In a recent report, the European Foundation for Democracy and the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) analysed some of the key hotbeds of jihadist radicalisation, in a bid to better understand the root-causes, triggers and dynamics of the phenomenon, and to suggest strategies to counter it.
The study considers eight areas across Europe, the US, North Africa and the Caucasus, that have proven to be main incubators of violent extremism.
Although the report confirms the findings of previous analyses in acknowledging the absence of generalisable predictors, it does find some patterns and commonalities that may constitute the basis for an effective counter-radicalisation strategy.
The report shows that hotbeds are always focused and localised within specific social and geographical contexts. The Molenbeek commune in Brussels is a notorious example but the same paradigm applies to other areas under consideration.
Three factors contribute to the root-causes of individual radicalisation: grievances related to the local environment, purely personal issues and an extremist ideology fostered by charismatic and popular preachers. The mix of these factors creates a fertile recruitment ground as the sociological and psychological issues create an identity vacuum that is filled by, powerful and radical ideologies.
The strength of ISIS is in its capacity to frame local and personal triggers - thanks to a powerful media structure - within a simple, universal and international narrative. This creates a sense of identity, belonging and brotherhood, and of a life mission.
A crucial aspect of the recruitment process highlighted in the study is that peer-to-peer interaction is much more effective than generic propaganda - as high-quality as the latter may well be, as in the case of ISIS. This is because radical messages are tailored to the specific individual and context. Such direct interaction may take place online or in person, but the latter seems to be a more frequent and effective way to recruit where family links are more common than in Al Qaeda.
A series of recommendations for policymakers emerges from the report. Primarily, that terrorism will not be defeated purely by military means. Policymakers must look at the root-causes. Radicalisation should be considered as a comprehensive, multi-factorial occurrence, to be addressed in both its structural and temporary factors. Focusing only on contingent aspects and single issues related to individual, social or economic situations does not draw a complete picture.
An effective counter-terrorism strategy should be based on three main pillars (two preventive and one remedial). Inclusion policies that are based on development, education, equality measures and urban regeneration, to minimise political and socio-economic triggers, an effective counter-narrative strategy, including education to tolerance, diversity and liberal-democratic values and de-radicalisation programmes aimed at disengaging committed militants.
None of this can be achieved by single states - let alone local communities - in splendid isolation, for the threat is a global one and knows no borders, as tragically shown by the recent wave of attacks in France and Belgium.
Therefore, European governments should share their experience and create a common agenda against radicalisation. The EU could help member states in overcoming the challenges related to high costs, trouble in determining the effectiveness of counter-radicalisation programmes and lack of collaboration between intelligence services.
In this way the EU could at last, help create, a comprehensive and coherent collective response to a global threat that affects us all.