Resisting radicalisation

From grassroots work to policy change: how can we tackle the root causes of terrorism, rather than fight its consequences alone? Lauren Razavi investigates

A minority of young people from countries worldwide are becoming radicalised and joining extremist groups. The latest figures from The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) estimate that 20,000 foreigners have joined the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, one fifth of them from western countries. More than 700 British people have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight for ISIS, according to police. At the same time, terror attacks continue to shake the world, with almost 300 incidents in 2015 alone. Events such as the Brussels airport attack in March dominate our headlines and social media feeds, making ‘foreign’ threats suddenly feel close to home.

Radicalisation’s causes are diverse and interconnected. In the Middle East, political instability, aggressive intervention by western powers, the absence of platforms for expression, and lack of employment opportunities, are among the factors that turn young people towards extremism. Not simply being a religiously motivated phenomenon, it has social, political and environmental influences.

Over the past five years of armed conflict in Syria, more than 250,000 citizens have lost their lives and more than 11 million have been forced from their homes. The country faced extreme drought between 2006 and 2009, which contributed to social unrest and ultimately the violent uprisings against president Bashar al-Assad in March 2011. The civil war has resulted in the disintegration of infrastructure in Syria, making the prospect of joining militant groups for employment opportunities, economic support and physical protection more attractive to some, as the Obama administration has argued.

In the west, some suggest that radicalisation is linked to a struggle for identity, fuelled by rhetoric on immigration, terrorism and freedom of expression that is increasingly alienating sections of society. Young British Muslims “are living inside a moral panic that has been constructed by the government and the tabloid press that depicts British Muslims as the un-British, violent, irrational and terrorist ‘other’,” Aminul Hoque, a lecturer in education at Goldsmiths University of London, argued in a column for academic journalism website The Conversation. “British Islam is actually a peaceful, spiritual and very ‘British’ community,” wrote Hoque. “The vast majority of people attracted to the ideology of terror, violence and murder suffer from deep social alienation and are psychologically disconnected from mainstream society.”

While the idea of rehabilitating extremists returning from groups such as ISIS and al-Qaida has been largely dismissed by western governments, Denmark believes this is could be an effective means of reducing radicalisation. A three-year pilot scheme called the Aarhus Model aims to help those who return from the Middle East to reintegrate with society, as long as they have not committed a crime under Danish law. A group of municipal employees from Copenhagen and Aarhus have been trained to support participants, who volunteer for the programme.

Away from formal politics, community groups and independent organisations are doing important work in the fight to resist and combat extremism. We spoke to experts conducting research in this space, activists working on the ground and individuals who have experienced radicalisation first-hand.



To combat radicalisation, the first and most important step would be to change western foreign policy, which pursues military and political intervention in Muslim majority nations. Second, there is a need to increase religious literacy so that western populations and in particular media and policymakers have a better understanding of religious belief. Third, that measures are taken to prevent Islamophobia and antisemitism in the west. Fourth, to increase interfaith and religious-secular dialogue and to challenge the faith position propounded by violent extremists. Fifth, to follow the Danish model in allowing extremists to return to Britain and be mentored.

The current barriers to all these initiatives are: a governmental denial that western foreign policy is a contributory factor in radicalisation; a view that all those radicalised are irrational and have to be killed or imprisoned rather than be rehabilitated; a lack of trust between government and mainstream Muslims and their organisations; and a lack of trust between mosques and Islamic centres and their communities when they are engaged with government counter-terrorism initiatives – which are rightly perceived to be targeting the Muslim community alone.

Lee Marsden’s research specialisms include religion, security and US foreign policy. He is author of six books including For God’s Sake:  The Christian Right and US Foreign Policy  (2013, Zed Books), and was a co-convenor  of the BISA US foreign policy working group between 2010 and 2013.




At Rand, our role in the space of countering violent extremism is to perform research and analysis to help direct future operations and help assess and improve current operations. When it comes to people joining groups like ISIS and al-Qaida, there is a very strong ideological and theological component, and therefore the US voice on this topic is not the most persuasive.

I do not think that people are joining ISIS because they have anti-American views or in response to US foreign policy. They are joining in part because they like the vision that Islamic State is offering them: a utopian Islamic society. Some may also feel a sense of alienation in the west. Because the US cannot effectively or credibly talk about Islamic theology, it is difficult for its message to be successful in  this space.

That puts the onus on local communities and organisations to do the lion’s share of work on this. There is a role for the US in helping those organisations achieve their objectives to the extent that they want US or international help. There is also a role for international organisations such as the UN’s Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund and Hedaya in Abu Dhabi, who can work with and support local actors in this space.

Todd Helmus’s research focuses on countering militant recruitment and reducing popular support for terrorism and insurgency. He has served as a policy advisor to the US government in both Iraq and Afghanistan.




In Tunisia, we have lived for years under dictatorship and censorship, so people have suffered from a lack of safe space in which to express themselves. For some people, when such a safe space does not exist, they resort to violence as a means of expression and can be easily manipulated. After studying in the UK, I decided to come back home to Tunisia in 2011 and contribute to the establishment of a debate programme with Young Arab Voices – the first of its kind, and still now the largest debate programme in the Arab region.

The idea behind it was that we would bring the young people who have lived their whole lives under censorship and dictatorship, and offer them the chance to express themselves. We wanted to channel and direct that freedom of expression in a way that is logical, tolerant and peaceful, in which a difference of opinions can be accepted. If you’re debating, you’re confronting different views than yours, but in a safe and respected manner.

Over the last four years, we have held training workshops all over Tunisia, in universities, high schools, cultural centres and youth clubs. We introduce participants to debating techniques and mentor them to become better debaters in the topics they feel are most important. Sometimes we ask them to take stands that are different from their own, encouraging them to defend a view they do not agree with in reality. We also hold debates competitions and public debates around once a week.

Samar Samir Mezghanni is a Tunisian children’s author and a PhD candidate in Middle Eastern studies at the University of Cambridge.




We combat radicalisation and extremism on as many levels as possible – through conducting research, working with governments on policy-making, on the ground, grassroots projects and spreading positive messages.

One of the most exciting projects we’re working on at the moment is within our creative arts department. This part of Quilliam turns our previous research and learning into messaging, and we’ve been using social media very actively to do this. Our #notanotherbrother campaign went viral and attracted half a billion impressions in its first seven days through YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. This campaign was an enormous success and was nominated for three Direct Marketing Association Awards last year.

This year, we’re planning to have a six-week Quilliam creative season. This is about taking all the knowledge and using all available types of art, campaigning and marketing to take all of this resilience building and countering extremism to the masses and mainstreaming it. We’ll be doing a play called Generation Jaded that is written by an award-winning writer, events around London, conferences with experts, a concert at a big venue and the Quilliam summer ball at the end of it. We feel this is a crucial part of building up a civil society coalition against radicalisation.

Quilliam is a British thinktank dedicated to countering and reversing extremism, particularly Islamism, through policy, engagement, education and research. The organisation acts as an advisor to the UK government, and regularly produces studies and reports.




AVE is home to hundreds of former violent extremists and survivors who work either daily or in their spare time to stem the flow of individuals into violent extremist groups, or to help those that are involved in these groups to disengage when they are ready.

Our members work across different ideologies, from the US to Indonesia and everywhere in between. Two of our members have been core to the classroom programme Extreme Dialogue. Students watch video stories of former extremists and survivors, and are led by their teacher to discuss the challenging issues that are associated with radicalisation.

Other AVE members use Facebook to identify at-risk groups, through key demographics such as age, location, interests and group memberships. They matched five former far-right extremists and five former Islamist extremists and used Facebook’s Pay To Message function to intervene. Over 60 per cent of the messages sent were seen by the recipient, and there was a high rate of sustained engagement for many cases. The project has indicated that achieving a long-term adjustment in behaviour may be possible, when trust is built.

The power of former extremists and survivors in countering violent radicalisation is unequivocal. They have been there, done that, seen it.  They know what works, and their experiences reverberate in the individuals they are helping.

Against Violent Extremism is an online network made up of former extremists and survivors  of violence working to counter violent extremism across the globe.


Illustration by Studio Blackburn