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Uncovering Extremism

Jan. 5, 2016

A new year has arrived, but the world continues to face the threat of terrorism. In Europe and elsewhere, there are worrisome signs that blame is being shifted to all Muslims for the sake of right wing political gain. In Syria, Iraq, and much of the Middle East, the turmoil shows no sign of ending. What are the extremists hoping to achieve? And how should the world respond? The second installment of a two-part series on terrorism will examine the background of the Islamic State group, and ways the international community should respond to the threat.

It's now known that the perpetrators of the Paris attacks in November included French and Belgian citizens. How can young people living in developed countries fall under the influence of radical ideologies?

To find out more, Newsroom Tokyo Anchor Sho Beppu spoke with Farhad Khosrokhavar of the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences. Khosrokhavar is a leading Iranian-born sociologist who has been studying the mechanisms of radicalization among France’s youth. He analyses the social background of people who join extremist groups.

Khosrokhavar: The people who attacked Charlie Hebdo last January came from the poor suburbs. They'd shown signs of deviance and delinquency, and had been to prison. But in terms of the November 13th attacks, a number of the attackers were from the middle class. They were not from the suburbs. This is a new phenomenon. Since the Syrian Civil War began in 2013, a new group has come onto the scene made up of young middle class people.

Not everyone is suffering from what we might call 'the malaise of the suburbs.' For example, we know very well there were two brothers who took part in the attacks who were not at all from a disadvantaged area. They were small entrepreneurs. One owned a coffee shop. Therefore, the problem is not only one of frustrated youth from the suburbs. There are several thousand jihadists in Europe, including an increasing number of young people who could be described as middle class. This is what's new. I mean, if you look at those who carried out the November attacks, either at the Bataclan or other cafes in Paris, there was one who for several months had been a bus driver.

Farhad says a growing number of women are among the new radicals. Many are travelling to Syria to marry jihadists. There are even Jews who are joining the Islamic State group.

Beppu: Why this new phenomenon?

Khosrokhavar: This new phenomenon is much more complex and is related to Europe's long period of peace. Since 1945, we have had peace in Europe. But there is also something that we could call peace fatigue.

Beppu: But what's wrong with peace?

Khosrokhavar: Yes, but you know, there are generations that have gone to war, such as World War II, and they love peace. But it's now become mundane. On the other hand, there is this malaise of the middle class in which young people no longer feel they will live a better life than their parents. Before, everywhere in Europe and in France, young middle-class people thought they would live better lives than their parents. Now, for the first time, they're discovering that they can lose their jobs and, with that, lose their middle class status and end up part of the underclass.

The problem is their feeling of discomfort, and it has nothing to do with their actual standard of living. For example, those who committed these attacks were from the middle class and they lived well just like you and me. It had nothing to do with their standard of living. It's a feeling of humiliation, a feeling of discomfort, a feeling that in society, they are no longer welcomed in their communities.

Farhad says Europe is unable to cope with the current situation. European Union members have agreed to tighten border controls, and hope to finalize the methods by the end of June.

Khosrokhavar: The situation in Europe is ideal for the jihadists because they can operate in several countries. But there are no common security policies in Europe. Each government has its own national intelligence agency. They communicate with each other, but the agencies' organizational culture does not allow them to share information about terrorists. Therefore, we now have a Europe in which jihadists or terrorists can easily cross borders. The intelligence and security services in Europe are not capable of handling this phenomenon. They were established to deal with a few hundred extremists but now there are thousands of them. The intelligence systems cannot cope with the growing numbers.

Japan has preserved, at least until now, what we might call cultural coherence. There was no mass immigration to Japan. Europe, however, is a place of immigration, where much mixing takes place. This means there are a number of changes we cannot control. We do not know what will happen.

Newsroom Tokyo Anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya speak with Koichiro Tanaka of the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan. He is a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs.

Beppu: In the interview, I couldn't help but wonder how far this phenomenon of radicalization could go. How do you understand this situation?

Tanaka: I think the phenomenon is quite different from what we're used to in the previous years. I think there's a different kind, maybe new generation of terrorists emerging from what is happening in Europe and other parts of the world, especially the Middle East. Traditionally, we used to think that terror is sort of a means to reach a certain political goal. But for this new generation of terrorists or jihadists or whatever they are, they kill the innocent for the sake of satisfying their desire to kill. So it's more like conducting murder in their own desire. So in a way, you can call that a radicalization of terrorists, or youths.

Having said that, they are very isolated from a mainstream organization, regardless of whether it's a political organization, social organization or even a religious organization, so that makes it very difficult to identify who they are. And eventually, they come to form a sort of individualized or personalized idea of how to conduct terror attacks. In a way, you can call them geeks -- terror geeks. That makes them very difficult to detect, because they are not visible in any society or any form of grouping. So eventually, we see events or incidents that are called homegrown terrorism conducted by lone wolves. So this is the phenomenon that we are facing today.

In the Middle East, US-led air strikes targeting the Islamic State militants have intensified. Beppu spoke with Henry Laurens, a Professor at the College de France in Paris regarding the situation. He is an expert on contemporary Arab History.

Laurens: Up until now, the air strikes have been limited, at least on the part of the Western-led coalition. They've been trying to cause as few civilian casualties as possible. So the bombings have been extremely targeted, but obviously, less effective. So we can expect some results from these air strikes, especially in Iraq, which is the most important military front, if they are properly coordinated with ground troops, to reduce the strength of the Islamic State group. I initially thought that the Islamic State group would not be able to hold on for long and that it would finish sooner or later. It seems from the information provided that there are internal tensions, a decrease in resources, so an intensification of terror attacks.

Beppu: What do you mean by "intensifying their terror"?

Laurens: What I mean is, as they have fewer resources and are unable to provide minimum services to the population in terms of supplies, medical services and schools, they are forced to increase taxes on the population, and have no choice but to increase terror against the population. Anyway, their goal is to get a large part of the population on their side but it doesn’t seem they will succeed in doing so.

Beppu: Are you optimistic then that the group will weaken little by little?

Laurens: It seems that it has entered a weakening phase, perhaps not on the international level but on the domestic side in the territories they control. It appears from the information given, that they are in a more defensive position. But they are very good in defense.

Beppu: Even though it's very difficult to predict how the situation will develop in the region, it seems to me that the Middle East will remain in a critical state. What can we expect will happen?

Laurens: For now, we are extremely pessimistic about the region's future because it's unclear what political solution can be found for Syria where we're at an impasse. The various sides are unable to reach a political compromise because they think that political compromises are not trustworthy.

Beppu and Shibuya once again speak with Koichiro Tanaka of the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan.

Shibuya: Mr. Tanaka, Laurens says the terrorist group is weakening, but he remains pessimistic about the future of the region. What is your take on this?

Tanaka: If you say that IS is weakening and losing ground in the territories that they used to hold, I think it could be correct. But in 2015, I tend to believe the terrorists were on the surge, or they were on the competent mode, and they were emerging as if they were ruling the world, so I don't believe that the entire globe sees the terrorists now on the downturn or terrorism itself on the downturn. So there is a difference in thinking between myself and Professor Laurens. And if you look at what happened last year, al-Qaeda-affiliated groups were quite active throughout the globe, and I believe that several incidents that happened in Europe, especially in France, are one of the incidents we should look into.

Beppu: What can the international community do to help resolve the problems in the Middle East especially in light of the growing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia?

Tanaka: It's very worrisome, and what is needed is to forge a united front to fight terrorism and to counter the influence of spreading terrorism. But just as we are seeing right now, there is no way that these key players in the region are to fight against each other or be at odds against each other on what they should prioritize in their foreign policy and strategic maneuvers. That's a very unfortunate event that we are seeing right now. Whether this is going to continue for years or a decade, we need to find a solution that there is a united front, not only within the region, but also amongst the countries that are concerned worldwide.

Beppu: What do you think should be done to de-escalate tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia?

Tanaka: They need to find themselves in a common position. They need to find an event they can work on together. It could be a shocking event, like 9-11 that happened 15 years ago, and hope that it wouldn't take that much of a disastrous event for these two major countries to come to their senses.

Beppu: If the current turmoil in the Middle East continues to spread, what impact do you think it will have on the rest of the world?

Tanaka: If you take the Middle East, we know it's a source of energy for the world, and especially for Asia. Asia today consists of roughly 40% of the global GDP, and maybe by 2050, it could be much larger. So, without Asia, or growth in Asia, the world economy would not be able to survive or to have healthy growth. So I believe that the Middle East is vitally important for the world, as well as for Asia.