The connection between radicalism, extremism and terrorism
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center and Pentagon by al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists were a watershed event in international politics as they signaled, among other things, the unmistakable rise of non-state actors and their potential impact on the global security environment. Recognizing the importance of the event and its differences from previous terrorist activities, many called it “new terrorism.” Deadly attacks around the world, primarily in Spain (2004), Russia (2004), the United Kingdom (2005), Iraq (2013), Nigeria (2014), Turkey (2015) and France (2015), have put the issues of worldwide radicalization and extremism on the international agenda. Even NATO, a military alliance par excellence, has taken up the issues, defining them as threats to its members and devised policies against them.
Along the way, the difference between radicalization and extremism, as well as their connection to terror, have disappeared. Radicalization in general refers to a process in which individuals are introduced to extreme views and overtly ideological messages, sometimes in connection with a particular interpretation of a religion, that encourages extreme behavior in defending or advancing one’s views. It is mainly driven by social, political and economic inequalities, oppression, discrimination and frustration with governance. At its root, radicalization does not necessarily lead to acts of violence.
However, when it is transformed into extremism and radicalized individuals start using violence and engaging in unlawful activities, including terror, to attain their social, political and economic targets, it becomes a problematic security issue instead of a simple political concept. What’s more, in today’s globalized world, dissatisfied people in different regions can easily get in touch with each other regardless of their background and turn the issue into a global problem.
Besides, the rapid improvement in information technology provides radicals across the world with easy, quick and unfettered access to connect with like-minded people and build networks. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is a good case in point. Its recruiting activities and the spread of its views globally through the Internet show the snowball effect of radicalization. It is estimated that ISIL has over 20,000 foreign fighters from all over the world. From European countries alone, 5,000 fighters have joined ISIL even though such countries enjoy high living standards, civil liberties, the rule of law and democratic rights.
While ISIL exemplifies religious radicalization and extremism, other groups that are unsatisfied with the current political system and/or policies in their countries have paved the way for political radicalization across Europe. Though they have not yet become extremists for the most part and not resorted to terror, radicalized entities have been gaining strength in several European countries. With their anti-European, anti-immigration, xenophobic beliefs and policy lines, they have infected the political scene in Europe, contesting core European values and principles.
Radical parties, such as France’s National Front, Italy’s Lega Nord, the U.K.’s Independence Party, Greece’s Golden Dawn, Germany’s National Democratic Party and Hungary’s Jobbik, are like ticking bombs in the heart of Europe with their anti-establishment views. As we have seen elsewhere and repeatedly in European history, there is a thin line between rhetoric and practice, and radicalism can easily be transformed into extremism and/or terrorism. Thus, they represent a serious challenge to the European future, one which the policy makers of today would do well not to underestimate, given that it will already be too late if they start using violence.