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Summer school on extremism gives insight into theory and practice

Every summer, Leiden University is the setting of dozens of summer schools in which professionals and students can receive extra training on a specific topic within a short space of time. We took a look at a summer programme on extremism. ‘A recruiter for al-Qaeda said that I could change the world.’

In a room at Campus The Hague, rock band Oasis sounds from the speakers. ‘Don’t look back in anger,’ sings Noel Gallagher in his famous nasal drone. It’s one of the songs that won the band from Manchester world fame at the end of the 1990s. It also became Manchester’s anthem after the bombing in 2017 that took 22 lives.

‘The memories come rushing back every single time,’ says Umer Khan when the song has ended. He is Chief Inspector of the Greater Manchester Police, and was serving in this role at the time of the attack. He’s standing at the front of the lecture hall and takes a moment to compose himself after the song. ‘It was the hardest month I’ve ever experienced. As a Muslim, I was angry that my religion had been hijacked by this terrorist, but as a police officer I was stronger and more steadfast than ever.’

From Jihadists to right-wing extremists

Khan is one of the speakers at the advanced summer programme in Preventing, Detecting and Responding to the Violent Extremist Threat. In this summer school, which was organised by the Leiden University Centre for Professional Learning, the participants are learning about detecting and preventing extremist violence, regardless whether this means Jihadists, right-wing extremists or separatist movements.

The around 40 participants, who have been split into two groups, listen attentively. Many of them work in security or for the government. And a surprising number come from Asian countries that often form the frontline against terrorism and fundamentalism. There is a woman who works in victim support in Indonesia, a counterterrorism expert from Bangladesh and someone from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sri Lanka.

Bart Schuurman

Enthralling

The participants know what it means to be confronted with extremism. What is more, they sometimes know first-hand how enthralling an extremist worldview can be for young people in their home countries. Extremists have a clear goal in life, can exert power and enjoy a certain status among their less radical friends. ‘I can still remember hearing an al-Qaeda propagandist speak when I was a young lad in 1996,’ says a participant from Bangladesh. ‘He said I could change the world. That was immensely appealing.’

‘One of the main questions in my field is, in fact, why many radicals don’t end up being terrorists,’ says speaker Bart Schuurman, a researcher at the Leiden University Institute of Security and Global Affairs. ‘The majority of people who want a radically different society don’t resort to weapons. What stops them from converting these ideas into violence? This information is essential when it comes to changing the minds of potential terrorists.’

Holy Grail

Schuurman doesn’t want to get his audience’s their hopes up, however: there’s still a long way to go before this Holy Grail is found – if it exists at all. What he can say is that participating in terrorism is always a process involving different factors at different levels. ‘Conversations with a member of the Hofstad terrorist group revealed, for instance, that job discrimination, group pressure and bad role models had all contributed to their involvement with extremism. External factors, group factors and individual characteristics: they all play a role.’

‘That’s what’s so great about this summer programme,’ says one participant during the coffee break. This slight woman is head of department at a security company that provides the security for organisations such as a large Dutch transport company. She’s responsible for a few hundred security guards who have to be on constant alert for possible threats. ‘In everyday life, I mainly deal with the practice, whereas this week I’m learning some of the theory, so I’m stepping outside my comfort zone.’

‘It’s exactly what we’re trying to achieve,’ says organiser Susanne Kamerling from the Centre for Professional Learning. ‘To bring research, policy and practice together so we can learn from one another and thus gain a more complete understanding, which will help us come up with better solutions.’

Main photo: memorial to the victims of the Manchester attack in 2017
Text: Merijn van Nuland
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