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Practical implications in the attempt to prevent and counter radicalisation in Africa – Dr. Anneli Botha

April 7, 2017

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Practical implications in the attempt to prevent and counter radicalisation in Africa

By Anneli Botha

              RIMA Policy Papers, Volume 5 (2017), Number 1 (April 2015)

Growing reference over the last few years to Africa as the new ‘battleground’ against terrorism has drawn international attention to the threat, although the threat of terrorism on the continent has been a reality for many years. One cannot argue that the atrocities committed by Boko Haram – particularly in Nigeria and Cameroon –have not placed the organisation in a completely new category; yet many countries on the continent have been experiencing the devastating effect of terrorism on a daily basis for years before the international community took notice. In Nigeria, as in other hotspots, most notably the Horn of Africa with Somalia as the epicentre and the Maghreb with Algeria as the original epicentre, the historical origins of these organisations systematically manifested throughout the years long before it reached international recognition. Many scholars focus on the manifestation of these organisations through the lens of the external environment as a means to operatewhile practitioners are disputing on the best strategy to combat the physical manifestation of this threat. Meanwhile research has been increasingly conducted to understand what motivate individuals to join terrorist organisations, and the way they do join eventually.

In their search for explaining radicalisation, scholars, among others, refer to ‘pull-and-push’ factors to explain why individuals become involved in violent extremist organisations. Although these efforts are useful – especially when governments formulate domestic and foreign-aid budget priorities – they are made with specific case studies in mind. African governments and practitioners often borrow from these case studies, as well as from statements made by politicians, to formulate their own understanding of why people resort to acts of terrorism, predominantly blaming poverty and poor socioeconomic conditions. But to understand why people are susceptible to extremism is far more complex than blaming one factor, such as poverty. Countermeasures and policies have proven to be ineffective and even counterproductive, simply because they are not formulated or implemented based on a clear understanding of what drove individuals to be susceptible to extremism and later recruitment.

Radicalisation occurs on both individual, as well as organisational levels. While the latter is well known – since organisations defend their strategies and actions by referring to political and social injustices and exclusion, culminating in a declaration of a specific worldview needed to address these ‘evils’ – individual radicalisation is far more complex. Addressing these challenges should start with not only adopting a purely counter strategy involving a country’s security apparatus, but to conduct empirical research – through interviewing those who had already joined – to understand what is required to prevent and counter radicalisation.

When following this approach one quickly understands that not all people experience the same external circumstances in the same manner – not even individuals growing up in the same household. It has far more to do with the psychological makeup of the person and how he/she perceives the outside world. Therefore, the reasons why the organisation exists is not necessarily the motivation or reason why the individual joined. Unfortunately, the majority of efforts preventing (PVE) and countering (CVE) radicalisation build on perceptions and personal and organisational interests, instead of understanding the phenomenon in the first place. Further placing a question mark on the success of these initiatives comes in the form of searching for the ‘profile’ of a terrorist. It often continues where earlier scholars and security agencies left off in developing criteria commonly based on age, gender, ethnicity, religion, national origin etc. often resulting in the negative consequences of profiling, and most notably marginalisation. When it comes to the intentional recruitment of individuals not fitting these characteristics, scholars, practitioners and the broad public are every time shocked by the exceptions to these often very narrow criteria. Solving this paradox rests with the acknowledgment that any person, under the right circumstances can be recruited into violent extremist organisations. Even more important is understanding the individual who was susceptible to these influences and might have been radicalised, but who was not operationalised. In other words, not all people living in the same geographical area experience external influences in the same way, it is rather the individual’s existing perceptions and psychological profile that serves as the missing link in understanding recruitment into extremist organisations. While practitioners try to figure this out, those tasked with recruitment know human nature and understand the complexities in pushing the necessary ‘buttons’ to convince a person to become part and execute atrocities in the name of a ‘cause’. Other than following a script – such as the linear approach often presented by policy makers and practitioners in preventing acts of terrorism – those responsible for recruitment rather embrace diversity and use it to their advantage, intentionally breaking the “mold” that clearly manifests in the profile of individuals that were previously radicalised and recruited. In other words, the real enemy – those manipulating others in joining violent extremist movements, instead of individuals who commit acts of violence – is light years ahead of those tasked with preventing and combating radicalisation and terrorism. While intentionally outmanoeuvring the state security apparatus to stay ahead, recruiters apply an array of strategies in its recruitment efforts. This is also reflected in the numerous levels of radicalisation as manifested in the different levels of commitment to the “cause” and the roles these individuals will eventually play in the organisation.

Setting the tone for understanding radicalisation, the same lessons also apply to the de-radicalisation process and overall reintegration approach. Corresponding to the reasons – inclusive of why and how – individuals were radicalised, those tasked with de-radicalisation also need to know why and how the individual was radicalised to tailor the development of a counter narrative applicable to that specific individual.

The most practical consequence in our understanding of radicalisation and recruitment into violent extremist movements is the realisation that the answer does not lie with simplifying this phenomenon, but rather to first understand radicalisation and recruitment into every organisation operating in each country (for example the ‘profile’ of an al-Shabaab member in Somalia is remarkably different from the al-Shabaab member in Kenya). It is only through adopting this approach that policy makers, practitioners and the donor community will be able to adopt pro-active and sustainable preventative measures – getting ahead of violent extremist movements, ultimately preventing radicalisation and recruitment.

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