A Comprehensive Strategy For Countering-Radicalization

-Abhinav Pandya


In my previous essay titled, “Understanding Radicalization in India”, I had discussed the contours of radicalization in India with a specific reference to Islamic extremism. The essay did not venture into the epistemology of radicalization in general but for the policy purposes defined Islamic extremism/Islamic radicalization as “a process where a text like the Quran is interpreted in a literal sense resulting in an exclusivist, hateful and intolerant mindset toward non-Muslims and those Muslims who do not subscribe to the literal interpretation of the text. Radicalization is a phenomenon which has a strong likelihood of transforming into violent extremism (read jihadi terrorism in this essay). And, radicalization prepares a fertile ground for producing extremists. Radicalization is a priori, while terrorist activity is a posteriori”.  Even in this essay, the author prefers not to venture into the highly detailed analysis of the epistemology of radicalization as it is the domain which still has no consensus on the most primary issues such as the universally accepted definitions of radicalization. However, a brief overview of the nature, causes and congenial factors of radicalization is given below for the purpose of a general understanding. In the light of contours of radicalization in India, outlined in my previous essay, I would recommend a concrete and actionable counter-radicalization and de-radicalization strategy.

To organize and execute a terrorist attack, the terrorists need recruits, supporters, funds, weapons, ability to travel unimpeded, other kinds of logistical and material support and the reach to the vulnerable targets. Hence, an effective counterterrorism strategy needs to be multifaceted involving a wide range of policies and measures. In a multi-faceted counterterrorism strategy, counter-radicalization and de-radicalization are the pillars of the overall strategy because radicalization prepares the ideological, social and cultural base for the use of terror as a weapon by a terrorist organization. All the above-mentioned requirements in executing a terrorist attack need a fertile ground and that is prepared by radicalizing a society.

The measures to address conditions conducive to terrorism are one of the three main pillars of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (chapter 2, Preventing Terrorism, key concepts). Radicalized socio-cultural set-up furnishes the ready supply of recruits for all the tasks involved in the execution of a terror attack.  Hence, radicalization is one of the most basic conditions that are conducive to the spread of terrorism. The UN Security Council resolution 1373 (2001) (chapter 2, Preventing Terrorism, key concepts) also imposes legally binding obligations on all states to suppress the recruitment of the members of terrorist groups.

Terrorist radicalization is a process whereby a person accepts the legitimacy of terrorist violence as the right and the justified course of action for achieving the desired objective. Ultimately, this may lead a person, but not necessarily, to indulge in or support an act of terrorism. Terrorist radicalization happens in a variety of circumstances in different ways and at different speeds. There are different permutations and combinations of an enabling environment with the personal circumstances and the psychology of a given man or woman. The Organization for Security and Cooperation of Europe’s (OSCE) working paper on the community-police approach to address radicalization states that, “There is no single profile of a terrorist, no clear-cut pathway towards terrorism. Possible drivers of terrorist radicalization are varied and complex and combine in a unique way in each case.” Geographical, political, demographic, social and cultural contexts are major determining factors in the process of radicalization.  For example, the speed, intensity and the rigor of radicalization in Pakistan will be very different from that in Indonesia and India because of the differences in the political, cultural and social set-up.

Terrorist radicalization is an ongoing and evolving process of interaction between several individuals and external influences like terrorist propagandists and recruiters, larger developments in society and the actions of public authorities. A charismatic recruiter may be a “pull factor”, pulling an individual down the path of radicalization whereas the experience of trauma, search for identity and experience violence at the hands of state agents may be “push factors”. The UN and OSCE list of conditions conducive to terrorism include, “prolonged unresolved conflicts, dehumanization of victims of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, lack of rule of law, violations of human rights, ethnic, national and religious discrimination and lack of good governance”.

Besides the structural factors like socio-economic and political conditions like deprivation, human rights violation, poverty and the lack of education there are myriad psychological, ideological and interpersonal factors which go a long way in explaining the radicalization. Psychological and cognitive factors, such as one’s self-image, a sense of identity and belonging, expectations, beliefs and attitudes, trauma and negative feelings of displacement can have a major impact on how a person responds to external stimuli. For example, Prof. Olivier Roy found in his research that in France second-generation Muslims of migrants from Morocco and Algeria joined jihadi terrorism because they could not integrate well into the French society. They faced discrimination in employment and education. The state of joblessness, failed relationships pushed them towards drugs, alcoholism and other forms of substance abuse. In such a state of vulnerability, they were desperately searching for an identity, meaning, a purpose and an anchorage. Jihad gave them a purpose and a meaning of life.

The spread of, and exposure to, ideas and narratives that legitimize terrorism and cultivate its appeal are critical pull factors. Many terrorists/ violent extremists skillfully tailor and disseminate their message in such a manner that will reach and appeal the particular individual or group targeted for radicalization and recruitment. There are different approaches that can be used to legitimize and enhance the appeal of terrorism, including:

1)      The rationale that the ends justify the means, arguing that violence is an essential necessity in the pursuit of imperative social, ideological, political or other goals and that there is no alternative;

2)     Demeaning intended victims on the basis of intolerance, hate, and denial of universal human dignity;

3)     Projecting terrorism as something exciting, alternative or antiestablishment; and

4)      Building on the charisma and/or perceived legitimacy of terrorists and, in particular, their leaders


Social interactions, interpersonal relationships, and group dynamics act as the major pull factors, except in instances of self-initiated radicalization. People are drawn to Violent Extremism and Radicalization Leading to Terrorism (VERLT) through their personal acquaintances – peers and relatives. In many cases, they are sought out by terrorist recruiters. Terrorist recruiters identify, prey on and nurture vulnerable men and women, gain a control on them by providing material and/or psychological support, and misuse their trust to manipulate them or indoctrinate them into becoming involved with terrorism. Sometimes the social milieu makes the task of such recruiters very easy. For example, in a society like Palestine, there appears a social acceptance and an unsaid consensus of terrorism as a weapon and a strategy. Terrorist propagandists have an easy access to recruits. In Pakistan, fanatic schools of Islam like Deobandism and Wahabism have become so deeply entrenched that it is very easy to recruit the cadres for a terrorist organization, including suicide bombers. On top of it, the proxy war with India makes terrorism the most lucrative business and an appealing career fetching pecuniary benefits and social prestige.

In the section above, this analyst discussed the concept of radicalization at length to facilitate a better understanding of and the rationale behind the different measures suggested in the following section.  However, in the analysis above radicalization has been discussed as a general concept. The purpose of this essay is to explore the right set of counter-radicalization strategies for addressing the challenge of Islamic extremism in India.

The ideology of Jihad will continue to torment the humanity for at least another decade. Fundamentalist Islamic ideologies are at a cross with the Westphalian international order whose basic entity is a nation-state. The treaty of Serves (1919) dismantled the Islamic idea of the political system in the Middle East and since then Jihadism in one form or the other has strived to go back to the political system of the caliphate, with the caliphate existent in 7th century Arabia as the most authentic and pure ideal.  Major world powers have failed to act in a concerted manner in the Middle East so the jihad will continue to spread. And, then there is a template. Jihadis from Afghanistan spread across the globe and, now Jihadis from Syria will do the same in different parts of the world.

India will continue to face Jihad because it is backed by Pakistan where jihadi groups are gradually becoming the part of the state like Hamas and Hezbollah. Further, India is facing a refugee influx from Bangladesh where Jihadism is emerging as a prominent force. Furthermore, there is an intense wave of Wahhabi and Deobandi radicalization sweeping across the country.  In part 1 of this essay, this analyst had discussed the roots, reach, access and the spread of various fanatic Islamic groups and their ideologies such as Wahhabism and Deobandism. In the backdrop of that analysis, this paper recommends the following set of measures to address the challenge of radicalization in India-

1)     Counter-radicalization Step 1: Correct Diagnosis-

The first measure is to diagnose the problem correctly. It is often argued that if radicalization does not lead to violence, it is not dangerous. It is a faulty understanding. Unless we shed our political correctness and recognize that the ideologies like Wahabiism, deobandism, and Salafism are potentially dangerous with their notions like Takfiri and Jihadism. The roots of the problem lie in these ideologies. The group may be peaceful in its activities but the ideology and the message it stands for are violent. For example, Deobandis believe that the first loyalty of a Muslim is towards Islam, not any nation-state. In the first part of this essay, “Understanding Radicalization in India” and in my essay, “Post ISIS-The Future of Global Jihad”, I have discussed and critically analyzed the pernicious effects of such exclusivist ideologies thriving on hatred so I will not delve deeper into them in this essay. Please refer to the two above-mentioned essays to learn more the ideological aspects of Islamic extremism in detail. But it is worth mentioning that the seemingly peaceful publisher like Urdu Weekly Nai Duniya is publishing an Urdu book “Aur Talvaar Toot Gayi” (and the sword broke) by Nasim Rizwi, which cultivates jihadi extremism among Indian Muslims. Urdu dailies such as Roznama Sangam of Patna and Roznama Sahafat and Rozanama Inqilaab of Delhi ran articles eulogizing Ghazwa-e-Badr, Prophet Muhammad’s first against infidels.  Hafiz Said’s Lashkar is a social service and charity organization in public domain but the ideology which it subscribes is the reactor of terrorism.

It has to be admitted that the justification of Islamic extremism and terrorism emanates from the concept of Jihad and other justifications illustrated in Quran. The conducive conditions like humiliation, violation of human rights, injustice and deprivation exist in some form of the other, everywhere. They provide the fertile ground to jihad propagandists and recruiters enabling them to push individuals into the fold of terrorism.  But in course time, their material and secular grievances take the back seat and the violent ideology of jihad takes up the front seat.  For example, in Kashmir now the radical ideologies like Wahhabism is the main mobilizer, unifier and inspirer for violence, rather than earlier notions such as the lack of the right to self-determination. In the case of Palestine also, the secular motivations are shrinking, leaving the space to be occupied by the religious doctrine of jihad.

Kashmiri pundits were ousted from Kashmir and they faced all kinds of violence and atrocities but they did not turn to terrorism because there was no supporting ideology of Jihad providing that religious infrastructure for the political violence. Further, if political violence emanates from purely secular reasons then it has spatial and temporal limits. Christians from India will not go to fight for Irish Republican Army or Hindus from north India never went to fight alongside LTTE, the later including a lot of Hindus. But if Iran funds Hizbollah and Hamas then there has to be a religious reason for that. Initially, the jihadi ideology is a unifier, a mobilizer providing justification, pyscho-spiritual and moral strength for violence but in course of time it becomes the most powerful motivating factor. And, the ideology in itself is also powerful enough to radicalize. For example, perpetrators of 9/11 and Gulshan area attack in Bangladesh were all educated individuals from upper middle class families. And, ISIS has made the Jihad religious in its absolute sense (refer to my essay “Post ISIS-The Future of Global Jihad” and “What ISIS Really Wants?” by Graeme Wood).

Therefore it hardly makes sense to call it violent extremism. Unless we take the problem head-on by first, shedding our cloak of political correctness and second, by addressing it as jihadi extremism- its most original an authentic form, we cannot have the effective strategy to combat terrorism at its roots i.e. the ideology. Once we recognize Jihadi extremism as a crucial motivation, we can think of devising a strategy to combat its vehicles such as Wahhabism and Salafism.


2)    Counter-Radicalization: Step 2- Counter-Narrative

There is a strong need to develop a counter-narrative by strengthening the Indian variants of Islam like Barelwism and Sufi Islam. In India, the young generation among Muslims is falling prey to fundamentalist ideologies of foreign and domestic origins whereas the older generation is firmly rooted in the Sufi Islam of India. The state has to strengthen the counter-narrative to fanatical ideologies by strengthening Sufi-Barelwi strands. The Civil Society, media, educational institutions and the private sector should also be actively involved in this initiative. It has been observed and even advocated in some intellectual and public policy circles that if violence is not accompanying an ideology, it can be co-opted even with its extremism. I would like to emphasize that an effective counter-terrorism strategy must begin with zero tolerance to any kind of extremism. In this backdrop, Wahabi/Salafi/Deobandi ideologues such as Zakir Naik must not be tolerated at all just because they command the obedience of a large Muslim population. We have to get our basics right- zero tolerance means zero tolerance. Deobandi madrasa may not be teaching anything overtly anti-national. However, the very notion that a true Muslim has his or her primary loyalty towards Ummah first is in itself divisive and exclusivist in nature with all the potential to unleash a terrorist violence. Further, even the Barelwi and Sufi stands are not totally immune to extremism. It must be mentioned that the supporters of Mumtaz Qadri who murdered Salman Taseer, Punjab’s governor were all from the Barelwi faction and lately, in Pakistan Barelwi faction has become very rigid in the matters of blasphemy.  It becomes necessary to tolerate a smaller degree of fanaticism vis-à-vis greater degree but then the state has to set-up rational limits of tolerating the minor dosage of extremism as s strategy to counter the larger menace.

PM Modi has made a great beginning with presiding over a Sufi conference in Delhi. The presence of the Prime Minister of India is highly symbolic of what narrative the state wants to project. Further, it also lends support, confidence and strong psychological strength to those Muslims who are putting up a great fight against extremist ideologies in the midst of highly adverse circumstances marked by rising Hindu extremism and the fast-spreading appeal of global jihad.

Further, terrorist organizations like Al Qaida, thrive on the narrative of “Islam in danger”. Strategically, this narrative is projected across the Muslim societies. Media, social media, and the academia must challenge this narrative tooth and nail. They must show the persecutions of Christians in Nigeria and Sudan. They must show the persecution and forced conversions of Hindus, Christians, Ahmadiyyas, and Shias in Pakistan. The message that needs to be projected is that persecution because of one’s religious identity is not uncommon, but it is not something combined to Muslims only. Even the non-Muslims are facing that in predominantly Muslim societies. However, here it deserves a mention that in Quran the non-Muslims are addressed as “dhimmis” and it is religiously sanctioned to levy Jizyah tax from them. This doctrine could easily be used as a shield by terrorist organizations to justify their persecution of non-Muslims. Nevertheless, the message will inevitably have its appeal with rational and sensible minds. Further, the narrative should also bring forth that Muslims are serving in powerful administrative positions and they enjoy political and economic clout. Dowoodi Bohras Muslims have a predominant presence in the economy of Mumbai and Chiliya Muslims are an economically powerful Muslim group in Gujarat.


3)    Learning From Singapore- Singapore is also a multicultural, multiracial, multi-religious and multi-ethnic society like India. Singapore’s efforts in counter-terrorism have been quite successful especially in building social resilience against terrorism. Therefore, it can be a good model in devising our counterterrorism strategy. The idea is to build a safety net in the peacetime through building trust, relations, and confidence between the different communities. Inter-Faith Dialogue Circles can be created in each district and Harmony circles can be constituted in schools, workplaces and in local organizations. At the national level, a National Resilience/Harmony Council can be created to guide the activities of the abovementioned bodies. Community engagement forums at sub-districts levels can be very effective in enhancing the psychological and social resilience of communities against terrorism. A proactive approach is needed in the outreach activities with migrant Indian workers who work in the Middle East. For working with the radicalized detainees, Religious Rehabilitation Councils including moderate Islamic scholars can be constituted. They can provide the counter to the religious arguments of the radicalized detainees. These moderate scholars can be an instrumental force in organizing psychological and information operations in the overall counterterrorism strategy[1].

In addition to building social resilience through abovementioned measures, National Integration Policy also needs to be devised. It can be done by free education, medical help and other forms of development aid to all BPL families irrespective of caste and religion. Such a policy will lessen the caste and religion frictions and extremist ideologies will not have a leeway in leveraging India’s social fault lines to their advantage.

4)    Education– India is home to world’s fastest and largest growing adolescent population with 35% (358 million) of its population being in the 10-24 age group[2]. The youth of India which is respectably addressed as the demographic dividend can be a great asset if its strength is harnessed in a constructive manner. And, if there are is no program, vision and course of action to transform India’s youth into assets then it has all the potential to become our greatest liability. While we talk of radicalization, the youth has to be the primary focus of our strategy as it has been observed that it’s the young generation which is coming under the sway of extremist ideologies and is being injected with the venom of hatred. Hence, we need right kind of interventions in education to prepare a youth with a healthy mindset.  The objective is to cultivate scientific temper, critical reasoning and the spirit of inquiry among the youth. For this, the beginning point should be in the schools. The teaching in western and Indian philosophy, social and political philosophy, classics and comparative religions can be immensely helpful in nurturing an aware and a rational mind. Along with this, the students must be encouraged to do yoga/meditation, physical exercises, and sports which will equip them with sound physical and mental health and confidence.

5)    Sex education with an open-minded and rational approach will also be very helpful in generating healthy, constructive and confident, minds. In the sex education, we should venture beyond biology and delve into the psychological and spiritual aspects of healthy sexual relations. And, in our academic institutions, workplaces and in the over-all socio-cultural set-up there is a need to build healthy, open, satisfying and fulfilling gender relations.  A mind free of complexes and frustrations is strong and less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies, drugs and any alternate vision of life which is detrimental to the individual and the general interests of the human society.

Continued in the next essay…………



[1] https://ctc.usma.edu/singapores-approach-to-counterterrorism/

[2] https://everylifecounts.ndtv.com/understanding-adolescence-in-india-616


The views expressed are authors own views and does not reflect of the organization


AUTHOR: Abhinav Pandya
Abhinav Pandya is a policy analyst who specializes in counterterrorism, Indian foreign policy and Af-Pak geopolitics. A graduate in public affairs from Cornell University, he has more more than seven years of experience in public policy, counterterrorism, electoral politics and the development sector in India and the US. Pandya has worked as a member of the United Nations’ (UN) national level specialist team to review the flagship employment guarantee scheme of India. He regularly writes for the Huffington Post, Fair Observer, Indian Military Review and Vivekananda Foundation, India’s premier think tank, on security affairs and diplomacy. He has also written an evaluation paper on the counterterrorism committee of the UN. Pandya is currently a consultant with Vidya Bhawan, Udaipur.