In the Netherlands on 28 November, European Eye on Radicalization cooperated with LINKS Europe and The Hague Humanity Hub to host the fourth in the Conversations on Conflict series, which touched on various aspects of radicalism in different locations and conditions of stability.
The first speaker was Amanda Paul, a senior analyst at the European Policy Centre and co-editor of a recent study called Guns and Glory: Criminality, Imprisonment, and Jihadist Extremism in Europe. The study was a case study of ten people from the Western Balkans, and Ms. Paul spoke about some of the lessons from this and her other research.
First, Ms. Paul handled the complex issue of the oft-invoked “crime-terrorism nexus”. It is true, she noted, that a number of the Dutch jihadists who went to Syria to join either the Islamic State (IS) or Al-Qaeda had criminal records. But there was no evidence of a systemic link between organised crime and jihadism of the kind that exists between criminal syndicates in Europe and, for example, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). There is a transactional cooperation where their needs overlap—in acquiring weapons, forged documents, and so on—and no more.
Moving to the substance of the data, and noting that it can hardly be conclusive from such a sample size, Ms. Paul notes that the foreign jihadist fighters shared a number of characteristics: they were generally young men, socially excluded, from areas of high unemployment and low income, many had mental health problems or substance abuse histories, significant numbers had criminal or radical relatives or had themselves spent time in prison, and almost all were from dysfunctional families.
These were men who had come from “parallel societies” in European cities where integration had not taken place and Salafist preachers had exploited their dislocation and the weakness of authorities, who were too paralyzed by the fear of being accused of “racism” to do anything when they saw the negative trends emerging before their eyes.
IS and likeminded groups saw this opportunity for recruitment. Criminals have useful skills in running a terrorist enterprise—extortion, conspiracy, and murder, among other things. IS also seized on “softer” means of finding an “in”, such as the controversy over the Muslim veil that made so many feel unwelcome in countries they had thought were their own.
Perhaps above all, IS offered redemption. It told petty criminals and people whose lives were adrift that it had a path to salvation, a way to absolve people of past sins—namely, jihad. IS even advertised this thread in its recruitment drive. “Some people with the worst pasts create the best futures”, as one IS propaganda post had it.
The danger from the jihadists does not cease after they have been recruited. Those who are arrested pose a separate problem in the prisons, where any number of them were radicalized in the first place. In Belgium, Britain, and other Western states, prison radicalism has become a serious menace, albeit one poorly understood.
There are few resources devoted even to assessing the size of the problem of radicalism in Western prisons. The prisons are too small, too overcrowded, and the staff are not trained. The Netherlands has made some progress, by separating terrorists from the rest, but as ever the best answer to radicalisation is prevention.
An Associate Fellow at King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, Kamel al-Khatti works on Leftist and nationalist movements on the Arabian Peninsula, as well as the Shi’i movements in his native Eastern Province in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi Kingdom was severely roiled by two events in 1979, one external and one internal, both of which pushed the country onto a more reactionary course as it tried to contain the spreading mayhem.
The final triumph of the year-long Islamist revolution in Iran had toppled the secular monarchy in January, and, with the Shah in exile, the extremists were swept to power in a frenzy of blood. Then came the seizure of the Haram Mosque in Mecca in November 1979 by an apocalyptic cult led by Juhayman al-Utaybi. This latter event is often confused with the former event—and, indeed, since it happened two weeks after the American Embassy in Tehran was seized by the new Islamic Republic’s agents, it gets further muddled in the collective memory. But Juhayman’s designs were completely separate to Iran’s.
To try to hold the line against these new currents of violent, sectarian Islamist revolution from without and deformed religious trends within, the Saudi state stepped up the power and influence of the clergy, hoping to educate the population in a correct form of the faith, and this mostly worked, with trade-offs against the nascent modernization as orthodoxy was reasserted.
Before this point, there had not been sectarian underground Shi’i groups. Most Saudi Shi’is resisted Iran’s encroachments, but some did not, with the creation of Saudi clone of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Hizballah al-Hijaz, the outfit responsible for the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996.
Theorists like Ali Shariati had embedded a Marxist current in the Iranian revolution and this had an impact in Saudi Arabia as the clerical regime in Iran, born of this Marxist-Islamist fusion, exported its revolution. A lot of Left-wing movements in the Gulf were sympathetic to the Islamists as agents of change, just as they had been in Iran—until the new regime took them apart, one by one.
The Saudi state was next struck by a systemic shock in 2003, when a Sunni jihadist rebellion broke out led by Al-Qaeda. The state started with a security response, though it adapted quickly to bring in all elements of its power to put down the rising. The lessons-learned, especially about the marginalized cities that had bred insurrection, were applicable across sect.
The final speaker was Jonne Catshoek, the founder and director of Elva Community Engagement, which specialises in reaching—and acquiring data from—hard-to-reach populations caught up in conflict. Catshoek focused on the Lake Chad area in West Africa, where IS’s “West Africa Province” (ISWAP) is now rising, having partly cannibalized the infamous Boko Haram. In just the hotspots of this conflict, Elva has carried out up to 50,000 interviews per year in recent years.
Catshoek noted that the twin tracks of policy—security and development—remain disconnected in a disturbing number of cases, Nigeria being one such, and this undermines any hope of long-term progress. To put it simply, there is no point building schools that cannot be protected, and there is no point clearing a terrorist group from an area without a plan to address the drivers of violent extremism through well-targeted development programmes.
The latter part—the “hold” phase—is reliant on the relationship between the security providers and the communities they rule over, and in many of the areas Elva has worked in this relationship is not healthy. In some cases, it is so bad, that even in self-perceived “good” situations the populations will note that the security forces are aggressive towards local populations—merely less aggressive than some other recent experience they had. This relative satisfaction is little foundation for durable peace.
A familiar cycle of distrust then takes hold as soldiers—usually foreign to the areas they are holding, even if they are from within the same country—quickly come to suspect, not always without good reason, that the population knows more than it is willing to tell them about the terrorist operations in their midst. The security services then begin treating the whole population as suspicious, if not hostile, and this feeds back on itself until it escalates into confrontation. This is dangerous because the arrest of a family member or friends is one of the single most important reasons why people join extremists.
Given the genuine danger from terrorism, locally based soldiers often prioritise their own security over a people who, again, in most cases they do not regard as their “own”. There is no more important indicator in counterinsurgency terms than the state of the relationship between the security forces and the population. Basic steps like having militaries trained in human rights law would go a long way to helping foster better cooperation between local communities and security providers, and would allow them to cooperate better on countering violent extremism.
A full report of the author contributions to the Conversations on Conflict series was produced in October 2020, entitled, “Radicalisation and the Spread of Violent Conflicts”, and can be accessed below: