As we near the 22 March and remember the 32 women and men who were murdered in the Brussels terrorist attacks of 2016, it is crucial to reflect on the progress made in the fight against radicalisation and violent extremism. Indeed, while Europe is not new to terrorism or to violence used to impact political changes, today’s phenomenon of radicalisation that can lead to terrorism is complex, difficult to explain, and even more problematic to address.
The complexity of the phenomenon of radicalisation starts with its definition. While the term is key in public discourse about terrorism, there is no scholarly consensus on how to define it. One of the dangerous consequences of this lack of consensus across is that for a long time there has often been a form of denial and lack of recognition of the issue itself. Over the past three years, the widespread use of the term seems to have found at least a set of factors. Among them, the role of ideology has been recognised as key in the process of radicalisation and the European Commission clearly stated that the term defines a complex phenomenon of people embracing a radical ideology that could lead to committing acts of terror.
Other important steps have been taken in the field of research about roots causes and prevention measures in Belgium and across Europe. During the last three years, there has certainly been a growing awareness and a greater commitment to tackling the “us versus them” narratives that constitute a serious threat to the social cohesion and the values of liberal democracies. Preventing vulnerable people from becoming radicalised is among the top priorities in the European Union’s agenda. It is an important step to protect the future of individuals, their communities, and their countries, irrespective of their religious, political, or ethnic background.
The issue of repatriating foreign fighters underlines the fact that the military defeat of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq will not prevent the spread of its totalitarian ideology across the world. As long as the violent narrative of ISIS resonates with individuals and groups there will continue to be a risk that individuals, even acting alone from an operational perspective, may use violence. It is also critical not to underestimate the threat that so-called “non-violent” extremists present before they take root in society. Violence does not occur at random and it is not only physical; it is also cultural.
The 2018 Europol Report on terrorism not only reconfirms jihadism as the most lethal threat Europe is facing but also highlights the frequent connection between extremely conservative religious groups and recruitment for terrorism. In this context, ISIS ideology and, more broadly, radical Islam – should be carefully monitored by the authorities and local communities.
Supporting and empowering community individuals, amplifying the critical role of local practitioners in establishing and maintaining trust and cooperation between policy makers, law enforcements and local front-line professionals, is key to tackle polarisation, radicalisation, and extremism. Governments, in close cooperation with civil society, should adopt a broader optic, and enforce policies of different kind (both educational and repressive, according to the cases) aimed at preventing and countering the spread of totalitarian ideologies as well as behaviours infringing on people’s individual freedoms – before their promoters have the chance to become violent.
A multiagency approach is crucial. On 20 March, the Third Annual Conference on terrorism hosted by the European Foundation for Democracy and the European Policy Centre will bring together different actors from European institutions, national governments, security services and civil society to reflect on how all the actors involved in the prevention of radicalisation can better share their efforts to attain the same result: a better future for Europe.