Why We Cannot Profile Those Who Radicalise to Violence

15 Dec 2016

Colleagues from ICCT and I have just finished a 3-city tour of Scandinavia facilitated by the Canadian embassy in Oslo, with assistance from Canadian missions in Stockholm and Copenhagen. The purpose of this short visit was to engage in dialogue with local partners – governmental, security and researchers – on the general topic of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) and the more specific topic of returning foreign fighters. The sessions afforded participants insight into what was happening on these fronts in Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. One of the strengths of these exchanges was the fact that those who contributed included not just scholars but people working on the ground in counter radicalisation programmes – those at the ‘coal face’.

As presenters shared their perspectives on local conditions and findings, it became clear that there were significant – and, to some, surprising – differences among the circumstances in each country. It was stressed in Norway that the vast majority of cases where people embraced violent extremism (VE) came out of a class of society labelled ‘misfits’. This term was used by Norwegian terrorism expert Petter Nesser who, in his recent book Islamist Terrorism in Europe: A History, wrote that:

“Jihadi terrorist cells in Europe often involve a category I refer to as misfits. Personal misfortune plays a much bigger role in the radicalisation of misfits than it does for the other categories of cell members (NB a reference to what Nesser calls “entrepreneurs, protégés, and drifters”). Misfits are individuals who do not perform well socially and tend to have a troubled background as well as a criminal record. They appear to be far less ideologically informed and committed […] also tend to possess weaker and more hesitant personalities, and display more personal vulnerabilities […] [and] become part of a militant religious circle primarily as a means to cope with personal problems […].”

Similar descriptions were offered by attendees in Sweden and Denmark and, to a degree, by those from the Netherlands. If the term ‘misfit’ is indeed accurate it leads to an easy, overarching explanation as to why Westerners from these societies elect to head down the path of VE. If one’s life is truly dysfunctional, joining a group of likeminded friends could add to a sense of meaning and belonging and make one feel as if s/he were contributing to a worthy or higher cause. VE thus provides a way to ‘fit in’ or to get out of a lifestyle that is neither fulfilling nor promising.

Even if this model is over-simplistic and does not distinguish between correlation and causation, it is a tantalising one as it appears to explain decisions we in the West see as counterintuitive. It is also easy to see how and why these assumptions (i.e. that most violent extremists start out as ‘misfits’) have been used and extrapolated beyond regions where they apply.  After all, as Western nations have much in common – liberal democratic traditions, Judeo-Christian underpinnings, etc. – it might be expected that citizens, irrespective of which Western country they reside in, would radicalise to violence for mostly similar reasons.

Aside from the fact that it is of the utmost importance to take local conditions into account (which we will return to later), it turns out that not all Western countries exhibit the same characteristics when it comes to VE. Canada, for example, is a major outlier (the UK would also fit in here). While it is true that Canada has its share of ‘misfits’, what is striking is that these are the exception and not the rule.  As a whole, Canadians who radicalise to violence along the lines of the Islamist jihadi narrative are university-educated, employed, from stable and middle class family backgrounds and have no criminal records.  As a result, it is may appear a little less obvious why such well-adjusted individuals would opt for violent pathways. In this light, it has been assessed that ideology therefore does play a major role in the radicalisation process.

There are two major takeaways from this data. First, assuming that the same conditions obtain across societies is sometimes a mistake: conclusions must be drawn from research into local circumstances.  Second, false assumptions could lead to policy recommendations that will fail to address the problem.  If, for instance, dealing with low self-esteem is seen as a worthwhile approach to removing the underlying baseline which can enable radicalisation – by making someone ‘more vulnerable’ or ‘at greater risk’ – such a programme will not have a significant effect on those who are doing okay. Yes, dealing with societal and personal problems is always a good thing, but it is not always relevant to the issue of VE.

In the Scandinavian countries, the initiatives developed to confront and counter violent radicalisation have all concentrated heavily on the issues identified by Nesser. There is merit in this approach for two reasons. One, it will address real individual weaknesses that exist in the lives of those radicalising to violence and, if these pressure points are resolved, could nip some radicalisation in the bud. Two, the focus on personal ‘issues’ takes the conversation away from ‘Islamist extremism’, thus avoiding the further ‘securitisation’ of individuals and communities that some have characterised as a negative outcome of CVE.

As noted, however, an analogous methodology in Canada is not necessarily applicable. For those cases where there are obvious personal shortcomings and vulnerabilities, applying the general framework used in Scandinavia makes sense. But for the majority of cases where such failings are not present, another tack must be taken, to possibly include religious or ideological emphasis (even if not everyone agrees with the need for religious approaches and, in any event, these must be implemented very carefully and by qualified individuals).

The ever popular presumption that those who become violent radicals come from disadvantaged environments, one that all too often slips off the tongues of many officials who speak publicly about VE, is a dangerous one. We must ensure that the policy and practical solutions that we offer to address the very real social problem of violent radicalisation and extremism are based on the data that is out there, not what we want or assume it to be.