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Root causes

Research has a part to play in identifying the factors that breed terrorism.

How can research best contribute to understanding and fighting terrorism, and to improving counterterrorism policies? A common focus is a narrow concept of radicalization that explores why individuals turn to extremism.

Since the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001 — and the deadly bombings in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005 — an entire industry of government-funded consultants and researchers has grown up around this idea. But many researchers find such emphasis problematic; they argue, for example, that it can distract from the need for a broader understanding of the roots of terrorism. They also fear that counterterrorism policies based on it may be ineffective, and risk being counterproductive.

Research to understand why and how people, such as the young people who carried out the attacks in Paris on 13 November, become radicalized is crucial, and as a News story on page 20 describes, such research has provided some important insights. But there is no typical profile of those who turn to violent extremism, and the causes are highly diverse. Radicalization has become a central plank in national counter­terrorism policies, with efforts made to identify individuals and groups showing signs of radicalization or vulnerability, and to de-radicalize them.

Under Britain’s ‘Prevent’ programme, the government earlier this year made it compulsory for staff in schools, universities, councils, prisons and other bodies to monitor or refer such individuals to the authorities. Yet it’s clear that only a tiny minority of the vast numbers of people flagged by counter-radicalization efforts risk turning to terrorism — and spotting which ones is extremely difficult.

Some researchers argue that such policies are justified on the grounds that the immediate terrorist threat to democracies is so great that every­thing must be done in the short term to stop people from becoming radicalized and to spot violent extremists, while also addressing the broader causes and dynamics of terrorism. But other researchers question the effectiveness of such policies, and argue that the focus should be more on community policing and on reinforcing intelligence to identify the recruiters and ringleaders of terrorist networks. Social profiling, they add, comes at a potentially high cost. It risks stigmati­zing further Muslims and those of immigrant origin, and inadvertently legitimizing the anti-Islam, and often racist, rhetoric of extreme-right-wing parties. The resulting social division risks making matters worse and increasing the pool of potential terror recruits.

There is no typical profile of those who turn to violent extremism, and the causes are highly diverse.

As Nadia Fadil, who specializes in Islam in Europe at the University of Leuven in Belgium, points out, policies based on targeting Muslim populations also risk harming existing community-based prevention methods. In Belgium, youth workers, teachers and other officials who were previously considered trustworthy bridge-builders are increasingly distrusted in the communities in which they work because they are now perceived as state spies.

Shortcomings of radicalization research itself were highlighted in a 2013 review of the research literature by Alex Schmid, a director of the Terrorism Research Initiative, an international consortium of researchers and research centres. It concluded that the search for the causes of radicalization of young people has produced “inconclusive results”, and that counter-radicalization and de-radicalization programmes lack rigorous evaluation.

Most worryingly, the review highlighted blind spots in radicalization research. Much, it concluded, is “one-sided”, in that it looks only at the radicalization of Islamist, non-state actors, and ignores the fact that radicalization of Western governments can also occur, combining in a vicious circle that can fuel strife and terrorism.

That is an unpopular view, and is often considered by politicians and the media to be making excuses for terrorism. But it must be taken into account to develop more effective policies and to identify those that are ineffective or even harmful.

Research can do its bit, by bringing an evidence-based, neutral and broader perspective that can enlighten counterterrorism, social, educational and other policies. That need is now greater than ever.

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Terrorism science: 5 insights into jihad in Europe 2015-Dec-02

Psychologists seek roots of terror 2015-Jan-20

Attempts to predict terrorist attacks hit limits 2015-Jan-20

Looking for the roots of terrorism 2015-Jan-15

Science and satire 2015-Jan-13

Related external links

International Centre for Counter-Terrorism

What is the driving force behind jihadist terrorism? – A scientific perspective on the causes/circumstances of joining the scene (PDF)

What drives Europeans to Syria and to IS: Insights from the Belgian case (PDF)

Radicalisation, De-Radicalisation, Counter-Radicalisation: A Conceptual Discussion and Literature Review (PDF)

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Root causes. Nature 528, 7–8 (2015).

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