The first session on Addressing Radicalization and Violent Extremism provided an excellent introduction and insight into the field of countering violent extremism, as well as some of the specific strategies being implemented across Europe in tackling the phenomenon.
The first part of the session was a presentation by Jasmeet Sahotay, Researcher and Programme Officer at PATRIR. His presentation was the ‘Introduction to Radicalization and Violent Extremism’ and included definitions of the concepts as well as key questions. Regarding the concept of ‘violent extremism’, it became clear that there is no agreed upon definition for this term. Nowadays, ‘extremism’ can be used to signal any type of action that is rejected by the status quo, and can be criminal or even purposeless. The utility of this type of belief is to achieve ideological, religious or political goals. However it can be agreed that all forms of violent extremism seek to change the status quo through violent, illegitimate means rather than through peaceful, legitimate ones. There are therefore many different types of violent extremism: homophobic, gender-based, racist, nationalist, Islamist and more. People can also be motivated by more than one issue. One lesson that participants of this part of the session learnt was that violent extremism does not equate to terrorism. Terrorism is a rational choice to use violence against a civilian population as a legitimate means of achieving a political goal, rather than the specific belief that it is right to do so. Radicalization was defined here, too, as an important guide to future discussion on the topic. Radicalization can be broken down into the following elements: it is inherently political, it is a gradual, linear or staged process, it involves not just engaging in violence but also in accepting or supporting it, the means and the goals are inherently undemocratic, it is a process experienced by an individual, and may arise because of the relative perception of an extremist ideology being acceptable within a specific group – the ‘cultic milieu’ theory.
The second part of the session was a presentation by Dr. Cristina Ivan, Head of the Local, Regional and Global Security Research Unit within the National Institute for Intelligence Studies and a Lecturer on The Psychology of Terrorism. She presented the findings that arose from the Semantic Analysis against Foreign Fighter Recruitment Online Network (SAFFRON) project (http://www.saffron-project.eu/en/home/). The aim of SAFFRON is to build a system able to support early detection of foreign fighters recruitment by terrorist groups in Europe, with a focus on ISIS and Al-Qaeda. It consists in studying recruitment communication strategies on social media (e.g. narrations, argumentative tropes and myths used), and their evolution in time, as well as identification of needs, values, cultural and social contexts of the target. Dr. Ivan demonstrated the use of one of the tools of the project, and how extremist behaviour could be flagged up through its utilisation while also allowing for the mapping of key individuals who might be particularly vulnerable to extremism or guilty of recruiting new extremists. Dr. Ivan concluded her presentation with a short video of one of the online counter narratives she worked on: the Heart of Darkness. It served as a powerful imagination of the harm that violent extremism can do to the fabric of society (http://heartofdarkness.eu/).
The final part of the session was a brief summary of the work that PATRIR does regarding countering violent extremism and radicalisation. Silvia Ravagnan, Researcher and Programme Coordinator at PATRIR, explained the TAKEDOWN project that the CVE team at PATRIR work on. Project TAKEDOWN (http://takedownproject.eu/) is a project funded by the European Commission under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovative Programme – addressing Organised Crime and Terrorist Networks. The project is being developed by a leading consortium of universities, think tanks, ministries and law enforcement agencies and institutions across Europe. The purpose of the project is to develop approaches and tools that can be employed by policy-makers, law enforcement agencies, first-line practitioners and other relevant stakeholders to prevent and counter Organised Crime and Terrorism. Rafael Silva, Researcher and EU Policy Advocacy Officer concluded the session with a summary of the findings conducted as part of the project. Some of the main findings were that the focus on security responses by policy-makers and law enforcement is a short-term fix for a long-term problem, resulting in the marginalisation of communities and the worsening of the global situation regarding terrorism and violent extremism. Mr. Silva, along with the PATRIR team working on TAKEDOWN, therefore recommended for decision-makers to place more emphasis on long-term, preventative and inclusive measures to be adopted by EU states, and he encouraged participants to go away bearing in mind the ways they could change or affect local decision-making regarding countering violent extremism. The panel then took questions from the audience before thanking participants for their engagement and input.