EU action on radicalisation needs to be targeted at grassroots level

Written by Francesco Farinelli on 18 March 2019 in Opinion Plus
Opinion Plus

Three years after the Brussels attacks, democracy and grassroots activities offer an antidote to radicalisation, writes Francesco Farinelli

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Democracy is, by definition, a form of government that prevents a descent into violence. Conversely, terrorism seeks to weaken and defeat democracies by spreading fear, distrust, violence and death among civilians.

In recent years, the EU and its liberal democratic values have been deeply threatened by terrorism and its early signs: radicalisation and violent extremism.

The third anniversary of the 2016 Brussels attacks is on 22 March. Over 30 people lost their lives, while more than 300 were injured in three coordinated suicide bombings that shocked the heart of Europe in the name of a violent Jihadi ideology, inspired by the so-called Islamic State.


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Since then, many important political, social and security steps have helped Belgium and the EU increase awareness on the threat of radicalisation and how to tackle this phenomenon. Nevertheless, the tactics of violence - psychological, verbal, physical - continue to attract a bewildering variety of individuals and groups to challenge democracies.

On 21 June 2018, a European Parliament report stated that there 50,000-70,000 radicalised jihadists in the EU. The ongoing phenomenon of the Returning Foreign Terrorist Fighters will increase this.

The 2018 Europol TESAT report, states that European jihadi activities had a greater impact on societies than any other terrorist category. In addition, there are indeterminate numbers of so-called “nonviolent” extremists whose totalitarian ideologies fly in the face of European values and fuel polarisation and incite sectarianism.

The EU's fight against terrorism is based on four pillars: prevent, protect, pursue and respond. Preventing radicalisation has become a major priority for the EU counterterrorism agenda.

There were numerous prevention initiatives in the last few years in Europe although some had little impact despite big budgets and declared global objectives. Most significant has been the role of grassroots practitioners and civil society organisations. Indeed, although there are several global and common aspects, the radicalisation process is contextual. Having the right experts and tools for the right contexts is vital for prevention.

"Protecting vulnerable targets from radicalisation means acting locally, empowering credible voices to foster democratic messages, supporting teachers, social workers, prison officers and all those front-line professionals facing increasing challenges in preventing radicalisation"

Protecting vulnerable targets from radicalisation means acting locally, empowering credible voices to foster democratic messages, supporting teachers, social workers, prison officers and all those front-line professionals facing increasing challenges in preventing radicalisation.

The needs of youth need special attention, as their concerns and grievances are increasingly being exploited by extremist propaganda. Handbooks and guidelines should be provided in every EU member state for teachers and educators, while abstract materials devoid of real transferability into the classroom setting should be avoided.

More research is needed in this field, particularly into the most frequent challenges facing frontline professionals daily during their work in a given country. This will help them provide more specific and effective answers and reactions.

Undoubtedly, facing radicalisation and violent extremism are two of the most important challenges of our era.

Win or lose is not a matter of chance, but of choice - choosing the right partners and the right tools based on the specific context of each country and choosing to protect democracy against totalitarian ideologies.

About the author

Francesco Farinelli is Programme Director at the European Foundation for Democracy

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