A timely study published in Behavioural Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression has looked into the crucial role played by the friends of would-be terrorists, in preventing their descent into radicalism.
Michael Williams and his colleagues began by interviewing over 150 law enforcement professionals, Muslim community leaders, and members of the public of various faiths in Los Angeles and Washington DC about who they thought was best placed to notice and raise concerns about a person who was considering violent extremism.
The official programmes to counter violent extremism in these neighbourhoods are well-established with communication links between local police, social services, faith-based organisations, psychological services, and so on. However, a recurring point made by the interviewees was that the people best placed to notice a person sliding to extremism are his or her friends.
A typical observation was this, from a Pakistani-American father, who said of the (in)ability of clergy and family members to spot the early signs of extremism:
“… the priest will not know [if youth are getting involved in illegal activities], because when he [the youth] goes to church, or the mosque, or the temple, he’s the finest guy. He’s on best behaviours,” and “the family is the last one to know.”
Worryingly, the interviewees also noted that there is a disconnect between these “gatekeepers” (the friends of at-risk people) and the safety networks in the community. Indeed, many of the members of the public interviewed said they would be reluctant to reach out, not just to the police, but to any of the community safety networks about their concerns. The most popular reasons given were related to fear about getting a friend or family member in trouble; concerns about getting into trouble themselves; fear that the friend would get mad at them; and concerns about being identified. Interviewees rarely said that they didn’t think it would help (to report their concerns), or that they thought they could handle the situation themselves, or that they didn’t have time.
To follow-up on this issue of fear about the consequences of raising the alarm, the researchers interviewed more community members and law enforcement professionals in the DC area, specifically in Montgomery County, Maryland, looking for factors that might exacerbate people’s fears of seeking help about a friend on the path to violent extremism. They found evidence that the more a person feared harming their relationship with the (hypothetical) at-risk friend in question, the more they voiced reluctance about the idea of raising the alarm. Interviewees spoke of concerns that the at-risk friend might feel embarrassed or looked-down upon. Another key factor was how much interviewees identified with the at-risk person – the more they identified with them, the less willing they’d be to intervene – “just because you want to protect your own,” said one police officer who was also a parent.
Williams and his team cautioned that this was exploratory, qualitative research – they sought out evidence to back up their predictions about the factors likely to be relevant. “Such findings warrant further testing,” they said, “ideally via experimental methods.” But the results do point to important practical steps, for example the need to “empower”, support and provide reassurance to gatekeepers (i.e. the friends of at-risk would-be extremists) and the need to “develop the curricula and protocols for how” people should respond when they’re concerned that a friend is being radicalised.
Williams, M., Horgan, J., & Evans, W. (2015). The critical role of friends in networks for countering violent extremism: toward a theory of vicarious help-seeking Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, 1-21 DOI: 10.1080/19434472.2015.1101147
The psychology of violent extremism – digested
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