European gateways to extremism

Lorenzo Vidino writes: Since the early 2000s, countless theories have sought to analyze radicalization processes among Western Muslims. Studies have dissected the many internal and external factors that, operating concurrently, lead some young European, North American and Australian Muslims to join violent groups like al Qaeda or, more recently, the Islamic State. One relatively understudied aspect is the role of extremist but not directly violent Islamist organizations in this process. Particularly over the last few years, in fact, it has become apparent that in most (but not all) Western countries a large and growing percentage of individuals who engaged in violent jihadist activities have been involved in groups like al Muhajiroun or the Sharia4 global movement before making the leap into violence.

These groups are complex and difficult to categorize entities, epitomizing the heterogeneity of Islamism in the West. They adopt unquestionably radical positions, often engaging in highly controversial rhetoric and actions to attract attention and create tension while straddling the line between legally allowed stunts and illegal behaviors. Yet, despite endorsing the worldview and actions of militant jihadist groups, most of their activities tend to be non-violent or, at worst, entail scuffles with police or intimidation of adversaries. At the same time, the cases of individuals that, with varying degrees of intensity, gravitated around these organizations and subsequently engaged in terrorist activities are plentiful. And, in some recent cases, there are indications that the leadership of some of these organizations have transformed from headline-grabbing agitators (dismissed by most as buffoons) into full-fledged jihadists actively involved in combat in Syria and Iraq.

Given these dynamics, it is not surprising that these organizations have often been at the center of heated debates. One argument—an academic one, but with important practical implications–is related to the role they play in the radicalization process. While some scholars and policymakers consider them as “conveyor belts” facilitating and expediting radicalization towards violence, others have challenged this analysis. A related and equally controversial topic of discussion revolves around the necessity, legal feasibility and practical effectiveness of banning these organizations.

This article seeks to explore these and other aspects. It aims to look at the history, ideology and tactics of various organizations (each of which, to be clear, has its own peculiarities) that have operated in various Western European countries over the last twenty years. It then devotes a particular focus to their complex relationship with violence. Finally, it also looks at how European authorities have dealt with these groups over time. [Continue reading…]

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