[BLOG POST] Revisiting the old debate on the ideology-violence relation

WRITTEN BY LORENZO VIDINO 

The events of January 6, 2021, dramatically and arguably unforeseeably brought to the fore of the public debate a topic that has been splitting terrorism scholars for decades: the relationship between political discourse and violence. Many lawmakers and commentators have argued that the words of former President Trump and some of his key supporters incited the storming of the US Capitol. In the wake of the shocking event, analysts revived the long-standing debate on if and how words lead to actions, a matter whose relevance is well beyond the academic world but has enormous implications in various realms, from legal to CVE-related.[1] 

While the differences between the two contexts are wide (and it is debatable whether the events of January 6th even qualify as terrorism, particularly under US law[2]), it might be useful to examine a related field in which the debate over the relationship between words and actions has been particularly heated in recent years: Islamism. Since September 11, scholars and policymakers, particularly in the West, have been endlessly debating whether the rhetoric of religiously inspired non-violent extremists is conducive to terrorism, providing a narrative that, while stopping short of directly inciting violence, when taken to its logical conclusion does lead some to engage in violent acts.[3] 

Opposing viewpoints on the subject either see extremist ideas as the one reason that drives individuals who engage in violence or, to the contrary, as an almost irrelevant factor. Arguably, many scholars and practitioners adopt some sort of middle ground, which postulates that extremist ideas are an important element that drives individuals to violence, but no less than other factors such as, for example, psychological traits. In substance, most analyses agree that most cognitive radicals, that is those individuals who embrace radical views, will never make the leap into violence, or act violently to achieve their ideological goals. That is, not all ‘radical’ views are necessarily violent, and, in fact, some even lead to positive and proactive change. At the same time, any analysis of terrorism that ignores the ideological side of the equation risks being flawed.[4] 

A 2008 analysis by the European Commission’s Expert Group on Violent Radicalization perfectly expressed this view by arguing that radicalization takes place “at the intersection of an enabling environment and a personal trajectory.”[5] If the “personal trajectory” refers to the psychological processes that shape the decisions of the radicalized individual, the “enabling environment” refers to the places, whether in the physical or virtual world, where individuals are often first introduced to a radical ideology and where they can subsequently develop and nurture their devotion to it. In substance, it is commonly believed that violent political behaviors are not born in a vacuum. Applied to what has been labeled as ‘jihadism’ in the European context, this line of thinking argues that non-violent Islamist (that is, Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood) milieus might provide an ideological antechamber to jihadism, disseminating a narrative upon which violent groups can easily build and priming individuals to be more acceptive to them. 

This theory has many supporters and detractors. A 2010 classified paper presented by the British government to the Cabinet’s Home Affairs Committee outlined a criticism of the argument: “It is sometimes argued that violent extremists have progressed to terrorism by way of a passing commitment to non-violent Islamist extremism, for example of a kind associated with al-Muhajiroun or Hizb ut Tahrir,” it stated. “We do not believe that it is accurate to regard radicalisation in this country as a linear ‘conveyor belt’ moving from grievance, through radicalisation, to violence … This thesis seems to both misread the radicalisation process and to give undue weight to ideological factors.”[6]

But more nuanced iterations of the so-called “conveyor belt” theory, which admit that only a few of those exposed and committed to radical ideas make the leap into violence and that the passage is co-determined by other individual factors, seems to be supported by an abundance of evidence that has come to light over the last decade.   

Arguably one of the most studied cases in this regard is that of al Muhajiroun, the militant group started in the United Kingdom by Omar Bakri in the mid-1990s and later led by Anjem Choudary. Al Muhajiroun, and the alphabet soup of entities that replaced it after it was banned by the British government in 2010, adopted a particularly un-scholarly and activist form of ultra-conservative Salafism, which made deliberately-provocative and publicity-seeking stunts their trademark. The group never engaged in violence in itself, and its leaders always made an effort not to fall astray of British terrorism laws. Yet, from the onset, a steady number of individuals sympathetic to al Muhajiroun, from core members to sympathizers who had attended a few of the group’s events, engaged in terrorism activities in both the UK and overseas. Tellingly, Raffaello Pantucci estimates that almost half (23 out of 51) of the terrorist attacks plotted or executed in Britain from 2000 to 2015 had an al Muhajiroun link.[7] 

By the same token, a substantial number of British foreign fighters who traveled to Syria after 2012 to join various jihadist groups appeared to have links to al Muhajiroun. Moreover, it is indeed the Syrian conflict that makes some of the abovementioned “conveyor belt” dynamics quite evident throughout Europe. One particularly illustrating example is that of Belgium, the European country that has provided the highest per capita number of foreign fighters.[8] During early 2010, the local spinoff of al Muhajiroun, Sharia4Belgium, made a name for itself using some of the very same tactics as their British counterparts: confrontational protests aimed at attracting media attention, disruption of events (e.g. they interrupted talks by certain secular Muslim activists and organized parades to welcome soldiers returning from war) and an aggressive online presence. It attracted a substantial following in some of the urban areas of Flanders and the Brussels area, but it did not engage in terrorist activities directly. 

Things changed dramatically and quickly in August 2012, as a handful of core Sharia4Belgium members left for Syria to join various jihadist outfits. In the early days they joined a broad array of outfits, practically whomever they could connect with. They then divided between the two main groups, Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra. Over the following months, larger numbers of Belgian aspiring jihadists followed them in an apparent “snowball effect:” many of the new travelers were second-tier Sharia4Belgium members, sympathizers, or personal contacts of first-tier members already in Syria.[9] Many of these foreign fighters had also been involved in two additional Salafist networks, the so-called Resto Tawhid network of Belgian convert Jean-Louis Denis, and the Zerkani network, which had attracted mostly individuals with a criminal background in the Molenbeek area of Brussels. None of these groups had engaged in violence before, but once the Syrian situation provided a location for active jihad, a large number of their followers mobilized.  

A similar dynamic took place in the neighboring Netherlands, where small, informal radical Salafist groups like Sharia4Holland, Straatdawah, and Behind Bars became active in early 2010.[10] These groups embraced the al Muhajiroun-style of activism and grew significantly more disenchanted with the views of the mainstream Salafist milieus in the Netherlands many of their members had originally been active in. This tension became more acute at the onset of the Syrian conflict, as the generally younger, Dutch-born, more militant members of the new organizations became frustrated at the mainstream Dutch Salafist milieus’ refusal to endorse participation in the conflict. The AIVD, the Dutch security services, so describes this evolution:  

At first, it was not clear what direction this new activist movement would take. Depending on the groups, by and large, their public message kept within the boundaries allowed by Dutch law. As did the methods used to disseminate it. Nonetheless, jihadist rhetoric and symbolism were used openly. The movement was led by jihadists, and it attracted supporters of the jihad. But there were no signs of any intention to commit acts of violence, and for a long time departures to join the struggle elsewhere were rare. Only with the emergence of Syria as a theatre of jihad did attention finally shift from dawah to actual participation in the holy war.

It continues in its analysis:

Several members of radical Islamist organisations such as Sharia4Holland and Behind Bars are among those that left to Syria to join the jihad. This is indicative of how blurred the line between radicalism and jihadism has become. These movements have created an environment in which people with similar ideas meet and develop radical ideas into jihadist ideologies.[11]

These dynamics are common virtually everywhere throughout Europe. In Germany, authorities long warned about the activities of the radical Salafist group Die Wahre Religion, a group led by charismatic Palestinian preacher Ibrahim Abou-Nagie. The group openly rejected democracy and advocated the death penalty for homosexuals and adulterers, but did not engage in violence. This dynamic changed with the Syrian conflict, as, according to German authorities, some 140 Die Wahre Religion members traveled to Syria and joined the Islamic State.[12] 

This trend led German security services to conclude that “the ideology spread by Salafists is the breeding ground for Islamist radicalisation towards jihadist Salafism and even towards recruitment for jihad[…] Salafist efforts constitute a significant security problem because of their inherent ideological affinity for violence and the radicalising effect of Salafist ideology,” stated the Bundesverfassungsschutz. “For members of the Salafist scene, it is only a small step towards actually using violence – as experiences from the past few years have shown.”[13] “There is a big twilight zone between the two currents of Salafism,” argues the same agency referring to quietist and jihadist Salafists. “Single individuals or groupings cannot always be clearly identified as belonging to one or the other. This is also due to the fact that both currents show an affinity towards violence.”[14]

Similarly, a comprehensive study of Salafism in Sweden conducted by the Swedish Defence University clearly demonstrated that several prominent leaders of the non-violent Swedish Salafist milieu served as “key bridge-builders within the Salafist environments and the more Salafi-Jihadist elements.”[15]  The report noted frequent overlaps between the two strands of the local Salafist movement, with jihadists and supposedly non-violent milieus sharing mosques, events, and lecture circles. 

An analysis of the dynamics that led the southern French city of Toulouse to become of the country’s main jihadist hubs constitutes another example of this phenomenon.[16] Salafists began attracting a following in some of the city’s more disadvantaged neighborhoods in the mid-1990s, largely taking over mosques controlled by the Tabligh and Muslim Brotherhood-linked networks. Charismatic Salafist preachers like Abdelkader Chaldi created a following among the local youth, in particular among individuals with a criminal background (the salafo-délinquants, as some in France, refer to those who embrace Salafism but still engage in the criminal activities they carried out before their conversion).

While many did not, several of the local youth who fell under the spell of Salafism eventually went on to engage in violence. One of the first ones was Mohamed Merah, who carried out a string of attacks in the Toulouse area in 2012 before dying in a shootout with French police. The phenomenon grew in size as the Syrian conflict exploded. The brothers Fabien and Jean-Michel Clain, prominent members of the Salafist scene in Toulouse’s Mirail neighborhood, travelled to Syria and brought with them scores of Toulousan youths. Many members of the local scene made the same leap, making the Toulousan contingent of foreign fighters one of France’s largest. 

Basing their analysis on Toulouse and several other cases in the country, various French scholars have made the argument that urban environments in which Salafists are particularly active often become radicalization hubs. Bernard Rougier speaks of “écosystèmes islamistes” for small areas of European cities in which Salafist influences are pervasive.[17] In these bubbles, according to Rougier, the Islamist narrative is constantly reinforced in many locations: in the neighborhood mosques and cultural associations, in the literature available at the halal butchery, in the stall on the pedestrian area, at the Islamic daycare, in the big events where some big sheikh from the Gulf comes to speak, at the sports club, in the phone shop and so on. As said, the majority of people who live in these “Islamist ecosystems” will not engage in violence. But, arguably, they constitute the ideal environments for jihadist messages, whether conveyed by in-person recruiters or simply spread online.

These examples from the last decade have clearly shown how complex the radicalization process is, and how the relationship between ideology and radicalization is not clearly defined. Analyses that focus just on socio-economic and individual psychological elements, as important as these two aspects are, capture only part of the picture. Ideas and their impact on specific individuals are an aspect that cannot be overlooked. Therefore, each radicalization trajectory and should be analysed individually and based on empirical evidence. Moreover, this analysis should be devoid of political passions. In this regard, it is noteworthy that some of the analysts that for years had vehemently negated the validity of the incitement factor applied to Islamists, have enthusiastically applied the concept to those politicians who egged their supporters to storm the US Capitol on January 6th. For any kind of terrorism-related event and radicalization process, no matter what ideology triggers it, our understanding is better served when dryly fact-based.      

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[1] For an article summing up many of these dabates, see Donald Holbrook and John Horgan, “Terrorism and Ideology: Cracking the Nut,” Perspectives on Terrorism, Volume 13, Issue 6, 2019.
[2Audrey Alexander and Kristina Hummel, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Mary McCord, Executive Director, Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, Georgetown University Law Center,” CTC Sentinel, Volume 14, Issue 3; Edvard Pettersson, “Insurrection? Sedition? Unpacking the Legal Issues From the Capitol Riot,” Bloomberg, January 14, 2021
[3]  See Alex P. Schmid, Violent and Non-Violent Extremism: Two Sides of the Same Coin? ICCT Research Paper, May 2014. 
[4] Peter R. Neumann, “The Trouble with Radicalization,” International Affairs, 89:4 (2013), 873-93.
[5] Radicalisation Processes Leading to Acts of Terrorism, report prepared by the European Commission’s Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation, May 15, 2008.
[6] Andrew Gilligan, “Hizb ut Tahrir is not a gateway to terrorism, claims Whitehall report,” The Telegraph, July 25, 2010.
[7] Raffaello Pantucci, We Love Death as You Love Life (Hurst, 2015).
[8] Van Ostaeyen, Pieter. 2016. “Belgian Radical Networks and the Road to the Brussels Attacks.” CTC Sentinel 9 (6).
[9] Van Ostaeyen, Pieter. 2016. “Belgian Radical Networks and the Road to the Brussels Attacks.” CTC Sentinel 9 (6). 
[10]The Transformation of Jihadism in the Netherlands: Swarm Dynamics and New Strength, AIVD, September 2014; Ineke Roex, “The rise of public dawa networks in the Netherlands: Behind Bars, Sharia4Holland, and Straatdawah,” in Lorenzo Vidino, Sharia4: Straddling political activism and jihad in the West, al Mesbar Studies and Research Centre, 2015.
[11] The Transformation of Jihad in the Netherlands: Swarm Dynamics and New Strength, AIVD, 2014. Available at: https://english.aivd.nl/publications/publications/2014/10/01/the-transformation-of-jihadism-in-the-netherlands , p.13 
[12] Robert Klages, “De Maizière: “Mit Religionsfreiheit nicht vereinbar,” Der Tagesspiegel, November 15, 2016.
[13] Salafist efforts, Bundesverfassungsschutz. Available at: https://www.verfassungsschutz.de/en/fields-of-work/islamism-and-islamist-terrorism/what-is-islamism/salafist-efforts
[14] Salafism in Germany: Proselytising efforts and jihad, Bundesverfassungsschutz.
[15] Magnus Ranstorp et. al, “Executive Summary: Between Salafism and Salafi: Jihadism,” Swedish Defence University, June 2018, http://fhs.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1313715/FULLTEXT01.pdf.
[16] Hugo Micheron, “Toulouse: la machine de prédication ou la fabrication sociale du jihadisme,” in Bernard Rougier, Les territoires conquis de l’islamisme (PUF, 2020). Pp. 225-51.
[17] Bernard Rougier, Les territoires conquis de l’islamisme (PUF, 2020)
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