Preventing violent extremism

There is no single, or simple, demographic or psychological profile of those likely to be recruited

We now have a new record: last month Britain’s youngest terrorist was convicted. Hammaad Munshi was only 15 when he was recruited by the then 20 year-old Aabid Khan. Khan, according to the Guardian, had “links to proscribed terrorist groups” including al-Qaeda, and is believed to have visited a terrorist training camp in Pakistan.

A recent MI5 report confirmed what many scholars of terrorist and cultic groups have long known: there is no single, or simple, demographic or psychological profile of those likely to be recruited. Social psychologists such as Philip Zimbardo have for years argued that it is the strong situation of increasing isolation within closed, coercive groups that creates these dangerous behaviors. This is what is critical, not the particular psychology or disposition of the individual.

Further, and contrary to Mark Sageman, a former CIA agent, these are not simply “bunches of guys” who organise themselves into suicidal acts of terror. What we are seeing is the deliberate targeting and recruitment of youth by well-organized internationally-linked extremist groups, as, for instance described by Ed Husain in his book The Islamist, or by Masoud Banisadr in his account of the Iranian Mojahedin.

How then do we protect both the potential victims of these acts, and the young people who are recruited into these extremist groups? We know young people are being recruited in further education colleges and now, like Munshi, at even younger ages. How are we preparing these young people for these assaults on their autonomy and, eventually, on their lives?

Social psychologists, such as Zimbardo, who study extremist groups, cults and coercive persuasion understand that the key to prevention is education. This is education about the structures and processes of totalitarian, ideologically extremist groups.

I recently taught a course on Cults and Totalitarianism to two groups of students at the University of Minnesota in the midwestern US. We covered the social psychology, structures and processes of groups as varied as Lyndon LaRouche’s right-wing political cult, the sexually abusive Children of God, and Pol Pot’s totalitarian and murderous regime in 1970s Cambodia. Several students stated that during the term of the course itself they had cause to use this new information to help either themselves or friends and family to stay away from dangerous groups. Other students asked me why this sort of information hadn't been made available at an earlier stage in their education.

We must teach young people how to recognize totalitarian groups. Drawing on work from Hannah Arendt, Robert Jay Lifton and others, we can start with this five point definition:

  • The group is led by a charismatic and authoritarian leader
  • It is isolating and has a closed, steeply hierarchical inner structure
  • The group adheres to an absolute and exclusive belief system (a total ideology)
  • Processes of coercive persuasion are used to isolate followers and control them through a combined dynamic of “love” and fear
  • Followers are exploited

These groups succeed because they operate based on universal human (and usually adaptive) responses of people seeking comfort and connection when afraid. The process unfolds by isolating recruits from prior sources of comfort, establishing the group as the new safe haven, and then instilling fear to create what is known as a trauma bond. This is now well-understood by social psychologists. It can be taught in interesting and understandable ways to young people.

We must take a strategic view to introduce this into the curriculum. Educators must collaborate with experts in this field to train teachers in both the classic social-psychological studies as well as the most up-to-date research available and work to develop materials and curricula for classrooms at various age levels.

For over 60 years social scientists have been developing a broad knowledge base about these fundamental human vulnerabilities and the groups and situations that exploit them. In her 1987 volume, Prisons we choose to live inside, nobel laureate Doris Lessing argued for disseminating this knowledge to our children in order to challenge our “most primitive and instinctive reactions” -- those reactions which so often have led us to act against our own interests and our own survival. We cannot wait any longer to take this on.

Perhaps then a future 15-year-old – one who has had some basic education in the structures, processes and dangers of totalitarian groups – will be able to recognize and turn away from a recruiter who promises liberation and glory but who will deliver only suicidal sacrifice.

Alexandra Stein is visiting lecturer, Birkbeck, Faculty of Lifelong Learning

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.