The question of what to do with Islamic State (IS) fighters, their wives and children keeps policy makers and security experts across Europe awake at night. But we should worry less about those returning, and more about convincing them not to go in the first place. The real problem is that their radical ideology remains alive.
When it comes to recruitment, the cause of jihad is local. It’s not the huge, public global campaign some imagine. Not everyone who uses social media ends up in Syria. Instead, radicalisation is achieved through grassroots leadership which changes and evolves over time, managing and inspiring activities which serve the cause.
As part of my ongoing work at the think-tank LSE ideas, I have conducted a qualitative study into why people become radicalised, using a Kosovan sample of fighters who joined IS and other radical groups in Syria. My research identified two key groups of individuals involved: “identity seekers” (vulnerable individuals seeking a sense of belonging) and “identity producers” (entrepreneurial leaders who proactively build extremist groups through socialisation and manipulation). Local social dynamics between these groups largely facilitated the process of foreign fighter mobilisation in Kosovo between 2013 and 2016.
When a caliphate is defeated, grassroots leadership efforts shift to focus on consolidating communities rather than large-scale promotion of aggression and recruitment for violent activities. It’s all about resilience and motivation, not necessarily terrorism. Today, the strategy of local radical leaders is to stay low, soften their rhetoric and gain influence over broader youth circles, both online and offline.
While studying jihadists, analysts often refer to ‘European Muslims,’ as if they represent a unified group with similar cultural, ethnic and socio-economic characteristics. However, this is a simplification. If you look at the local radical milieus in Belgium or Sweden compared to Bosnia or Albania, the history is very different despite identical recruitment patterns being present in both regions. This proves that context is important when we consider how a fighter’s identity is built.
Shiraz Maher, Director of the International Centre for the study of Radicalisation, wrote recently that those who talk in absolutist terms of ‘defeating terrorism’ or ‘winning’ the war on terror don’t understand the challenge before us, which is amorphous and constantly metastasizing. The global jihad movement is more fractured than it was five years ago.
It’s much more important to understand the causes of terrorism, than to speak blindly of defeating the symptoms. As part of my research into radicalisation, I’ve been investigating the link between the aforementioned ‘identity producers’ and ‘identity seeks’ in the Western Balkans for the past years. It’s become apparent that the dynamic hinges on a social process between those who seek to identify themselves with a certain group or cause and those who intentionally and strategically build a sense of identification.
The numbers of foreign fighters that the media have been reporting in recent years are only the tip of the iceberg. The numbers are just the visible part of the invisible processes of radicalisation embedded in broader communities. We shouldn’t forget either that this metaphorical ‘tip’ of the iceberg consists of women and children as well as men; these people end up in conflict zones for a variety of reasons. The greater security concern should not be the returnees, but the legacy and activities of radical influencers. These ‘identity producers’ and their successors are those who exploit the vulnerable and encourage identification with the jihadi cause. The unknown, unreported number of potential foreign fighters is another part of the iceberg which remains invisible.
We must keep a few points in mind. Firstly, social interaction between ‘identity producers’ and ‘identity seekers’ does not necessarily involve appeals for violence. As Thomas Hegghammer points out, it “is about more than bombs and doctrines. It is also about rituals, customs and dress codes. It’s about music, films and storytelling. It is about sports, jokes and food.” Secondly, not everyone who can be considered an ‘identity seeker’ reaches the battlefield. Of the sample I studied, many did not go for a variety of reasons, or were simply stopped.
Thirdly, not everyone who did travel to the warzone sought to become a terrorist. Some didn’t have the ideological conviction to help build the caliphate; they merely followed a family member, friend or community leader (willingly or forcefully). Moreover, radicalised individuals have incentives; these can be of a complex mixture of material and moral incentives which become impossible to separate from a set of commitments made to their group’s ideology. Exposing these realities leads us to an important question; what feeds the interaction between ‘identity producers’ and ‘identity seekers’?
The radical domain of foreign fighters is not a community which necessarily produces terrorists; it might even lack a direct link to extreme circles where foreign fighters and their families originate from. It might be more localised, or well-connected to diaspora communities across Europe which, for example, is the case of the stream of Bosnian fighters. Radical spheres are neither strictly hierarchical, nor homogenous, with frequent cleavages among leaders. Nonetheless it has a core and a periphery that interact with each other. They are fluid and flexible and change their size and scope over time.
Sometimes they might reject each other. Radical leaders soften or make their rhetoric more explicit depending on external political and security factors, so as to float freely between the core and the periphery. The same logic is applicable to their adherents who can make a choice to act on their radical views or to stay passive. A former IS fighter I interviewed for my fieldwork in the Western Balkans told me: “the guy who was helping people to go to Syria from our town, including my brother, has now shaved his beard and disappeared.”
Whilst policy makers and security experts are preoccupied with the symptoms of radicalisation and ‘winning the war on terror’, they are neglecting to lend attention to the causes. It is easier to demonise radicalised individuals, labelling them all terrorists who are a danger to ‘ordinary people,’ but this isn’t the reality. As I hope my fieldwork has proven, the social process which leads to radicalisation is complex and involves a great variety of motivations and incentives.
Not all those who end up in conflict zones are motivated by the same ideology. When we see an IS attack in the headlines, we might be tempted to lay blame at the door of every individual ever to sympathise with a radical agenda, but radicalised individuals are far from a homogenous group. If we really want to tackle the root of radicalisation, we need to understand how and why people become radicalised in the first place, and accept that the reasons themselves are not fixed but dependent on the economic and political circumstances of the time.
The first step is to shift our focus from foreign fighters and returnees to the people convincing them to go and fight in the first place. We must develop means to tackle ‘identity producers’ who capitalize on socio-economic trends to radicalise vulnerable individuals. Radicalisation is a deeply complex and multifaceted issue and this method alone will not solve it - but it’s certainly a good place to start.
Asya Metodieva is an Associate of LSE Ideas. She is a PhD Candidate at Central European University (CEU), Budapest. Her research interests include radical movements, polarization and international security threats
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