On February 16, in the framework of Rome Mediterranean Dialogues (MED) 2022, the Institute for International Political Studies (Milan) held a panel, “New Terrorism Trends and De-Radicalization in the Mediterranean Region”.
MED is the annual high-level initiative promoted by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and the Italian Institute for International Political Studies with the aim to analyze the current challenges in the area with new ideas and suggestions and to draft a new “positive agenda” at both the regional and the international level.
The panel on terrorism trends, was chaired by Chiara Sulmoni, the Co-Founder and President of START InSight, and Co-Director of ReaCT, addressed only the jihadist form of radicalization. The panel included:
- Gilles Kepel, Professor, PSL Paris Sciences et Lettres, École Normale Supérieure; Università della Svizzera italiana (USI)
- Amna Ben Arab, Assistant Professor, University of Sfax
- Julie Coleman, Head of the Prevention/Countering Violent Extremism Programme, International Centre for Counter Terrorism (ICCT)
- Antonio Giustozzi, Associate Research Fellow for radicalization and international Terrorism at the Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)
In a prerecorded intervention, Gilles Kepel, one of the top Islamologists worldwide, illustrated the concept of “jihadism of atmosphere”. By jihadism of atmosphere we can mean the new forms of jihadi violence and attacks emerged after the fall of Daesh as an a “state” in 2019. Indeed, although it survives on the ground, as of now it does not have the capacity to launch attacks abroad as before. This is the reason why we witnessed a number of attacks that were not perpetrated directly by any structured organization.
The notion of jihadism of atmosphere stresses the role of propaganda and contamination, as opposed to the top-down indoctrination that organizations can carry out. Obviously, jihadism of atmosphere is much more difficult to fight, and it increases the complexity of the debate about the relation between freedom of expression and security.
Speaking of de-radicalization programs, Kepel argues that most of the programs in the European Union were conducted with a fear of addressing the doctrinal issues, which could make the involved actors more vulnerable to accusations of Islamophobia. Partly as a consequence of this, in Europe even the study of Islam has narrowed its scope and quality, with some obviously important exceptions, such as the University Orientale of Naples.
Julie Coleman reminds us that every radicalization process is a highly individual pathway. Radicalized people represent a very heterogeneous group with, however, important common elements. For instance, Coleman quotes the so-called 3Ns: Needs, Narrative, and Networks. These elements always interact to forge radicalization processes.
Amna Ben Arab centered her remarks on Tunisia, which still has concerning levels of radicalization, and was infamously the country that had the highest number of foreign fighters per capita in Daesh, an issue that took authorities by surprise and continues to be a subject of lively debate about its causes. No comprehensive strategy or integrated approach was implemented.
In the last decade, the response in Tunisia was mainly reactive and security oriented and largely punitive—as with most governments. Authorities failed to prioritize the root causes of radicalization and the core grievances. According to Ben Arab, not only did governments fail to address these issues, but they also contributed to exacerbate them, especially in the economically marginalized regions of the country. The situation Ben Arab described creates what she effectively terms “bedroom radicals”: disenfranchised youth, often not working and not pursuing any education (NEETs), who live within a sort of radicalizing bubble that reinforces the extremist message.
Antonio Giustozzi focused on Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover. He addressed the influence that the Taliban propaganda is likely to have on other Islamist groups and distinguished between the Taliban Emirate itself and the conquest process. The Emirate is unlikely to represent a model for other groups and organizations. Al-Qaeda, for example is being critical of it, although it is not the official Al-Qaeda position. On the other side, the conquest process and the “national jihad” of the Taliban is likely to represent an inspiration for other jihadi groups.
This is in line with a trend that was already emerging before, based on an increasing interest for national jihad as opposed to the global one. This is true for instance for groups like Jabhat al-Nusra (later Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham or HTS) in Syria, which represented a major blow to Al Qaida. Meantime, Giustozzi warns, jihadist organizations worldwide are wondering if it is still convenient to operate under the Al-Qaeda flag. Many of them think it might not be so.