To prevent terrorism we need better understanding of the process of radicalization

Published 12 July 2010

Why do some radical people turn to violence while others do not? Experts say that we really do not know for sure, but we need to know if we want to strengthen our counter-terrorism measures; until the understanding of this improves, the efforts to stop further terrorist attacks will continue to rely on a lot of luck

There has been a call for more research into radicalization, as the U.K.’s counter-terrorism strategy comes under fresh scrutiny at the time of the London bombings anniversary. The police and the judicial system are having continuing difficulties in dealing with the threat of terrorism:

  • Abid Naseer, who is suspected of plotting attacks in the United States as well as Britain on an American extradition warrant was re-arrested last Wednesday. Naseer had been arrested in Britain, but not tried, and when the government tried to deport him to his native Pakistan, the courts had ruled he could not be sent back because he would be at risk of torture.
  • Then last Thursday, the European Court of Human Rights halted the extradition to the United States of Abu Hamza, currently serving a sentence in the United Kingdom for soliciting for murder and racial hatred, because of concerns over the possible sentence he may receive there.
  • On the same day the new government announced it was changing the rules on police powers to stop and search people under counter-terrorism legislation following controversy over the way the police have used those powers (“U.K. government scraps stop-and-search anti-terror police power,” 9 July 2010 HSNW).

The BBC’s Alistair Burnett reports that in order to examine at the lessons have been learned from the 7/7 attacks and how counter-terrorism has improved in the past five years, the BBC’s World Tonight co-hosted a conference at Chatham House with the journal International Affairs and the Economic and Social Research Council.

Senior counter-terrorism officials and researchers agreed that the security services were now much better resourced and more sophisticated than they used to be, and that there have been some marked successes in breaking up plots and convicting the conspirators.

There was agreement, though. that there were a number of areas where improvements needed to be made, even if it was impossible to guarantee there would never be another successful attack.

The key to protecting the public is to stop attacks before they take place, and one of the ways to do to this is identifying people who are plotting terrorist attacks. Most of the speakers at the conference (and under the Chatham House rule, the identity of the speakers can not be revealed, though what they say can be reported) agreed that the security services and the police do not have a very sophisticated profile of the kind of person that turns to terrorism.

A lot of research into radicalization has taken place, but most speakers agreed that it has not been very useful. The attempts by government to profile the kind of person who may be vulnerable to terrorist recruiters — who security officials have said are active in the United Kingdom — were criticized for being too broad brush and missing the mark.

Mohammad Sidique Khan, the man who led the 7/7 attacks said he was motivated by his opposition to British policy in the Muslim world. The invasion of Iraq, the military intervention in Afghanistan, as well as support for Israel have been given as justification for many terrorist attacks and plots against the United Kingdom and the United States.

Yet, researchers pointed out, many people are against these policies and indeed are very angry about them, but have not turned to violence.

Some participants argued that a sense of alienation from society and social exclusion combined with this sense of grievance about government policy and anger at real or perceived injustice, could turn someone to terrorism.

The government’s Prevent strategy, which works with communities to try to stop people being radicalized was widely though to be counter-productive. Participants argued that there was a fine dividing line between supporting communities in trying to stop people turning to terrorism and stigmatizing communities as a threat to the rest of society.

They also said radicalization was not a useful concept because it suggested that people with radical views were a threat, rather than the small number of people who turned to violence.

So the question remains, why do some radical people turn to violence while others do not? Burnett writes that the answer from everyone at Chatham House was — we really do not know for sure, but we need to know if we want to strengthen our counter-terrorism measures.

There was agreement that much more research was needed into both sides of the question. Until the understanding of this improves, the efforts to stop further terrorist attacks, like the Times Square bomb in New York six weeks ago, will continue to rely on a lot of luck.