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Understanding And Countering The Lure Of Extremism


When the bomb ripped through the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester on Monday night, it targeted the most vulnerable - children and teenagers. The youngest among the 22 killed was Saffie Rose Roussos. She was only 8 years old. The bomber who carried out the attack was himself young, a 22-year-old Briton of Libyan descent.

We're joined now by Maajid Nawaz. He is the founder of Quilliam, a counter-extremism group based in London. Extremism is a subject area Nawaz knows well. He spent his younger years in an Islamist group, eventually reaching its leadership ranks and acting as a recruiter. Welcome to the program.

MAAJID NAWAZ: Thank you, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So when an attack like this happens, the question for so many is, why? Why would a young man do this?

NAWAZ: To put ourselves in the mind frame of somebody that's become radicalized in this way, it's important for us to understand what happens with the process of radicalization. When people join extremist organizations and then engage in jihadist attacks like this, they're not thinking of the lives of the individual people that they've killed in front of them. Rather, they're thinking - no matter how unjustifiable this is - they're thinking on a macro-level.

They're thinking about what brings them closer to victory in what they, essentially, see as a civilizational struggle. Jihadists have adopted a mind frame that leads them to believe that they are locked in a struggle for the future of humanity. And they happen to think they're the good guys in this struggle. And that's the danger of radicalization and how it can brainwash people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He was born in the United Kingdom to a Muslim family. What makes someone like that so ripe for recruitment?

NAWAZ: First of all, recruitment cannot happen if the targeted individual doesn't feel a sense of grievance, whether that grievance is real or perceived. That could be in foreign policy issues. It could be domestic policy issues. And that leads them to become angry and seek a solution away from mainstream society. There the second factor kicks in, and it's what I call the identity crisis. Somebody who's born and raised in Britain should consider themselves first and foremost British. But with an identity crisis, they don't. They consider themselves only Muslim in both their political and religious identities.

And then the third factor kicks in, and that's a charismatic recruiter who comes along and provides a sense of belonging that, perhaps, hasn't been found in mainstream society. And then a fourth factor kicks in. That charismatic recruiter peddles an ideology. And it's really the ideological narrative and the ideological indoctrination that takes somebody from being an angry young aggrieved teenager to being prepared to slaughter children in the name of a cause. And it's such an important element there in recognizing that. And actually challenging radicalization, we have to be able to address grievances, solve the identity crisis, undermine charismatic recruiters and refute the ideology that is used to recruit them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That seems like quite a tall order, though. There's a lot of things going on there. I mean, how do you combat radicalism in the hearts and minds of people like the 22-year-old who carried out the attack?

NAWAZ: In a sense, the first one - grievances - we can never really fully achieve because, I mean, foreign policy is going to be right and wrong until the end of time. And what I mean by that is when I was radicalized as a 16 year old, it was our lack of intervention in Bosnia as the genocide against Muslims unfolded in Bosnia that led to my anger.

Yet with Iraq, it was our intervention in Iraq against Saddam Hussein that led to the radicalization of another generation. And then in Syria, it was our lack of intervention that angered many. So you're kind of damned if you do and damned if you don't. And so it is a tall order. You're correct. But, actually, where, tangibly, if we can focus on the identity crisis, a lot more can be done to foster a shared sense of identity and belonging within our societies. And that means understanding the shared values that we have, reinforcing those shared values. We could also do a lot more to undermine extremist recruiters. And we can certainly do a lot more to refute and isolate Islamist ideology from mainstream Muslims.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Times newspaper in the U.K. reported citing intelligence officials that 23,000 jihadist extremists - their words - are living in Britain. What do you make of that number and the danger it poses? Are we at a place where it is inevitable that these attacks will continue?

NAWAZ: Yes, Lulu, that number tells us something. And that is, if there are 23,000 British jihadist terrorist suspects according to our security services, then that's insurgency levels because there are only about 4 million Muslims in the U.K. When you've got that many who are jihadist terrorists, you can look at concentric circles as a shelter around them - the number who empathize with extremism. And that's the nature of insurgencies.

We've had the troubles in Northern Ireland. And we were very quick to recognize that the IRA wouldn't have survived for so long if they didn't have a level of support from within the Northern Irish Catholic communities. And the trick was to separate Northern Irish Catholics from their support for the IRA so as to undermine that insurgency. And that's what we need to do here. We've got to, first of all, recognize we're dealing with a jihadist insurgency. If we understand it in this way, we understand the scale of the problem we're dealing with. And we can begin to start understanding how the community needs to start responding to it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Maajid Nawaz, founder of the group Quilliam and author of the book "Radical: My Journey Out Of Islamist Extremism." Thank you so much for being with us.

NAWAZ: Thank you so much. Pleasure.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, free speech on campus. Graduation season is normally a time of celebration, but at this time of political tension, some commencement speakers are inspiring protests instead.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.