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Why does a person become radicalised? That's the million dollar question

We speak to experts and a young man who wanted to travel to Syria.

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“HE NEVER LOOKED like a guy who would do it. He looked like a normal guy who kept himself to himself.

“Why did he do it? He’s not here anymore, so how do you ask him that question?”

Terror attacks have become a relatively common feature of life in the 21st century. Innocent people are killed at the hands of another human being. The perpetrator is usually male and acts alone or as part of a small group. They often kill themselves during the attack, or are killed by the police.

In the aftermath of such incidents, everyone – their family, their community, authorities, the media – asks the same question: Why? Why did they do it? The one person who can answer is often no longer there to ask.

Dr Ajmal Hussain, Research Fellow in Sociology at the University of Manchester, explores radicalisation through his work with young Muslims in Birmingham and Manchester.

Of course, having radical or extreme thoughts doesn’t necessarily mean a person will act on them. And examining why and how these thoughts develop could help stop them from progressing.

Hussain said researchers and governments have for years been trying to find an answer to what makes a person become radicalised. He dubs this the “million dollar question”, believing there is no one answer.

“It’s a state, it’s a process and it’s a situation that’s constantly in motion,” Hussain says of radicalisation.

However, there are often common threads in the stories of people who become radicalised or are more susceptible to it.


Video produced by Niamh Heery of Swansong Films

Hussain said many of the people he has worked with had a “sense that their lives weren’t going anywhere” and were without the prospect of going to college or getting stable employment. This, coupled with living in a society “that’s so saturated with negative ideas about being Muslim”, made them more susceptible to radical ideas.

“Their lives were quite small and shrunk,” Hussain noted.

Foreign policy often plays a role too, he said, and “young people feeling a sense of grievance towards the way that their fellow co-religionists are treated around the world”.

“That same grievance towards the way western governments might enact a foreign policy is also felt towards the governments in those majority Muslim countries as well, so it’s not always clear-cut,” Hussain told

He said that, while radicalisation is often associated with lower or working class people, “people from middle class, educated backgrounds” have also been radicalised, proving this is not so clear-cut”.

“It’s about understanding how the combination of different factors – foreign policy, local grievances and even the sort of role that government and the State is playing in policing this, whether it’s heavy-handed surveillance, whether it’s discrimination, you know, all of these things have been shown to be part of the grievance narrative.”

The Manchester Arena bomber was a so-called “home-grown terrorist”. Salman Abedi was born in Britain to Libyan parents. After the attack, Hussain said people who knew Abedi tried to make sense of why a seemingly “ordinary guy” and “lovely neighbour” would carry out such an atrocity.

“That’s something that we’re trying to get to grips with and try to understand.”

Hussain said he believes some young people claimed to know Abedi “because it might make them look cool”.

“Or it might mean that they can enter into a world which everybody wants to know about. So a young person who might be nobody, all of a sudden can be somebody because he says, ‘I knew him, he lived on my street, he was part of my bratherie.’

“That’s one of the consequences of being in this time where it’s such a saturated environment, with talk about jihadis and extremists and radicals, that actually young people just want to gain a foothold into a different world.”

Hussain said this is often more to do with “street cred” and being “part of the conversation” than agreeing with what the person did – a situation that highlights how putting “too much focus” onto radical Islamists can glamourise their actions.

Social media

Hussain said the idea that radical views are primarily being spread in mosques is “quite outdated”. Using Birmingham as an example, he said people with radical or extreme views who’ve been banned from entering certain mosques often try to spread their ideologies on the street or in places where young people gather, such as fast food restaurants.

“But also you’ll find other people coming across and challenging them. So what you see is a sort of street-level debate even going on.”

Hussain said radical and extreme views are also increasingly being shared through social media.

“So it’s a much more diffused sort of space now, where radical, extremist ideas are circulating, and that makes the job of policing it a lot harder.”

Hussain said the role that social media plays in the lives of the young people he interacts with is “really quite incredible”, adding that it can be a “key vehicle” in spreading radical views.

“Many of the young people I’m working with, who don’t have stable employment and who don’t have disposable income, still manage to find resources to have a decent smartphone, and to be subscribers to various different sorts of social media platforms where they can receive information, That is a key part of their lives.”

'Operation Olive Branch' to Afrin Free Syrian Army members after they helped Turkish Armed Forces clear Khalidiah village in Syria from PYD/PKK and ISIS as part of Operation Olive Branch this week Source: Beha el Halebi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Hussain said that while many people associate apps like Instagram and Snapchat with a “more glamorous celebrity-type of person or individual”, it has “a lifeworld on the street with these kids”.

Aside from capturing their everyday lives, Hussain said some young people use these apps to share sermons they’ve found online.

“I’ve been hanging around with young people … and all of a sudden you’ll hear something in a foreign language, you’ll hear something which is quintessentially Arab, and you can hear a nasheed (vocal music), and then the next minute I’ll hear a sermon from a scholar … The next minute there’ll be an imam is saying something in Arabic, and then that sounds really glamorous because it’s set against the background of a nasheed.”

Hussain said the preacher will often “start ridiculing” far-right groups like Britain First or the English Defence League, stating: “That’s really quite interesting in terms of what’s going around in young people’s heads.”

Hussain said images from places like Syria and “the glamorising of jihad” are “without a doubt” being shared by some young people. He noted that social media companies have tried to “clamp down on this stuff” but that young people just move from one platform to another when this happens.

Ash’s story

Ash, an 18-year-old from Birmingham, is one of the young men Hussain works with.

He briefly considered going to Syria to fight against government forces after being influenced by a preacher who he watched online, as well as news reports about Syrian people suffering and being killed.

“I had to stop watching [the news] because sometimes when you see something, you don’t know who’s right, and you don’t know who’s wrong … You see a Syrian kid get killed and you think, ‘Right OK, what’s going on here?’

“You know, we look at everybody as brothers and sisters … that’s how Islam works.”

Ash, who is second generation Pakistani, was deeply affected by regularly seeing videos and images from the conflict. He said this constant bombardment of shocking footage is obviously going to illicit a reaction.

Do you want people to go out there or … just to sit back and watch? What are you trying to do? What is your goal here? So when I look at that I think, ‘What can we do to help them?’

“What do you want us to do? That’s my question. You put that out there, what response do you think you’re going to get? You’re going to get people to go out there. Put it like this, if there was no social media, right, there’d be no problems, there’d be no one getting radicalised, there’d be no one doing anything.”


Video produced by Niamh Heery of Swansong Films

The preacher who influenced Ash called on people to go to Syria and take up arms. Ash believed he made some valid points and “thought he might have been right”. He brought the issue up with some friends, who talked him around.

“I asked them, ‘Should we go all together as brothers? Should we go and help them?’ They said look, ‘We understand what you’re going through, what you think about these people. We all think the same, but what that guy said to you, what that guy was saying, simply isn’t right for us.’”

Ash said he knows a lot of young people who could be classed as extremist in their views, something spurred on by “rage”.

“You get a lot of that in Birmingham. You get a lot of stubborn kids who say, ‘Listen, I’m right and you’re wrong. And what I’ve heard is right and what you’re saying is wrong.’ So, yeah, you do get a lot of kids who are probably, I would say, extremists.

“I went through a [phase] where I was simply under the impression that I was right and everybody else was wrong. Now these brothers that I knew, they sat me down and said, ‘Look, let me tell you something kid, we have more knowledge about the outside world than you do.’

“I admit they’re right now but, at that point, I thought, ‘No, you’re wrong and I’m right.’”

‘He lost his life’

Ash said many people his age are not concerned with religion, noting: “They think about cars, money, drugs, whatever. They don’t really think about that sort of stuff.”

However, he said some people who are unsatisfied with their life may “look towards something else”, and that something may culminate in radicalisation.

“Maybe one day they’re sitting at home watching the telly and they hear something, click, bang, they’re gone.

“I knew a kid who, when the Libyan war kicked off … he went back. I think that kid was my age now, he was 18. He went back and got himself killed. He was mainly fighting towards democracy, that was his aim.”


Video produced by Niamh Heery of Swansong Films

Ash said hearing about this man’s death a couple of years after he left Birmingham was “an eye opener” for him.

“You think, ‘Oh, that kid was like the same age as me … Wow, he lost his life today, he was here, tomorrow he ain’t.’”

Ash said this was a reality check for young people who wanted to go to an area where a conflict is happening. He said some people may want to get a gun or learn how to shoot but that life “on the frontline” is “not like how you play Battlefield and Call of Duty games”.

Ash wonders if the man who left for Libya had shown any signs that may have, in hindsight, made his intentions known.

“Maybe we could have helped him? Maybe we could have reached out to him and said, ‘Look, you have a family here, you know, your mother’s going to be grieving, your father’s going be grieving, do you really want to put them through that? But I never had the chance … One day he was there, and the next day he wasn’t.”


Ash said mosques in Birmingham are trying to teach young people that radicalisation is not a path they should go down.

“Everywhere you go, it’s mentioned in Birmingham. I’ve not heard one imam or mosque say, ‘We’re not going to talk about it.’ However, he adds: “I think sometimes they’re too afraid they might say something which might push the youth away.”

Despite this, Ash said the mosque is one of the best places to talk to young people about radicalisation as its a topic non-religious people often don’t want to discuss. He said he’d be more likely to have a discussion about drugs with his peers, rather than extremism.

He said people will tell you, ‘Listen, I got the best smack, I got the best cocaine’, but “will laugh in your face and walk off” or ask ‘Why do you want to talk to me about that?’ if you try to start a discussion about radicalisation.

“You can only have that discussion with practising young kids. You can’t have a discussion with kids who don’t really practice their religion. You know why? Because them kids who don’t practice their religion, their mindset is, ‘Oh, I don’t give a shit anyway. It’s got nothing to do with me.’”

Ash didn’t know the Manchester bomber personally, but knows people who did. He said members of the Libyan community, in particular, wanted to ask him “why he did what he did”.

They knew him well. They used to say, ‘We remember him praying. He never looked like a guy who would do it. He looked like a normal guy who kept himself to himself. Why did he do it?’

“But he’s not here anymore so how do you ask him that question? That’s the hardest part, you just want to ask somebody, ‘Why did you do it?’ And he’s gone now so what are you supposed to do? You’re asking a blank wall.”

‘A very temporary, haphazard life’

Hussain said Ash’s story is “quite emblematic of many young people” who have experienced radical thoughts.

“That sort of young person who’s not engaged in full-time stable employment. He lives a very temporary, haphazard life, caught between various different sorts of states …. that also figures in much of the social networks and religious networks that he’s part of.

“He’ll go to mosque at some moments, and then he’ll just fall out with people, and then he’ll return to that same mosque probably six months later.”

Hussain said Ash has at times been involved in petty crime, like many other young people.

“So yeah, he is sort of emblematic of a lot of young people these days, whose kind of life can be characterised in a very sort of precarious way, you know? Not having much certainty and not really knowing where they’re going … complicated relationships with authority … that’s the sort of void that radical ideas find a sort of space to fester in.”

The Aarhus model

Ash didn’t go to Syria, but dozens of people from Aarhus in Denmark did. In 2012, the local police station started getting calls from parents whose children had disappeared. It turned out that they had gone to Syria with the aim of joining the so-called Islamic State.

About 36 people (almost all men) travelled from the city to Syria in 2012 and 2013. Many regretted their decision and returned home, at least 10 people were killed and the whereabouts of several others are unknown.

Those who returned to Aarhus met with Police Superintendent Allan Aarslev, who was overseeing a programme that would help them, and others who were experiencing radical thoughts, turn things around and integrate into Danish society.

Most of those who left were connected with the Grimhojvej mosque, whose board worked with police to tackle the problem.

“They were quite open-minded from the beginning that they would like to meet with us … They did not have the answer to this problem.

“However, they helped us so that we could have a meeting with a group of young men,” Aarslev said, adding that the boys and men they met were part of a local youth group. Of those who had gone to Syria at this point, about 20 had been connected to this group.


Video produced by Niamh Heery of Swansong Films

Aarslev said most of the men who left were between the ages of 18 and 25 and primarily from Africa and the Middle East, but that some were Danish nationals.

“We have had a number of calls from relatives, parents, siblings who say, ‘My son or my daughter left yesterday and we don’t know what they’re doing but we believe they’re planning to go or perhaps they are already in Syria.’ Not in one single case it is approved by the parents that they should go. They are quite horrified by the fact that their sons or daughters have travelled to a war,” Aarslev told us.

One young man returned to Aarhus from Syria injured. Aarslev explained how police helped him in the months afterwards, setting up appointments with a psychologist and convincing his old school to allow him to return.

The school headmaster was initially reluctant for this to happen, saying, ‘We would never take him, that person with that profile, back.’

“However, we had some meetings with them and we assured them we would support the fact that you would take him back and we would connect him to a mentor and we would help in any way we could. And they decided, ‘Let’s try, let’s take this young man back and try to integrate him into one of his school classes again.’” In the two years since then, he has graduated from high school and is now working in “a decent job”, Aarslev said.

He and his colleagues have been involved in a number of similar success stories, something he says is only possible when the person themselves wants to change things – and is given the opportunity to do so.

As well as helping people to reintegrate into society – or integrate in the first place – when they returned from Syria. Greater restrictions on travelling to conflict zones have since been implemented in Denmark. Since March 2015, authorities have been able to seize passports belonging to people suspected of planning to participate in armed conflict abroad.

Police in Aarhus also work with Muslims and other communities to help stop radicalisation in the first place. Through working with young people at risk of this, Aarslev said police “could sense a very strong feeling of marginalisation and discrimination”.

“I’m not saying that they were being discriminated against but they had a very strong feeling of not belonging here, even though they spoke, most of them spoke fluent Danish. So we could see among them there was a very strong feeling of discrimination, marginalisation, not being able to have a voice in the Danish society, not being integrated because of their strong religious belief.”

Aarslev said there are similarities between why a person becomes radicalised and why they would join a gang, noting: “They are a small group, looking for a purpose for their lives.”

Mentorship has played an important role in helping these young men change their views. They’re often paired with an older person who is willing to listen and support them, and show them how their lives can improve.

‘He’d have been in Taliban country, if he went’

Aarslev told the story of how one teenage boy’s life started to unravel after a heated debate about Islam in a local high school in 2010. When a female classmate said Muslims kill people and “terrorise” the West, the boy in question, Jamal, got into an argument with her and eventually said, ‘People like you should never exist.’ The school reported the incident to police, who arrested Jamal.

“We arrested him in the first place, which was wrong,” Aarslev admits. Jamal was released but was deeply affected by the entire experience.

A few months afterwards, when the new anti-radicalisation programme was up and running, Aarslev said police decided to “approach him and see what his situation is”.

A colleague of Aarslev ‘s contacted Jamal, who was initially reluctant to engage with police but decided to meet them after they apologised for arresting him – something he wasn’t expecting.

AFGHANISTAN-UNREST Alleged Taliban fighters and other militants at a police headquarters in Jalalabad, Afghanistan after being arrested last week Source: AFP/Getty Images

“What we did not know was, in those months that passed by, he had been thrown out of school and his mother had died. He had approached a very strong Muslim community, where he was planning on going on an educational trip to Pakistan,” Aarslev recalls, noting how simply a situation can escalate if a number of things go wrong in a person’s life and authorities mishandle a situation.

Jamal was introduced to a mentor, an older Muslim who was a lawyer and married with children. He had faced discrimination when he was younger but was now happy and settled in Aarhus, his home. Over time, Jamal thought he could do the same for himself.

“As a matter of fact, he would be in the middle of Taliban country if he had gone on that trip, but we caught him at the right time, through a little bit of luck,” Aarslev said.

Jamal is now married with a family, has an Economics BA and works as a mentor himself.

‘Hug a terrorist’

Aarslev is well aware of the Aarhus programme’s detractors, many of whom mockingly refer to it as the ‘hug a terrorist’ model, a nickname he said has “stuck with us”.

But he sees how it works on the ground – something he thinks could be replicated in other cities and countries, including Ireland.

He said “the very essence of [why] we have been able to help many of these young men” is because the programme uses a local, multi-agency approach, where police are the “first movers” who introduce these boys and men to support services, mentors and employers. They also arrange workshops at local schools to raise awareness about the dangers of extremism among young people.

Another reason this model works is because police have been able to gain the trust of the men involved, as well as the wider Muslim community, who Aarslev said “would like to help to solve the problem”.

He noted that this approach is not enough by itself, adding that “hard methods” like surveillance and punishment when a person commits a crime are, of course, needed.

“However, if that’s the only thing you promote you will not be able to see what we have seen.

“We have had one attack here in Denmark in 2015 (where a gunman killed two people and wounded others in separate incidents). Of course we have a great fear that if an attack like that happens again tomorrow, it would have a huge impact on this programme.”

Aarslev said the young people the programme is helping are not terrorists, but they are in “breeding groups” where intervention is needed.

“They are not terrorists. They are young men. They are young men with great enthusiasm, and what we can see when you follow groups of young men like that is that one day you can see them as a threat to the Danish society and, one month later, they are in a totally different situation.

“And that’s when we have to reach out to them … because when you are young radicalisation and extremism is not a permanent thing, it’s a thing that changes.”

This week, is exploring the themes of radicalisation, Islamophobia and integration. The series, Radical Pathways, looks at the situation in Ireland, as well as what we can learn from the experiences of other countries, particularly the UK and Denmark. 

Videos produced by Niamh Heery of Swansong Films

Supported by the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund and the Tony Ryan Trust


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