With the Prime Minister setting out to “drain the swamp” of radicalised people in the United Kingdom, Dr Dave Sloggett looks at the pitfalls that stand in his way:
The idiom reminds us that “when you are up to your neck in alligators, it’s easy to forget the objective was to drain the swamp”. When Prime Minister David Cameron claimed in the House of Commons that he was going to “drain the swamp” that helps people on the “conveyer belt” to terrorism he may find that there may be some alligators lying in wait for him on the way.
It is inevitable in the wake of something dreadful happening like the death of Drummer Lee Rigby that political leaders will feel the need to do something. The announcement of a new task force on radicalisation is the answer. For some it will be reassuring that the Prime Minister is taking personal responsibility for chairing a group of cabinet ministers that will meet monthly to look at how to drain the swamp. Sceptics will counter that it is just another piece of gesture politics.
Terrorist conveyor belt
The thing is if you want to drain a swamp the people you need to task with the job need to have a background in hydrology and water course management. Cabinet ministers despite their obvious intellectual qualities have little expertise on the finer and nuanced points of why the swamp was created in the first place. Without making a specific political point few of them have much of an idea as to why people feel the sense of grievance that initially distances them from society at large. Once that process has started people can start to move along what the Prime Minister calls the conveyor belt into becoming a terrorist.
One problem with this analogy is that the notion of a conveyor belt is not a good one to describe the process of radicalisation. Once started conveyor belts take items on them at a pretty constant speed towards a quite specific and unchanging destination. That is not a good way to imagine how people become radicalised. There is no sense of constant velocity.
Rather the process of radicalisation is a stop-start journey, punctuated by periods when little happens. In those dormant periods catalytic events can reawaken and deepen the sense of grievance. An individual that is vulnerable to making the journey may see or hear something that highlights a sense of injustice that is associated with the grievance. But this can be counter-balanced by other factors. Family and an innate human desire for survival have to be overcome.
Tipping point of radicalisation
Several steps forward along the journey can be followed by a series of reversals. Over a period of time a tipping point can be reached where the individual makes a journey overseas, perhaps recording a martyrdom video, before returning back to the United Kingdom with a clear plan of what comes next.
It is possible to liken this to a game of snakes and ladders. The ladders move the individual long the journey the snakes take them backwards. The Prevent element of the CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy is all about creating snakes. In the Prime Minister’s world these are the ways by which the swamp will be drained.
Herein lays the alligators. In his speech to the House of Commons the Prime Minister made reference to a number of possible causes of radicalisation. He spoke of radical preachers addressing university meetings and the impact of material that can be readily accessed on the Internet. These are two factors that do help to create ladders on the journey. There are others.
Understanding individuals vulnerabilities
A problem is that many of these factors interact in quite specific ways of each individual. What may help one person make the journey may make another pull away. Trying to imagine that a series of individual measures, such as banning a named list of radical preachers from speaking at university meetings, are unlikely to create the impact the Prime Minister clearly desires.
Media coverage of major events can also be a causal factor. When rumours suggest a misdemeanour in Afghanistan that has incited a religious backlash, such as allegations of a burning of the Quran, for someone that is tentatively starting out on the journey into radicalisation that reporting alone can be sufficient to drive them along.
The real heart of the issue is all about trying to understand people’s vulnerabilities. As the sense of grievance develops individuals vulnerabilities increase. They become more open to be persuaded that a particular viewpoint is correct. In prison some who have been incarcerated for drugs offences turn to religion to overturn their previous behaviour. This creates a vulnerability that can be played upon. As the journey progresses they find they can only make sense of the world by looking at it through a quite specific lens. This lens either is developed by the individual, as a way of understanding the world, or through help from others who introduce them to a particular viewpoint.
Blend of religious & psychological insights
Herein lays the crux of the matter. Vulnerabilities are played on using a highly selective and nuanced narrative that is alleged to be religiously justified. To help create the environment in which the swamp can be drained this narrative has to be challenged. A counter-narrative has to be developed: one that is equally theological sound.
This has been an issue that successive governments have shied away from as being too difficult. It is long overdue. To develop that counter-narrative requires a task force of people that have a blend of religious and psychological insights. If it fails to create the necessary empathy with the target audience a backlash may occur that could be far worse.
So here is the largest alligator in the swamp. Tackling it will be difficult. A religious mine field literally awaits the unwary. The temptation to be drawn into highly nuanced detail will be hard to avoid as theological arguments can often be swept up in far wider ranging issues about values and beliefs systems in individuals. This could so easily become a tortuous process.
To achieve the end game the Prime Minister desires the counter-narrative has to be simple. The trap door into theological obfuscation could so easily be opened if that need for simplicity is lost. If it is, the Prime Minister will quickly find himself forgetting that the original aim of the exercise was to drain the swamp. The danger is if that happens it may only encourage more alligators to appear.