What does taking ideology seriously in counter-terrorism strategies mean? Liesbeth van der Heide, a senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT), looks at the role ideology plays in the passage to violent extremism.
Since 2012, an estimated 5,000 men, women and children have travelled to join conflicts in Syria and Iraq. In many ways, government policy has aimed to address the factors underlying this passage to violent extremism. From a criminal justice perspective, disengagement and rehabilitation programmes in prisons have recently been developed and tested. By providing vocational and psychological support, these programmes aim to lessen the appeal of the narratives used by recruiters to persuade civilians into joining violent extremist groups abroad. A core narrative used by terrorists for recruitment and to justify violence is the alleged existential battle against the ‘West’. As shown by its repeated usage in extremist propaganda, political grievances against interventionism in Middle East and North African (MENA) countries have a profound psychological effect on potential foreign fighters. Understood as an ideology, it is the effect of this narrative, and the context it is used in, which matters to challenging terrorism.
There are many stories of foreign terrorist fighters who hardly know their proclaimed ideology: they do not speak Arabic, pray in the wrong direction and even seem to bring ‘Islam for dummies’ with them on the road to Syria/Iraq. So, the argument goes: we should target behaviours rather than ideology. The starting assumption in this approach is that the aim is to prevent violence at the end of the day, not ideological warfare. Adding to that, many researchers and practitioners argue that since there is no causal relationship between having radical or extremist ideas and acting on them by, for example, using violence, we should not focus on the former but on the latter.
However, when we look at the explanations for violence espoused by the perpetrators of recent terrorist attacks in Europe, there is a repeated framing of violence through ideology. At its core, violence perpetrated by the ‘oppressed’ in-group is legitimised against the ‘crusader’ out-group; see for example Osama Bin Laden’s response to his own question, ‘Why are we fighting you [the Americans]?’ – ‘Because you attacked us and continue to attack us’.
It is not important to what extent someone has a deeper understanding of their own ideology at all. Instead the question is: how does it make them feel and act? The psychological effect of the narrative is what is important.
Partially, the confusion may be caused by the word ideology itself. Ideology as a concept refers to a coherent view of the world, but the way it is used in the debate about disengaging violent extremists usually means ideology as a set of ideas, opinions or a narrative; providing individuals with an identity, a purpose, a sense of significance, ‘brotherhood’. In the religious context it provides individuals with a sense of redemption and atonement for sin and past shame.
From that perspective, it is not important to what extent someone has a deeper understanding of their own ideology at all. Instead the question is: how does it make them feel and act? The psychological effect of the narrative is what is important. Of course, the impact of the narrative always takes place within a wider social context and we must not underestimate the social bounds that are provided through friends and family. In this context, the people you trust in key networks can either push you towards or pull you away from that narrative.
Nonetheless, ideology is not just a sort of brainwashing device, it functions very much as a tool of empowerment. It puts you in the driver’s seat emotionally. If you have anger issues and a tendency to violence and you assault someone on the street, you are an outcast and no one will like you. Do the exact same thing in the name of an ideology and you are a hero, to some at least and more importantly, to yourself.
So, what does taking ideology seriously in counter-terrorism strategies mean: should we work with Islamists? Should we share the same vision but disagree on how to get there? Should we focus on peaceful strands of Salafism or work with groups such as the Soldiers of Odin or Pegida? Who would advise working with extremists to prevent violent extremists? Rather than turning to extremists – something that has been tried and failed – what is helpful in thinking about the role of ideology is making a distinction between an active or a passive ideology. Rather than focusing on what someone’s ideology (or world view, or narrative) entails, focus on what it means to them and how they adopt it.
In the end, of all the individuals that adhere to violent ideologies, there are only very few people who will take the next step in terms of taking up arms and using violence. At this point, we simply lack the knowledge or understanding of how that process takes place and why some do while others do not cross that bridge.
All in all: ideology matters, as long as we understand the difference between ideology as a coherent world view and what the narrative means to individuals and how it enables them to take action. We need to devote just as much time and effort to find out why some individuals refrain from violence as we do to finding out why others do.
In the end, it’s not about whether we think ideology matters, it matters because those that use violence in the name of ideology tell us it matters to them.
Image: Scott Langley, 2014
PRI’s Global Prison Trends 2017 report looks at recent areas of discussion on how to address the issue of violent extremist offenders.
Read PRI’s briefing, Children and violent extremism: international standards and responses from criminal justice systems, which gives an overview of what the international and regional standards say regarding the care and treatment of children who are suspected, or convicted, of violent extremist related offences.