“Focus on hard measures might even have fostered radicalization”

Club de Madrid: „Alexander Ritzmann, has answered our PVE questionaire.

In it, he stresses the need for a critical evaluation of hard security measures implemented in the last years as they might be having a counterproductive effect. In this Q&A he also advocates for prevention policies and programmes and new narratives in all levels “highlighting role models and positive stories of citizens who achieved something while coming from difficult backgrounds”.


Club de Madrid: Why is now more important than ever to put the emphasis in the prevention agenda to tackle the violent extremism threat?

Alexander Ritzmann: Hard security measures like police investigations and arrests, surveillance by intelligence agencies and military engagement in different conflict zones, are still the preferred means to implement security policies in the EU.

A critical evaluation of these important, yet one-sided approaches shows, however, that none of the security risks related to radicalization and terrorism have been significantly reduced in the last 15 years. In some cases, this focus on hard measures might even have fostered radicalization.

Prevention policies and programmes, on the other hand, aim at intervening at a very early stage and on a community level. First line practitioners like teachers, social workers and civil society activists often have a good sense of what is happening in their communities. They can approach individuals who show a radical change in behavior that might be related to an extremist ideology. Practitioners who are trained to spot signs of radicalization can reach out to vulnerable individuals or their families. If practitioners cooperate effectively, if necessary also with the authorities, the resilience of communities and individuals can be strengthened and tragedies can be prevented. This is a focus of our work at the European Foundation for Democracy.

Networks like the EU´s Radicalization Awareness Network (RAN), where practitioners work together and exchange “good practices”, play a critical role and should be further strengthened. To render the prevention of radicalization and extremism an even more effective pillar of protecting European societies, similar peer-learning and networking formats (frameworks)  should be created and supported by the EU and its member states.


CdM: One of the elements of that prevention agenda is the need to find and build a new narrative, attractive enough to reverse the radicalization process of those who are vulnerable to the radical propaganda. In your opinion, which should be the ingredients of that new narrative?

A.R:  I think that the EU and its member states need different narratives on all levels: local, national and European. These narratives need to be relevant to the audience they are directed at. Highlighting role models and positive stories of citizens who achieved something while coming from difficult backgrounds, could have an impact on specific target audiences. While liberal democracies are far from being perfect, they offer more opportunities to their citizens and allow for a plurality of lifestyles unmatched by any other form of government. Giving practical examples for this can be a good idea.

It is very important to understand that specific messages will resonate with different audiences only, so being clear about who you want to reach and what they care about is the foundation for any form of effective communication. Reaching out to the “general public” or “young people” is usually a waste of time and money.


CdM: As far as the who can best deliver the message you have written that Civil Society must be put in the driver seat. How can we empower civil society, especially young people and women in this effort?

Yes, to promote positive alternatives and counter extremist propaganda effectively, a strong and vibrant civil society is key. Especially small NGOs, of which there are several thousand within the EU that work on social or political issues in a broader sense, need essentially three things: 1) More training on how to communicate effectively on these issues 2) A network to exchange ideas and good practices and 3) Easy access to funding and small grants.

Another untapped resource are citizens, especially young people, who care about these issues and who want to talk more about them. If they could be empowered to speak up and share their perspectives within their on- and offline networks, the propaganda of extremists could be challenged much more.


CdM: In your opinion, why do you think that ISIS have been so effective? Is there anything we should learn from them in order to buld a new narrative able to defeat them in the propaganda field?

A.R: The so called “Islamic State” (ISIS/IS/Deash) uses the same tools as many other extremist or terrorist organizations, be it Al Qaeda or the “White Arian Resistance”. All extremist organizations twist and manipulate information on real life events, like the war in Syria or the influx of refugees to the EU, and try to benefit from the emotional outrage some people feel.

ISIS propaganda is more effective, compared to others, because it has a very sophisticated propaganda department that produces full HD 16:9 movie style video clips and a “swarm” of thousands of “fanboys” who produce their own tweets, Facebook comments or videos to share.

To effectively counter this “swarm” of ISIS supporters, who use their personal networks to spread the propaganda, we need a similar movement of NGOs and engaged individuals who share positive alternatives and highlight the flaws and lies within extremist narratives. A mix of some high-quality campaigns with a lot of well done “homemade” messaging, from a local NGO to three mothers with an IPAD who want to share their emotions and ideas, could be a game changer.


CdM: From your perspective, which should be the role of the Club de Madrid in this process? What can the Club de Madrid and its Members do be helpful in building a new narrative to prevent violent extremism?

A.R: The Club de Madrid should continue working with different stakeholders and empowering credible voices who share its values. Increased outreach and pro-active networking would help widening and deepening its reach.

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