Radicalisation Blog Series

Evidence about Islamist-inspired radicalisation and violence

- Shamit Saggar

Almost two decades on from 9/11 a substantial body of research knowledge has been gathered about the nature of Islamist-inspired radicalisation and violence in western countries. This contains many rich points of relevance to policymakers, and quite a lot that is not so obviously useful. So what is known and what insights for policy have resulted?

There are three areas in which there have been important breakthroughs in the evidence base informing policy formulation.

The first is about the prevalence of violent conspiracies and acts of violence. The traditional understanding suggested individual violent plots were rare outliers and that men of violence amounted to a tiny number. The Madrid attacks of March 2004 and the London attacks of July 2005 changed all that. Fresh evidence pointed to a small, hardened number of likely terrorists (a former boss of MI5 put the number at 1,800 in the UK in the late 2000s), but they were surrounded by a much larger circle of tacit support (arguably hundreds of thousands in the UK). The latter mattered since they were often equivocal about the use of violence and were – unknowingly – providing moral oxygen to the determined, small violent minority.

A big takeaway was to ask why those within this circle sat on the fence and did not act to prevent or, in some cases disrupt, actual terrorism. The evidence here is mixed. And it is likely that the human condition itself means people in general struggle to inform law enforcement agencies about their own nephew.

Secondly, we understand a great deal about religious and political grievance. The evidence points to the rapid and non-intuitive ways in which such grievance is transmitted, sometimes across continents and timeframes. This means that it was always hard for governments to tackle grievances that are themselves hard to pin down and often subjective.

A key insight has been that policy attempts to apprehend conspirators can easily go awry. For instance, the UK’s Prevent strategy has been dogged by claims it has created a curtain of suspicion across all British Muslims. If people are treated in this manner (or think they are), it is no wonder oppositional cultures take hold. The upshot is that Prevent and other interventions need to perform a delicate balancing act with even more care.

Thirdly, policy is messy. The two-decade effort to develop and deploy counter-terrorism (CT) policies has been a long slog. Many of the original causes that were the focus of policy remedies have become effects in their own right; and effects have turned into causes. It is not obviously clear where or how policy should begin to address the issues at stake when each point in the cycle is laced with shrill arguments about the objectives of the exercise.

The upshot is there is a calcified standoff: the wisdom of dealing with downstream issues (catching those who are intent on harm) versus draining the swamp (challenging the values that give rise to separate cultures that feel at odds with western society). The ideal is to use policy slingshots to surgically address the problem with minimal collateral damage. But the reality is policy boomerangs, whereby the targets of policy are missed and damage is incurred to the political system at large. In many cases, it is clear reputational damage to western liberal democracy has been the price, and CT policies themselves have had such an unintended impact.

It is only right that scholars and practitioners should be probing and challenging what we know, what we don’t know and where narratives around evidence are half baked. We risk naivety otherwise.

Going forward, three key risks of bias stand out. First, there remain key imperfections in the evidence base, mostly arising from data limitations and practical shortcomings. Secondly, the scope of the policy problem and paradigms about causes, not surprisingly, shape priorities about the kind of evidence that matters most. And finally, there are important nuances in the evidence-policy nexus based on the implicit generalisations that are held by policymakers and practitioners.

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