Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Aug 20, 2020
Understanding Radicalisation is Key to Effective Countermeasures

Growing up in the strife-torn erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir exposed me early in life to the malicious interplay of religious narratives and political violence. I would frequently hear arguments about the ideological hijacking of a tolerant local religious milieu by the more rabid and violent narratives proliferating in from across the border. However, hardly anybody in those early years of militancy—neither policymakers nor the counterinsurgents—talked about the ‘radicalisation’ of Kashmiri youth or that of a tolerant Kashmiri society. The term ‘radicalisation’ had not yet entered the lexicon of political or scholarly discourse. It was only after the devastating 9/11 attacks in the United States that ‘radicalisation’ became a catch phrase.

In an attempt to make sense of the growing anti-West feeling amongst a section of Muslims around the world, the radicalisation paradigm provided quick answers—a heuristic to understand the more complex problems and questions like “Why do they hate us?”. Holding the process of ‘radicalisation’ as the root cause for the complex phenomenon of global jihadism, scholars and policymakers were using simple heuristics to understand a vexed and diverse phenomenon. Political scientists like Robert Jervis, Janice Stien, and Keren Yarhi-Milo have done seminal work on the role of human cognition on problem solving and decision-making. Driven by the need for simple rules, people systematically use heuristics and biases to make sense of complex phenomenon and uncertain environments. Bringing disparate narratives and divergent causes under one umbrella provided easy and implementable empirical answers—that of response to ‘radicalisation’. Deradicalisation or counter-radicalisation became the cherished countermeasure for law enforcement agencies.

Decoding Radicalisation

There is no single agreed upon definition of radicalisation. Despite the conflictual understanding of the term, countries around the world have curated policies and programmes based on the understanding that people turn to violence because of radical or extreme religious beliefs. The questions often raised are, ‘How much radical is radical enough?’ or if it is only the religious beliefs that drive people to violence or if there are other forms of radicalisation such as political or racial.

The extant theory of radicalisation assumes that there are set stages that people undergo during the process of radicalisation, which eventually leads to violent behaviour<1>. This understanding of radicalisation, which took root in the West post-9/11, has permeated to other parts of the world. Countries like the US and United Kingdom took the lead in establishing “counter-radicalisation’ programmes”, and the term is now popular in the policy community, especially among law enforcement agencies. A successful deradicalisation effort presupposes two crucial things— that the implementing agencies understand the process of radicalisation and are equipped with robust counter narratives, and that the radicalisation has already happened and can be reversed.

Deradicalisation as a part of larger effort to counter violent extremism is predicated on the assumption that the agencies, particularly law enforcement, understand the radical narrative, and once deradicalised, the person will automatically be weaned away from violence. This over-reliance on the religious conveyor belt theory—which asserts that radicalisation is a linear, unstoppable progression from ‘non-violent extremism’ to ‘violent extremism,’ such that the more conservative a Muslim is in their beliefs, the more radical they will become, ultimately turning to terrorism—lacks both robust scholarly backing and empirical evidence. A large body of literature in the field of political science has shown that terrorists are motivated more by political goals than just by socioeconomic, religious or cultural factors alone. Alan Krueger argues that the evidence is nearly unanimous across the Middle Eastern and North African states that terrorists are primarily motivated by political goal<2>.  Alexander Lee, while rejecting the economic grievance model, posits that terrorists, like other members of political groups, acquire information about the political process and they come from relatively well-off sections of the society<3>. Some experts argue that most Islamist terrorists are relatively well educated and most come from reasonably affluent social backgrounds <4><5>.

The accepted understanding of how one becomes a terrorist influences the choice of countermeasures. The assumed link between religiosity and terrorism prioritises the mapping of person’s religious behaviour, shifting focus away from other key indicators of criminal behaviour. The simplistic theories developed and adopted by many law enforcement agencies assumes a fixed trajectory of the radicalisation process and that each stage of the process has some identifiable markers. In 2012, for instance, a law enforcement agency in a central Indian state arrested a group of students for participating in an alleged anti-national public meeting<6>. The meeting was called Seerat Pak Jalsa, which means ‘a gathering to discuss the pious life of the Prophet’ but was erroneously translated to ‘a gathering to discuss the goodness of Pakistan’. While accepting the mistake, the agency argued that the one of the men at the meeting was very likely to commit a violent act as he believed in a radical Islamic ideology. Such a widespread assumption in law enforcement circles is convenient but misleading, since many who adhere to such ideologies have never indulged in any political violence.

The Salafi Question

A glaring example of such a simplistic understanding is the way in which Salafism or Salafi ideology has been framed and understood as a big threat, which has forced governments in different parts of the world to see it as a distinct identifiable marker of radicalisation and, therefore, of violent behavior. Although many of the terror groups in the West and South Asia, including al-Qaeda and ISIS, adhere to Salafi ideology, not every Salafi is a potential terrorist and Salafism in no way feeds into the conveyor belt theory of radicalisation.

The term Salafi has received unprecedented attention in recent decades, especially after the 9/11 attacks in the US. Salafis, with their alleged proclivity to use violence against the West, are routinely portrayed as the biggest threat to liberal democracies. Scholars and policymakers frequently attribute all the ills associated with radical Islam either to the Salafi mindset or the Salafi ideology<7>. According to a former U.S. National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, the “ideology” of Salafism is what unites Islamic terrorists around the world<8>. Another senior US official also described Salafism as a “fundamental understanding of Islam” that justifies terrorism<9>. At the same timethere have been efforts to convince Americans to not be “afraid of their Salafi neighbors”<10> and that the “majority of Salafis are not violent”<11>. Another common trend among scholars, both political and religious, is the interchangeable use of the terms Salafi, Wahhabi and Salafi Jihadist.

Salafism is not a monolith, and people with diverse ideational beliefs have either been placed under the Salafi umbrella or claim to be Salafis. The traditional politically quietist Salafis who believe that politics undercuts the sovereignty of God (Hakimiyyah of Allah) and thus remain generally aloof from politics, claim the exclusive domain of being ideologically Salafis<12>The jihadist Salafis are looked down upon by these traditional Salafis as corrupted. There are also groups like the Nour party in Egypt, who believe that Salafis will have to take recourse to mainstream politics to bring about a systemic change<13>.

The divergent and disparate narratives of groups like ISIS, Nour party or the Salafyo Costa (an Egyptian  Salafi group founded in 2001 to promote tolerance and cooperation between diverse groups)<14> exacerbates the contradictory understanding of Salafism. Traditional Salafi scholars have repeatedly launched scathing attacks on ISIS for their use of indiscriminate and brutal violence<15>. ISIS, with its violent worldview, and Salafyo Costa, with its conciliatory approach, adhere to the basic tenet of Salafism, which calls for Muslims to practice faith as practiced by al-Salaf al-Salih (pious ancestors). But this is where the similarity ends. Their methods and approaches towards the political and social questions are strikingly different.  Salafyo Costa, like many other Salafi movements, is apolitical and the Nour party believes in change through parliamentary democracy, while groups like ISIS are ruthlessly driven by an irredentist political agenda of establishing an Islamic caliphate.

Salafi movements have had distinct paths of development in different countries. The Salafis of Morocco maintained their distinctive reformatory attributes while interpreting Salafism, whereas the Syrian Salafis confined themselves to the doctrinal and ritual aspects of the Salafiyya <16>. Similarly Salafi-minded groups in India, such as the All India Jamaat e Ahle Hadith and the Kerela Nadhvathul Mujahideen, see violence as antithetical to their Salafi path (manhaj). While the peace-loving and quietist Salafi groups have rigorous religious standards that guide their behaviour, their interaction with the society is not based on imposing those standards coercively on anyone else.

Establishing Effective Deradicalisation Programmes

Radicalisation is a huge area of concern, but without understanding the radical narrative, and the finer nuances within such narratives, it is counterproductive to frame deradicalisation programmes on a limited understanding. Such understanding of the radicalisation process provides the toolbox through which law enforcement agencies are trying to identify a nascent terrorist or prevent attacks. The overreliance on a simplistic understanding has mandated law enforcement agencies to shift focus from traditional crime prevention methods to gathering information about social, religion and political patterns. Radicalisation has transformed the landscape of preventative counterterrorism policing, placing political and religious cultures of certain communities at the centre of the counterterrorism project, with unexamined costs.

Security experts and community leaders have often proposed community policing by local law enforcement personnel as a solution to the deteriorating relationship between the police and the community. Community policing measures include regular communication between local law enforcement officers and the religious communities, the creation of community liaison positions, increased cultural sensitivity training for law enforcement personnel, greater recruitment of community members into law enforcement positions, and mechanisms for overcoming linguistic, cultural and social barriers<17>. Framing deradicalisation programmes as a community policing measure, as has been done by the Maharashtra police<18>, humanises even intrusive measures and are not seen as targeting a particular community.

Establishing a mechanism to evaluate the effectiveness of deradicalisation measures will be a welcome step. Such a mechanism should assess whether our broader counterterrorism agenda is better served by a surveillance-heavy response to radicalisation or through the evolving best practices of identifying criminal and violent behaviour.

Governments should also consider evolving such outreach endeavours that do not stigmatise any community. The ultimate goal is to improve the response of law enforcement agencies to radicalisation by bringing greater rationality and transparency to the effort. By framing policies based on our knowledge of radicalisation, and by evaluating the policies based on the knowledge gap, ineffective, counterproductive and rights-violating policies will be discontinued. Such a scrutiny will advance the efficacy of counter-radicalisation measures, and their adherence to rights and values.


<1> Arvin Bhatt, Mitchell D. Silber, “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat”, New York City Police Department, New York, 2007.

<2> Alan B. Krueger, What Makes a Terrorist? Princeton University Press, 2007.

<3> Alexander Lee, “Who becomes a terrorist? Poverty, education, and the origins of political violence”, World Politics (2011): 203-245.

<4> Jacob N. Shapiro and C. Christine Fair, “Understanding support for Islamist militancy in Pakistan”, International Security 34, no. 3 (2010): 79-118.

<5> G. Blair, C. Christine Fair, N. Malhotra, and J.N. Shapiro, “Poverty and support for militant politics: Evidence from Pakistan”, American Journal of Political Science 57, no. 1 (2013): 30-48.

<6> Muzamil Jaleel, “A Children’s Magazine, Newspaper, Urdu Poetry. Anything Can Land You In Jail”, The Indian Express, October 1, 2012.

<7> Robin Wright, “Don’t fear all Islamists, fear Salafis”, The New York Times, August 19, 2012.

<8> Mehdi Hassan, “Transcript: Michael Flynn on ISIL”, Al Jazeera, January 13, 2016.

<9> Warner Hudson, “Journal Article “Why Al-Qaeda Just Won’t Die” Cited In Breitbart News”, JINSA, August 22, 2014.

<10> Mathew Taylor, “Don’t Fear (All) Salafi Muslims”, Huffington Post, January 22, 2016.

<11> Mohammed Alyahya, “Don’t Blame ‘Wahhabism for Terrorism”, New York Times, October 19, 2016.

<12> Joas Wagemakers, “Salafism”, Oxford Research Encyclopedia, Religion, 2016.

<13> Jonathan AC Brown, “Salafis and Sufis in Egypt”, The Carnegie Papers 20 (2011).

<14> Nada Zohdy, “Salafyo Costa, Salafi Group, Works to Counter Intolerance”, Huffington Post, December 12, 2012.

<15> Sajid Shapoo, 2016. “Salafi Jihadism - An Ideological Misnomer”, Small Wars Journal, July 19, 2017.

<16> Henri Lauzière, In the Making of Salafism: Islamic Reform in the Twentieth Century, New York: Columbia University Press, 2016: 60-94.

<17> Ibid.

<18> Sagar Rajput, “Maharashtra Police deradicalisation project: Safety net, skills training, bank loans”, The Indian Express, August 4, 2019.

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