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There is little doubt that the term “violent radicalization” -i.e. embracing ideas, opinions and belief continua that could potentially lead to acts of terrorism -, contains several conceptual nuances and although it does not officially exist in the social science nomenclature, it obviously refers to the development of a specific socialization process that might lead to, or facilitate engaging in violent extremism.

It should be noted that there is no universal agreement regarding the definition of “violent radicalization” and there are several ways of approaching the issue; the process of radicalization toward violent extremism is a confluence of particular individual predispositions, world views and personal experiences. The personal journey and psychopathological elements of each individual must be taken into consideration by frontline practitioners, so as to distinguish, properly evaluate and ultimately decide what course of action to follow.

This article will be focusing on both the European and American counter-radicalization initiatives, in an effort to present a comparison of the genesis, aims, underlying factors and conceptual/philosophical similarities and differences between the two approaches.

Some conceptual nuances

Due to the emerging and volatile nature of the study of CVE (Countering Violent Extremism), the definition of many of the notions relevant to violent radicalization remains widely contested, as there is no consensus among scholars and practitioners regarding a universally accepted terminological basis. For example, there are numerous offered definitions for the term “radicalization”, but the use of this term still remains problematic, mainly because there is a conceptual dichotomy between “violent radicalization” and “cognitive radicalization”.

According to Peter Neumann, cognitive radicalization is “a conceptual fault line between notions of radicalization that emphasize extremist beliefs”, while violent radicalization can be described as the phenomenon of people embracing heterodox ideas and resorting to violent tactics in order to reach a specific political/ideological objective.

Other relevant notions such as de-radicalization, disengagement and counter-radicalization should be clarified as well, in this context. As Vidino and Brandon point out, counter radicalization entails three distinct variables, each with a specific objective: disengagement, de radicalization and radicalization prevention. Disengagement is generally understood to mean the act of removing oneself from a radical entity.

In this context, a disengaged individual is not necessarily de-radicalized. De-radicalization, on the other hand, refers to a substantive, cognitive change that involves denouncing the ideology of a radical group, which the individual formerly espoused. Radicalization prevention seeks to prevent the process of radicalization from occurring in the first place and primarily targets a specific segment of the population; it is not focused solely on individuals.

European &American Cultural Chasm

Due to various cultural dissonances and conceptual divergences, both the European Union and the United States face harsh public and political discourse regarding their strategies to address violent radicalization. In the European Union –and in France, in particular- there is an ongoing debate between CVE and the citizens’ right to privacy, freedom of thought and expression. In the United States on the other hand, CVE is occasionally perceived as a threat to certain First Amendment rights, such as the freedom of speech and  freedom of the press, the free exercise of religion, the right “to petition the government” and the right “to peaceable assembly”.

Furthermore, the use of the term “radical” is quite disputable in the United States, because radicalism is traditionally seen as an ideology that challenges obsolete political norms and calls for the restructuring of social institutions and procedural/ technical restrictions that support the status quo. Subsequently, the very idea of “radicalism” still holds a positive connotation in a country whose founding principles were perceived as radical, revolutionary and anti-canonical at the time.

The equilibrium between counter radicalization policies and the respect of citizens’ rights must be carefully considered, because a potential infringement on the rights of citizens could actually prove to be counterproductive and damaging to the goals of any counter-radicalization strategy. It is well known by now that many activists originally start out with no intention to resort to violence but a perceived moral threat or injustice (such as an infringement on their rights) could lead individuals to question authority, togetherness and their sense of belonging somewhere, ultimately making the transition from activism to extremism.

Pliner explains that occasionally, the suppression of activists with radical ideas (that had not initially engaged in violent acts) can be the catalyst that sets an aggressive stimulus into motion, therefore causing an effect opposite to the one intended. In this regard, Moskalenko and McCauley note, however, that while it is true that the vast majority of activists rarely present extreme violent tendencies, it is also true that many individuals who do end up engaging in terrorist activity, originally started out as activists. So, in this methodological continuum, the boundaries between acceptable activism and violent radicalism become problematically indiscernible.

Common Conceptual Framework

Certain fundamental particularities, like the cultural/political environment, legal framework and threat assessment certainly play a pivotal role in the formulation of policies both in the US and in Europe; there are a few general theoretical cornerstones, however, that both actors (in this case the EU and the US) take into consideration in order to develop political discourses, strategies and interventions. In this operational framework, there are a few overarching principles regarding the process of radicalization that both sides (and the western world, in general) agree on.

This common theoretical knowledge base can be incorporated into two main belief continua: a) Radicalization that leads to violence is a process and b) extremist ideology is a result, not a cause, of the process of radicalization that leads to terrorism.

Radicalization as a process

The radicalization process is malleable, ever-changing and often long (even though that is not always the case). On a social level, “the process of radicalization may be triggered, influenced or fostered by certain socio-political or socio-emotional circumstances” and (may be) further exacerbated by vulnerability factors and a pronounced need for “redress”. Subject-matter specialist Anat Berko argues that when these identity malaises overlap with the recruitment process of extremist groups, individuals tend to become increasingly susceptible and receptive to extremist ideologies.

So, when individuals or groups become frustrated with the state of society, a need of some sort of action becomes imperative and extremist organizations seize the opportunity to supply justifications and explanations that “encourage devotees to take part in more radical forms of action”. Counter radicalization programs are designed to intervene in this vicious circle and prevent the process of radicalization (and even the active support of, or participation in violent acts), before “supply meets demand”.

In essence, the process of radicalization and de-radicalization are “two sides of the same coin”. Both processes are interrelated and encompass a variety of divergent human motives and purposes. Kruglanski and Fishman state that there are two fundamental elements for individuals undergoing indoctrination: the intellectual element, as in the urge “to reinterpret the world”, which is appeased by justifications and explanations (within strict ideological barriers), delivered by figures they deem important and credible; and the motivational element, encouraging individuals to espouse alternative forms of meaningful existence (a dignified “raison d’être”) and social status backed by financial support, recognition, family assistance, etc.

It should be noted that both processes present commonalities, since they both involve extensive dialogue, new acquaintances and a solid interactive communication, (as in, an effort to successfully address psychological, social and financial needs, so as to gain another’s trust).

Extremist ideology is a result, not a cause, of the process of radicalization

Perceived injustice or marginalization can influence an individual’s world view and can potentially contribute to them joining an extremist organization. Certain exogenous variables such as a lack of identity/sense of belonging or feelings of isolation, desperation and victimization can be viewed as what Bartlett, Birdwell, and King refer to “as permissive factors”.

According to them, these “permissive factors” may not necessarily be the cause of radicalization but they certainly facilitate it. They argue that permissive causes could be categorized as follows: global, state, and socio-cultural. Permissive factors at the global level are inextricably linked with geopolitics; State level permissive factors could include perceived or real social discrimination/exclusion and finally, socio-cultural permissive factors could include cultural imperatives, identity issues or ideological cognitions.

Horgan similarly stresses that individuals tend to espouse extremist views after they get involved with an extremist group, rather than joining a group because of its rhetoric; they usually choose to get involved with such groups for the allure of purpose, excitement and camaraderie.

In this framework, front line practitioners and policy makers both in the US and the EU concur that in order to conceive and rightly implement more elaborate counter-radicalization initiatives, they need to correctly identify the root causes that lead to the genesis and evolution of violent radicalization.

Common Approach: An Emphasis on Community Engagement

The United States and Europe both seem to realize that handling the long-term violent radicalization threat requires a more versatile approach, and both emphasize the importance of community engagement in that aspect. The US’ Strategic Implementation Plan for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States (SIP) aims to promote community engagement efforts, empowering local stakeholders to build resilience against violent extremism.

Along similar lines, Europe’s Radicalization Awareness Network is comprised of eight working groups, including RAN POL, which predominantly focuses on a cooperation/partnership scheme between intervention coordinators and the public, in an effort to prevent and counter radicalization in the EU.

Another conceptual similarity between the two approaches is the fact that they both acknowledge the importance of developmental social processes that could potentially play a vital role in the general process of disengagement/de-radicalization.

More specifically, subject-matter expert Bjørgo makes the distinction between “push factors” and “pull factors”. He explains that all the social conditions that could make membership in an extremist group unappealing and displeasing are the “push factors” (e.g. disillusion with the extremist group), while all the incentives that could make re-integrating into society an attractive alternative are the “pull factors” (e.g. a desire to lead a normal life).

In order for any CVE initiative to be effective, all underlying elements that provide a breeding ground for violent radicalization should be taken into consideration. The intervening group should facilitate peer-mentoring of at-risk individuals, offering the adequate counseling and viable alternatives to guide the vulnerable, disenfranchised youth away from radical ideologies. and in doing so, they need to gain the trust of the community being targeted by the intervention.

Carpenter, Levitt and Jacobson note that individuals involved in counter radicalization programs are more receptive to deterrence by counter narrative, when it comes from figures they deem important or credible.  Having well respected figures leading a CVE intervention also contributes to undermining the ideological convictions that lead to radicalization. More specifically, in the case of Islamic extremism, moderate religious figures, that are held in high regard by the participants (in a CVE intervention) have better chances to provoke a genuine intellectual discourse (with theological arguments).

In that regard, Daniel Benjamin (former US Department of State Counterterrorism Coordinator) stated on several occasions that a vast spectrum of “non-coercive instruments” such as strategic messaging, educational campaigns, capacity building and addressing the social risk factors that contribute to violent extremism are necessary in order to reduce susceptibility to violent radicalization and recruitment. Along the same lines, the core goals, directives and activities of many of Europe’s community policing initiatives including CoPPRa (Community Policing Preventing Radicalization & Terrorism) and Channel are virtually identical.

A difference in perspective                                                                                      

Generally speaking, the counter radicalization strategies of both the US and the European Union place an emphasis on Islamic radicalization as the main security threat to their respective societies. There is, however, a specific difference; European policies are relatively more holistic and address a broad spectrum of radicalization toward violent extremism -including right/left wing extremist ideologies, separatist or new religious/heretical movements- while the guiding thread of the US policy is principally focused (and almost exclusively) on Islamic radicalization. Obama’s 2011 SIP (Strategic Implementation Plan for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism) is meant to address all types of radicalization in theory, but its focal point revolves around Islamic extremist groups (and Al Qaeda in particular).

Apart from the cultural and political dissonances that –inevitably- shape their respective counter radicalization approaches, there is also a considerable semantic and conceptual difference between the American and European perception of the concept of (counter) radicalization. In other words, there is a difference in perspective on what –essentially- constitutes a counter radicalization intervention.

The European normative approach tends to include all exogenous variables that could potentially play a crucial role in discouraging individuals to adopt ideologies that often legitimize violence; this could include de-radicalization programs for prison inmates, neighborhood community programs or even social programs for immigrants (designed to curtail recruitment by extremist groups). Similar initiatives (e.g. the Somali Mothers Health Realization initiative or Teens on Target) do exist in the US, but they are not officially recognized as part of CVE.


It is important to note that when it comes to violent radicalization, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, since violent radicalization is dependent on numerous precipitant factors, exogenous variables and is always context-specific.

Front line practitioners should –therefore- take into account individual predispositions, cultural imperatives, historical antecedents, social conditions and cognitive frameworks when formulating the right, context-appropriate intervention.

By comparing and analyzing the two approaches, it becomes clear that intervention coordinators in both the US and Europe have become aware that ideological indoctrination plays a central role in the radicalization process, as it offers the necessary intellectual components, which serve to legitimize violence in all its forms. Similarly, both actors recognize that the intellectual arguments must be accompanied by a motivational element (which provides the practical means) to be receptive to such arguments.

Furthermore, both American and European interventions are constructed on a conciliatory framework; both sides agree that counter-radicalization and de-radicalization approaches must not be condescending or accusatory in nature, since a perceived disrespect can be detrimental to their credibility and effectiveness. What is interesting to note, nonetheless, is that the definition of success varies considerably between the US and Europe, mainly because it depends largely on the intended outcomes, practical circumstances and stated goals of their respective programs.

 Academic research on de-radicalization initiatives is still in its infancy and there are no credible indicators regarding its long-term effectiveness or recidivism rates. Progressively, the implementation and design of interventions to counter radicalization and violent extremism will be further developed and perfected in both sides of the Atlantic but as Neumann notes, the key to successful counter radicalization is “consistent implementation over a long period of time”.

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