Expert Roundtable Meeting with Dr. Pressman and Prof. Dr. Bjørgo

On 16 January 2015, the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (ICCT) hosted a Roundtable Meeting with Dr. Elaine Pressman and Prof. Dr. Tore Bjørgo on risk assessment for violent extremists, and engagement and disengagement from militant extremist groups.

Dr. Pressman’s gave a presentation on ‘Structured Professional Judgment Risk Assessment for Violent Extremists’. She discussed the structured professional judgment (SPJ) methodology as applied to individual risk assessment for  violent extremism. The purpose of the VERA tool (an acronym for Violent Extremism Risk Assessment), which was  developed by Dr. Pressman,  is to assist professional analyst  judgment  via the application of a  structured and calibrated protocol.  This approach permits reliable measures of the risk level of each of a  comprehensive set of indicators.  It also permits a determination of the trajectory of risk (increasing, decreasing or consistent) for an individual over time on repeated assessments.  The  indicators integrated into the VERA  are mostly ‘dynamic’ in nature as compared to the ‘static’ indicators that are more typically used  in general violence risk assessment tools. As individuals at risk of violent extremism  require repeated  assessments over time, reliable and calibrated risk level judgments that  identify change from an established  baseline are valuable. The operation of such  risk assessments can be applied to security at all levels ranging from national security,  military intelligence down to local level actors.

Prof. Dr. Bjørgo’s presentation was titled ‘Dreams and disillusionment: engagement in and disengagement from militant extremist groups’. Individuals involved in terrorism often come from a diversity of social backgrounds and have undergone rather different processes of violent radicalisation. Therefore, profiles of terrorists do not work as a tool to identify actual or potential terrorists as such profiles fail to capture the diversity and the change people undergo when they become involved in militant extremism. As part of his presentation, Prof. Dr. Bjørgo suggested a more dynamic typology of participants in militant groups, based on dimensions which represent dynamic continuums rather than static positions. He suggested four basic types of people who tend to get involved in militant groups for very different motives and reasons: ideological activists (often resourceful), drifters or followers (seeking friendship and identity), socially frustrated and marginalised youths (often traumatised and with a criminal background), and adventurers (who are in it for the thrills and the glory). The typology may be used as an aid to develop more specific and targeted strategies for preventing violent radicalisation and facilitating disengagement, taking into account the diversity and specific drivers behind different types of extremists.

A discussion followed the presentations on how this information could be applied to the local level. One key point that was raised is that while risk assessment and the diversity of reasons for engagement or disengagement are undoubtedly important information, it still leaves the difficult question of how a local actor identifies at-risk individuals who have not been previously identified. Additionally, Dr. Bjørgo highlighted the dangers of stigmatisation of individuals who are trying to reintegrate into society after disengaging from extremist groups.