The largest Annual Meeting of Terrorism Experts – and Its Relevance for Denmark

Written by Lorenzo Alberini, Master Student in International Security and Law

Once a year, dozens of scholars and practitioners in the field of terrorism and counterterrorism take a flight on the same day, to the same destination. They are flying to the annual international conference of the Society for Terrorism Research (STR). The event, which changes its location every year, brings together two generations of researchers from different countries and different disciplines. In 2016, it took place during the second week of November, in the Dutch city of The Hague.

Why is this meeting so important? After all, bigger conventions attract way more scholars than the tiny STR conference. However, focusing on a very specific field of the social sciences, this is an opportunity for participants to present their work in detail and discuss it with a community that shares a very specific goal – that is, to understand and prevent terrorism through international collaboration. This is when Denmark enters this story.

Denmark is widely recognised as an innovative model for prevention and countering of violent extremism. The Danish approach – known as ‘the Århus model’ by the city where it was born in 2007 – aims at preventing citizens from radicalising. It is based on a close cooperation between institutions and communities, in order to identify individuals showing early symptoms of radicalisation.

If it is too late to prevent, the goal changes to deradicalisation and reintegration. Today, the latter case often involves young Danes coming back from Syria whom intentions are not clear. In both circumstances – prevention and reintegration – the collaboration between local police and professionals (psychologists, social workers, teachers, trainers) is crucial. Together, they collect information about and, if necessary, get in contact with potentially radical individuals, in order to bring them back on track.

But this is only half of the story. In spite of these efforts, Islamist extremism is still a concern for the Danes – in particular for the Danish government. Since 2011, for example, 125 ‘foreign fighters’ have left the country to Syria. Maybe not all of them have gone there to actually fight, but they certainly have been exposed to a very radical environment. And half of them have already returned to Denmark. What are they going to do now?

Immigration is another tough topic for Denmark. Over the last years, national and international politics have turned the phenomenon into a security issue. What is the academic view on that? How may it affect Danish policymakers?

At the 2016 STR conference in The Hague, (counter)terrorism experts have explored many relevant issues for Denmark – some of which will be sketched here. Their conclusions are sometimes surprising.

  • Is ideology important for radicalisation?

Ideology has always been the key to understand different types of terrorism. David Rapoport’s widely accepted categorisation of modern terrorism in four consecutive waves (anarchist, nationalist, leftist and religious terrorism) is based on ideology. Many quantitative analyses on terrorist groups use ideology as a starting point to highlight differences.

And more importantly, as terrorism scholar Rik Coolsaet pointed out in The Hague, what we understand as driving factors to radicalisation defines our response to it. Most theories on radicalisation place ideology as a central factor. If this were actually the case, we would have to balance it with counter-narratives, as a war of ideas. Today, the majority of counterterrorism programmes (at least in Europe) are based on this assumption and seek to fight back extremism with democratic values, implementing what have been called ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ programmes (CVE).

However, some scholars and practitioners have been criticising the assumptions on which CVE is built. Indeed, they claim that ideology, which today is often identified as militant Islamism, is not the driving factor to extremism and that the very concept of radicalisation is flawed. Recent research (coming in particular from Denmark) points at subjects’ previous exposure to violence as driving force to the engagement in terrorist activities.

If this were actually the case, problems like family violence, ordinary crime, police violence would become extremely relevant for counterterrorism. However, many experts (and politicians) are often unwilling to downplay the role of ideology. A policy brief by the Danish DIIS concludes:

‘In Denmark, many of the so-called radicalisation prevention activities are in effect already close to ordinary crime prevention activities and do not explicitly address ideologies. But the practitioners who are involved in these prevention activities are constantly forced to relate to the predominant understanding of radicalisation, including in cases where, with their professionalism, they can see that it makes little sense.

  • Are jihadists mentally ‘normal’?

The debate over terrorists’ insanity has a long history and many well-known scholars (and not-so-well-known students!) have engaged in it. To make a (very) long story short, the overall consensus among academics is that terrorists are as sane as everyone else and therefore can be considered rational actors.

However, new evidence suggests that mental disorders are clearly overrepresented in radicalised individuals. For instance, the Dutch national police have found that around 60% of their detainees who did or were about to travel to Syria suffered from behavioural problems or mental health disorders before they were arrested (some preliminary results, presented at the STR conference, may be found here).

It must be noted that this new work does not prove a causal link between mental health and terrorism. Nevertheless, it represents an important challenge to the current consensus. A determination of terrorists’ sanity is crucial for many players in our society, from judges at terrorism trials to policymakers and professionals designing the best exit strategies for extremists.

  • Does poverty cause terrorism?

Another long story. Politicians and world leaders have claimed that to fight terrorism we have to eradicate poverty, which would be one of the ‘root causes’ of terror. However, today scholars agree on labelling this assumption as a myth. We have got plenty of examples of rich or highly educated terrorists, from Osama bin Laden to Anders Behring Breivik.

Moreover, academic research on large samples of terrorists (see Kruger & Malečková 2003Sageman 2004) has killed the debate a decade ago. It is therefore very surprising that today an eminent scholar like Thomas Hegghammer claims that we all might be wrong. Aggregating data from many different works, the Norwegian scholar has found, firstly, that jihadists are not the poorest in absolute terms, but they are relatively poorer than the rest of the national population and, secondly, this is true especially for a specific category of jihadists.

That is, Europeans. Now, when this study was presented in The Hague it generated a huge wave of questions and comments from fellow experts. Mostly approving it. If a causal link between poverty and terrorism were identified, the consequences for governments and practitioners would be remarkable. For example, part of counterterrorism efforts should be redirected at eradicating poverty (which already represents a big endeavour). To be sure, that would be great.

However, in a world where allocating scarce resources is the eternal dilemma for policymakers, it would be a major challenge. Furthermore, immigration would likely become a real security issue. As a matter of fact (and logic), most immigrants in Europe come from poorer countries, increasing the amount of relatively poor individuals in our society.

If a causal connection between poverty and terrorism were really proved, governments may want to reduce the risks claiming further limits to immigration (or, in a more progressive fashion, increasing the amount of aid in development for the countries of origin). This forthcoming research, and the large debate that will inevitably follow, may well shape Denmark (and Europe) future policies. Keep an eye on it.

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