‘Vulnerable to Becoming a Terrorist’? Giving up on Radicalisation Policy

test textWhat happens when policymakers and practitioners frame militancy as the consequence of psychological and social vulnerability, instead of a political choice? Is radicalisation really a quasi-medical phenomenon coming from exposure to extremist material, or it is a reaction to political injustice? And what about counter-terrorist policies which we are told can be equally applied to both Islamic and right-wing extremism, but which dedicate the majority of their resources towards communities identified as racially and religiously suspect and ‘vulnerable’ to becoming violent?

Counter-radicalisation policies, such as the UK Prevent strategy, have been highly controversial and increasingly criticised since their introduction. In this new edited volume, Counter-Radicalisation: Critical Perspectives’, voices from disciplines including sociology, political science, criminology and international relations address the global roll-out of counter-radicalisation agendas, utilising case study research from the UK, Germany, Denmark and Australia. In so doing, the book interrogates: (i) the connections between counter-radicalisation and other governmental programmes and priorities relating to integration and community cohesion; (ii) the questionable way in which counter-radicalisation initiatives depend on assumptions about race, risk and vulnerability to extremism; and, (iii) the limitations of existing counter-radicalisation policy for addressing relatively new types of extremism including amongst right-wing activists.

We live in the era of ‘radicalisation’, understood here not as a discrete process but as the pretence that such a process exists. Radicalisation is a problematic policy, media and academic discourse which ignores the environments in which militancy emerges, and claims that Muslim communities are somehow ‘vulnerable’ to becoming terrorists. Since 2004, ‘radicalisation’ has replaced decades of social movement research into the factors that lead groups and movements to turn to clandestine operations (Crenshaw 1992; Della Porta 1992; 1995; Della Porta & Tarrow 1986; Tarrow 1989). These scholars explored the detailed connections between protest movements, poverty, activism, the blockage of political systems to change, and the resultant turn towards violence. But the salience of the counter-radicalisation agenda has become so entrenched that this research is discounted. Instead each new attack triggers a media investigation into the factors which ‘radicalised’ perpetrators. For example, following the Boston Marathon bombing, commentators were quick to discount the Tsarnaev brothers’ long term residency in the US the minute it was discovered that they were born in Chechnya.

Contributors to this latest volume (see details below) agree that ‘radicalisation’ is a highly suspect contention with no basis in psychological research and no predictive power in terms of identifying future terrorists. Instead ‘radicalisation’ has been called into being as a security shorthand – promising things that it can never deliver. Counter-radicalisation policy suggests that before anyone commits a violent crime, they can be located on a conveyer-belt towards terrorism and reformed by counter-radicalisation interventions. The policy assumption follows that terrorism can be ‘prevented’ by the intense surveillance of Muslim communities. This race-based monitoring of thought-crime led, in the first 18 months of the ‘Channel’ arm of UK Prevent’s operations, to counter-radicalisation interventions being performed upon 300 children under the age of twelve.

Although academics, psychiatrists and social workers have refuted the concept of a ‘radicalisation process’, policymakers have decided that radicalisation always precedes violence. The notion conveniently props up the fallacy that they can stop terrorist crime before it happens. Even more usefully, because radicalisation is such a convenient concept, policy makers need not look to foreign policy or injustice to understand insurgency: counter-terrorism has invented a feedback loop between vulnerability and ideology to explain away the resurgence of violence in the supposed heartlands of liberty, democracy and equality. It has already been decided that we live in a world where anger, poverty and injustice do not exist or do not matter, and are drowned out by explanations for violence which focus upon ideology. Even more problematically, this focus on ‘ideologies which cause violence’ leads to the attribution of ‘vulnerability’ and suspicion towards already marginalised communities. Counter-radicalisation policy contributes to the alienation of the communities with which it supposedly engages in its efforts to foster integration and expose extremists.

This book refuses to accept the problematic politics of counter-radicalisation. Building upon a groundswell of critical disquiet with such policies (Githens-Mazer & Lambert 2010; Heath-Kelly 2013; Richards 2011), it collects the empirical and theoretical research of scholars who wish to upset the easy rhetoric of simplistic, reductionist and often counter-productive counter-terrorism policies.

Counter Rad coverCounter-Radicalisation: Critical Perspectives

Edited by Christopher Baker-Beall, Charlotte Heath-Kelly & Lee Jarvis

Published by Routledge – order form.


Charlotte Heath-Kelly is postdoctoral fellow with the Institute of Advanced Study, University of Warwick. Her most recent book is Politics of Violence: Militancy, International Politics, Killing in the name (Routledge, 2013).

2 thoughts on “‘Vulnerable to Becoming a Terrorist’? Giving up on Radicalisation Policy”

  1. I loved the blog and I agree with the notion that it is too simplistic to look at radicalisation as a product of ideologies which cause violence. It does not do justification to the ideologies in that there might be a case of over-generalization. It has to be understood in terms of deprivation of economic, political and social rights of marginalized groups. Loved the piece!

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