Radicalisation is a growing cross-border threat. But what is it, what are the causes and what is the EU doing to prevent it?
Radicalisation is not a new phenomenon, but it is increasingly a challenge, with new technologies and the growing polarisation of society making it a serious threat throughout the EU.
What is radicalisation?
The terrorist attacks in Europe over the last few years, many of which were perpetrated by European citizens, highlight the persistent threat of homegrown radicalisation, which is defined by the European Commission as the phenomenon of people embracing opinions, views and ideas, which could lead to acts of terrorism.
Ideology is an intrinsic part of the radicalisation process, with religious fundamentalism often at its heart.
However, radicalisation is rarely fuelled by ideology or religion alone. It often starts with individuals who are frustrated with their lives, society or the domestic and foreign policies of their governments. There is no single profile of someone who is likely to become involved in extremism, but people from marginalised communities and experiencing discrimination or loss of identity provide fertile ground for recruitment.
Western Europe’s involvement in conflict zones such as Afghanistan and Syria is also considered to have a radicalising effect, especially on migrant communities.
How and where do people become radicalised?
Radicalisation processes draw on social networks for joining and staying connected. Physical and online networks provide spaces in which people can become radicalised and the more closed these spaces are, the more they can function as echo chambers where participants mutually affirm extreme beliefs without being challenged.
The internet is one of the primary channels for spreading extremist views and recruiting individuals. Social media have magnified the impact of both jihadist and far-right extremist propaganda by providing easy access to a wide target audience and giving terrorist organisations the possibility to use "narrowcasting" to target recruits or raise "troll armies" to support their propaganda. According to the 2020 EU Terrorism Situation and Trend report, over the last few years, encrypted messaging applications, such as WhatsApp or Telegram, have been widely used for coordination, attack planning and the preparation of campaigns.
Some extremist organisations have also been known to target schools, universities and places of worship, such as mosques.
Prisons can also be fertile ground for radicalisation, due to the closed environment. Deprived of their social networks, inmates are more likely than elsewhere to explore new beliefs and associations and become radicalised, while understaffed prisons are often unable to pick up on extremist activities.
The EU’s fight to prevent radicalisation
Although the main responsibility for addressing radicalisation lies with the EU countries, tools have been developed to help at EU level:
- The Radicalisation Awareness Network is a network of frontline practitioners from across Europe, such as teachers, police officers and prison authorities, who work with people who have been or are vulnerable to radicalisation.
- Europol’s Internet Referral Unit, scans the web for online terrorist material and refers it to host platforms. Since its creation in 2015, it has referred more than 130,000 pieces of content to internet companies (over 25,000 in 2019).
- In December 2020, the European Parliament endorsed the EU Security Union strategy 2020-2025 and the new Counter-Terrorism Agenda, which aims to prevent radicalisation by providing, for example, opportunities for young people at risk and supporting the rehabilitation of radicalised prisoners.
- At the end of 2020 Parliament and the Council reached a political agreement on rules forcing online platforms to remove terrorist content within one hour. Endorsed by Parliament’s civil liberties committee, the agreement was approved by Parliament on 28 April 2021.