Recognising Radicalisation Toward Extremism
If you’ve been a professional helper for a while, you have probably sensed that the fields we work in (counselling/psychotherapy, psychology, social work, etc.) have changed in recent years. As the world we live in becomes increasingly polarised, so too do the beliefs and values of people drawn to radicalisation toward extremism; for many of those radicalised, the process has occurred chiefly online. Studies suggest that about 50% of the UK’s young people who become radicalised are brainwashed by extremist material on the internet; the number of people radicalised in Britain has doubled in the last five years (Educate.against.hate, 2017).
Australia’s terror watch list now “boasts” 26 organisations and untold individuals (Australian National Security, 2018). In a different form of “radicalisation” which is nonetheless still grooming people toward extremism, white supremacists in the United States and Europe have figured out ways to expertly use the internet to recruit and coordinate among a huge pool of potential racists (Manjoo, 2017). This post is an acknowledgement that, as part of the ever-expanding portfolio of tasks falling to the mental health helper, you may be called upon to deal with the issue of someone becoming radicalised. We discuss how you can spot the signs that someone may be being drawn into the net of violent extremism.
Understanding the radicalisation process
Both within the U.K. and Australia, experts note that there is no single pathway of radicalisation towards violent extremism. However, there are common elements in the experiences of people who have become radicalised, regardless of the beliefs they have been drawn to or the reasons for which they were drawn. These elements include major behavioural changes in primary areas of a person’s life, especially including ideology, social relations, and criminal activity. The changes can occur in any or all of the areas, although we must recognise that some of the tendencies which come to be displayed are also common teenage traits.
This element takes in significant shifts in a person’s world view or paradigm. The “line” where ideologies become worrisome to law enforcement officials is if they advocate the use of violence or other unlawful activity to promote particular beliefs. In the process of ideological shift, individuals may manifest increasingly strict or literal interpretations of a given belief. They may use language which vilifies or discriminates against others. They often use the internet to download and spread material promoting violence toward some groups. When ideologies are hateful and contain anti-social ideas, they are offensive and disturbing, but note here that, although you may need to deal with such world views as a mental health helper, they are not considered violent extremism if the individual has not advocated or committed to using violence (Living Safe Together, n.d.).
Many ripe-for-radicalisation individuals are drawn to extremist groups for social reasons. Especially in Australia, the people most likely to being influenced are young people, who will be most vulnerable in close personal relationships. Radicalising individuals begin to distance themselves from longstanding relationships, such as those with family, friends, and mainstream activities they used to enjoy. They begin to interact more with smaller, often tight-knit groups who share their specific beliefs. They may even undergo initiations or take oaths of allegiance. While personal face-to-face relationships tend to be the most influential, some individuals have been radicalised wholly online (Living Safe Together, n.d.).
As the individual moves along the continuum from “normal” to “extremist”, he or she begins to act out, engaging in activities which at first may not cause much harm (such as vandalism or illegal protesting), but which may still be illegal. Later in the process, individuals may make threats for the purpose of influencing government or a section of the community. Once the use of violence is advocated in order to advance a cause, the extremism has reached a concerning level. When an individual is committed to violent action, an actual attack may not be far off. At these levels of radicalisation, people become more cautious and increasingly suspicious of governmental, security, and intelligence or law enforcement agencies (Living Safe Together, n.d.).
Recognising the behaviours that are cause for concern
Drawing on Canadian research, British educators have put together a list of behaviours which may indicate increasing levels of extremism. The research distinguishes points along a continuum from “insignificant” through “troublesome”, “worrisome”, and finally “alarming” behaviours – although the researchers are careful to say that there is no one point at which we can clearly say that someone has been “radicalised”. As mental health helpers, we are likely to be able to spot behaviours (sometimes only indirectly, through reports of concerned loved ones) which could be at the level of “worrisome”. Note how some points on the following list also turn up as diagnostic criteria for mental health issues. Individual may be moving toward extremism if they:
- Have become more angry, argumentative, and/or domineering
- Are quick to condemn or demonise viewpoints that conflict with their own
- Are beginning to express themselves in a “them and us” (divisive) manner about others with alternative beliefs
- Are increasingly secretive or unwilling to discuss their own views
- Express themselves in ways that sound scripted or use derogative terms
- Have distanced themselves from longstanding friendships/relationships
- Have lost interest in previously-enjoyed activities
- Have come to express hostile or conspiratorial ideas about the government and foreign policy
- Justify the use of violence or criminal acts or express a desire for “revenge” and/or “absolute truth” (Educate.against.hate., 2017).
What’s being done and what you can do
What Google did
Recognising the internet as a breeding ground for extremism, Jigsaw (a think tank created by Google) initiated “The Redirect Method” after intensive field research. It found, after many interviews with former jihadis, white supremacists, and other violent extremists, that two factors abet radicalisation: scepticism of mainstream media and timing. Proponents of extremist ideologies tend to dismiss outlets like The New York Times or the BBC, looking for alternative theories online. Too, as they move along toward radical extremism, there comes a time when they are too enmeshed in the extremism to “let in” any new information presented to them. Jigsaw used these findings to curate a series of videos (not filmed by news outlets) showing, for example, what life is truly like under Islamic State (e.g., people queuing for bread, women and children being mistreated, fighters being brutal with civilians). Then Jigsaw used Google’s technology of ad targeting to ensure that potential recruits saw the videos at the right time (before they were “too far down the rabbit hole” to take in the information). It found people spent lots of time watching the videos.
Another group, Moonshot CVE, worked with Jigsaw on the Redirect project. Moonshot embedded social workers in extremist forums; they have discreetly messaged potential recruits in order to dissuade them. It’s now using targeted ads to offer mental health counseling to those who might be radicalised (Manjoo, 2017).
What you can do
As we’ve noted, with radicalisation, time is of the essence, and the sooner anti-radicalising action can be taken, the more chance it has of being effective. If you should hear from a client that they are concerned about a family member or friend who appears to be acting strangely and may be radicalising, encourage the client to maintain open communication with the person. In some cases this, along with a positive relationship, may be a sufficient intervention in itself.
If the potential extremist is sharing their changed views with you directly, it is important to listen to their reasons for becoming radicalised, genuinely trying to see the world from their eyes. In such situations more than ever, our ability as mental health helpers to listen deeply and non-judgmentally – separating the person from their behaviour – is critical. They need to know that they are accepted and see that you are there to help them.
That said, you may also need to discuss the limits of confidentiality if the person discloses threats or plans to commit violent acts. In these cases, you need to contact relevant authorities.
We will never be able to control the factors that collude to create a process of radicalisation toward extremism, but by timely recognition that someone has begun this process, we may be able to have a major role in forestalling it, for the good of the individual and the entire community.
- Australian National Security. (2018). Listed terrorist organisations. Australian National Security Retrieved on 9 October, 2018, from: Website
- Educate.against.hate. (2017). Spotting the signs of radicalisation: A guide for educators. Educate.against.hate. Retrieved on 9 October, 2018, from: Website
- Living Safe Together. (n.d.). Understanding the radicalisation process. Living Safe Together. Retrieved on 9 October, 2018, from: Website
- Manjoo, F. (2017). A hunt for ways to combat online radicalization. New York Times. Retrieved on 9 October, 2018, from: Website