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Terrorism suspect often experiences adversity as injustice

Detainees remanded in connection with terrorism often experience adversity in their lives as a sign of injustice towards them or their group. This has emerged from an exploratory study by NSCR and VU University Amsterdam among professionals and detainees. The research also reveals that some jihadists knew little about Islam at the start of their radicalisation process.

The report entitled “Terrorism, Adversity and Identity” provides insight into possible reasons for involvement in terrorism and/or violent extremism of an Islamic but also left-wing or right-wing radical nature. This can concern preparing an attack, calls to violence or travelling to fight in Syria or Iraq. For the study, interviews were held with professionals who work with terrorism suspects and prisoners, and with a number of detainees inside and outside Terrorist Sections of Dutch prisons.

In search of identity, purpose and solidarity

Setbacks such as losing a job, the death of a family member or problems in the family frequently occur among each suspect, but suspects of terrorist acts seem to respond more intensely to these events. The research reveals three possible explanations for this. Firstly, an unstable family life occurs relatively often in the youths of terrorism suspects. Secondly, many of the suspects are searching for identity, purpose and solidarity. Thirdly, the personal traits of these individuals might make it hard for them to deal with adversity.

Sudden and major events can be a trigger

Many terrorism suspects seem to be susceptible to ideological influencing. They are attracted to strong, simplistic stories on the Internet or come across people who introduce them in an extremist network. They sometimes also appear to have a limited discernment. Sudden and major events can then act as a trigger for involvement in terrorism or extremism.

Some terrorism suspects initially have little knowledge about politics or Islam

Interestingly, some of the suspects of jihadism activities had little knowledge about Islam at the start of the radicalisation process. They were attracted to it because it gave a possibility for meaningfulness. But via their network and Internet propaganda, they received a biased, violent image of the faith. No indications were found that Islamic radicalisation was caused by orthodox-religious upbringing. Right-wing extremists also often appear to have little political knowledge and are therefore possibly more sensitive for the terrifying spectre of "the foreign threat to Dutch identity and society".

Possible significance for terrorism policy

The study suggests that timely assistance and family support can be worthwhile for the prevention of terrorism. Furthermore, the researchers recommend increasing knowledge about religion, nationality and the democratic system in education. A lack of basic knowledge about these subjects can make an extreme story seem credible.

Publication details and further reading

Versteegt, I., Ljujic, V., El Bouk, F., Weerman, F. & Van Maaren, F. (2018). Terrorism adversity and identity. A qualitative study of detained terrorism suspects in comparison to other detainees. Amsterdam, NSCR/VU.

The study Terrorism, Adversity and Identity is part of a European research project into the social, psychological and economic factors that contribute to terrorism and organised crime (PROTON).

Prof. Frank Weerman

Senior Researcher

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