Economics and politics - comment and analysis
14. April 2017 I Will Denayer I Countries and Regions, Europe, General, General Politics

Terror in Stockholm. The origins of radicalisation and terrorism and what to do against it


One week ago, a couple of minutes before three o’clock in the afternoon (on Friday, the 7th of April) a man steals a truck in Drottninggatan, one of Stockholm’s most popular shopping streets. Rakhmat Akilov drives at high speed through the street for some 500 meters before he crashes into a store. The result: four people are dead and fifteen are wounded. A week later, seven people are still in the hospital. Two of them are in intensive care. The perpetrator is a 39 years old Uzbek citizen, who had applied for a residential permit in Sweden, but had been denied. He was known for his jihadist sympathies (see here).

Four people died. Akilov will spend the rest of his life in prison. What did he achieve? What is the psychological profile of such people? What are the human factors that lead to radicalisation and pave the way to violent acts? And what can we do against it?


Picture 1: Peace manifestation in central Stockholm last Sunday close to Drottninggatan (Source AFP).

The factors involved in the early engagement of ostensibly ordinary people on the pathway to radicalization are critical to understand and remain under-researched. As a consequence, the great majority of researchers – although this is a booming field unlike any other – do not deal with the causes of terrorist actions and are unable to propose remedial strategies. How can violent radicalisation of ordinary citizens be explained? Are they really that ordinary or have the research communities and security agencies not fully understood the critical variables?

The debate about the root causes of terrorism is not about counter-terrorism. It is about identifying and fighting the conditions that create dangerous radicalisation. Fertile breeding grounds for recruitment emerge when various social, cultural, economic, political and psychological factors combine. I name a few: socioeconomic conditions within deprived urban areas; lack of employment; racial and/or religious discrimination; the existence of idiosyncratic networks; migrant histories; the quest for belonging, identity and social solidarity.

One last word of caution: although this text deals with Muslim terrorism, I am well aware that the great majority of terrorist attacks in the West are the work of the extreme right, not of Muslims (see for example here and here). Nor did I engage in a discussion of our role in furthering radicalisation by our economic policies and military actions abroad.

Radicalisation and educational attainment  

Two major views on the role of socioeconomic factors exist. Many researchers strongly reject any correlation between socioeconomic deprivation and radicalisation. Most terrorists are neither poor nor uneducated. In fact, the majority seem to come from middle class backgrounds. Terrorism is therefore perceived almost exclusively as a ‘security threat’ with no discernible socioeconomic roots or links with deprivation. Consequently, these researchers define the fight against Islam terrorism with a single-minded focus on state actors, jihadist ideology, counter-intelligence, surveillance, coercive action, etc.

The argument that poverty and lack of education are unrelated to radicalism is based on a series of fallacies. It narrowly focuses on ‘elite’ terrorist leaders, leaving the question of the ‘division of labour’ between ‘elite’ and ‘foot soldiers’ out. While terrorist leaders tend to come from professional classes, foot soldiers are often poor and uneducated. Second, the thesis fails to distinguish between education and indoctrination: whatever one may think of “our” model of positivist social science, it is not the same as that of, for example, the Hezbollah.  This point corroborates the assumption that over-representation of highly educated individuals in terrorist organisations should not be construed as refuting the dampening effect education can have on radical views: over-representation is simply the result of a selection bias of terrorist groups interested in recruiting the most capable from a much larger pool of sympathisers.

The link between lack of educational opportunities and radicalism also reflects itself in the biography of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks of January 2015. In Germany, the likelihood of having at least some sort of confidence in Osama Bin Laden decreased from 58.0 per cent if the respondent earns less than €500 per month to 4.6 per cent if she or he earns €4.000 or more.

Migrant histories

Many immigrants have a history of migration within their own countries. They start their odyssey after having been uprooted in traditional rural areas and moving to major urban centres – the Taliban are a prime example. Capacity gaps within Muslim states create vacuums that are frequently filled by grassroots Islamic organisations that provide charity and relief. Islamists set up employment agencies, food banks, schools, nurseries, savings clubs and financial institutions, student and professional associations and cultural gatherings. In addition to socio-economic and ecological decay, the absence of constitutional liberties brings a political dimension to deprivation. In most authoritarian countries, the mosque is the only institution not brutally suppressed by the regime. The problem is that when the mosque is the only outlet for mass politics, the outcome is predictable: it is the Islamisation of dissent. As dissent turns Islamic, the result is the politicisation of Islam. Migrants not only travel to Cairo or to Islamabad, they also migrate to the West. The overwhelming majority of these people have no sympathy for terrorist causes whatsoever. This, however, does not mean that this factor is not relevant. It does play a role, when everything goes bad, together with several other economic, social and other conditions, in the formation of radicalised worldviews.

The preference of receiving countries for low skilled, semi-illiterate or illiterate migrants during the first wave of post-war immigration is also a factor. For example, these diverging pathways explain the difference in socio-economic status of radicalised individuals in the UK compared to those in Belgium or France. These policies go back to the 1960s and 1970s, but its effects have been strongly intergenerational and are still being felt. Both Belgium and France preferred uneducated immigrants, hoping that they would be less susceptible to engage with the leftist policies of the industrial proletariat which was, at that time well organised and a political force to reckon with.

The consequence of this short sighted vision (so to speak) was that the second generation grew up in a culture where education was not recognised as important. The traditionalism of the old generation kept youngsters away from schooling and from integration into the wider urban network. Research showed that these problems continue to play for the third generation: girls are being discouraged of going into higher education; boys are being pressured to learn a trade. How many simple trades remain? In combination with many other factors, such as bad educational policies, discrimination in education, discrimination in the labour market, a receding welfare state and racism, harsh conditions that cannot be overcome individually originate. The result is a vicious inter-generational cycle of chronic unemployment, poverty, despair, resentment, frustration, aggression, acculturation and identity seeking. All of this is taking place in deprived urban areas that lock people in. There is nowhere else to go and inside these quasi-ghettos there are no chances, no work to speak of – Molenbeek, which is by now world famous, is an example. But these deprived areas exist everywhere, in every middle-sized and major city. It is also true that policy-makers gave up on these deprived areas. ‘Not one euro cent for Molenbeek,’ said the right wing after social workers raised the alarm clock on several occasions.

Reciprocity and ‘social’ capital

In sociology, reciprocity is almost always analysed as a benign force that operates within small communities (see Polanyi, 1944). There is no doubt that reciprocity fulfills certain integrative functions. However, reciprocity is also connected with traditionalism, power structures, unequal access, discrimination and exclusion. The same is true for social capital. Although most of the theoretical analysis and empirical research tends to treat all associations as equivalent in their effects on for example democracy (Putnam), neighbourhoods (Mingione) or anything else, it is evident that social capital within one group can be positively or negatively related to other capital – social, human or whatever else.

The main distinction is between groups that are tied to the wider community through associations and those that are not. Negative effects exist when there is low between-group trust and/or lack of interaction or mediating networks between groups. Cross-cutting groups traverse social boundaries, increase members’ tolerance through contact with diverse others and prevent the creation of pockets of isolated trust and idiosyncratic networks. Isolated associations intensify inward-focusing behaviour, reduce exposure to new ideas and increase social cleavages.

Of course, establishing such distinctions prima facie is uninteresting in itself. What needs to be looked at are the relations of power that structure and stratify groups and create both inward and outward looking groups. The idea that a better position of origin promotes access to or better use of social resources has often been confirmed. Inequality in social capital occurs when a group clusters at disadvantaged socioeconomic positions and when the general tendency is for individuals to associate with those of similar group or socioeconomic characteristics. The first reflects a structural process, as social groups occupy different socioeconomic standings in a society. Depending on specific historical, political and institutional processes, every society provides unequal opportunities to members of different groups defined over class, race, gender, religion, or other ascribed, construed, imagined or real characteristics.

The second principle, homophily, suggests a general tendency in networking, namely the tendency for individuals to interact and share sentiments with others with similar characteristics. These two principles, socioeconomic clustering and homophily, produce differential access by social groups to the formation of social, human and identity capital and power tout court. Members of a group that clusters to inferior socioeconomic standings and interacting with others in similar social groupings are embedded in social networks that are poorer in resources, i.e. they are poorer in social capital. Cross-ties facilitate access to better resources and better outcomes for members of disadvantaged groups. However – and this is the problem – such ties are very much the exception: homophily and structural constraints reduce the likelihood of establishing such ties.

Concrete living conditions in deprived urban areas

It has often been documented that private institutions which service deprived areas are separate from and, in the words of Wacquant, ‘massively inferior to those that provide goods and services to the rest of the metropolitan system’ (see here). Formal public and social capital in some American ghettos deteriorated to such an extent that it is possible to maintain that ‘public institutions operate as negative social capital that maintain ghetto residents in a marginal and dependent position’ (see here). This situation has unfortunately also become a reality in Europe. Police officers are often insufficiently present in deprived areas. Or, if they are present, they represent a culturally foreign and arbitrary authority, which, in turn, stimulates, rather than decreases the level of violence, particularly in youth gangs. Welfare provisions are turned into an apparatus of surveillance, including ‘the establishment of toll-free numbers for anonymous denunciation of ‘welfare cheats’ contributing to solidifying distrust in state bureaucracies and to intensifying the stigma of welfare receipt’ (see here).

Three processes in particular are relevant:

1) organisational desertification (both public and private organisations reduce activities in deprived areas or commit to the delivery of poorer goods and services, such as schools, shopping centers, health care centers, police, public maintenance of parks and streets, voluntary organisations, etc.);

2) de-pacification (crime rates rise as formal jobs disappear and clubs, community and other organisations reduce their activities or disappear altogether); and

3) economical informalisation (leading to an irregular street economy superseding the regular wage-labour economy) (see here).

All of this connects with a wide scala of cultural factors. Extremist ideology may appeal to young, disaffected and socially isolated people in search of a positive identity. Men assert overt masculinity as a means of combating discrimination, unemployment and exclusion. It is easy to use technology to ease contact and communication and shape identity by using the internet. This, in turn, may foster a more fundamental form of Islam, because there is little opportunity to test radical propositions through debate or discussion. Extreme beliefs, nurtured by isolation, negate the development of social skills to overcome challenges.

The quest for social solidarity: terrorists are not rational actors who attack for political ends

The strategic model posits that terrorists are rational actors who attack civilians for political ends. In this model, terrorists are seen as political utility maximizers. People “use” terrorism when the expected political gains minus the expected costs outweigh net expected benefits. This model has widespread currency: counter-terrorism strategies are designed to defeat terrorism by reducing its political utility. The problem is that the characteristics of terrorist organisations contradict it.

There is strong empirical evidence that people become terrorists not to achieve their organisation’s declared political agenda, but to develop affective ties (see here). The preponderance of evidence is that people participate in terrorist organizations for social solidarity, not for political return.

Victoroff concluded in a precis of the literature that ‘the claim that no individual factors identify those at risk for becoming terrorists is based on completely inadequate research,’ it is to say terrorist organizations appeal disproportionately to certain psychological types of people, namely, the socially alienated. Seeman defines alienation as the feeling of loneliness, rejection, or exclusion from valued relationships, groups or societies. Demographic data show that the vast majority of terrorist organisations are composed of unmarried young men or widowed women who were not gainfully employed prior to joining (see here). The studies also show that terrorist organisations are frequent repositories for people undergoing dislocation from their native homeland and who are detached from family, friends and the host society they are attempting to join. These risk factors seem particularly prevalent among Al-Qaida members, 80 percent of whom are ‘cultural outcasts’ living at the margins of society’ as un-assimilated first- or second-generation immigrants in non-Muslim countries. Terrorist organisations are particularly attractive outlets for those seeking solidarity: such groups are far more tight-knit than voluntary associations because of the extreme dangers and costs of participation, as well as their tendency to violate societal expectations.

This observation may account for the fact that even when terrorist organizations fail to achieve their political platforms (as they almost always do), committing acts of terrorism tends to generate new recruits, boost membership morale, and otherwise strengthen the social unit Based on interviews with terrorists, researchers likened the adventures of foreign fighters to an “Outward Bound” experience for young men seeking challenges, excitement, and above all “friendship” with fellow terrorists. When members attach utmost importance to an organization’s social benefits, the organization will seek to prolong its existence, even when doing so impedes its official goals. This is precisely the way terrorist organisations typically behave (see here).

These findings are perplexing for the strategic model, to say the least. The natural systems model predicts that terrorist organisations will routinely engage in actions to perpetuate and justify their existence, even when these undermine their official political agendas. As Max Abrahms, who came up with the natural systems model, writes, true to the model, terrorist organisations:

(1) prolong their existence by relying on a strategy that hardens target governments from making policy concessions;

(2) ensure their continued viability by resisting opportunities to peacefully participate in democratic processes;

(3) avoid disbanding by rejecting negotiated settlements that offer significant policy concessions;

(4) guarantee their survival by espousing a litany of protean political goals that can never be satisfied;

(5) avert organisation-threatening reprisals by conducting anonymous attacks, even though they preclude the possibility of coercing policy concessions;

(6) annihilate ideologically identical terrorist organisations that compete for members, despite the adverse effect on their stated political cause; and

(7) refuse to split up after the armed struggle has proven politically unsuccessful or its political rationale has become moot (see here).

None of these characteristics advances their official political agendas, but all of them help to ensure the survival of the social unit. Together, they reveal the operating decision rules of terrorist members. The relevance of this work is hard to overstate. If terrorists generally attach greater importance to social benefits than to political ones, then extant counter-terrorism strategies require fundamental changes.

A policy recommendation 

There is no single ‘terrorist personality,’ but certain communities are prone to radicalisation. The work on deprived areas and the affective model clearly explain the main causes of radicalisation. These circumstances are perfectly changeable. For example, the statistical impact of educational achievement points to a direct way in which governments and civil society actors can address the prevailing influence of discourses that could pose threats to community cohesion or national security. While the call to more education almost appears as a cure-all for social phenomena nowadays and has become really tiring, many studies show clearly that educational achievement helps in bringing Muslim political and social attitudes in line with pluralist, liberal, democratic norms – on the condition that education leads to empowerment and decent employment. Improving educational standards without increasing prospects for employment, or providing jobs without creating outlets for political and social participation creates nothing but resentment.

The attack in Stockholm was barbaric. Such attacks always confront one with despair about the future fate of womankind. Sweden took up the most refugees of all EU countries. For this it should absolutely be applauded. The reaction of Swedish society and of the politicians has also been nothing short of exemplary. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants live in Sweden. They all make a contribution to this country. The way to beat the terrorists is to build a fair and equal society in which people can work and live a reasonable and human life. There is no other way. One can always put more police on the streets. Then there will be another attack. One can then even put more police on the streets. Soon enough we will live in a police state. We will still not be safe. A state of emergency will eat its way into our civil, political and social rights. This is what happened in France. Let’s not make this happen in Sweden.