NEWS & commentary
I'm absolutely delighted that the book I've been working on has just been published.
Reintegrating Extremists is based on nearly ten years of work looking at statutory and third sector efforts to support those who have been involved in extremism to reintegrate back into society.
Here's the blurb:
This book presents an in-depth analysis of how statutory and third sector organisations have faced the challenge of dealing with former ‘terrorists’. Offering a theoretically robust, empirically rich account of work with ex-prisoners and those considered ‘at risk’ of involvement in extremism in the United Kingdom, the book dissects the problems governments are facing in dealing with the effects of 'radicalisation'. Increasingly, governments are struggling with the challenge of dealing with those who have become involved in extremism, and yet, comparatively little is known about how and why people renounce violence. Nor are existing efforts to ‘deradicalise’ extremists well understood.
I was really pleased to be asked to give oral evidence to the Lords Committee on Children and the Internet on the question of radicalisation.
It was an interesting session addressing some really difficult issues about how best to safeguard young people given the extent of efforts to mobilise those in the West using the online space.
By Erwin Lux [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I've been carrying out research on the trajectories of those involved in historical overseas conflicts with colleague Mohammed Ali Amla and have started to present some of the early findings at a couple of conferences this Autumn. The research involves learning from interviews with former mujahideen to understand the biographical outcomes of conflict. Here's an idea of some of the preliminary outcomes of the study.
Combatants’ experience of historical conflict and its aftermath rarely feature in work on political violence. Alongside an emphasis on contemporary events, the terrorism studies literature is generally more concerned with organisation and strategy than lived experience. There has also been an emphasis on questions of mobilisation as opposed to disengagement and post-conflict experiences. Hence, although increasingly urgent questions are being asked about returnees from transnational conflicts, our knowledge about what informs the reintegration process is weak. Moreover, existing work on demobilisation and reintegration has tended to focus on those ‘background’ factors considered relevant to the move away from political violence. In the literature on large-scale conflict, attention is typically directed at socio-economic issues, while research on disengagement from clandestine radical groups focuses on small group processes or individual level features such as ideological commitment. While valuable, they overlook those ‘foreground’ emotional and experiential factors which inform meaning making. To deepen our knowledge of these features of reintegration, this paper explores the life history accounts of a small number of militant Islamists who took part in jihad over the last 30 years, from Afghanistan in the 1990s to Libya in 2011. Former combatants’ life histories offer a rich source of material by which to understand reintegration and the ongoing effect of involvement in conflict down the years. These subjective interpretations are central to understanding why people move away from violence, what involvement in conflict means to them, and how these experiences influence the pattern of their lives. In exploring these issues with a focus on individual processes of sense-making, the paper is less concerned with developing an ‘objective’ or ‘accurate’ account of people’s journey into and out of jihad. Instead it seeks to understand the biographical outcomes of involvement in conflict by interpreting accounts of narrative identity. In doing so, the paper looks at the meaning people give to their past in the context of wider cultural repertoires that inform the shape of potential futures, to understand how people make sense of their choices over the life course. Based on interviews with transnational activists involved in jihad this paper offers a rich, qualitative account of their memories of becoming involved, how disengagement and reintegration are subjectively experienced and recalled, what the longer-term biographical effects of involvement in political violence are, and how current selves interpret former selves.
I've been presenting some of the research on disengagement from extremism this month.
I was in Warsaw with the International Society of Political Psychology talking on A strengths based approach to 'deradicalisation', in London for the Interdisciplinary Social Sciences Confernece, and in Leeds I spoke at a conference organised by the Terrorism and Political Violence Association. Here's an abstract of the talk:
In the face of violent political dissent governments have, along with repressive measures, tried ‘softer’ methods to facilitate disengagement from radical opposition groups. Most recently, this has been conceptualised as ‘deradicalisation’, a phenomenon that is poorly understood both empirically and theoretically. Based on extensive interviews and fieldwork with practitioners working with militant Islamists in the United Kingdom, this paper explores the practical, conceptual, and theoretical foundation of ‘deradicalisation’ efforts to present an alternative account of disengagement from radical settings. It does so by exploring the promise of two theoretical approaches to reintegrating prisoners: the ‘strengths based’ approach and the ‘risk’ model. Simply put, the first encourages the individual to conceive of ways to work towards a positive future, asking what constitutes a ‘good life’ for them, while the second tries to plug perceived deficits. Looking more carefully at the strengths based approach to supporting desistance from terrorism suggests a reframing of how we approach the concept of ‘deradicalisation’. Acknowledging the positive benefits people seek to achieve by engaging in illegal political activity is the first step in this, informing three ways of reframing efforts to engage with ‘extremists’. First, working to redirect rather than deconstruct the initial motivation to engage in illegal activism; second, improving resilience to negative influences through developing internal strengths and supporting agency, rather than the current emphasis on controlling risk; and third framing this as a process of reintegration into wider social structures, rather than ‘deradicalisation’ and its assumption of a somewhat passive, atomised subject of external intervention.
Image by Mike Herbst under CC
Preliminary findings from a study I was involved in on activist perceptions of surveillance have just been released. The project was led by colleagues at the University of St Andrews and openDemocracy and wanted to understand whether recent revelations about state surveillance had effected how activists mobilise.
The outcome of the research was that, by and large, there hasn't been an effect. This interesting and potentially worrying finding prompted a range of responses that have been published on the openDemocracy website where you can also read the study's main conclusions.
The Home Affairs Committee is currently holding an Inquiry into Counter Extremism. I submitted written evidence that drew on current research and set out where I see the main challenges and opportunities lie with respect to countering extremism.
Click below to read the full text.
I've contributed to a few overseas media outlets recently. For Brazilian O Globo I wrote a piece on the importance of finding appropriate means of supporting the reintegration of 'foreign fighters'. I was also interviewed for Denmark's DR2 on whether those convicted of terrorism offences should be segregated from other prisoners.
Image by MsSaraKelly (Hatred by Ben Slow) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I put together a piece for The Conversation on what happens to those who are suspected of being 'at risk' of radicalisation and referred to Prevent.
Figure: Brookings/Soufan Group/Defenseone/Home Office
The BBC put together a piece on how Islamic State targets young people in the UK, there are a few words from me on the difficulties of identifying who might be 'at risk' of involvement in extremism.
Image by: By EFF-Graphics - Own work, CC BY 3.0 us, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35167355
For a little while I've been working with colleagues from the University of St Andrews and openDemocracy on a project exploring whether recent revelations about state surveillance impacted how activists pursue their claims.
As part of the research we held a workshop in London that brought together activists and academics to explore the legal, sociological, political and technological aspects of how surveillance may have impacted how activists try and promote political change.
I'll post more about the project as we write up the findings.