26th Sep 2021


Everyone can be radicalised, even you

  • Belgian soldier Jurgen Conings stole weapons from a military depot and disappeared - while threatening attacks. Nobody knows what his goal is (Photo: Facebook)

What drives someone like Jürgen Conings? On 17 May, the Belgian soldier stole heavy weaponry from a military depot, wrote a letter threatening a government minister and a virologist - and disappeared.

Even more, what about the 150 or so people who took to the streets to support Conings and his actions, without knowing him?

Read and decide

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  • The profile of Salah Abdelslam who organised the 2015 attacks in Paris and Brussels is not very different from violent far-right extremists we see across Europe (Photo: Eric Maurice)

Most analysis points to Conings' far-right sympathies. The fact that he has provided military training to some Flemish extremist nationalists is sufficient evidence that he has been in the danger zone, mentally, for some time.

Still, the question remains why Conings started to radicalise and continued until he decided to do 'something'?

Not so long ago, we asked ourselves the exact same question about Syrian fighters, people who left everything behind to fight for a murderous terrorist organisation.

How could anyone sympathise with those horrific executions, and with that self-proclaimed 'Caliphate' - that seemed to do little more than sow pure terror from Brussels to Mumbai, and from Mosul to the white beaches of Tunisia?

Experts usually refer to Molenbeek, in Brussels, and other 'difficult' neighbourhoods, where these Syria fighters grew up in what is called a disadvantaged background.

Others point a finger to conservative Salafism, which is said to preach anti-Western values in those neighbourhoods.

Investing in those neighbourhoods and curbing Salafism would then be the logical solution to avoid future terrorism. However, this analysis is contradicted by facts.

Isis fighters in Syria

When I travelled three times to the war zone in Syria in 2012 and 2013, I happened to follow the same route as many a Syrian fighter: the plane from Cairo to Istanbul, and from there to Gaziantep or Antakya, two cities in southern Turkey.

On the plane, you may suspect that someone was a Syrian fighter, but you were only sure if you then crossed the Turkish-Syrian border with them. They always seemed like normal, young, people. Once in Syria, I came into contact with rebels who later became commanders of Isis.

But they didn't tell me what drove them.

This insight was given by CBS News, which got hold of a USB stick containing 4,000 forms, filled out by foreign Isis fighters.

Everyone who arrived in Syria had to fill in their family situation, education, knowledge of Islam and whether or not they were candidates for suicide bombings.

Twelve percent of these fighters agreed to blow themselves up - which is less than one might think. The other information, however, was much more unexpected and therefore more interesting.

The main conclusion of the study of these 4,000 forms is that it is hardly possible to draw a definite outline of these combatants.

The average age was 27, but there were also teenagers, and even quite a few people in their 60s. Surprisingly, the group was more highly-educated than average: many had a masters degree or even a PhD.

There were labourers in the group, but also many doctors and engineers. Some 30 percent were married and had children. And only 255 of the 4,000 fighters said they were unemployed.

Finally, most appeared to know very little about Islam or the Quran.

Shortcut from zero to hero

The latter fact was not news to experts. The story was already known of four friends from Birmingham who, just before they left for Syria, ordered two books from Barnes & Noble: Islam for Dummies and The Quran for Dummies.

The idea that it is mainly conservative Muslims who radicalise is incorrect.

Now it appeared - from the Isis paperwork - that it is also incorrect that radicalisation is something for the underprivileged, the unemployed or the undereducated.

So what is it that brings these average people to radicalised thinking? Usually it is people (especially men) who feel that their lives have come to a dead end. They dreamed of becoming important, but they failed. Frustrated, they look for like-minded people who know a way out.

That is exactly what Isis offered: a shortcut from zero to hero. By joining Isis, you suddenly became feared and famous. Moreover, you can take revenge on everything that has held you back in your path to glory.

This is the story of Salah Abdeslam, the organiser of the attacks in Paris and Brussels. This may also be the story of Conings and many other violent extremists in Europe.

Jihadism, neo-Nazism, and other extremist ideologies are interchangeable here. They are ideological vehicles for people with deep resentment issues. Suddenly, an empty life can be turned into an idealistic battle against the rest of the world.

Five ways to avoid radicalisation

It is a mechanism that could happen to (almost) anyone. Everyone can end up with tunnel vision, in which only their ideas are the right ideas, and everyone who thinks differently is dismissed as enemies or traitors.

The algorithms of social media are playing a bad role here. They make sure that you see more and more of the opinions or "friends" with which you agree and which only reinforce your 'right ideas'.

This is the so-called echo-chamber where you repeatedly hear your own opinion.

Yet radicalisation is not the law of the Medes and Persians. You can avoid it in five ways. In a lecture I gave to the sixth-form students of my old school, I summarised it this way.

First, you need to make sure you don't end up in an echo-chamber. Make sure to allow and read different opinions on social media. That fools the algorithms.

Second, be empathetic. Fight for your ideals, but also try to understand why other people have different ideals. Empathy is not the same as sympathy.

Three, dare to doubt. Take a look at your opinions and beliefs every now and then and see if everything still makes sense.

Four, regularly read a book about another culture. Read the history of China, or something about Arab philosophy. Or read the biography of a politician you have little sympathy for. That helps to put things in perspective.

Finally, when looking for a field of study, or a job, try not to choose the path to fame or fortune, but what you would actually like to do. Although this is not always obvious, it is the best way to minimise frustration.

When I finished my lecture at the school, there was silence in the hall. As a speaker, you know this can mean two things: either the story wasn't interesting, or it had given food for thought.

To my reassurance, several teachers later told me that the students continued to discuss the subject for an hour during the history class.

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