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New Insurrectional Terrorism ignites individual terrorism in Europe

by Claudio Bertolotti

From Africa to Afghanistan: Europe looks with concern at jihadist exaltation

The Islamic State no longer has the strength to dispatch terrorists to Europe as the loss of territory, financial strenght and recruits reduced its operational capability to zero. However, the threat remains significant due to the availability and action of lone actors, self-starters driven by emulation without a direct link to the organization.

While on the ideological level the Islamic State remains the main jihadist threat, it is however unlikely that it will be able to replicate the overwhelming appeal the “Caliphate” enjoyed in the 2014-2017 period, as it lost the advantage of novelty, which constituted its strength, particularly with younger people. In addition, both from a legislative and operational perspective, Europe has been able to significantly reduce its own vulnerabilities, although there were greater achievements in terms of counter-terrorism rather than prevention. On the whole, however, the scenario remains uncertain due to the risks connected to copycat attacks (“effetto emulativo” in Italian) and the “call to war” issued in relation to international events, which can mobilise individuals in the name of jihad. The most important event which occured in 2021 that has provided and will continue to provide impetus with respect to transnational jihad is the success of the Taliban in Afghanistan as, on the one hand, it feeds jihadist propaganda via the underlying message that “victory results from fighting to the bitter end”; on the other hand, it fuels a competition between jihadist groups engaged in exclusively local forms of struggle and resistance and those which, like the Islamic State, understand and promote jihad solely as an means of fighting to the bitter end on a global level.

In this overall and constantly evolving picture, we must pay attention to growing extremist forces in some areas of Africa, specifically in sub-Saharan Africa, the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and, furthermore, in Rwanda and Mozambique, in order to counter the rise of new “caliphates” or “wilayats” that could directly threaten Europe.

In its prolific jihadist propaganda, the Islamic State boasts of its spread throughout the African continent and emphasizes how the goal of countering the presence and spread of Christianity will lead the group to expand into other areas of the continent. In the Maghreb, Mashreq and Afghanistan, the activities of the Islamic State are centered around the intra-Muslim sectarian struggle, while in Africa its presence imposes itself as part of a conflict between Muslims and Christians with the help of propaganda insisting on the need to stop the conversion of Muslims to Christianity by “missionaries”, and under the “pretext” of humanitarian aid.  Within this context, there’s no shortage of violence taking place; kidnappings and murders of religious missionaries, attacks against NGOs and international missions from Burkina Faso to Congo, and attacks on Christian villagers, especially during Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

A drop in attacks, but the threat of terrorism persists

Over the past three years, from a quantitative perspective, the frequency of terrorist attacks remained linear. From 2017 to 2020, 457 attacks took place in the European Union, the United Kingdom and Switzerland, including failed and foiled attacks: from 2014 to 2017, their number stood at 895.

In 2020, there were 119 attacks -including 62 in the UK and 2 in Switzerland-. According to Europol (TeSat 2020) 43% of those are attributed to radical left-wing movements (with a decrease from 26 to 25); 24% to separatist and ethno-nationalist groups; 7% to far-right groups (compared to 2019, there was an increase in percentage yet they decreased in absolute term); 26% are jihadist actions. Although jihadist violence is marginal compared to the total number of actions motivated by other ideologies, it remains the most relevant and dangerous in terms of results, the victims it causes -from 16 victims in 2020 to 13 in 2021- and direct effects.

In the wake of major terror events linked to the Islamic State group in Europe, 165 jihadist actions have taken place from 2014 to 2021, according to START InSight’s database; of those, 34 were explicitly claimed by the Islamic State; they were perpetrated by 219 terrorists (63 were killed in action); 434 victims lost their lives and 2,473 were injured.

The number of jihadist events recorded in 2021 stands at 18, down slightly from the 25 attacks of the previous year, but with an increase in the percentage of “emulative” actions – meaning, actions inspired by other attacks that occured over the previous days-; from 48% in 2020, they rose to 56% in 2021 (in 2019, they stood at 21%). 2021 also confirmed the predominance of individual, un-organized, mainly improvised and unsuccessful actions that progressively replaced the structured and coordinated actions which had characterized the European urban “battlefield” in the years from 2015 to 2017.

The “European” terrorists

Active terrorism is a male prerogative: out of 207 attackers, 97% are male (7 are women); unlike in 2020, when there were 3 female attackers, 2021 did not record the active participation of women.

The median age of the 207 terrorists (male and female) is 26: a figure which varies over time (from 24 years of age in 2016, to 30 in 2019). The biographical data of 169 individuals for whom we have complete information allow us to draw a very interesting picture which tells us that 10% are younger than 19, 36% are between 19 and 26, 39% are between 27 and 35 and, finally, 15% are older than 35.

88% of the attacks (where we have complete information) were carried out by second and third-generation “immigrants” and first-generation immigrants, both legal and irregular.

Of the 154 out of 207 terrorists analyzed through START InSight’s database, 45% are legal immigrants; 24% are descendants of immigrants (second or third generation); 19% are irregular immigrants; this last figure is growing, rising to 25% in 2020 and doubling to 50% in 2021. The presence of an 8% of citizens of European origin who have converted to Islam is significant. Overall, 77% of terrorists are regular residents of Europe, while the role of irregular immigrants stands out with a ratio of about 1 for every 6 terrorists. In 4% of the attacks, children/minors (7) were found to be among the attackers.

The ethno-national map of terrorism in Europe

The phenomenon of jihadist radicalization in Europe afflicts certain national/ethnic groups more than others. There is a proportional relationship between the main immigrant groups and terrorists, as it seems to appear from the nationality of the terrorists, or of the families of origin, which is in line with the size of foreign communities in Europe. The Maghrebi origins prevail: the ethno-national groups mainly affected by jihadist adherence are Moroccan (in France, Belgium, Spain and Italy) and Algerian (in France).

Increase in recidivism and individuals already known to intelligence

The role played by repeat offenders – individuals already convicted of terrorism who carry out violent actions at the end of their prison sentence and, in some cases, in prison – is prominent; they accounted for 3% of the terrorists in 2018 (1 case), then rose to 7% (2) in 2019, to 27% (6) in 2020, and were down to a single case in 2021. This seems to confirm the social danger represented by individuals who, in the face of a prison sentence, tend to postpone the conduct of terrorist actions; this evidence points to a potential increase in terrorist acts over the coming years, coinciding with the release of most terrorists currently detained.

Parallel to repeat offenders, START InSight found another significant trend, which is related to actions carried out by terrorists already known to European law enforcement or intelligence agencies: they account for 44% and 54% of the total in 2021 and 2020 respectively, compared to 10% in 2019 and 17% in 2018.

There is a certain stability related to participation in terrorist actions by individuals with a prison history (including those detained for non-terrorist offenses) with a figure of 23% in 2021, slightly down from the previous year (33% in 2020) but in line with 2019 (23% in 2019, 28% in 2018 and 12% in 2017); this confirms the hypothesis that sees prisons as places of radicalization.

Is the offensive capacity of terrorism being reduced?

In order to draw a precise picture of terrorism, one needs to analyse the three levels on which terrorism itself develops and operates, and that is the strategic, the operational and the tactical. Strategy consists in the employment of combat for the purpose of war; tactics is the employment of troops for the purpose of battle; the operational level is between these two. This is a simple summary which underlines an essential feature: that is, the employment of fighters. 

Success at the strategic level is marginal

16% of the actions were successful at the strategic level, as they brought about structural consequences consisting in a blockade of national and/or international air/rail traffic, mobilization of the armed forces, far-reaching legislative interventions. This is a very high figure, in consideration of the limited organizational and financial capabilities of the groups and lone attackers. The trend over the years has been uneven, but it highlighted a progressive reduction in capability and effectiveness: 75% of strategic success was recorded in 2014, 42% in 2015, 17% in 2016, 28% in 2017, 4% in 2018, 5% in 2019, 12% in 2020 and 6% in 2021. Overall, attacks garnered international media attention 79% of the time, 95% domestically, while organized and structured commando and team-raid actions received full media attention. An evident, as much as sought after, media success that may have significantly affected the recruitment campaign of aspiring martyrs or jihad fighters, whose numerical magnitude remains high in correspondence with periods of heightened terrorist activity (2016-2017).But while it is true that mass media amplification has positive effects on recruitment, it is also true that this attention tends to diminish over time, due to two main reasons: the first, is the prevalence of low-intensity actions over high-intensity actions – which have been decreasing – and on low- and medium-intensity actions – which increased significantly from 2017 to 2021. The second, is that public opinion is increasingly inured to terroristic violence and consequently less ‘touched’, particularly by “low” and “medium intensity” events.

The tactical level is worrisome, but it is not the priority of terrorism

Assuming that the aim of terrorist attacks consists in killing at least one enemy (in 35% of the cases, the targets are security forces), this aim has been achieved over the period from 2004 to 2021 on average in 50% of the cases. However, it should be taken into account that the large time frame tends to affect the margin of error; the trend over the 2014-2021 period, hints at a decline in the results of terrorism, with a prevalence of low-intensity attacks and an increase in actions with a failed outcome at least until 2019. The results of the last six years in particular, show that success at a tactical level was obtained, in 2016, in 31% of the cases (against 6% of formally unsuccessful acts), while 2017 recorded a success rate of 40% and a failure rate of 20%. An overall trend that, when taking into consideration a 33% success rate at the tactical level, a doubling of failed attacks (42%) in 2018 and a further downward figure of 25% success rate in 2019, can be read as a result of the progressive decrease in the operational capability of terrorists and the increased reactivity of European security forces. But if the analysis suggests a technical capability that has indeed been reduced, it is also true that the improvised and unpredictable character of the new individual and emulative terrorism has led to an increase in successful actions, growing from 32% in 2020 to 44% in 2021.

The real success is at operational level. The “functional blockade”

Even when it fails, terrorism gains, in terms of the costs inflicted upon its target: e.g. by engaging the armed forces and Police in an extraordinary way, distracting them from normal routine activities and/or preventing them from intervening in support of the community; by interrupting or overloading the health services; by limiting, slowing down, diverting or stopping collective urban, air and naval mobility; by restricting the regular course of daily personal, commercial and professional activities, to the detriment of affected communities and, moreover, by significantly reducing the technological advantage, the operational potential and resilience; and finally, more in general, by inflicting direct and indirect damage, regardless of the ability to cause casualties. Consistently, the limitation in the freedom of citizens is a measurable result that terrorism obtains through its actions.

In other words, terrorism is successful even in the absence of victims, as it can still impose economic and social costs on the community and influence the latter’s behaviour over time as a consequence of new security measures aimed at safeguarding the community: this effect is what we call the “functional blockade”.

The ever-decreasing operational capability of terrorism notwithstanding, the “functional blockade” continues to be the most significant result obtained by terrorists, regardless of tactical success (killing of at least one target). While tactical success has been observed in 34% of the attacks which took place since 2004, terrorism has proven its effectiveness by inducing a “functional blockade” in an average of 82% of the cases, with a peak of 92% in 2020 and 89% in 2021: an impressive result, when considering the limited resources deployed by terrorists. The cost-benefit ratio is, no doubt, in favour of terrorism.


Michele Brunelli (ed.), Understanding radicalisation, terrorism and de-radicalisation. Historical, socio-political and educational perspectives from Algeria, Azerbaijan and Italy (Book Review)

By Andrea Carteny, Elena Tosti Di Stefano

In recent decades, radicalisation and terrorism have come to the forefront of International Relations, giving rise to a wealth of conceptualisations and study perspectives, which shed light on the multiple, diverse connections between terrorist phenomena, radical ideologies, and global, regional, or local conflicts. Particularly relevant in this respect is the need to consider factors such as ethnicity, religion, historical heritages, as well as migration. Such consideration is even more salient if the military dimension of counteraction is flanked – and sometimes replaced – by prevention, deterrence, and integration strategies involving the educational, economic, and social resilience spheres.

It is on this premise that the volume Understanding radicalisation, terrorism and de-radicalisation. Historical, socio-political and educational perspectives from Algeria, Azerbaijan and Italy was developed.Published by Rubbettino in the editorial series “Laboratorio sull’Intelligence dell’Università della Calabria”, the collective work presents the results of an intense and fruitful two-year research activity carried out within the project PRaNet – Prevention of Radicalisation Network (2019-2021).

The PRaNet project, led by the Italian University of Bergamo, entails the creation of a university network between the latter institution and two universities from countries belonging to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Algeria and Azerbaijan, with the aim of deepening knowledge and understanding of phenomena linked to radicalisation, as well as promoting social inclusion and developing de-radicalisation policies for integration purposes. Project activities have been implemented within the framework of the multiannual programme “Strategy for the Promotion of Italian Higher Education Abroad 2017/2020”, jointly supported by the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research (MIUR) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MAECI). These include, in addition to research initiatives, exchanges of students, teachers, researchers, and trainees through ad hoc programmes, such as the MaRTe Master’s degree at the University of Bergamo in “Prevention and Fight Against Radicalisation, Terrorism and for International Integration and Security Policies”, as well as vocational activities at the University Mohamed Lamine Debaghine (Sétif 2), in Algeria, and the ADA University fi Baku in Azerbaijan.

The book draws on the consolidated experience of Michele Brunelli, Professor of History and Institutions of Islamic Societies at the University of Bergamo and Director of the Master MaRTe, who has coordinated international projects concerning de-radicalisation and prevention of violent extremism in Algeria, Azerbaijan and Burkina Faso, and edited, also last year and for the same publishing house, the volume Prevention and countering of confessional terrorism and radicalisation.

The scientific quality of the book derives not only from addressing, through various perspectives, the main key-categories for understanding terrorism (definition, causality, consequences, and response), but also from analysing the historical, cultural, and socio-economic factors relating to the phenomena of radicalisation, terrorism, anti-terrorism, and de-radicalisation, taking as case studies three different confessional contexts: Italy, as a traditionally Christian society; Algeria, a Sunni Islamic country; and Azerbaijan, characterised by a Shia Muslim majority but a prevailingly secular society.

As the title suggests, the study revolves around three concepts – radicalisation, terrorism, and de-radicalisation – which are in turn the subjects of the three sections of the book respectively.

The first section scrutinises the complex relationship between radicalisation and the question of minorities and identity cleavages. Lala Jumayeva, Assistant Professor in International Affairs at the ADA University of Baku with an expertise in conflict resolution, investigates the link between ethnic minorities and radicalisation in the Caucasian area, while Naouel Abdellatif Mami, Professor of Psycho-pedagogical Sciences and Foreign Languages at the University Sétif 2, deals with the issue of identity and freedom of expression as drivers of extremism in the Algerian context. Šeila Muhić, Researcher at the University of Bergamo specialised in the field of human rights, explores the migration phenomenon in Italy as a potential fertile ground for radicalisation. Further insights are offered by the second chapter of the section, which brings together a series of essays on female radicalisation and women victims or actors of terrorism. Anar Valiyev, also a Professor at ADA University and an expert on history and institutions of the post-Soviet space, discusses case of ISIS in relation to women and children victims of radicalisation in Azerbaijan, with particular reference to Salafist environments. Next, Naouel Abdellatif Mami examines the condition of women in Algerian history, focusing on the “black decade” (1991-2002) as well as on women’s role in the development of approaches to resilience. The last study of the second chapter, carried out by Emilija Davidovic – an expert on human rights in the post-Yugoslavian scenario – concerns the involvement of women in extremist violence in the European (Western and Balkan) context. The third chapter then provides a broad overview of the phenomenon of political-religious radicalisation in post-Soviet Azerbaijan, which mainly affects minority religious and ethnic communities (Sunni and alloglot).

The second section of the book addresses terrorism and its several conceptualisations. First, Ilas Touazi, Researcher at the University Sétif 2 with an expertise in terrorism/counter-terrorism, presents an analysis of the jihadist threat in Algeria, placing emphasis on the transnationalisation of local terrorism. Professor Michele Brunelli subsequently explores the evolution of politically and ideologically motivated terrorist crimes in the European scenario, notably in Italy. The book continues with the contribution of Aydan Ismayilova, a graduate of the MaRTe Master’s course and an expert on jihadism, who examines terrorist phenomena in the Caucasus area, focusing on Armenian terrorist movements and religious extremist groups. Further food for thought is provided by the fifth chapter, which includes research contributions on critical infrastructure as the main targets of terrorist attacks. As such, Inara Yagubova (Project Manager at the ADA University of Baku) deals with the terrorist threat to energy infrastructure in Azerbaijan, while Nabil Benmoussa, Professor of Economics at the University Sétif 2, analyses the economic implications of terrorism in Algeria and the related policies of contrast. The essay written by Fabio Indeo, Analyst at the NATO Defense College Foundation and expert in energy geopolitics of Central Asia, explains the vulnerabilities and the strategies of protection of European critical infrastructure, also in light of the new challenges posed by cybercrime. Afterwards, Commander Mario Leone Piccinni, Officer of the Italian Guardia di Finanza and specialist in cybercrime, outlines the intricate financing systems of terrorist organisations at the international and local level.

The third and last section deals with de-radicalisation policies and strategies. The seventh chapter hence investigates counter-terrorist responses, with a first essay by Stefano Bonino, a criminologist expert in terrorism and organised crime, who discusses Algerian counter-terrorist strategies – from the most repressive ones to “soft” measures. As for the other two countries under consideration, counter-terrorism and radicalism activities in the Azerbaijani context are examined by Anar Valiyev, while the Italian case is carefully analysed by Stefano Bonino and Andrea Beccaro, the latter being Professor of Strategic Studies and War Studies at the University of Turin and the State University of Milan respectively. The following chapter puts emphasis on the role of education in preventing and responding to terrorism and radicalism, as clearly emerges from the case study of Azerbaijan, here discussed by Valiyev. Likewise, Benmoussa outlines the recent educational reforms in Algeria, conceived as part of the response to these phenomena; Šeila Muhić, for her part, illustrates the programmes of civil society involvement to counter violent extremism at the European level. Last but not least, the ninth chapter closes the book with an essay by Karim Regouli (Researcher at the University Sétif 2) on the delicate process of reconciliation in Algeria after the decade of violence triggered by Islamic terrorism.

For the breadth of the topics it covers, for the multiplicity of perspectives it offers and for the originality of the comparative case studies, the book provides a significant contribution to research on radicalisation and terrorism, representing, furthermore, an invaluable reference for developing effective counteraction policies. Among recent studies, the volume ranks amongst the most relevant on such topics, together with – inter aliaCommunities and Counterterrorism (Routledge, 2019), edited by Basia Spalek and Douglas Weeks, Countering Violent Extremism. The international deradicalisation agenda (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021) by Tahir Abbas, as well as “Countering International Terrorism, with particular reference to the phenomenon of foreign fighters” edited by the Società Italiana per l’Organizzazione Internazionale (SIOI) in 2019.

Understanding radicalisation, terrorism and de-radicalisation. Historical, socio-political and educational perspectives from Algeria, Azerbaijan and Italy undoubtedly constitutes a point of reference for scholars and experts, as well as for national and international institutions. The adopted multidisciplinary approach – historical, political-institutional, economic, social, operational, and socio-educational – provides for a comprehensive and articulated framework, which can be applied not only to religiously motivated terrorism and radicalisation, but also to the many historical-political expressions of such phenomena.


The new horizons of radicalisation

by Chiara Sulmoni

The pandemic of extremism

   On a global scale, terrorism has (long) tended to make fewer victims, despite a wider geographical spread and the fact that, particularly in Syria and sub-Saharan Africa, the threat has grown. This is the picture drawn by the Global Peace Index (GPI) 2021, which measures the impact of a series of indicators on the peacefulness of nations. The same document depicts an international context where, on the one hand, “the conflicts and crises that emerged in the past decade have begun to abate”; on the other, COVID19 brought about new tensions. Between January 2020 and April 2021, there were more than 5’000 pandemic-related violent events. The economic, social and even psychological impact of the different measures put in place to contain the spread of the virus helped create the conditions for a rise in extremism and in the number of militants and supporters of various causes, including conspiracy theories – be it of a political, identity, anti-technological, no-vax nature – which found their echo in anti-government protests and demonstrative actions, such as dozens of attacks against 5G masts suspected of spreading COVID19; disruptions at vaccination centers; and threats directed at scientists, politicians and even, as occasionally reported in Italy, shopkeepers and restaurateurs requesting their clients to exhibit Green Passes. On the Internet and in the streets, different orientations more frequently happen to coexist and overlap, converging temporarily on common causes and battles and/or driven by the aim of increasing their own visibility and support base.

   According to terrorism expert Ali Soufan, in the future law enforcement, analysts and researchers might look to 2020 as a watershed moment in terms of recruitment by non-state actors. It should be emphasized, however, that the significant and progressive increase in protests, civil unrest and political instability has been captured by the GPI since 2011; this is a particularly pronounced trend in the United States, where the scale of the problem clearly came to light on 6th January, 2021 when a diverse crowd of supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump, convinced that they could overturn the outcome of the vote, felt legitimized by the narrative of the “stolen elections” – which was pushed forth by some in the political spectrum and the media – to storm the Capitol. The insurrection against the transfer of power between the two American administrations, which caused five victims and left a hundred others wounded, generated a greater, albeit belated, awareness of the risks associated with an internal extremist drift which has now become a priority issue for national security. The 700 plus individuals who were arrested and prosecuted – including a 12% with a military background, according to data gathered by the Program on Extremism at George Washington University – are a jumble of exponents, supporters and sympathizers of various ideologies and acronyms linked to the worlds of white supremacism, neo-Nazism, armed militias and the conspiracy universe (QAnon above all), who were identified and incriminated also thanks to their activities and interactions, fully visible on social platforms.  A substantial part of these citizens did not appear to be officially affiliated to any organization; in this context, some experts today speak of mass radicalization.

The new normal of radicalization, shifting profiles and risks

   Twenty years since the attacks of 11th September, which opened a long chapter in the fight against terrorism at the national and international levels that took various shapes – from military interventions to the strengthening of police and intelligence measures, from legislative changes to more interdisciplinary study of the subject, to prevention and de-radicalization initiatives – not only has the threat not vanished; today, it is more widespread, fragmented and complex to deal with. The ecosystem of violent extremism is characterized by strong competition, but also by a growing exposure to the strategies, tactics and “perceived victories” of ideologically distant groups – analysts have not failed to point out, for example, the attention paid by far-right circles to the “success” of the Taliban, whose return to power after a long insurgency doesn’t merely motivate al-Qaeda and / or fighters within the jihadist galaxy, but also other (armed) groups who make “traditional society” their bulwark, oppose liberal values in the West and/or aspire to civil conflict. The proximity and sometimes the cohabitation of themes – e.g. jihadist vis-à-vis Accelerationst – narratives and symbolism does not entail a watering down of ideological principles or beliefs but rather, as one can read in a research on the subject (ICSR, January 2022), “an enhanced focus on results over practice”. With reference to the Salafi-jihadist sphere, in ReaCT2022 Michael Krona also explains that “supporter groups online are expanding the terrorism universe by forming new entities that are less inclined to attach themselves to a single organisation and instead promote wider ideological interpretations (…)“. Today, the production of propaganda and extremist narrative – but also calls for action – are no longer a prerogative of terrorist movements’ media, but an operation which sees the significant contribution of a large base of followers and militants acting on their own, both with regard to the creation of new content – where topics might differ from those addressed by the group’s official channels – and to its dissemination; a large number of indictments and convictions for crimes related to terrorism (not only of a jihadist nature) actually concern activities such as collection, assembly and dissemination of material which might also be useful for planning attacks. Because of this fragmentation, the tech giants’ battle to “clean up the Internet” is far from easy, due to the skills of those “instigators” in disguising the content of posts and accounts; in deceiving algorithms; in migrating from platform to platform (including those popular with youngsters, like TikTok) and in moving along grey areas and through encrypted Apps.

Britain is among the European countries most affected by terrorism and radicalization and for this reason, it anticipates and provides very important data and food for thought. Recently Dean Haydon, Senior National Coordinator for Counterterrorism Policing outlined the new profiles that are changing the equation in the country: in short, according to the latest trend, it’s more common today to come across individuals of British origins or nationality, increasingly young and attracted to the ideologies of the extreme right, who self-radicalize online and act on their own initiative. But 2020/21 data on referrals for suspected radicalisation to the Prevent programme -which steps in when people are thought to manifest early signs of extremism – reveal that 51% of the cases concern “mixed, unstable or unclear ideologies” (MUU).  Considering that there’s also a very high percentage, a preponderance even of situations where mental health problems, addiction and/or other difficulties might play a role – making youth particularly vulnerable to online propaganda – violence prevails over ideology as a motivating factor, as a channel for venting personal discomfort and – according to experts – as a means to “acquire significance”.  As a remarkable number of people suffering from autism spectrum disorder have entered the Prevent circuit, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation Jonathan Hall stated that “it is as if a social problem has been unearthed and fallen into lap of counter-terrorism professionals.” Within this context, radicalization takes on the connotations of a public health problem that must be studied and addressed from a broader perspective than the one adopted till now, which placed a strong emphasis on the role of ideology and consequently, with a view to countering the phenomenon, on counter-narrative. An attack which took place in August 2021 in Plymouth, where a 22-year-old who was familiar with the incel environment shot 7 people before taking his own life, is emblematic of the various nuances that make the task of identifying what new forms of violence represent a terrorist threat particularly difficult. Well-known in the United States and relatively new to Europe, incels are “involuntary celibates”, individuals who fail to establish a relationship with the opposite sex; scholars explain that within this “bubble” – which is also dubbed incel “culture” and is endowed with its own specific jargon – one can come across resentment and hate speech spurring violence against women. More generally, it harbors a mix of misogynist, racist, anti-Semitic and conspiracy beliefs. From March to November 2021, there was a six-fold increase in visits by British users – which include children aged 13 and over – to the three main online forums linked to incel ideology (data collected by The Times with the Centre for Countering Digital Hate). Official statistics say that 2021 set a record in the number of children arrested for terrorist offences.

The new horizons of radicalization are not to be observed solely in the Anglo-Saxon world; with reference to jihadism, the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service in their 2020 Report had already drawn attention to individuals “whose radicalisation and violent tendencies are rooted more in personal crises or psychological problems than in ideological conviction. The frequency of such acts of violence, which have only a marginal link to jihadist ideology or groups, will in general remain the same or possibly even increase.”  Within the same year, the first two such attacks in Switzerland took place in Morges and Lugano with the perpetrators – a man and a woman – fitting this description.

Rethinking radicalisation with a view to prevention

Over the past 15 years, security policies and counterterrorism initiatives focused mainly on propaganda and recruitment by al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and related groups. Jihadism does remain the form of terrorism causing more victims; Europol itself reports that in 2020 – possibly also due to the pressure of the pandemic on security forces? – the number of attacks which were carried out exceeded that of foiled/failed ones and more than doubled, compared to the previous year. However, as previously highlighted, there’s today a new risk emanating from a post-organized reality, where militants and (potential) terrorists are only vaguely inspired by the Islamic State; they act independently and alone, yet “exalt” and encourage one another in group, within communities and ecosystems. Outside of the academic environment, this aspect of (re)socialization – the search for a sense of sharing and acceptance, be it in a real or virtual community – is not always sufficiently grasped; yet, it is paramount in order to fully understand the process of radicalization, which lists social exclusion among its most significant triggers. Today, society at large is characterized by similar dynamics of belonging and identification with a movement or cause, in opposition to others; concurrently with strong polarization and growing “social encapsulation”, these are all elements favoring the incubation of extremism. From this perspective, the battle against conspiracy theories and fake news, which are embedded in the narratives of many, more or less violent acronyms – especially those linked to the far-right – acquires strategic significance and calls for more awareness on the part of politics and the media. Due to the many facets of social problems which might lead to violence at this historical moment, it is the time to “rethink radicalization” by paying more attention to the sociological and psychological aspects, with a view to enhancing prevention – which does not consist in repression by means of security / Police interventions in the pre-criminal phase, but rather in being engaged on the ground and in planning activities aimed at strengthening support networks where social and personal hardships may manifest at the local level. As highlighted in ReaCT2021, this approach implies long-term collaboration among different actors (NGOs, public and private institutions, civil society, families) and constant dialogue among researchers, field operators, law enforcement agencies and legislators. Faced with terrorism’s creativity and adaptability, as well as with the new normal of radicalisation which defines the current era, updating approaches and tools at our disposal to counter this threat is of the utmost importance.