"There is not much that can be done once a person has become active on extremist internet forums—at that point, it’s often too late," explains researcher Stian Lid of OsloMet.
The discussion surrounding radicalisation and how to stop terrorist acts before they are carried out is particularly relevant in Norway. The 22 July attacks perpetrated by Andreas Behring Breivik claimed 77 lives and were the culmination of Breivik’s own radicalisation, much of which occurred on the far-right Internet.
More recently, a 20-year-old resident of Bærum just outside of Oslo attacked a mosque in his hometown. While no one was killed, the aborted attack once again raised questions about what kinds of people are falling under the sway of extremist ideology.
Intervening before it's too late
Lid is emphatic that monitoring websites and discussion forums can help identify people with extremist views who may be considering carrying out a terrorist attack, and even prevent such attacks from occurring.
At the same time, Lid cautions, "even in cases when it is possible to challenge these people’s extremist views online, the most important preventive work must take place at an earlier stage.”
How can we keep people from being radicalised in the first place?
Lid and fellow researcher Geir Heierstad recently co-edited the book Preventing Radicalisation and Violent Extremism (Original Norwegian title: Forebygging av radikalisering og voldelig ekstremisme).
In the wake of the latest terrorist attack, Norwegians are once again asking: Is it possible to prevent radicalisation and, if so, how? Professor Lid has four key recommendations to policymakers and others, both in Norway and beyond.
The inability of our government agencies to figure out what should be a cause for worry and concern is our greatest vulnerability– Stian Lid
1. Creating safe local communities
Prevention starts with something as straightforward and obvious, yet at the same time so difficult, as establishing safe local communities where inclusion is a priority. A spirit of inclusiveness is a vital prerequisite to keeping people from feeling alienated or excluded.
"It is important that you feel included in the community in which you live,” Lid explains. “This means that there are good jobs available to you and that there are arenas and spaces where you are heard and seen by those around you.”
"We have to work to prevent polarisation and the rise of differences that divide people,” says the researcher.
2. Counteracting extremist views
What should we do about people who hold extremist views?
"It doesn’t necessarily follow that people with extremist attitudes will commit extremist acts. But for many, such attitudes might be a springboard to actually carrying out extremist acts," says Lid.
The OsloMet researcher wants to see more critical thinking promoted in schools as an antidote to the proliferation of extremist views and hate speech. This will enable people to more critically assess the information they come across and scrutinise the sources behind it.
"It is completely legitimate to take a critical stance against immigration. But we must also ask critical questions about the information we encounter," cautions Lid.
Extremist views must also be confronted in day-to-day conversations around the kitchen table, in the workplace, among friends and in other social arenas, the researcher stresses.
"If we stop caring, distance ourselves from what we hear, or refrain from engaging in dialogue with people who voice extremist views, the possibility that people at risk of being drawn into extremism will only increase," Lid warns.
"Who among us is engaging in dialogue with people who don’t have a job, attend school or regularly interact with other people in some other setting? People who are lonely and isolated and who live alone constitute a group that is difficult to identify and reach, and this combination makes them vulnerable to extremist forces."
We have to work to prevent polarisation and the rise of differences that divide people– Stian Lid
3. A need for more expertise
The OsloMet researcher underscores that no matter what we do, there will always be some people who allow themselves to be attracted to extremist groups.
"Precisely for this reason, we must ensure that people working in different areas of the public system have the expertise and the toolkit required to identify people at risk. It is not enough for the police to have the necessary expertise. The school system and the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV) must also know what extremism looks like. They must know the risk factors that can lead to radicalisation, and know how to act if someone appears to be in danger of becoming radicalised.
This means that educational programmes spanning different disciplines must incorporate basic knowledge about extremism and its origins. Most people will never encounter this issue in the course of their work, but in the event that they do, it is vital that they have the knowledge to deal with it, Lid advises.
Norway is a large and sparsely populated country, but extremism has the potential to appear anywhere. This creates challenges in terms of having the necessary expertise in all parts of the country.
"It’s important that specialist knowledge about extremism and radicalisation is well distributed so that the agencies that are charged with preventing extremism from taking root can do their jobs effectively," he says.
4. Sharing important information before it's too late
"One challenge is that potentially dangerous people often go under the radar,” Lid tells us. “In cases where someone raises a red flag without specifying a clear course of action, a very limited amount of information will likely be shared between agencies," Lid explains.
"This is an area of vulnerability. However, there can be good legal justifications for agencies not to share information."
As a result, disparate pieces of information are not always assessed in a holistic way, which can increase the likelihood that incorrect conclusions are drawn.
One challenge is that potentially dangerous people often go under the radar– Stian Lid
One way of solving this would be for professionals at the local level to discuss specific cases still in their early stages confidentially. The relevant agencies could then funnel their concerns to colleagues with more expertise in the area and receive feedback on how to proceed with the case.
Such a model would allow assessments to be made by a small number of people and make it possible to take action at an early stage. Acting before it’s too late is, of course, crucial to preventing radicalisation from spiralling out of control.
Struggling to catch up
One problem facing both government agencies and Norwegian society more broadly is their inability to keep abreast of the changing landscape of extremism and new phenomena that regularly arise.
"One example of this is the foreign fighters who travelled to Syria. In the beginning, this development simply wasn’t on our radar. It took us by surprise. The agencies were not paying enough attention and failed to pick up on this emerging trend at an early enough stage,” Lid explains.
“The inability of our government agencies to figure out what should be a cause for worry and concern is our greatest vulnerability,” the OsloMet researcher concludes. “The same thing, in fact, applies to society more broadly.”
OsloMet is a partner in the EU Horizon 2020 project DARE:
DARE – Dialogue about Radicalisation and Equality
The project investigates how young people aged between 12 and 30 respond to messages and agents of radicalisation.
Forebygging av radikalisering og voldelig ekstremisme (gyldendal.no) (Published in Norwegian)