Dr Rajan Basra is a post-doctoral researcher on the Cross-Border Conflict Evidence, Policy and Trends (XCEPT) research programme at King’s College London. Here, he tells us about his research on radicalisation in prisons, how he came to work in terrorism studies, and why the work of XCEPT could bring something new to the field.
Hi Rajan. Please can you introduce yourself and tell us about your role at XCEPT?
I’m Dr Rajan Basra, and I’m a post-doctoral researcher on the XCEPT team at King’s College London (KCL). My research focus is on terrorism, especially how prisons manage offenders who are suspected, or convicted, of terrorism offences. Over the last two years, I’ve been interviewing ex-prisoners, and I’ve been looking at what this can tell us about the role prisons might play in radicalisation.
Since starting work on XCEPT, I’ve also been interviewing people who have been affected by terrorism, specifically the families of men who were kidnapped by jihadist groups in an incident in Lebanon in 2014. That’s been incredibly eye-opening. To date, most of my research has focused on the perpetrators. I’ve been so much more interested in the people behind the violence. What’s motivating them? What’s their life story? Why are they doing this? How are they doing this? Shifting attention to looking at people affected by that violence, and to hear their stories, has been fascinating.
Can you tell us more about your previous research?
Before joining XCEPT, my research focused mostly on jihadis in Europe. For my PhD, which I completed in the Department of War Studies at KCL, I was looking at people who were part of the jihadist movement and who had histories of criminality. Sometimes they’d also spent time in prison for criminal offences – what you’d consider ‘regular’ criminal offences – and had been radicalised in prison, or they’d networked with extremists there. I wanted to see what influence criminality has on jihadist extremism/radicalisation. I found that it can affect the narratives people tell, and also the spaces (prison) where radicalisation occurs.
What is it that you find so interesting about terrorism? How did you get into this field of research?
It’s a fascinating area of study, but my interest was really sparked in 2011. I was traveling in the Middle East, and it just so happened to coincide with the Arab Spring. I spent a month in Syria, and I was lucky enough to meet some of the very first protestors in the country. These people were literally protesting for 5 or 10 minutes after Friday prayers, and even doing that was such an act of defiance because they were risking their lives, risking arrest and torture or disappearance. By chance, I had the opportunity to speak with some of these people. I remember meeting one man in Syria, and I said to him, ‘So what do you do?’, and he said, ‘If you’d asked me a week ago, I would say that I’m an architect, but if you asked me today, I’d say that I’m a revolutionary’.
After leaving Syria, I kept a close eye on what was happening in the country, in the very towns that I had visited, and as I saw that conflict descend into a civil war, and then the emergence of IS, I decided I wanted to take a closer look to understand what was going on. That led me to do an MA in Terrorism Studies at KCL, and then I stayed on to do my PhD.
This interest isn’t exclusive to me though. You see how popular true crime is as a genre. I think everyone has this curiosity – maybe even a morbid curiosity – about how human beings can treat other human beings, even if that’s in really depraved and horrific ways. People want to understand what drives someone to do that, to want to kill another person, and terrorism is all about that. Terrorists are not just killing someone for the sake of killing them. They’re doing it to send a message to a broader audience. I find it so interesting looking at what drives people to commit such acts of violence, examining their motivations, what those messages are, and what they hope to achieve.
When you’re looking at these motivations, do they make sense to you? Not to justify what someone is doing, but do you find you can maybe understand why someone is acting the way they are?
This is where it gets a bit tricky, because if you say you understand where someone’s coming from, then people can accuse you of being an apologist, or legitimising a terrorist’s motivation, their cause, or the way they behave. That’s not true, obviously. I do think it’s important to look deeper at the human beings involved, to understand what has happened in their life that’s led them to this point. It’s easy to dismiss someone as simply being ‘evil’, but I think we all start from the premise that no-one is born that way – something has happened that has brought them to this stage. It could be a combination of many different things, such as someone’s environment or personality, or cultural or situational factors.
One of the holy grails in terrorism studies is to better understand it so you can help prevent it, but preventing terrorism is so multi-faceted and so complicated, just like the whole phenomenon is. If we can better understand the circumstances that have led someone to engage in terrorism, then maybe it is possible to improve prevention, and that’s why I think it’s so important to try and make sense of these motivations.
How do you think your research for XCEPT will contribute to the wider field of terrorism studies?
I hope that the work we’re doing on prisons will help to fill a gap in existing literature. A lot of research on the subject looks at the experience of prisoners through the lens of court documents, policy documents, and media reports, but rarely does it involve speaking with people who have been through it. To speak to people who have actually lived through the experience, and know what it’s like to be in an IS prison wing, is something that’s really invaluable. Prisons have been a running thread throughout the history of terrorism, but within the field it’s still somewhat overlooked. My colleague, Dr Craig Larkin, and I have interviewed dozens of ex-prisoners in Lebanon, and I think this will give a detailed and nuanced look at extremists, or suspected extremists, who live in prison, and how their time inside shapes their experiences and their lives.
Do you think prisons play a role in radicalising, or de-radicalising, prisoners?
I do think prisons can play an important role, because whenever you look at any terrorist movement in history, their members have almost always spent time in prison. If it wasn’t informative in shaping their views, it’s where they ended up after they acted upon their views. Even when you look at history more generally, people have had their ideas shaped by their time spent in prison. Hitler, for example, wrote Mein Kampf while he was incarcerated. Jihadi propaganda often talks about freeing prisoners, and the issue of imprisoned comrades is a strong cause for militant groups around the world, regardless of ideology or location. Clearly, it’s an important issue, and that’s why I think our research is so important, as I hope it will shed some light on what it’s actually like to be inside prison, and why it matters so much.
What’s your favourite part about working on the XCEPT project?
For me personally, my fieldwork interviewing victims of terrorism in Lebanon has been some of the most satisfying work that I’ve ever done. To get the opportunity to speak to people who have lived through these incredible experiences, both good and bad, has been a real privilege. I do consider it a genuine honour to have been able to sit down with people and listen to their stories. That’s been the most interesting, and the most challenging, part of working on XCEPT.
I’m really proud of everything our team is doing, and the promise of being able to contribute something new to current understandings of the intersection between conflict, trauma, peacebuilding, and violence is really exciting. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next few years bring.
This publication was produced as part of the XCEPT programme, a programme funded by UK Aid from the UK government. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.