DISCLAIMER: The contribution is a part of series written by the table moderators of the Night Owl Session entitled Ordinary radical(s): In Search of a Meaningful Response, which took place on 5 September at the Bled Strategic Forum. Please note that the author contributed to this article in his personal capacity. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of his/her employer.


Author: Marty Castro

We were not certain who would show up; let alone how many people would join us.  It was, after all, called the “Night Owl” session for a reason (from 22:00 to 23:30). It was also at the end of the first long, productive and intense day of the Forum, after a reception that was so successful and crowded that people were not even entering the reception room after a while because the event was so well-attended, and we’d also be competing with an open bar down the hall from our session.

Well, when all was said and done, the Night Owl room was packed! In fact, there were more attendees than seats at the World Café discussion group tables, but that did not deter attendees from sitting in the observers’ seats and intently listening to the subject being discussed.  Our topic:  “Ordinary Radical(s): In Search of a Meaningful Response” was one that was ultimately at the heart of the 2016 Bled Strategic Forum “Safeguarding the Future” hosted in Bled, Slovenia.  Our challenge was to explore the root causes of the increasing radicalization of youth towards extremism and violence.

Our keynote speakers were Adam Deen, Managing Director of Quilliam (UK) and Julia Reinelt, Violence Prevention Network (Germany).  Our experts were Ahmad Saiful Rijal Bin Hassan, Religious Counselor of RRG Initiative (Singapore); Ambassador Ahmed Farouk, Consul General of Egypt in New York; Elena Gonzalez, freelance journalist (Morocco); Matjaz Gruden, Director of Policy and Planning at the Council of Europe; and Jakob Sheikh, author and investigative journalist at Politiken (Denmark).

The GDL Team consisted of Nicola Forster, Founder and President of foraus—Forum Aussenpolitik (Switzerland); Dr. Magdalena Kirchner, Transatlantic Fellow at the RAND Corporation (USA); Hanina Ben Bernou, Adviser to the EU Delegation to the Republic of Kenya; Kyle Matthews, Senior Deputy Director at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, Concordia University (Canada); Ivana Ponjavic, Associate of the Head of the Negotiating Team for Accession of the Republic of Serbia (Serbia); Mome Saleem, Programme Coordinator, Energy Innovation, Resource Equity and Climate Change at Heinrich Boll Foundation (Pakistan), and me, Marty Castro, President of Castro Synergies, LLC (USA).

Dr. Kirchner opened the session by presenting us with some of the challenges we face:  “We need radicals to change things in society that need to be changed, but where does too much radicalism become dangerous?” I asked myself, so where do we draw the line?  Are there shades of gray in “radicalism”?

Therefore, part of our challenge as a world society is also coming to a common  understanding of what we mean by terms such as “radicalization,” “extremism” and “terrorism.”  As we see often in history, one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter or Founding Father.  Ultimately, however, there appears to be consensus that “terrorism” has at its core the taking of violent action toward a political and/or  ideological  goal, which elements may not be present in the type of “domestic terrorism” we see, for example, in the regular gun violence in my home city of Chicago.  To date Chicago has had 3,099 shootings is 2016, exceeding last year’s total number of shootings. People live in terror in those communities at the epicenter of this violence.  To put it into context, on September 11, 2001, 2996 people were killed at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Flight 93.  Both scenarios of extreme importance, yet only “international terror” draws the greater concern and resources for the “protection” of the “homeland.”

We also needed to address what could cause someone to become so radicalized that they would commit the kind of acts that occurred on 9/11 and on so many other days, and in so many other places around the world since then.

Mr. Deen presented us with an interesting case study in radicalization:  himself.  Contrary to what many participants believed to be the norm, he came from a wealthy, Western family and not from poverty.  At some point as a teen he became “enamored with Islam,” yet his elders were not answering questions he had about it, nor about the world around him, to his satisfaction.  He encountered another young man who preyed upon his questioning and eventually was able to recruit and “radicalize” Mr. Deen.  Mr. Deen explained to us that the key in his and in others’ radicalization is that it is a “process”.  That process seeks to exploit actual or perceived “grievances” a person may have.  Critical to the process of radicalization, Mr. Deen explained, is to split the world into a binary worldview of “good v. evil,” “Islam v. the infidels,” “The Islamic State v. the Land of Ignorance”.  This process, he shared, is further abetted by the use of lies.  He said, “The most effective lie is one that has an element of truth.” He joined a radical group and began to recruit others over time using the same process that had been used to radicalize him.  Ultimately, a few years after 9/11 he was taking part in a ceremony to celebrate the hijackers when he became disgusted by what he was doing and thus  began his process of de-radicalization.

Mr. Deen went on to discuss with us the de-radicalization process, the most critical part of which, he argues, is deconstructing the binary worldview.  Without first doing that, the “radical” will always fall back to this world view as an effort to block out or deny the effort to “reason” with him.

Ms. Reinelt discussed her understanding of radicalization based on the work she’s done through the Violence Prevention Network in Germany. She indicated that when you have three or four generations of Muslims in Germany, for example,  and the parents, while culturally Muslim, are not really actively practicing the faith, and you have young people who are wanting to learn more, who are not feeling like “real Germans”, but instead are feeling excluded by society, and lacking an identity that creates a sense of belonging and community–these factors contribute to radicalization.  She explained that there are efforts underway to address some of these issue by, for example, having German-speaking Imams, and offering Islam as an elective course in public schools. She indicated that radicalism is never an online only process, but requires real life, social contacts. She indicated that radicalization supposes empathy. Therefore empathy is also a big part of de-radicalization.  She stated that the more we know about the other, the more tolerant we are, and the more protected we are from radicalization.  She also stated that de-radicalization is not a one-size-fits-all approach; rather, it requires a very individualistic approach. If you know how and why the person was radicalized in the first instance it is much easier to de-radicalize them.

From this overview of the radicalization and de-radicalization processes we moved on to lively table discussions.  My table included participants from the U.S., Germany, India, and the Balkans and experts from Singapore and Egypt.

However, much of the discussion at our table involved the preeminence of poverty as well as the use of religion and ideology in the formation of a “radicalized youth.”

Our expert from Singapore, Ahmad Saiful Rijal Bin Hassan, who works in the area of de-radicalization, spoke about what I’ll call the “locality of terrorism.”  He stated that someone who might be considered a radical in Singapore (because of local issues or politics, presumably) might not be considered a radical in the West.  This, once again, underlined the problem with the notion of “radicalism (like terrorism) is in the eye of the beholder.”

He went on to discuss his view of the demographics of radicalization.  He indicated that there is a pattern to the age of radicals. In Singapore, they are often young men around 35 years of age and have an online presence; are indoctrinated/affiliated to a group; and suffer a failure to integrate into society as a whole.

Our Egyptian expert , Ambassador Ahmed Farouk, stated that he believed we can agree on what “terrorism” means, but we do not want to do so.  He stated that every government and political group comes up with a definition to accommodate his or her needs, thus making the definition of “terrorism” extremely politically charged and one without consensus. The Ambassador indicated that as a result of the failure to have a common definition of terrorism we are unable to have a common strategy to fight terrorism.

The Ambassador stated that the causes of radicalization are poverty, lack of education, violation of human rights, civil liberties and the freedom of expression; and the most important and the most dangerous cause is an ideological conviction.  He pointed out that the 9/11 hijackers did not come from poverty, or lack education,  etc. Rather, they had a conviction to an ideology. He stated that today we have all focused on tactics but not on the strategy in our fight against radicalization and terrorism.   He went on to say that we cannot focus on an individual (for example Osama bin Laden) rather, we need to focus on an ideology.   This supports the view that individual leaders may come and go, but ideology endures.  The Ambassador went on to speak in depth about the conflict in Egypt, which did draw some lively discussion between the Ambassador and the participants at our table.

After much in depth discussion among our table participants and experts, I asked everyone to sum up in one phrase their takeaway from our discussion.  This is how our table participants summarized our discussion:

  1. Don’t politicize religion
  2. Fight terrorism on an individual basis
  3. Must go to the root of radicalization; look at the “big picture”
  4. Fight the framing of violence as a legitimate way to reach goals
  5. People everywhere need to have a sense of meeting and world view
  6. Fight evil ideology

Needless to say, this Night Owl session was not intended to solve the issue of youth radicalization, but instead to give us insight into its causes and potential forms of reversal.  Clearly much remains to be done to find commonality not only in our definitions of the challenges facing us all, but also on a consensus on the strategies to address these challenges and an agreement on the root causes.  I would say, most importantly, there remains a failure of human understanding and tolerance that must be addressed at the individual level before it can be a force for change, security and stability at the national and international level.  However, we must do more now to sow those seeds that will secure and sustain us in the future.

Written by Matej Gregorec