As part of our new publication ‘OnCohesion’ read Hilary Pilkington’s blog which focuses on violent extremism and what drivers may lead to it.
- Accurate information about suicide bomber Salman Abedi’s plans, it appears, had been received but its significance was not identified soon enough.
- Radicalisation research is a relatively new field of study that seeks to explain why and how people become violent extremists.
- The very fact that research provides inconclusive evidence on the role of general, structural conditions, points the way to a more nuanced understanding and more contextualised, localised interventions.
- Demonstrating any causal relationship in social science is difficult but a first step towards understanding the role of social and economic factors is to consider findings to date in relation to three distinct measures – economic development, poverty, and economic inequality.
- Long-term, structural inequalities need to be addressed through serious, targeted government policies.
In December 2017, David Anderson QC published an independent assessment of MI5 and police internal reviews of operational processes surrounding the four terrorist attacks that took place in the UK between March and June 2017 (Westminster, London Bridge, Finsbury Park Mosque, Manchester Arena). The Manchester attack, in particular, Anderson concluded, ‘might have been averted had the cards fallen differently’. Accurate information about suicide bomber Salman Abedi’s plans, it appears, had been received but its significance was not identified soon enough.
The findings of that report must have been painful reading for the families of those who died and for those injured and traumatised by the attack. The report focused attention on issues around intelligence handling and operational procedure and quite rightly so – the lives of our children should not depend on how the cards fall. While the relevant agencies grapple with the questions raised by the report, however, it falls to communities, including the academic community, to try to understand what led another one of our children – Salman Abedi – on a pathway to violent extremism?
Research into radicalisation
Radicalisation research is a relatively new field of study that seeks to explain why and how people become violent extremists. Research to date shows it is a complex phenomenon. Multiple factors at individual, group and societal levels are at play, and there is no single profile of individuals prone to embark on such a path nor any single route they take. Researchers have devised numerous socio-psychological models which categorise and hierarchise the identified factors (see Borum; Christmann; Moghaddam; and Doosje, Loseman and van den Bos); but in practice, it is unlikely that any single model can show what brings individuals to violence.
Recognising complexity, however, should not be an excuse for inaction. The fact that there is no simple solution, does not mean identifying relevant factors and intervening to lessen their impact is pointless; it means we must be more precise in understanding the drivers and more targeted in the interventions.
Socio-economic inequality and radicalisation
Take, for example, the question of socio-economic inequality as a key driver of radicalisation. The conclusions of a systematic review of the evidence on this will be published by the DARE (Dialogue About Radicalisation and Equality) project in August 2018. Without pre-empting its findings, I would like to make the case here that the very fact that research provides inconclusive evidence on the role of general, structural conditions, points the way to a more nuanced understanding and more contextualised, localised interventions.
Developing a nuanced understanding
Demonstrating any causal relationship in social science is difficult but a first step towards understanding the role of social and economic factors is to consider findings to date in relation to three distinct measures – economic development, poverty, and economic inequality.
On the first two measures – overall economic development and individual poverty/deprivation – we do not find any direct or consistent relationship with violent extremism/terrorism.
In the case of (country-level) economic development, findings are inconsistent – reflecting that the relationship differs over time and for types of terrorism. This might also be explained by the relationship between income and terrorism being nonlinear; domestic terrorism increases alongside economic development but declines as the country becomes highly developed. Another important finding is that the relationship is also affected by the presence of minority discrimination.
In the case of poverty, research has failed to demonstrate a direct link. Evidence of individual trajectories suggest violent extremists are strikingly normal in terms of socioeconomic background, while a recent study of (currently active) foreign fighters found that none had come from familial situations of poverty or marginality.
On the third measure – inequality – however, there is some evidence that economic inequality is a predictor of domestic terrorism especially where it divides communities based on ethnicity, religion or language. Meanwhile, another study established that in European countries, a larger gap between non-EU immigrant and native population groups in the labour market and the school system correlates with a higher per capita number of foreign fighters leaving the country to join Islamic State (IS).
Does this lack of a clear link between socio-economic factors and violent extremism mean that it is, in fact, other factors such as ideology, religion or geo-political factors that are the real drivers of radicalisation? The answer is that of course these factors also play a role, but we should not dismiss socio-economic factors.
What the evidence indicates is that socio-economic inequality matters but the relationship is complex and influenced by perceptions and experiences. Indeed, the research suggests that people’s subjective perceptions may be as important as objectively measured inequalities in exacerbating attitudes about injustice and privilege. This brings the human factor back in and opens the way to local, contextualised, community led intervention.
Community solutions – growing a contextualised intervention
Manchester presents an example of where the door is already open to such an approach. Since 2014, Manchester City Council has been working with Greater Manchester Police, local councils, the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Peace Foundation and communities to build an understanding of local community concerns relating to extremism, radicalisation and terrorism. This led to a series of community discussions, a published report on Rethinking Radicalisation and the implementation of an accredited programme of training in Radical Dialogue for community representatives concerned with countering extremism and building resilient and cohesive communities. This programme, and its participants, have since fed into the development of the RADEQUAL Campaign and community network.
Radicalisation is a process that is complex (not linear), situational (emerging out of interaction including choice), emotional (as well as ideological) and changing (affected by time and place). While this means there is no single or simple solution to the problem, it also means it is open to intervention and best understood, and tackled, in context rather than globally and through (local) community rather than (national) policy interventions.
The research evidence, in this sense, can be enabling. If perceptions of inequality and injustice are as much the problem as objective measures of actual inequality, then facilitated community engagement and dialogue is an important tool in the effort to counter radicalisation. Long-term, structural inequalities need to be addressed through serious, targeted government policies. In the meantime, communities themselves can begin to tackle the subjective dimension of inequality by creating the space to have uncomfortable but important conversations about the difference and inequity that is felt.
In the process, we may well find that the desire to tackle inequality is something that unites, rather than divides communities.