The Edge of Violence


On Thursday, March 25, 2010, The George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute (HSPI) hosted a Policy & Research Forum examining the relationship between violent and non-violent extremism. Jamie Bartlett, Head of the Extremism and Violence programme and Senior Researcher at the British think tank Demos, and Jonathan Birdwell, Demos Researcher, presented the findings of their two-year project titled “The Edge of Violence.” Their report analyzes the relationships that exist between violent and non-violent extremists in the UK, France, Denmark, The Netherlands, and Canada. Frank Cilluffo, HSPI’s Director, moderated this event which brought together academics, policymakers, and counterterrorism practitioners.

Bartlett and Birdwell’s work examines the attitudes held by two groups: Islamist radicals; and convicted al-Qaeda inspired terrorists. The goal was to differentiate between radicalization processes that lead to violence and those that do not. At the outset of the Forum, Bartlett noted that because the process is a complex one, their work was intended to be illustrative not predictive.

Through interviews with Muslim subjects, Bartlett and Birdwell identified characteristics shared by radicals and terrorists – as well as characteristics that distinguished each of them. The authors noted that each group experienced social exclusion and a feeling of disenfranchisement from the community in which they lived. Radicals, however, were more likely to have engaged in political protests, studied at a university, been employed, and to recognize the limits of their own religious understanding. Bartlett stated that radicals were more likely to rely on a variety of religious resources and often read religious texts more comprehensively than terrorists. By comparison, those who become violent tend to display simpler conceptualizations of Islam relying on key ideas such as a discriminatory approach to non-Muslims and a belief in religious sanction to attack non-believers. Bartlett’s comments led Cilluffo to pose a question about the most highly-read “jihadi” authors. Bartlett stated that who is being read often depends on the location and language skills of the individual, but that “The Blood, Wealth, and Honor of Disbelievers” was an important work.

Bartlett and Birdwell found that radicals refused to defend the notion that “jihad” in the West was a religious obligation. In fact, most found it to be impermissible for one of three reasons. First, that Muslims living in non-Muslim countries are bound by a social covenant as guests of that country not to engage in violence. Second, such attacks are prohibited because Islam does not permit the killing of innocents. Third, violent “jihad” does not help the cause. Regarding the movement of Western Muslims to Africa or the Middle East to fight, Bartlett said that many radicals did feel that under certain circumstances this was permissible.

The path toward violent extremism, Bartlett noted, was often driven by emotional, rather than religious, factors – a fact illustrated by terrorists’ relative lack of religious knowledge. In addition, those who became terrorists were often swayed by the “coolness factor” and the presence of a charismatic leader. According to Bartlett, the ubiquity of gory “jihadi” videos and the lack of alternatives supplied by role models also played a role in the movement toward violence.

Bartlett and Birdwell’s arguments led to a lively discussion with audience members. Former HSPI Senior Fellow Marc Sageman stated that although he generally agreed with the idea that social relations play a key role in determining whether or not someone turns to terrorism, it should not be assumed that just because someone has yet to move toward violence, that they would not do so at a later date. Sageman and other audience members suggested that future studies would benefit from a closer examination of what specifically might push a non-violent radical to violence.

At the end of the forum, Birdwell suggested that since al-Qaeda’s message is similar to that of other countercultural movements, more should be done to undermine its appeal. He suggested that this could be accomplished in a number of ways including: highlighting the incompetence and narcissism of those involved in terrorist plots, using satire and humor to de-glamorize the “AQ cool factor,” providing exciting alternatives for democratic engagement, taking a liberal approach to dissent, and "immunizing" at-risk populations by building up their resistance to al-Qaeda's narrative, in part by supplying alternative resources and mentors. On this point Cilluffo brought the discussion to a close, highlighting the importance of exposing and pushing back against al-Qaeda’s bankrupt philosophy: “Al-Qaeda’s ideology and global narrative has more to do with death, destruction, and despair – than anything else. Despite their rhetoric, the fact is the vast majority of those killed by al-Qaeda are Muslims living in Muslim lands; that’s al-Qaeda’s true legacy. Ask yourself – why is it we know the names of the bombers but not the victims? We need to know more about al-Qaeda’s victims, both here and abroad. If these details were widely known, the costs and hypocrisy of al-Qaeda’s narrative would be much more evident and far less appealing.”

Featured Speakers:

Jamie Bartlett, Head of the Extremism and Violence programme and Senior Researcher, Demos

Jonathan Birdwell, Researcher, Demos

Speaker Biographies

Jamie Bartlett, Head of the Extremism and Violence programme and Senior Researcher, Demos

Jamie Bartlett is a senior researcher at Demos and is head of the Extremism and Violence programme. He has worked extensively on issues relating to the Muslim community & extremism across Europe and North America. His primary research interests lie in terrorism, radical and extremist movements, Islamism and violent extremism, organized crime, and gang related activity. Prior to working for Demos, Bartlett was a research associate at the international humanitarian agency Islamic Relief. He speaks fluent French and classical Arabic.

Jonathan Birdwell, Researcher, Demos

Jonathan Birdwell is a researcher at Demos and works on a variety of programs, including the Extremism and Violence programme. His research interests include radical and extremist movements, public attitudes to institutions, local government and drugs policy.


Visit HSPI's Hot Topic--Radicalization webpage. HSPI also recommends the following sources for additional information:

Bartlett, Jamie, Jonathan Birdwell, & Michael King. (2010) "The Edge of Violence: A Radical Approach to Extremism." London: Demos

Bartlett, Jamie. (2007) "Community Based Counter-Terrorism." Podcast. Demos.

Elliott, Andrea. (2010) "The Jihadist Next Door." The New York Times.

Helfstein, Scott, Nassir Abdullah, & Muhammad al-Obaidi. (2009) "Deadly Vanguards: A Study of al-Qa'ida's Violence Against Muslims." Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

Mellis, Colin. (2007) "Amsterdam and Radicalization: The Municipal Approach." City of Amsterdam.

Neu, John J. (2007) Testimony before the US House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security's Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing, and Risk Assessment. Cheif of Police, City of Torrance, California.

Stares, Paul B. & Mona Yacoubian. (2006) "Unconventional Approaches to an Unconventional Threat: A Counter-Epidemic Strategy" in Mapping the Jihadist Threat: The War on Terror Since 9/11. The Aspen Institute.

About HSPI's Policy & Research Forum Series

HSPI's Policy & Research Forum Series spotlights cutting-edge security policy solutions and innovative research. The Series is designed to provide thought leaders in the United States and abroad with a uniquely constructive venue in which to discuss current and future security issues and challenges.