Three reasons why it is difficult to recognize signs of radicalization

Three reasons why it is difficult to recognize signs of radicalization

When people are arrested on suspicion of planning a terrorist attack or joining jihadist groups, their family members are often surprised. The question that arises is how did they not know?

Recently, the Dutch National Police arrested seven people on suspicion of plotting a large-scale extremist attack at a public event in the Netherlands. Three of the suspects were already known to the Dutch judicial authorities and intelligence services due to earlier convictions for attempting to travel to Syria or Iraq. Only one day after the arrests, the mother of one of the suspected said “my son has not radicalized”. Furthermore, a brother from another suspect said to a Dutch newspaper that he was surprised by the arrest of his brother, because he was doing well, worked out a lot, and just regained custody of his daughter. Although there is a possibility that these family members are right since the seven suspects have not been convicted yet, our research shows that family members are often blind to the radicalization process of their family members.

Last summer, we published our study on the role of family members of those who joined jihadist groups. For this study we interviewed, among others, 17 family members varying from fathers, mothers, and siblings of (suspected) foreign fighters. This empirical study showed that many of the family members were surprised by the fact that their loved ones traveled abroad to join jihadist groups. We found, among other things, three appealing reasons:

A degree of physical separation between family members

In several cases, there already was a degree of physical separation between family members and the (suspected) foreign fighter. For example, the individual in question did not live together with his or her parents or siblings anymore because he or she lived on his or her own, sometimes with his or her own family. The contact between family members is different when there is a physical separation between them. In that case, family members do not have insight in the life and activities of the individual on a daily basis.

Family members have their own problems

We have also seen that family members have their own problems, such as financial, relational or health problems, with as consequence that they have less attention for the individual in question and maybe missed or did not recognize signals that are related to the process of radicalization.

Level of knowledge of radicalization

Moreover, many of the interviewed family members had a lack of knowledge on phenomena as radicalization and people who travel abroad to join jihadist groups. In some of our cases, primarily noted by professionals that we spoke for this study, family members were aware of signals that definitely indicated an imminent outward journey. Against this background, it was possible for these family members to try to intervene and prevent an outward journey. For example, they could confiscate the passport of the individual, make a report to the police or seek help elsewhere.

Next to that, almost in every case the foreign fighters also lead a double life to cover up their ‘other’ activities from their family members. Needless to say, recognizing signs of the process of radicalization or signs that definitely indicate an outward journey is very hard. After all, there is not one pattern that leads to extremism. In recent years, programs were developed to support family members in various ways. These programs aim to strengthen the position of family members in how to recognize signals of radicalization and how to deal with radicalization. It is important do so, but without the expectations and an enormous pressure on families that they should be the first persons to recognize the signals of radicalization of their family members.