Islamist radicalisation in Europe has become an issue of top concern in recent years. Strategists, political scientists, but also writers from a series of other academic fields, from anthropology to psychology and economics have discovered it as a promising and fruitful area to search for novelty in explanation and method in description. Security strategies of both European nations and the EU as a whole deal with the terrorist threat, but also more and more with what has been labelled ‘homegrown’ terrorism, radicalisation and recruitment; the radicalisation and recruitment of usually young Muslims or converts, second or third generation Europeans on the verge of waging the jihad, abroad and on the continent. If during the three years after 9/11 Europe could deny or ignore the development of jihadi networks on its territory and their potential to inflict damage and loss of life, the Madrid attacks in 2004, followed by those in London a year later brought the chilling awareness that ‘there is a problem’. Suddenly, from one issue among many, Islamist terrorism and radicalisation soared up the agenda of priorities and, more than that, a sense of urgency emerged to map out and address the threat ‘in our midst’. It is perhaps this sense of urgency that has led to a substantial amount of resources and ideas being invested in slick accounts of the situation, with little data and loose connections to theory, and to equally quickly drafted policy initiatives – broad and ambitious, yet with little focus on the individuals of concern, namely radicals, not mosques and not communities. It has become almost a cliché to begin terror writings with the memory of the three great attacks on the West, 9/11, 3/11 and 7/7. It is perhaps a comfortable anchor for emotion, drama and surprise in the readership. What these dates and the memories and shock attached to them also show, however, is the great potential for mass killings to influence, arrest and perhaps even lead political agendas. It is not necessarily about the number of deaths. As an often mentioned parabola, by any statistical calculation the probability of dying in a car accident is significantly higher than that of dying in a terrorist attack. It is about the theatre of spectacular action, the amount of destruction and, indeed, the human loss at a single blow. These images remained in the collective mind and drive votes and drive politics to ‘do something about it’. In fact, were it not for them, for the consequences of Islamist terrorism, we would not have much debate about
radicalisation today. And eventually it is also these images which influence the subsequent explanation of why ‘they’ have done it. Because the terrorist product is death and destruction, because it is shocking and deeply abnormal, there has to be something equally abnormal about the people who perpetrate it. Accounts about how most terrorists seemed to lead normal lives, were polite and nice people in the eyes of their neighbours, family and friends, either remain unnoticed or simply add to the general shock and confusion. After several decades of psychological research and terrorist profiling, an uncontested fact emerges time and time again: that terrorists are not insane and do not suffer from personality disorders. In fact, they are normal people, or as Taylor and Quayle (1994: 14) put it, ‘essentially unremarkable people, in psychological terms disturbingly similar to their victims’. Yet they have done something terrible, something that most of us ‘normal’ people would not do. How does it happen then that normal people engage in abnormal acts? This kind of stark behavioural contradiction brings to mind the Milgram experiment where entirely sane and non-violent individuals would go so far as to inflict deadly pain under authority. The place to look for explanations would be perhaps not the individuals as such but the process; and whilst doing that be aware that specific acts, such as planting a bomb or lynching someone, have different mechanisms in the background than the overall involvement in a group or a movement. And finally, that those processes and mechanisms might in fact be essentially the same as the ones standing behind ‘normal’ decisions. The Milgram experiment is an extreme example of what individuals are capable of doing under the protection of ‘following orders’; in and of itself, however, pushing responsibility away under the pretext of following orders from a higher authority is a normal mechanism, in no way specific to certain people and not others. When looking at the biography of radical Islamists, the focus is usually set on unusual circumstances in their biographies. Things like wearing certain clothes, perhaps having shown signs of violence as an adolescent, family, school or professional problems are usually sought and sometimes also found. Apart from these, however – and they are usually not high in numbers – all other things that pertain to ‘normal’ life can also be found. Some of them had family, some worked full-time in a company next door or had one or two part-time jobs, some were teachers, some might have been regularly seen at the mosque or in the gym, and some were even known to engage in civic and community initiatives. Is there a matter of change from doing ‘normal’ things to doing ‘radical’ things, or is there an overlap? And if so, how can one explain the coexistence of both types of behaviour at certain points in time, in transition periods or indeed up until the end? In order to answer this type of question, one should not only be able to nicely cut normal from radical slices of life, but indeed also to define what is radical and what is not. What is a radical person, what ideas and behaviour can be categorised as radical, or are ideas in combination with, or only ideas, or only behaviour to be considered, and what kind of indicators can we use to measure them? Is wearing Taliban clothing or protesting against the Mohamed caricatures
already radical, or only once one starts preparing a terrorist attack? The first is something that also some conservative Muslims would do, the second something that many mainstream Muslim youth would do, while the third is already crossing the line towards ‘terrorism’, at which point talking about radicalisation seems somewhat obsolete. Is it enough when one adheres to a certain worldview such as the one propagated by Osama bin Laden, or would one have to do something about it in order to be labelled as an Islamist radical? Are we talking about radical opinion or behaviour or both? These are all questions that appear very basic and ones that should have been long clarified before even activating the main research question ‘why do people radicalise?’ Surprisingly, they are not. Definitions of radicalisation proliferate and the borders between what is considered radicalism and other types of -isms are quite fluid. Even more problematic than these aspects is the use of external features, socio-economic profiles and crisis events to construct explanations. If the aim of the research is to somehow try to understand people involved in Islamist radicalism, people who ‘radicalised’, can one assume that these types of ‘indicators’ would have something to say about how one gets involved and progresses through radicalisation? It must be actually quite easy to speak about somebody like an ‘it’ as long as that somebody is somewhere far away and what one knows is limited to numbers of casualties and some standard personality characteristics and socio-economic profiles. Equally comforting is usually to be able to find a punctual or general element of crisis, such as death or alienation to construct a powerful path of involvement, reactionary as it were. The problem with the first set is that these indicators do not say anything about what, why and how that person does, they only classify that person in a taxonomy; and the second is either too specific or too general. What this type of approach actually does is look for common features that radical individuals are hoped to possess, and ones that are specific to them and different from the rest of the people. This is undoubtedly doomed to failure since there will always be people who share those characteristics and do not get involved. Furthermore, as no personality profile could be established, no socioeconomic one can emerge either. Perhaps a more rewarding avenue to take is not to start off by asking what stands out, what are the differences to other people’s features but what are the commonalities? To go even further, one should perhaps leave out features altogether and inquire into the commonalities of the process. Whether or not the ‘end phase’ of the radicalisation process or some scattered acts of violence do or do not fit into what we consider as ‘normal behaviour’, the process towards and around these acts might be as ‘regular’ as any others. A starting point for this type of approach was the finding that, in essence, choices made by terrorists at the different levels of engagement are similar to any other type of choice (Taylor and Quayle 1994). If ‘normal’ people are not pushed into action by some personality or socio-economic factors, but usually make their decisions with the perspective of a certain gain, material or immaterial, why should this also not be the case for Islamist radicals? This goes beyond the idea of identifying special selective incentives for special people, but actually
postulates that the major drivers developing during radicalisation processes are in effect ‘normal’ motivational variables. This book is approaching the radicalisation process (and not just some of its components of mechanisms), and this is the main thrust of it, not as a different or deviant process, but as a type of process of occupational choice. Looking at the process from this perspective resolves the controversies around the impossibility of identifing an Islamist radical profile, be it psychological or socioeconomic and takes the ever-growing list of ‘determining factors’ out of the equation. Islamist radicals do not have specific psychological or socio-economic background features. Islamist radicals engage in a process of occupational choice along regular decision-making mechanisms in the same way in which regular people make decisions about their regular occupation. Having said that, it still remains unclear why some people would decide to become a jihadi and others not. And it still remains a fact that the outcome of terrorist behaviour and, towards the end of the process, the behaviour itself is different from that of most people, one could even say terrible or abnormal. How can we explain that? Assuming that everyone makes decisions based on essentially identical criteria, in this case things like status, success, material gain or social approval, the difference lies in the way these criteria are defined in the first place. A successful path for one individual might be irrelevant for another. The meaning of success might be obtaining a well-paid job in a bank, saving lives as a doctor, defending one’s country in a conflict or becoming a martyr. All these hypothetical people look for success, yet their understanding of success is different. This difference in the understanding and perception of success lies in differences as to what is valuable, wishful, worthy – a perception that forms in time and during interactions with the social environment. It is a perception through particular lenses which are gradually adopted and evolve during social processes and processes of production and formation of interpretation. It follows that, if the difference does not lie in the occupational process itself, the place to look for differences might be at the level of cognitive schemata on the basis of which the various types of motivation are formulated in the first place. The second major contribution of this book is to show how radical Islamist interpretative frameworks emerge, evolve and impact on the types of occupational motivation along the radicalisation process.