An Interview with Dr. Lorenzo Vidino

An Interview with Dr. Lorenzo Vidino

On October 10. 2018. Dr. Lorenzo Vidino spoke at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy on the topic of ISIS-related radicalization and mobilization in Europe and America. This interview was conducted by Elissa Miller, the Editor-in-Chief of The Fletcher Forum, and Lukas Bundonis, a Web Staff Editor of The Fletcher Forum.

FF: Can you speak to the different processes of radicalization that occur in Europe and the United States? What are the different cultural and societal drivers behind radicalization on the different sides of the Atlantic?

LV: It goes without saying that radicalization occurs in combination with all kinds of ideologies. In comparative terms, jihadist radicalization is a quantitatively larger problem in Europe as opposed to the US. With the beginning of the civil war in Syria, we saw a spike in the number of radicalization cases in Western Europe. When I was finishing my PhD in 2010, this was an entirely different conversation. We thought then that radicalization had largely plateaued, but 2011-2012 would end up surprising everybody.

Whether it’s in Europe or the US, there’s no common profile as to the radicalized individual; age, gender, class, and education make little difference, so it is generally very difficult to construct a profile that is all-encompassing. There are also many theories as to why individuals radicalize, but the only point generally agreed upon is that it is a highly personalized and complex process. Only a multidisciplinary approach gets us close to understanding how it works. Issues of discrimination, access to the job market, or simply the perception that these issues exist all become relevant in this context. There are psychological problems as well as why Person A reacts to an event differently from Person B. A third approach that is often used defines radicalization as a “contact sport” in which radicalization occurs by virtue of who you know or who you come into contact with. People also often radicalize under the influence of charismatic individuals.

FF: You just mentioned that there is no one profile or one cause for radicalization. Generally speaking, what makes a radicalized European or American seek to launch an attack on their home soil rather than travel abroad to become a foreign fighter? In a similar vein, what motivates a foreign fighter to return home?

LV: The Program on Extremism at GW tries to talk to as many radicalized (or formerly radicalized) individuals as possible as well as people close to those radicalized individuals. If radicalization truly happens in clusters and let’s say, out of four to five guys, only one ends up going to Syria, I’m equally interested in talking to the one who did as the four who did not and asking them why they didn’t. In some cases, there is a theological reason or justification that they give themselves. In many cases, it’s simply presented as an attractive, available opportunity. Three to four years ago, it was far more common, even trendy, to go to fight in Syria. The borders were porous, and ISIS had more power. Nowadays, it has become very difficult. The group that committed the attacks in Catalonia last year is a quintessential example of people that would have gone to Syria had the opportunity been available. Arguably because that was not an option, they decided to carry out an attack on European soil. Starting in September 2014, ISIS began telling individuals exactly that: “Stay home. You’re far more useful carrying out attacks on your home soil than you are coming here. Bring the war to the enemy on their own land.”

FF: Can you speak to the impact of social media on communication between radicalized individuals and the “radicalizing agents” that you also mentioned?

LV: Social media is only one of the aspects of radicalization. I cannot stress enough that the offline processes and face to face interactions are equally if not more important. However, it’s obvious that the level of connectivity that social media allows has changed the dynamic of these interactions and the two, online and offline, complement one another. From the moment radicalization starts all the way up until mobilization, or when you decide to carry out an attack, social media plays a role. We have seen cases where people troll the internet on behalf of ISIS to spot, approach, groom, and recruit vulnerable people to their cause. ISIS has also directed people who, though they may not have set foot in Syria, have some connection to the cause to carry out attacks on the homeland.

FF: Moving from the process of radicalization to post-radicalization, some countries have decided to focus on the rehabilitation of returned foreign fighters. Others have pursued incarceration and punishment for returned foreign fighters. Is there any method which is generally accepted as the most effective?

LV: Countries that have invested heavily in reintegrating foreign fighters have mostly done so because they have realized the limits of prosecution. Many returnees cannot be arrested because of lack of evidence. Having the intelligence that someone went to Syria to fight is very different from having the evidence to charge them with a crime. So, what are you going to do? You’re going to attempt to reintegrate them. This approach has proven in some cases to be really solid, but generally, countries should make significant investment in applying both approaches - reintegration and prosecution.

FF: Are there any examples of successful rehabilitation programs that you believe could be exported from Europe to the United States?

LV: I would first look to the Dutch, who have made significant investments in both their prison system as well as de-radicalization programs. They’ve taken flak for some failures that they’ve had, but such is the price of innovation. You make mistakes, but you learn from them. The idea of working with communities and with groups that have expertise has been proven through certain success stories. For example, programs that connect formerly radicalized individuals with prospective radicals, to discuss why radicalization is not the right path, have been fairly successful. As for how this could be applied to the United States, we have seen various programs aimed at de-radicalizing right wing militants, most of them run by former neo-Nazis.

FF: What about deradicalization programs that focused on women and girls? How should we think about gender and radicalization?

LV: Over the past five or six years, one in five radicals monitored by authorities in France has been a woman. Other countries are witnessing similar trends. We began with a lot of unfounded assumptions as to why women radicalize, some of which are quite frankly demeaning. The idea that they fall in love with a jihadi and that they have no agency is irresponsible. Women have agency like men and radicalize of their own for reasons that are as complex (although at times different) than men. By the same token, in recent years significant attention has been given to the potential role of women in preventing radicalization. Mothers and sisters are often in the best position to spot anomalies in the home. They can detect if a family member is going down a bad path.

FF: Looking at the United States again, are there lessons that you draw on from domestic or right-wing extremism when you research Jihadist extremism?

LV: There are certainly many aspects that are similar. Fundamentally, all extremist narratives have three key components. First, there is a narrative of victimhood that explains the problem. You belong to a community that is under siege. Second, there is a group of individuals who want to do something about it.  Third, those individuals present a solution – abandon your current life and get involved in something larger than yourself. That phenomenon is admittedly much larger in Europe. The narrative of the extreme right actually feeds the narrative of the Islamists in what’s called reciprocal radicalization.

FF: How can governments tackle the challenges presented by the transnational character of radicalization?

LV: While terrorism remains an issue that each country prosecutes in their own way, we have improved immensely since the days of 9/11 on coordination and intelligence sharing. However, there will always be things that get in the way of effective cooperation. Internally, governments can suffer from personality conflicts, turf wars between intelligence agencies, and so forth. At the transnational level, intelligence sharing runs the risk of exposing sources and methods of a given intelligence apparatus. This doesn’t mean that the system doesn’t work, but only that we have a long way to go before we see seamless transnational cooperation.

FF: What advice would you give to current Fletcher students who are interested in pursuing careers in counterterrorism?

LV: I think that, at all levels of counterterrorism, there has been a greater emphasis in recent years on having strong academic credentials. Even for those who are more operational, they still read academic theories and debates. It is extremely important to understand these theoretical processes. Most approaches to counterterrorism are interdisciplinary, so the only way to prepare for a career in this area is to study a wide range of subjects, including theology, psychology, sociology, security studies, and anthropology. Read widely and acquire as much knowledge on a wide variety of topics as you can. And trying to access primary sources – court records, government documents, and so on – is as important if not more than reading scholarly works.

Image: 161224-D-PB383-082

Courtesy of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff / Flickr

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Dr. Lorenzo Vidino is the Director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. An expert on Islamism in Europe and North America, his research over the past 15 years has focused on the mobilization dynamics of jihadist networks in the West; governmental counter-radicalization policies; and the activities of Muslim Brotherhood-inspired organizations in the West.

A native of Italy who holds American citizenship, Dr. Vidino earned a law degree from the University of Milan Law School and a doctorate in international relations from Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He has held positions at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government, the U.S. Institute of Peace, the RAND Corporation, and the Center for Security Studies (ETH Zurich).

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