In March 2012, Mohammed Merah, a self-identified jihadist, killed three French servicemen and four French Jews during a series of gun attacks in Toulouse before himself dying in a shoot-out with French police. Although Merah’s attacks were less sophisticated than previous attacks in Europe such as the 2004 Madrid bombings or the 2005 London bombings, his actions underscore that jihadist terrorism remains a viable threat in Europe and a substantial concern for European security services.

The attack is also a reminder of why several major European countries have adopted national counterradicalization strategies in recent years, which are aimed at deradicalizing or “disengaging” existing radicals or at preventing individuals from adopting radical or pro-violent ideologies in the first place. Many of these countries—such as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands—credit these programs with contributing to the reduction of the domestic terrorist threat from homegrown jihadists.

This article reviews European counterradicalization efforts, providing clarity on the different programs and strategies employed in the region.[1]

European Counterradicalization Work
From approximately 2001, virtually all European countries boosted their traditional counterterrorism capabilities. They passed antiterrorism legislation, increased intelligence agencies’ manpower and capabilities, and improved transnational cooperation. In addition, several European countries—notably the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway—progressively introduced counterradicalization strategies to deradicalize or disengage existing militants and to prevent the radicalization of new ones. The aim of these strategies, in essence, is to try to prevent terrorism not only by catching terrorists, but also by preventing their emergence in the first place. Importantly, many of these programs were developed or escalated as countries realized, often in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, that traditional counterterrorism policing work alone was not enough.

The pioneer in the field has been the United Kingdom, which in 2003 launched a tentative domestic counterradicalization strategy called “Prevent” as part of its broader “Contest” counterterrorism strategy to tackle domestic jihadist terrorism.[2] Despite its many revisions and the widespread criticism it has attracted, particularly after it was hurriedly scaled up following the 2005 London attacks, Prevent has inspired many European imitators. After the 2004 assassination of filmmaker Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands, various Dutch municipalities devised their own counterradicalization strategies. In 2007, amid continuing threats from radicals, the Dutch government rolled out its “Polarization and Radicalization Action Plan,” a national strategy that distilled the experience of these municipalities with the aim of extending them throughout the country.[3] In 2009, Danish authorities released their own national strategy, partly in response to the continuing fall-out of the Prophet Muhammad cartoon crisis.[4] Norway did the same in 2010 and is expected to expand its program further to prevent a repeat of far-right militant Anders Breivik’s 2011 attack.[5] Other European countries, such as Sweden and Germany, have devised less comprehensive programs, often simply at the local level.

European counterradicalization programs differ greatly from one another in terms of aims, structure, budget, and underlying philosophy. Each one is also deeply shaped by political, cultural, and legal elements unique to that country. Nevertheless, the experience to date points to certain key characteristics and challenges common to all European counterradicalization programs.

Different Types of Programs
European counterradicalization programs can be broadly divided into two categories: general preventive initiatives and targeted interventions.

The former aim to make broad at-risk societal groups less susceptible to terrorist recruitment efforts. This is usually done through attempts to discredit dangerous radical groups and ideologies, promote democratic participation and address negative perceptions of mainstream society, democracy and national governments within these groups. In the United Kingdom, for instance, such policies aiming to counter pro-al-Qa`ida radicalization have led to the funding of moderate Islamic preachers and groups in the hope they will popularize alternative, non-violent, democratic and secular understandings of Islam as a counterweight to pro-violent ideologies, as well as to non-religious groups aiming to promote “social cohesion,” integration and improved interfaith relations.[6] Some such groups worked at a national level, while others had a more local remit; similarly, some were aimed at particular ethnic groups, such as Somalis or Pakistanis, while others had a less explicitly ethnic or religious focus.

Supplementing such broad societal initiatives are interventions targeted at specific individuals who already subscribe to pro-terrorist narratives or ideologies, or who are believed to be at risk of adopting such views. The aim of such interventions is to disrupt these individuals’ progress toward violence, ideally through realigning their views with those of the mainstream population as well as through breaking their social links with radicals. These initiatives vary significantly in characteristics and underlying philosophy, some focusing on the reinforcement of democratic values, others on the use of moderate Islamic theology to displace radical Islamist ideas or through fostering individual self-empowerment or addressing socioeconomic factors. In some instances, as in the Netherlands, such interventions have been conducted with convicted radicals. In other cases, as in Norway or the United Kingdom, they are conducted by local police or council workers with predominantly young mostly school-age individuals who have not yet been convicted of any crime, but who are believed to be at high-risk of future radicalization.[7]

Current Trends
Despite the significant differences in the size, characteristics and underlying philosophies of these various European counterradicalization strategies, it is possible to observe some emerging common trends. One involves the programs’ aims. Despite variations from country to country, European authorities are increasingly reducing the focus of their counterradicalization efforts to violent radicalization toward terrorism rather than seeking to confront broader extremism through a counterterrorism prism. This is not because authorities do not see a relation between non-violent extremism and violent radicalization, or that they do not wish to tackle the non-security related challenges posed by extremism. In practice, branches of government have often struggled to tackle extremism and terrorism simultaneously (this is particularly a challenge for intelligence officials schooled in seeing preventing terrorism as their sole role), while many programs have struggled to overcome charges that “countering extremism” amounts to policing citizens’ non-violent thoughts.

A second trend is that while counterradicalization work is moving away from challenging extremism, European authorities are highly positive about their targeted interventions against individuals believed to be at risk of adopting pro-terrorist ideologies. Sir Norman Bettison, who as Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) lead for Prevent policing is the UK police’s de facto overseer of national Prevent work, stated in late 2010: “Thus far not one of the 1,500 people that have been intervened with have been arrested for any terrorist-related offense.”[8] Danish, Dutch and Norwegian authorities have intervened on a significantly smaller number of individuals but claim similarly high levels of success.[9] Carefully planned one-on-one interventions targeting well identified individuals who clearly espouse radical views or, even further, are involved in radical networks, are increasingly seen as a sensitive tool authorities can use in their counterterrorism efforts. This is a striking contrast with the United States, where individuals believed to be potentially at risk of radicalization may instead be viewed by police as potential targets for “agent provocateur” schemes.

Fine Tuning European Strategies
Several additional trends and commonalities can be observed in how European countries have fine-tuned their counterradicalization efforts.

Mainstreaming and Normalizing Counterradicalization
A clear trend across all countries is to integrate counterradicalization work, and even relatively complex intervention work, into the ordinary day-to-day responsibilities of police officers, teachers, housing officers and medical staff. One important result of this is to increase the likelihood of radicals and potential radicals being identified at an early stage. Often a prerequisite for this is the training of key government frontline workers (ranging from police officers and teachers working with high-risk communities to prison officers and key civil servants), something that was not always appreciated when such programs were first introduced.

Importance of Good Communication
Many European counterradicalization strategies have been met with severe criticisms from civil rights groups, opposition parties and from within both the civil service and Muslim communities, for various reasons. This has often severely reduced these programs’ effectiveness. In response, European authorities have had to learn to put intense emphasis on better communicating their strategy and aims to the public; for instance, by portraying police-led counterradicalization work as “supporting vulnerable people.”[10]

Emphasis on Assessment
Most European programs now contain built-in measures to gauge the effectiveness of different projects. This helps ensure value-for-money for taxpayers and enables assessment of which programs should be kept, which need to be refined and which should be scrapped.

Finally, from the specific perspective of working with Muslim communities, three trends can be observed.

1. Shift Away from “Theological” Approach
Having initially experimented with funding Muslim groups to conduct broad counterradicalization work in their communities and with Islamic theological interventions with individuals, most counterradicalization work and interventions have now shifted toward broader secular approaches that are generally aimed at addressing background vulnerabilities and encouraging involvement in the democratic process. Nonetheless, some specific deradicalization interventions with individuals may still use theological approaches in certain circumstances.

2. Exclusion of Islamists and Salafists
In keeping with this ethos, there is now a broad European consensus against funding, empowering or employing Islamists or Salafists in the counterradicalization context. Nevertheless, most programs are willing to conduct non-empowering engagement with Islamists and Salafists in the belief that occasional, case-by-case, tactical cooperation with these groups can yield some positive results.

3. Dual Focus on Far-Right and Islamist Extremism
Most European counterradicalization programs now target both jihadist terrorism and other forms of terrorism, including—according to each national context—from the far-right, the far-left, and animals’ rights activists. While the Breivik attack in Norway showed the clear need for such work, an additional benefit is that counterradicalization work against a wide range of terrorism undermines claims that such work is exclusively targeting Muslims or Islam.

Although such initiatives are notoriously difficult to assess, European governments claim extensive successes for their counterradicalization programs and credit them with some of the reduction of jihadist activity in Europe from its circa 2002-2006 peak. Counterradicalization work remains an imprecise science and hardly a silver bullet. At the same time, however, while all European authorities continue to recognize that solid police investigative work, backed by input from each country’s internal and external intelligence services, is still the central prerequisite for preventing terrorism, increasing numbers also now see counterradicalization as an essential supportive tool that can significantly reduce the likelihood of a terrorist attack.

James Brandon is a principal analyst at Maplecroft, a global risk analysis firm, and is an associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR).

Lorenzo Vidino is a fellow at the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich.

[1] This article is based on the findings of a report that will be published shortly through the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence. The report was based on extensive fieldwork in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway.

[2] “Project CONTEST: The Government’s Counterterrorism Strategy,” UK House of Commons, 2009.

[3] “Polarisation and Radicalisation Action Plan 2007-2011,” Netherlands Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations, 2006.

[4] “A Common and Safe Future,” Government of Denmark, January 2009.

[5] Personal interviews, Norwegian officials from Ministry of Justice and the Police, Oslo, Norway, November 2011.

[6] An example is the British government’s funding of The Radical Middle Way, an initiative aimed at having mainstream Muslim scholars tour the country and challenge al-Qa`ida’s ideology in lectures before young people.

[7] In the United Kingdom, these initiatives are part of the Channel Program, while in Norway the police engage in what it calls “empowerment conversations.” While these two interventions are police-led, in the Netherlands and Denmark they are, for the most part, crafted and implemented by civil servants in individual municipalities. For further information on the United Kingdom’s principal interventions program, see “Channel: Supporting Individuals Vulnerable to Recruitment by Violent Extremists – A Guide for Local Partnerships,” UK Home Office, March 2010. Information on Norway’s principal interventions program, the police-led “Empowerment Conversations,” is based on personal interviews with Police Superintendent Bjørn Øvrum, crime preventive coordinator, Oslo Police District, Norway, November 2011.

[8] Sir Norman Bettison, “Oral Evidence Taken Before the Home Affairs Committee on the ‘Roots Of Violent Radicalisation,’” UK House of Commons, November 1, 2011.

[9] Personal interviews, Danish, Dutch and Norwegian officials, August-November 2011.

[10] “Prevent Strategy,” UK Home Office, 2011.

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