Leiden Safety and Security Blog

Becoming a European homegrown jihadist

Becoming a European homegrown jihadist

How and why do people become involved in European homegrown jihadism? Why do only some of those who participate in such groups actually go on to use violence? These questions guided the author’s recently completed PhD research, which focused on the Dutch ‘Hofstadgroup’ that was active between 2002 and 2005. The group’s planned and perpetrated acts of violence, most notoriously the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh in November 2004, have had an impact on Dutch society that is felt to this day. More importantly, the group is a leading example of a typology of terrorism that continues to pose a challenge to Western states’ security. An understanding of the various processes through which the Hofstadgroup’s participants became involved, and which led some to plan and perpetrate acts of terrorism, therefore remains of the utmost relevance to academics, policy makers and counterterrorism practitioners today.

In addressing the research questions, the thesis covers three main themes that capture both the breadth of existing insights on the processes that bring people to terrorism. These are the hypothesized structural-level causes of terrorism, such as socio-economic deprivation and intergroup inequality, the group-level causes of terrorism, principally the various emotional, cognitive and personal benefits that membership in extremist groups can bring, and finally the individual-level of analysis, to which belong such factors as radicalization and mental health issues. Using factors at each level of analysis as lenses through which to study rich primary-sources based data on the Hofstadgroup, the author pieces together pathways to involvement and, in some cases, terrorist violence.

Researchers have been studying the processes that lead people to become involved in terrorist groups and terrorist violence for decades. Yet the field of terrorism studies is often criticized for its decades-long overreliance on secondary sources – principally newspaper articles – as the main and frequently only data on which hypotheses are developed. Through its utilization of Dutch police files on the Hofstadgroup and interviews with former participants, the PhD thesis is able to add a large quantity of new information to a field often charged with recycling existing insights and use that information to assess the validity of existing assumptions about the processes leading to terrorism. This latter point in particular has been labeled as crucial to moving the field forward.

The resulting analysis critiques many prevalent explanations for involvement in terrorism for lacking sufficient empirical evidence or advocating theoretically and conceptually flawed hypotheses. In particular, the concept of ‘radicalization’ and the perception of terrorists as individuals either suffering from deprivation or psychological illness, are argued to stand in the way of a more accurate understanding of involvement processes. Instead, the author advances an alternate explanation which emphasizes that involvement in terrorist groups and terrorist violence is a process in which a multitude of factors, spread over the structural, group and individual levels of analysis play a role. Crucially, the ‘driving force’ of this process is liable to change over time; the factors and processes that initiate involvement in homegrown jihadism differ from those that sustain it, which are again distinct from those that leads some to actual acts of terrorist violence. Embracing such a multifaceted perspective on involvement in terrorism is important not just for a better understanding of this process, but also for those looking to detect, prevent or respond to the challenges posed by this type of political violence.

Bart Schuurman will defend his dissertation on Thursday the 26th of January 2017 in Leiden.

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