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The Quiet Path to Terror

In a Europe-wide project, developmental psychologist Herbert Scheithauer studies why young people become radicalized – and what can be done about it.

Mar 20, 2018

Mourning for the victims: On December 19, 2016, the Tunisian Anis Amri drove a truck into a booth alley of the Christmas market at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. Twelve people lost their lives, and 55 were injured.

Mourning for the victims: On December 19, 2016, the Tunisian Anis Amri drove a truck into a booth alley of the Christmas market at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. Twelve people lost their lives, and 55 were injured.
Image Credit: Wikicommons, Udo Röbenack, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

What has to happen in a young person’s life for him or her to travel to Syria and join a terrorist group?

What motivations are behind it when people allow themselves to be captivated by preachers of hate and get carried away to the point of violence? How can people tell that young people are becoming radicalized? And how should people take action in time to keep things from getting worse?

These questions lie at the heart of MINDb4ACT, an interdisciplinary research project that has received funding from the European Union for three years. The abbreviation stands for the project’s full title, “Mapping, IdentifyiNg and Developing skills and opportunities in operating environments to co-create innovative, ethical and effective ACTions to tackle radicalization leading to violent extremism.”

Professor Herbert Scheithauer is in charge of the subproject based at the Division of Developmental Science and Applied Developmental Psychology at Freie Universität; the full research alliance, in which 18 partners from ten European countries are participating, is headed by the Elcano Royal Institute in Madrid.

Based on his earlier studies of serious targeted acts of violence in schools – school shootings – Scheithauer aims in particular to study possible ways to prevent the radicalization of youth. He believes school shooters and those who commit terrorist acts have a great deal in common. “If we look at these acts in Germany, we can see that in a number of cases of terrorist violence, there were developments before the act that were similar to those we see in school shooters,” he says.

Scheithauer has already performed detailed studies of schools, in the process developing a preventive program for early identification of young people who are at greater risk of committing a serious act of violence at school. “In the context of school shootings, we have set up the ‘Netwass’ program and established in-school networks geared toward at-risk students. We want to develop a similar program for radicalized youth,” he explains.

But what signs are there? What signals do radicalized young people who are willing to commit violence send out? Scheithauer has an initial hypothesis: “There are a couple of criteria that send up a red flag. These students will often tell others about fantasies of violence, or they feel marginalized. Their behavior might change: They dress differently or get interested in weapons, and some also show signs of depression. There are a lot of signs that precede one of these acts.”

If these signs are identified early on, Scheithauer says, it is possible to keep that person from becoming violent. Radicalization is generally not preceded by years of political considerations; in many cases, vulnerability and a feeling of being excluded are the crucial factors. “In many cases, there isn’t any extensive preoccupation with religious subjects, either. It’s more about subjective motivations. Young people who are willing to commit violence feel that they have been pushed aside or marginalized, for example – that they have been treated unfairly. That’s fertile ground for a crisis to develop.”

Existing approaches to early detection are often limited to a specific national scope, so they make it harder to deal with this serious problem, which is frequently an international one, Scheithauer says. With this in mind, the research alliance plans to systematically examine the existing knowledge, consider de-radicalization strategies, and establish and promote interdisciplinary, international cooperation.

Finally, there are plans to test whether the preventive system works in practice. The full research alliance has a budget of three million euros available to it for the next three years.

There are still a few pitfalls that will need to be overcome, Scheithauer explains. One obstacle to the development of a prevention program, for example, is the fact that the paths toward radicalization are changing – through the influence of new media, for example, or based on current geopolitical events.

Still, Scheithauer is confident that there is a great need for prevention programs, especially in the school setting, and that all that is lacking now is reliable studies. That’s exactly what the project aims to change.

Further Information

Prof. Dr. Herbert Scheithauer, Professor of Developmental Psychology and Clinical Psychology, Department of Education and Psychology, Freie Universität Berlin, Tel.: +49 30 838 565 46, Email: herbert.scheithauer(at)fu-berlin.de