De-radicalising young people

Is there a way to stop jihadists in Europe?

What drives young men into the arms of Islamist extremists – and how can they be re-integrated into society? Five years after the deadly attacks in Paris, urgent questions remain. By Matthias von Hein

Dresden, Paris, Nice and Vienna. After four terror attacks in barely a month, it's clear that, five years after the deadly attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, Islamist terror in Europe has not been defeated. Once again, politicians are considering imposing stricter controls at the borders, promising closer co-operation with security services, and calling for tougher action against Islamist militants who are deemed a threat.

The most recent attacks highlight the particular danger posed by individual perpetrators who are part of a network of sympathisers. What are these people like? What motivates them? The current overview of Salafism in Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, warns: "Special attention must be paid to the considerable potential of young, violent Salafists. In recent years, young people have been targeted by jihadist propaganda more forcefully and at a younger age, and have reacted to it more positively."

Oliver Roy, a French expert on Islamism, also sees predominantly young men "fascinated by the violence of jihad", and who claim to be better Muslims than their parents without spending years studying the Koran. In Roy's view, this is rebellious youth inscribing its revolt into an Islamist narrative – a narrative supplied by organisations such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State (IS) group.

Personal trajectory or probation dynamic?

In interview, Roy referred to it as a "cult of death". When these young men kill, he said, "They expect to be killed… It's not so much an ideology [as] a personal trajectory. They have a goal: to go to paradise, to die as a martyr."

IS online propaganda (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Peters)
A battle to control the narrative: Mimoun Berrissoun, founder of 180° Turn, calls for a strong counter-movement within Muslim communities. There must be no room for enticing Islamist recruiters. We must not allow "young people to be secretly recruited via WhatsApp or Telegram," he says. "We have to reach these young people before they do"

Frankfurt-based sociologist Felix Rossmeissl, who is part of a research project investigating the topic of jihad, prefers to describe it as a "probation dynamic". Young men and women, he said, want to prove they can fulfil expectations, and this is how they are coerced into committing acts of violence.

In his analysis, "It represents an alternative to conventional probation dynamics, which in our society are linked primarily to professional work and academic success". Rossmeissl says this is why young people who are having difficulty making the transition to adult life are particularly susceptible to jihadist propaganda.

Limits of de-radicalisation

Thomas Mucke knows people like this. He works with them. Mucke, a qualified teacher and psychologist, is the managing director of the Violence Prevention Network (VPN), which works on de-radicalising violent extremists. "We know, of course, that people who are unstable or who are currently going through a crisis can be recruited very quickly by people on the extremist scene," admitted Mucke.

More on this topic