its sympathisers and affiliates have encouraged a strategy of ‘open-source jihad’, which calls upon jihadists to independently plan and execute attacks in their own countries without first travelling abroad for experience and training, whereas in the post-Arab Spring Middle East analysts have noted how the group has tried to ally itself to anti-dictatorship movements throughout the region.
ICSR staff have written extensively on the changing nature of al-Qaeda’s mobilisation and recruitment strategies:
• Al-Qaeda at the Crossroads: How the terror group is responding to the loss of its leaders & the Arab Spring, Shiraz Maher and Peter R. Neumann
• New ‘Manifesto’ Shows al-Qaeda Learning from Mistakes, Shiraz Maher
• The Development of al-Qaeda’s Media Strategy and its Role in Mobilizing Western Muslims, Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens (pp. 169-182)
The Dangers of a Far Right Backlash and ‘Cyclical Radicalisation’
In the hours and days immediately following Woolwich, the English Defence League (EDL) sought to use the incident to gain further traction and support by organising nationwide marches and protests.
This reflects the increasing problem of what has been termed ‘cyclical radicalisation’, which suggests that far-right and Islamist extremists feed off each other. ICSR’s recent report on the English Defence League and Europe’s Counter-Jihad Movement addressed this phenomenon:
• A Neo-Nationalist Network: The English Defence League and Europe’s Counter-Jihad Movement, Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens and Hans Brun
• The New Far Right: 10 Issues and Questions, Peter R. Neumann
Countering Extremist Narratives
At a recent Universities UK conference, ICSR Director John Bew spoke of the importance of academic research in countering radicalisation and the need for universities to understand their role in this process. He also stressed the link between extremist ideologies and the potential for violent action.
ICSR remains committed to applying rigorous academic methods to some of the toughest questions and developments in radicalisation and political violence.