EXTREME EMOTIONS: Researchers have explained that people at risk of radicalisation tended to feel isolated or insignificant


FEELING discriminated against or being socially marginalised is likely to “trigger” violent jihadists, new research has shown, as academics urged policy makers to take this information into account when creating laws relating to radicalisation.

A team of researchers, including from University College London (UCL), published their findings last month. The study used medical science and neuro-imaging techniques to map how the brains of radicalised individuals responded to being socially excluded.

Men from a Muslim community close to Barcelona, Spain, participated in the psychological
surveys. Of the 535 young men studied, 38 jihadi-sympathetic Muslims who had “expressed a willingness to engage in or facilitate violence associated with jihadist
causes”, agreed to be scanned for an MRI which measured brain activity.

The study’s co-lead author, Nafees Hamid, spoke to Eastern Eye about the key findings. He explained that some individuals who were drawn to extremist groups showed signs of isolation and feeling disconnected from the community.

Feeling discriminated against could also “trigger” an individual to lean toward joining a terrorist group.

UK jihadists Shafee El-Sheik (left) and Alexanda Kotey could have felt “triggered” by feelings of isolation

“I met members [associated] with al-Qaeda. When I asked them what was the moment they decided to join [an extremist group], they would often point to times when they were incubating in these ideas for a while. Then something interpersonal occurred, something discriminating, and it was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he explained.

However, this meant it would be difficult for policy makers to tackle as it would not be possible to stop people from expressing discriminatory remarks to others.

“What is more plausible is to go a few steps back from that,” he said. “If we can get to [these individuals] before the extremist groups get to them, so that sense of lacking
purpose does not come in the first place, you are basically pulling away the vulnerability
that those individuals may have to get tied in with these extremist groups.”

In the study, those who had extremist leanings tended to be those who reported higher feelings of being humiliated, isolated, insignificant or feeling like an outsider.

While carrying out the research, Hamid spent time in a neighbourhood in Brussels, Belgium, where he interacted with people at risk of becoming radicalised.

He described the community as “fragmented”, where there were no prominent leadership figures and a lack of social cohesion.

“You have kids hanging out by themselves, usually in groups of about five guys on street corners. That creates a good opportunity for recruiters to come in and spread radical ideas,” he explained.

Nafees Hamid is the study’s co-lead author

If a person does not feel they have a strong identity or value system, or they lack a
pathway in their life which pulls them toward something they are passionate about, they are more at risk of being targeted by radicalisers, he said.

Hamid referred to one person he met who expressed a distaste of his local surroundings and potential prospects of employment. Although he lived within a five-minute walk from large tech companies which could offer opportunities, he felt they may “as well be 500 miles away”.

Extremist movements become more appealing, Hamid said, as they offer a strong unity of identity, strong religious values and an immediate pathway to action.

“They provide you purpose and belonging, all-encompassing, and immediately,” he said. “There is no delay of gratification either – you don’t have to go to school for four years to join, you can become part of the group straight away.”

Hamid stressed that the study’s findings did not only apply to jihadists but white nationalist groups too. They had that same sense of exclusion, he noted, and could feel that society was no longer their imagined community.

“They feel lost, aimless and this is why extremist groups such as the English Defence
League (EDL) can offer them brotherhood or sisterhood and a pathway to action,” Hamid said.

Lawmakers have been urged to study effects of marginalization

In a separate study, the team looked at Hindu-Muslim identities in the Kashmir valley in India and the Babri mosque in north India, where both religions claimed ownership of the mosque.

It found that when values deemed “sacred” are violated, it can become a motivating
factor in the persistence of conflict between religious or ethnic groups

This related to the latest study, in that the neurological impact of being isolated meant that when issues were raised that the individual had not previously considered dishonourable –
such as introducing Islamic teaching in schools or unrestricted construction of mosques – they became far more important and were deemed “sacred” and worth fighting for.

“[Researchers] found there was a moderating rule for how serious the issue was for a group identity,” he said. “That is more of a general finding, but as an issue becomes the crux of a conflict, the more it becomes part of people’s identity.”

For instance, the team found that a lot of Palestinian identities were wrapped up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East. Hamid believes that Indians and Pakistanis had similar feelings regarding clashes in their own countries.

“The conflict itself has made it more part of their identity,” he asserted.