Prof. Lombardi: “The violent behaviours of radicalisation do not respect borders”

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An interview with professor Marco Lombardi, Director of the ITSTIME Research Centre at the Department of Sociology of the Catholic University of Sacred Heart (UCSC) in Milan, Italy, published in CounteR newsletter #1.

Professor Lombardi, you are the Director of a unique research centre: ITSTIME, which stands for “The Italian Team for Security, Terrorist Issues and Managing Emergencies”. What types of research does your Centre conduct?

The team is composed of experts from different fields and competencies: so, we value the multi-disciplinary aspect and cross-fertilisation as important tools for our work.
Our approach allows us to develop and conduct research focused on security issues from different perspectives, addressing both theoretically and empirically the new challenges in the new hybrid war domain. ITSTIME’s analyses on terrorism are based on three main assumptions: first, “think terrorist”: based on Weber’s emphatic sociology, the group’s motto stands at the base of its analytical approach when dealing with daily-collected primary sources. These sources are processed according to two main drivers: their communication value and the networks that stand behind them. Second, “terrorism is communication”: the main difference between a terrorist and a criminal is that the latter seeks a symbolic acknowledgment of his action. This means that he is aware of the media system where he proposes himself as the main character. Since terrorism is a “communication phenomenon” where terrorists seek out and manage communication, it is, therefore, imperative to analyse its communication through media research tools. Third, “terrorism networks”: both online and offline terrorism takes its nourishment from networks. They are essential for their permanence and for the threat’s reiteration. Their identification allows connecting dots, highlighting the relationship between different actions and actors, and thus giving them the possibility to draw accurate risk scenarios. For that reason, ITSTIME works on the “double” empirical field: online, exploring actively chats and online communities; and offline, with missions from Syria to Somalia, from Afghanistan to Libya… Our Centre also coordinates a scientific journal and has a Facebook page.

Is there sufficient understanding in today’s Europe about the social and psychological factors in the radicalisation process?

The knowledge of phenomena that change so quickly, and that know how to adapt quickly to exploit the vulnerabilities of the situation, is never enough. Precisely because of this capacity for change and adaptation, there also exist phenomena that are difficult to understand. In addition, with CounteR, we are trying to explain the social and psychological factors that characterise complex phenomena of which the observable data is only the result of the interweaving of these factors, which are concurring and difficult to observe individually. Still, I am optimistic, especially because, having now participated in several European projects on this issue, I realised that the partner LEAs have now developed knowledge and skills that allow us to collaborate effectively, we academics and researchers with their institutions of control of the territory. Now we manage to speak almost the same language, and this is the basis for understanding the phenomena on which we work together.

What are the key social and psychological factors and risks that influence the potential incubators of radicalization?

Just to give you an idea: only from the analysis of the main Terrorism Risk Assessment Instruments, the socio-team I lead and the psycho-team led by prof. Carlo Galimberti identified over 300 indicators that we have associated with some macro areas: Health, Mental Health and Addictions; Networking relations; Religion and Ideology; Family Background; Criminal attitudes; Socio-Demographic Variables; Education and Career; Military, Paramilitary, Foreign Fighting Experience; and Radicalisation in general. The number of indicators is increasing and the dimensions in which we organised them help us to identify the characteristics of those ecosystems that we could define as incubators of radicalisation. These factors will be shared with the publication of the first two project deliverables, for which we are responsible.

What are the most recent trends that impact the radicalisation of communities offline and online in Europe today?

Undoubtedly in this last year, COVID has been an important impact factor also on the radicalisation processes. The pandemic has not proposed significant surprises (I mean novelties) but has behaved as any other crisis: COVID accelerated processes that were already underway. As a result, previously-detected trends have been confirmed and, indeed, accelerated. But above all, a climate of generalised violence has served as pervasive cultural support and substratum to the processes of radicalisation with the result of speeding up the path that leads from adherence to a radical idea to its manifestation with violent behaviour.

How do you see the current developments in Europe regarding the vulnerabilities of communities and individuals to radicalisation?

As I anticipated, the pandemic has accelerated ongoing processes but has also increased inequalities at every level: the vulnerabilities that characterise individuals (micro), groups (meso), and communities/societies (macro) have become the wide-open gateway to propaganda activities that offer the easy solution to needs. In this way, the underlying causes of the radicalisation process have easily spread and, above all, have multiplied: today they are less significantly related to a single and strong identification of the subject with a single strong idea (be it religious or ideological): there is a greater correlation between a significant number of “single weak signals” that make preventive action much more difficult. Finally, we add that the time for prevention has been reduced a lot: as I anticipated, the pandemic is an accelerator of processes and, therefore, much more quickly than in the past the “practical moment of violent action” is close to the idea that generates it.


What would be your explanation in easy-to-understand terms to the most typical radicalisation strategies, used to penetrate vulnerable communities?

We can imagine that radicalisation is the conclusion of a sales process! In short: those who become radicalised express a need that is satisfied by buying “a good” from those who offer it. Obviously, in this case, it is a need and an intangible good: perhaps affections and emotions that refer to the psychological sphere, and also identity and belonging to the socio-psychological sphere, and then communication and social relationships. To counter this process, it is necessary to intercept the communicative relationship with the seller of the solution of the need. Or, to eradicate the causes of the need, other forms of response must be offered. Told in this way it is quite simple but obviously, everything is much more complicated because nothing of this sale is in the light of the sun and also because, unfortunately, at this moment the unresolved needs, the causes of radicalisation, have multiplied.

Prevention of incidents is a common theme in many media articles that cover the issue of radicalisation. Is there one single “recipe” for effective prevention?

There is no recipe (not even a magic potion) for any prevention strategy. Nor is there a recipe for preventing radicalisation. Like any action that takes place in a real situation, within a complex ecosystem that is constantly changing, the strategy must be adaptive. But there is a methodology that can be shared: on the other hand, this is the reason for projects like CounteR. And everyone must take a common perspective that must be transnational, continental, and European: the violent behaviours of radicalisation do not respect borders. In this case, it is we who must learn to look beyond, as terrorism already did…
How can research help law enforcement agencies to employ counter-narratives to extremist propaganda and manipulation, rather than relying solely on surveillance?
Passive surveillance of networked relationships has been a recurring feature of the activities of all LEAs and is no longer satisfactory. Moving to a strategic online strategy means, after all, moving from Human Intelligence (Humint) to the activity that ITSTIME has defined as Digital Humint. However, an active strategy implies both a different set of rules for LEAs and the assumption of new skills that can stir some concern in terms of novelty, especially the so-called soft skills. It is in this field that a negotiated alliance between academia and LEAs is needed.

How will ITSTIME’s research effort strengthen the capacity of CounteR’s technological tool for analysing information, related to expressions of extreme views and support to violent activity?

The task of our team is to highlight the signals (even weak) that show the positioning of an actor along the path of radicalisation. Fortunately, we can make use of scientific literature that in recent years has often focused on this process, to which is added our experience in other European research projects and then the analysis of TRA-I, Terrorism Risk Assessment Instruments. The latter are important because they offer an operationalisation of sociological and psychological concepts. Our work is therefore to use both the theoretical tools and the most operational ones to offer an effective synthesis of the most significant factors to be identified through the technologies that will be developed during the project.

For you, what is the unique value that CounteR adds to the Centre’s portfolio?

Scientific knowledge is cumulative: institutions often forget this and do not sufficiently consider the importance of the lesson learned from events that have anticipated aspects of the phenomenon that is being studied now. CounteR comes after a series of projects that have already studied the process of radicalisation and, from these first months of work, it seems clear that the partners have learned from the past. So, CounteR can only add something more. CounteR’s perspective is to overcome the already experienced counter-narratives and alternative narratives to consider a complex ecosystem of communications that always simultaneously implies online and offline relational paths.

Prof. Marco Lombardi

Marco Lombardi is the Director of the ITSTIME Research Centre at the Department of Sociology of the Catholic University of Sacred Heart (UCSC) in Milan, Italy. He is the Director of the Department of Sociology and of the School of Journalism. Professor Lombardi teaches Crisis management and Risk Communication, Mass Communication theory, Sociology, Intelligence, and Counter Terrorism. He has extensive experience in managing EU-funded research projects and cooperates with different institutional agencies in the domain of security, both at the national and the international levels.

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