chaos box

Rik Coolsaet, Professor of International Relations at Ghent University and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Egmont-Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels, has just published an important and insightful paper on Belgian jihadis. It provides a comprehensive overview of jihadi scene in Belgium and, in doing so, challenges many of the myths about radicalization that I mentioned in my recent New York Times article. It is worth looking at Coolsaet’s argument in detail.

Today’s European jihadis comprise, Coolsaet argues, the fourth wave of radical Islamist fighters. In his 2008 book, Leaderless Jihad, Marc Sageman, CIA field officer-turned-academic, delineated three successive waves of jihadism beginning in the 1980s. The first wave saw the mujahedeen fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan. The second wave was made up largely elite expatriates from the Middle East who went to the West to attend universities, and then to fight in hotspots such as Bosnia, Chechnya, and Kashmir. A third wave of ‘homegrown jihadis’ emerged in the West in the wake of the Iraq War.

‘By 2008-2010’, Coolsaet argues, ‘this third wave had run its course.’ But the Syrian civil war, and emergence of Islamic State and other jihadi groups in the Levant, ‘once again reinvigorated the waning jihadi movement’, giving rise ‘to a new, fourth wave of militants and wannabe foreign fighters.’ This fourth wave, Coolsaet suggests, consists of two main types of fighters:

The first group comprises pre-existing kinship and friendship gangs. For them, joining IS is merely a shift to another form of deviant behaviour, next to membership of street gangs, rioting, drug trafficking and juvenile delinquency. But it adds a thrilling, larger-than-life dimension to their way of life – transforming them from delinquents without a future into mujahedeen with a cause.

Or, as Alain Gringard, of the anti-terrorist division of the Belgian Federal Judicial Police, put it in an interview last year, for many today, jihadism is ‘to a significant degree, an extension of the ‘inner-city’ gang phenomenon. Young Muslim men with a history of social and criminal delinquency are joining up with the Islamic State as part of a sort of “super-gang”.’

In fact, the relationship between inner city gangs and jihadism is present in pervious waves of jihadism, too, as I observed in my discussion of Mohammad Sidique Khan, the leader of the 7/7 London bombings, who was a member of gang known as the Mullah Boys in his home town of Beeston, in Leeds:

The most degraded form of tribal life is the gang. It is not surprising that, as Britain has become more tribal, so gang culture has taken over much of inner-city life. In the space between no cultures, a gang such as the Mullah Crew provided something to which to belong. Such tribalism is not confined to working class areas like Beeston. Mohamed Atta’s Hamburg Cell, the group of educated, Westernised professionals who went on to form the core of the 9/11 bombers, was as much a gang as Mohammad Sidique Khan’s Mullah Crew. Each was a self-selecting group, cut off from broader social networks, with a single figure of authority, brought together by ties of personal friendship, common activity and routine tasks, and bonded through danger and adventure.


For the Mullah Crew, as for the Hamburg Cell, Islam provided the ideas and rituals that bound its members together. What the Boys found in Islam was less a theology of faith than the sacraments of street life. Friday prayers and halal meat were to the Mullah Crew what blue bandanas and British Knight trainers are to the LA Crips. But having rejected the traditions of their parents’ Islam, the Mullah Crew had to find a new kind of Islam to which to relate. Islamism filled the gap.

The second group that make up contemporry jihadists are, Coolsaet argues, isolated individuals who, unlike gang members, are largely unknown to the police:

Before suddenly deciding to leave for Syria, the youngsters in this group showed no sign of deviant behaviour and nothing seemed to distinguish them from their peers. But frequently they refer to the absence of a future, to personal difficulties they faced in their everyday life, to feelings of exclusion and an absence of belonging, as if they didn’t have a stake in society. They are often solitary, isolated adolescents, frequently at odds with family and friends, in search of belonging and a cause to embrace. At a certain point, the accumulation of such estrangements resulted in anger.

These two groups are ‘different in background and motivations’ but ‘share common characteristics’ which ‘constitute the subculture on which IS͛ power of attraction thrives’:

‘No future’ is the essence of the youth subculture that drives the majority of Syria travellers from the West. The explanation for their decision is found not in how they think, but in how they feel. Going to Syria is an escape from an everyday life seemingly without prospects. Vulnerability, frustration, perceptions of inequity, and a feeling that by traveling to Syria they have nothing to lose and everything to gain, are common traits among both groups.

femur d'homme belge

There are, Coolsaet argues, some key differences between the current wave of jihadis and previous waves. The first is their age – contemporary jihadis are much younger than their predecessors:

The youngest Belgian who left for Syria was only 13, and 15- to 18-year-olds are common throughout in Europe. After 2001, the average age of European jihadi terrorists had been 27.7 years and the typical age range 25-35. Nowadays, even if 30+ year-olds still make up a third of the total number of Belgian foreign fighters, their average age is more likely to be close to 20, and the age range of the foreign fighters from Belgium seems to be typically 20-24.

The second difference is ‘the suddenness of their decision to leave for Syria’. This reflects the fact that contemporary jihadis rarely have a history of religious fervour or political campaigning:

Their acquaintance with religious thought is undoubtedly more shallow and superficial than their predecessors’, as is their acquaintance with international politics. Geopolitics is less important to them than it once was to their predecessors, who felt motivated by the struggle against the superpowers. Injustice was often a starting point with their predecessors’ journey towards extremism and terrorism. This has now largely been overshadowed by personal estrangement and motives as the primary engines of their journey.

It is an observation widely accepted by those who study jihadism, yet rarely acknowledged  in popular and public discourse. Religion, Coolsaet argues, ‘has systematically decreased as a driver of terrorism as the waves of foreign fighters succeed one another.’ The French sociologist Olivier Roy, one of the most perceptive observers of the European jihadi scene, similarly argues of contemporary jihadis that ‘Very few of them had a previous story of militancy, either political.. or religious’. A Europol review of Changes in modus operandi of Islamic State terrorist attacks also notes the ‘shift away from the religious component in the radicalisation of, especially, young recruits’.

Alain Grignard, of the Brussels anti-terror police, argues that

Previously we were mostly dealing with ‘radical Islamists’— individuals radicalized toward violence by an extremist interpretation of Islam— but now we’re increasingly dealing with what are best described as ‘Islamized radicals’.

It is a phrase that brings to mind Olivier Roy’s claim that what we are witnessing is ‘not the radicalization of Islam, but the Islamization of radicalism’.

Such arguments show how much the notion of ‘radicalism’ has degenerated. Where once it described a progressive political challenge to society, now it has come to mean little more than an inchoate, often criminal, hatred of society at large. But that degeneration is significant because it is against the background of the demise of old fashioned radicalism that some now look towards Islamism.

By comparing Belgian Muslims of Turkish and Moroccan backgrounds, Coolsaet notes the importance of the health of social organizations and of civil society in creating the conditions for radical Islam to flourish:

While the Belgian-Turkish community (itself no monolith) possesses a network of self-organisations, the Belgian-Moroccan community is much more fragmented and individualised, thus offering less shelter. The latter is also more concentrated in the most disadvantaged city districts. Combining all these elements, the children (and grandchildren) of the Moroccan migrants of the 1960s and 1970s are more likely to face downward mobility than their Belgian-Turkish peers. Research has made it clear that feelings of exclusion are significantly more prevalent among the Belgian-Moroccan youngsters (the same is also the case in the Netherlands)… Hence it will come as no surprise that youngsters with Moroccan roots are overrepresented in the ranks of the foreign fighters from Belgium.

The attraction of IS for such wannabe jihadis, Coolsaet suggests, lies not simply in the geographical proximity of Syria:

IS seemingly offers a future, prospects and a feeling of finally being able to take control of their destiny. It suggests to them empowerment, belonging, warm camaraderie, respect, recognition, adventure, heroism and martyrdom…


Moral absolutes have always attracted adolescents and this is also exploited by IS – not only in words and discourse, but also by acts: destroying ancient monuments and relics strongly appeals to those who want a clear and absolute break with all things past, in order to create a brand-new world imagined as a recovered, righteous caliphate… It offers, for those who join in, power over others, and even a license for viciousness in the name of a higher goal.’

What we might find most repulsive about IS – its brutality, inhumanity, disregard for basic moral norms – are paradoxically that which attracts many European jihadis.


Coolsaet is particularly critical of current ideas of ‘radicalization’ which, he suggests, provide little help in understanding jihadism:

From its inception, the very notion of ‘radicalisation’ was an oversimplification of an extremely complex phenomenon, but also a source of ambiguity and confusion…


The concept of radicalisation in relation to terrorism has no longstanding scientific pedigree. It is a political construct that originated within European police and intelligence circles shortly after the 9/11 attacks and appeared for the first time in EU counterterrorism in May 2004… The attacks in Madrid two months before and in London in July 2005 pushed the concept to centre stage in EU counterterrorism thinking and policies. Untangling the process through which a person turned from their ‘normal’ status into a terrorist became the core of radicalisation studies and the holy grail of European (and later, worldwide) counterterrorism efforts.


But ‘radicalisation’ soon evolved into a catch-all concept, framed almost exclusively in religious terms… Many different expressions of an individual’s ideas and behaviour were being labelled as signs of radicalisation, and these ranged from the increased presence of girls and women wearing the hijab, men dressed in Salafi trousers, orthodox preachers, and the terrorists themselves. Putting these disparate signs together into a box labelled ‘indicators of radicalisation’ emptied the word of all explanatory meaning, turning it into a container concept.

Hence, in his concluding policy recommendations, Coolsaet suggests the importance of ‘reframing the debate’:

The explanation for the behaviour of (candidate) foreign fighters ‘is found not in how they think, but rather in how they feel.’ Religion is not of the essence. Personal motives are, in a complex interplay between individual pathways and context. Unless we understand how these motivations derive from a ‘no future’ subculture and not simply from a narrative, prevention will fail.

Second he argues that counter-radicalisation programmes must ‘focus on tailor-made approaches. One-size-fits-all overall deradicalisation initiatives, e.g., counter-narrative spots on television, will be of marginal use.’

Finally, he warns against getting ‘terrorised by terrorists’:

Terrorism is all about the psychological and political impact attacks seek to provoke. Knee-jerk reactions overinflate the threat and misjudge the origins of the fourth foreign fighters wave, thus risking an unravelling of the social fabric of our society, which is precisely the goal jihadi groups have been pursuing all along.

One does not have to accept all of Coolsaet’s arguments. But the importance of  ‘reframing’ the discussion, as he and Olivier Roy and many others suggest, cannot be overstated. Unless we do so, we will find little success in challenging European jihadism.


The artworks are all by Belgian artists; from top down: Arne Quinze’s ‘Chaos Box’; Marcel Broodthaers’ ‘Fémur d’Homme Belge’; and Walter LeBlanc’s Torsion.


  1. timanfire

    In this context what is your opinion of Mark Curtis’s Secret Affairs thesis, George Crile’s My Enemy’s Enemy arguments and Adam Curtis’s Bitter Lake scenario – that many of these ‘waves’ have been the direct product blow-back of anti-communist and imperialist adventures and by analogy they cannot be countered effectively without a rigourous telling of the last fifty/sixty years history of active organised anti-communism and anti-insurgency disasters including Indonesia, Iran and others … ?

    • The roots of the emergence of radical Islam are complex. Clearly Western interference, and anti-communist paranoia, have played a role, but it is only one strand of the story, and the relationship is not straightforward. For instance, the CIA-inspired 1953 coup that overthrew the democratically-elected government of Mohammed Mosaddeq in Iran led eventually to the 1979 Revolution that toppled the US-backed Shah. But many groups – from Islamist to communist – took part in the revolution; the success of Khomeini’s forces was not given simply by Western intervention but relates to many other factors in Iranian society.

  2. Dr Paul

    I think that the way that quite a few jihadis of the fourth draft come from a lumpen criminal background is just one example of the phenomenon that not a few criminals adopt a religion whilst in prison. It is not so much the case that ‘joining IS is merely a shift to another form of deviant behaviour’; not unlike, say, the drug-dealer who becomes a born-again Christian and puts his criminal life behind him, becoming a jihadi is a way of someone trying to escape that lumpen criminal life, trying to make something of himself. Being a jihadi in ISIS-land isn’t marauding around a Stepney housing estate flogging drugs and duffing up rival gangs writ large; it’s about striving to change one’s life, giving meaning to an otherwise meaningless life of petty and perhaps not so petty crime.

    We would all agree that what ISIS members do is obnoxious and inhumane. But there’s a big and crucial difference: now they have a vision, a cause, however dreadful it is to us and especially to those who happen to find themselves in their way. Let us not confuse the underlying driving forces behind what they did in Bethnal Green and now do in Syria and Iraq. The question that has to be asked is why do these young men find so little to look to in today’s world, so little in the way of positive influences; why their attempt to break from their dead-end lifestyle cannot find a forward-looking or at least a reasonably humane vision and instead adopts a particularly malignant, backward-looking form of chiliastic religious belief that results in their committing crimes far worse than they would were they to have stayed rooted in an East London estate.

  3. Judy Brown

    Beings to mind this piece by Phillip Zimbardo written after Heaven’s Gate mass suicides in the US: “No one ever joins a “cult.” People join interesting groups that promise to fulfill their pressing needs. They become “cults” when they are seen as deceptive, defective, dangerous, or as opposing basic values of their society.

    Cults represent each society’s “default values,” filling in its missing functions. The cult epidemic is diagnostic of where and how society is failing its citizens.

    If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. As basic human values are being strained, distorted and lost in our rapidly evolving culture, illusions and promissory notes are too readily believed and bought–without reality validation or credit checks.

    Whatever any member of a cult has done, you and I could be recruited or seduced into doing–under the right or wrong conditions. The majority of “normal, average, intelligent” individuals can be led to engage in immoral, illegal, irrational, aggressive and self destructive actions that are contrary to their values or personality–when manipulated situational conditions exert their power over individual dispositions”

    More here:

  4. De Te Fabula Narratur

    The most degraded form of tribal life is the gang. It is not surprising that, as Britain has become more tribal, so gang culture has taken over much of inner-city life.

    How can Britain have become more tribal when it has been enriched by so many people from the individualist, Enlightenment-worshipping cultures of the Third World? There must have been a white racist backlash. Ach, we’ll just have to open the borders even wider.

  5. El_Mocho

    Why are muslim youths so much more easily estranged than other migrant groups? Black youths are surely more frequently victims of racism, but I never heard of any black terrorists trying to kill white people.

    • There are, of course, black Muslims. ‘Black’ is an ethnic or racial label. ‘Muslim’ is an identity rooted in a religion. Islam provides for an identity distinct from others in a number of ways. Like all religions, Islam provides divine justification for one’s actions, including the most inhuman ones. As a global religion Islamist identity is both intensely parochial and seemingly universal, linking Muslims to struggles across the world, and providing the illusion of being part of a global movement. Islam is important in understanding jihadism. But the relationship is not how ‘radicalization’ theory often conceives of it.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: