Speech “Countering extremism and radicalization: a fight for values”

IDC Herzliya

The World Summit on Counter-Terrorism

ICT’s 16th International Conference

(September11-14, 2016 in Herzliya, Israel)

Countering extremism and radicalization: a fight for values



Professor Boaz Ganor, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an honour to address this distinguished audience, on a subject, extremism and radicalization, which for a long time should have been considered of the highest ‎importance for the European public, for the political and cultural establishment, for media and communication specialists. And it was instead confined, until quite recently to the realm of  counterterrorism and social science.


Countering extremism and radicalization in our relations with the Muslim World

Extremism and radicalization need to be put at the center of western countries political and cultural vision. Over the last four decades, three major events have reshaped scenarios and enhanced radical forces in the Muslim world. In each one of them ‎these forces have tried to subvert universal values on which the Rule of Law and the international order had been built. But West reactions seemed, at times, to lack political will and strong leadership.


Good reasons obviously where always there to avoid ideological disputes. East – West confrontation was the true concern during the ’70’s and the ’80’s; EU integration the most important topic in the ’90’s; EU enlargement was the priority at the turn of the century; and the post- Lehman Brothers crises still remain for many Europeans a bigger obsession than the Islamic State.


Yet some visionaries like the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci perfectly understood the threat the Iranian Islamic Revolution posed to Western societies. A tidal wave of “political Islam” was launched for the first time in 1979, against our societies, traditions and culture.


Beginning with the Iranian Revolution, three historic events have shaken the Muslim world while the West, and Europe, were focused on other priorities‎:

1)  Ayatollah Khomeini is return to Teheran and the establishment of the Islamic Republic;

2)    Osama Bin Laden Appeal in 1998 to all Muslims for the “Global Jihad against the Crusaders” and for re- founding the Caliphate;

3)    the re-emergence, around 2006, of a generalized Sunni – Shia confrontation after the collapse of Iraqi’s State and the execution of Saddam Hussein brought about the empowerment of the Iranian regime and its Shia proxies in Iraq,  Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and other Muslim countries‎.

And two years ago the West and its allies were drawn into the war against an Islamic State, whose birth was‎ the result of Assad’s repression, encouraged and supported by Teheran, against an initially unarmed opposition. The Islamic State took also advantage from two other exceptionally favourable circumstances:

A) first, the global struggle between Sunni and Shia millenarism;

B) second, the positive response from many Muslim radicals to Osama bin Laden’s Legacy: by spreading  in many different forms the Jihad against the “Crusaders” and the expectation of a Caliphate stretching from Middle East to Europe.


If marks could be given to the strategies of North Atlantic and European countries in the three different situations I just mentioned – Iran 1979, Bin Laden’s 1998, Iraq 2006 with the 2014 birth of the Islamic State-‎ these marks would be low as far as the political vision is concerned.


Better marks may be given, from a security and military standpoint, to operations against Al-Qaeda to the neutralization or containment of other terrorist organizations, to military actions against the Islamic State. Yet a disappointing note could be made on the political objectives: has there been a shared and firm political framework for the military engagement against the Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq? Has there been any “vision” by Western democracies, on how to counter at a political and at a cultural level the enormous challenge that extremism and radicalization in the Muslim world, and among the Muslim communities in Europe, in America and elsewhere pose to peaceful citizens and to their democratic institutions?


The threat is increasingly coming from within the West

It was said time and again that the 9/11 abomination changed the world dramatically as did the events which flowed from that. Jihadism has long been a threat. Ending the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin’s Wall marked the victory in a battle of values and ideas. But in the long period that followed 9/11 the West ‎ not only did seem to lose the media war, but also the struggle to claim the moral high ground. In Afghanistan for instance western  military superiority was often outflanked by Taliban’s propaganda. In Iraq, Iran’s proxies, Shia militias, Sunni insurgents, all of them became engaged in attacks against‎ our forces, in anti American demonstrations and hate propaganda.


In more recent years, the Jihadist threat has increasingly come from within‎ the West. Many Muslims in Europe have radicalized. Thousands of young people, often belonging to families integrated in the social fabric, or only recently converted to Islam, even not particularly religious, have left their homes, unexpectedly, to fight against Assad and then to be sucked into the Islamic State. Others have been induced by Iranian propaganda also in Europe to join Shi’ite militias, Hezbollah and their proxies. A minority, still in the thousands, has returned to wage Jihad in Europe. Others have radicalized after being smuggled into Europe by traffickers or after having  converted.


III.      Policies of denial

The recent wave of attacks in Europe and the increasing number of casualties are changing the overall perception of security. Migration, Muslims radicalization and terrorism are perceived by the European public opinion, as increasingly interconnected. But many EU Governments say the opposite, and make every effort in denying the extent and the nature of the threat. The American philosopher Michael Walzer said recently. “I often meet people more worried of being considered islamophobic, than willing to condemn Islamic terrorism”. By confusing in such a way the political debate, European leaders do not help their own citizens in getting together, to reinforce their common will and identity. The Italian Government’s attitude is no exception.

Professor Giuseppe Laras, a very prominent figure in the Jewish Italian Community and a highly respected leader in the religious and cultural dialogue in my country  wrote on Corriere della Sera after  July’s terrorist attacks in Bangladesh and France the following considerations: ”…. A suicidal and stubbornly ideological policy continues to deny that Islam has anything to do [with terrorism]. They keep on saying that there are other motives, such as social unease in the suburbs, plight of migrants, failures of integration policies, and so on. The true question we have to ask ourselves, after the French events, it is not whether they will happen in Italy as well, but when, where and how these events will happen. That raises a burning issue. First and foremost the real matter is that of the generally pitiful condition of our national, [collective] consciousness. The soccer match of Euro2016 was enough to mitigate the shock and the sorrow for our Italian [brothers and sisters] killed in Bangladesh. That applies, in general, to the catholic world with intellectuals who are dull-witted and confused by a naive pacifism and do-goodism …That applies to intellectuals who have abdicated their difficult and demanding role, while they prefer radical chic environments where they promote an appeasing and pliable Third Worldism…”.


The limits of the Italian political and media establishment in dealing with extremism to the extent that has become a problem even the mere definition of a threat coming from Islamic terrorism, has been evident with its difficulties in managing illegal immigration both at the national and the European level. The EU Commission has complained that Italy did allow in 2014 and 2015 tens of thousands migrants to enter Italy and then travel to other  EU countries without identification or vetting procedure.


UK and France experience

UK and France experiences in this matter are looked at, in my country, as extremely significant, given their higher share of Muslim population, their considerable efforts to integrate these communities, the depth of their relations with former Muslim colonies and the engagement of both London and Paris in fighting terrorism and radicalization.‎


The concern of being in the “crosshair” of Islamic Jihad has rapidly spread also to Italy. The huge immigration flow which has been welcomed for noble humanitarian reasons by the Italian Government is rapidly having an impact on demography, welfare, health care, housing, labor market, public order, and national budget in a country whose GDP has been totally flat for ten years and the public debt still increasing, above 134%.


Almost half a million illegal immigrants‎, a large share of which from Muslim countries, has entered Italy over the last three years, with increasingly high numbers of unaccompanied children, and single young men. Although the total numbers of foreign residents or ‘de facto’ residents are in Italy around 10% of the total population, the share of the Muslim communities  is growing much more rapidly than the others as effect of last years ‘open door policy’ for humanitarian reasons. These critical elements may bring the Italian model close to the ‘breaking points’ we had to observe in UK and in France but which faster then the Italian Government seems to believe and tries to sell to its public opinion.


With its three million Muslims, Great Britain became the center for the most extreme of Jihadist exiles and extremist preachers. As Paul Moorcraft describes in his last book, “the Jihadist Threat”, “often the preachers and their families ‎were subsidize by the State. When some were eventually brought to trial it would cost an extra few millions. Because of human rights legislation… these preachers could rarely be reported, except after years of police, MI5 and legal efforts. A notorious example was the former Imam of London Finsbury Park Mosque, Abu Hamza, to whom  Mohamed Emwazi, better known as the head-chopping “Jihadi John”, was connected.”


As far as France is concerned, I believe that very few descriptions as the one offered by Gilles Kepel in his book “Quatre -vingt- treize” explain accurately the social end cultural environment where extremism and radicalization‎ has flourished: in presence of ineffective and even complicit attitudes that have characterized the French political world. Kepel explained the tools used, especially since the appearance of Tarik Ramadan on the cultural and academic stage in France and in Europe, by a well organized political Islam in “extending the domain of Halal”, in launching cultural initiatives aimed at political objectives, in finding every possible Trojan horse to ‎bring political Islam issues more and more into a public, often acrimonious debate, such as the one on “islamophobia”. It is a wide front of influence the one described by Professor Kepel. Salafist role and numbers are gaining visible ground. At the same time, in the French situation compromises on values, under estimation of risks for security, and  for the very existence of liberal principles and the Rule on Law were already evident when  Professor Kepel’s research was written, three years before the horrors at Charlie Hebdo and at HyperKasher.


The situation in Italy. Sunni and  Shi’ite radicalization

An Italian researcher, Michele Groppi, who is studying extremism and radicalization among Muslim communities wrote in the Jerusalem Post: ”Even Italy, a country that has historically been fairly immune to the phenomenon, is now starting to realize the threat stemming from the radicalization of its Muslim community. Yet, this topic remains a taboo for most Italians. Sadly, a certain degree of indifference, ignorance, and even reluctance on the part of both the Italian public and the political elite have hindered a much needed debate on the issue.


A report that Mr. Groppi wrote as a student here, at the Inter Disciplinary Center , shows that part of the Muslim communities are undergoing a process posing serious concerns for the Italian national security. Often radicalism remains at the rhetorical level, but many instances it clashes with the democratic fabric of the society, with integration and coexistence. Also in Italy, for years, imams have preached anti-Western sentiments, religious intolerance and even support for violence; a number of mosques have been engaged in recruitment and funding of Islamic terrorism; and jihadist have left Italy to go to Syria. As in other European countries, also in Italy anti-Semitism is the most troubling indicator that extremism is rising within the Muslim communities. For example, five out of the six main Shi’ite organizations active in Italy have clearly showed an anti-Semitic ideology. Luigi Ammar de Martino, one of the most influential Shi’ite leaders in Italy, has even called for an active struggle against Israel. While in the Sunni world, Hamza Piccardo and Adel Smith, leaders of two renowned Koranic schools and a number of imams have all promoted hatred against Jews and Israel. Likewise, an organization connected to an Islamic center in southern Italy had its members teaching children admiration for Hitler. Anti Semitism as a motivation of terrorist attacks in Italy goes back to 2003, when a Palestinian, Khatib Shafiq, blew himself up in front of the Modena synagogue. A few years later, Mohammed Jarmoune, a well-integrated young Moroccan grown up in Italy, was arrested for planning attacks on a synagogue in Milan. Last year a French-Tunisian citizen involved in the Hyper Kasher massacre in Paris was arrested in Ancona.


The growing threats from Iran

Another aspect in the vast environment of radicalization – often overlooked by Italian media and business – is Iran’s unabated proselytism and support to terrorist activities, at a juncture when expectations for a “reformist Rouhani Presidency” and for market opportunities are running incredibly high in Europe and  in Italy.  Iran is a country ruled by a theocracy that plays – as we all know – a destructive role in the Middle East, from Syria to Iraq to Yemen. The regime and its proxies are responsible for having killed hundreds of American and European in Lebanon, East Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan.  Iran’s actions have been known for years, but have been kept under a lid of silence and obfuscation. A great amount of critical information was kept almost entirely secret, concerning relations between Iran and al Qaeda, when it was found in Abbottobad by the US Special Forces; vast evidence had previous by been found in Iraq by units investigating terrorist attacks  which had killed and maimed western soldiers.


Teheran is known – as recently reiterated by the yearly report on global terrorism published by the US Department of State – as the main State sponsor of terrorism across the globe. And despite the “nuclear agreement” Iran continues its provocative gestures toward the Western world, for instance by test-firing its ballistic missiles. In this alarming framework, I would like to highlight the “United Against Nuclear Iran” – UANI’s campaign to calling the attention on doing business with Teheran. Hundreds of letters have been sent to likewise companies warning them of the risks inherent in investing in Iran, particularly the threat of funds falling into the hands of the IRGC or Hezbollah. It’s noteworthy to quote the Hezbollah’s Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, who said, last June in occasion of the Financial Action Task Force – FATF’s suspension of mandatory countermeasures on Iran: “we are open about the fact that Hezbollah’s budget, its income, its expenses, everything it eats and drinks, its weapons and rockets, come from the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Furthermore is recent news that the U.S. Treasury Department, in late July, had listed three senior Al Qaeda operatives in Iran aiming to disrupt their operations and fundraising.


Iran’s promotion of its brand of Islam across the Middle East has been obvious for decades. But such activities in Europe have largely managed to fly under the radar. Iran’s Balkan – centered efforts have come under scrutiny in recent years, leading to the arrest last July of an Iranian cleric in Kosovo on charges of financing terrorism and money laundering. Pristina authorities claimed that Hasan Azari Bejandi was responsible for five Shi’ite organizations linked to Tehran. He is the most high-profile Iranian cleric charged there potentially cutting off an important avenue of influence for Tehran in Europe, where charities tied to Iran also operate in Albania, Macedonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. These charities launched their activities in Kosovo soon after the 1999 war bringing with them a conservative brand of Shi’ite Islam. They spread anti-Western and anti-Semitic propaganda in the effort to export Iran’s Islamic Revolution to Muslim communities in Europe.


The horrors perpetrated by the Islamic State, captured on camera and propagated through social media, are distracting the West from the threats posed by Iran and its proxies. A telling example were the appeals launched by the Iranian regime’s network of groups in UK that British Shi’ites join the jihad against Sunni Islamists in Iraq.

The Ahlul Bayt Islamic Mission [AIM], one of the most prominent Shi’ite organizations in Britain, published on its website an “Urgent Call,” the following piece: “We must be ready to sacrifice, leave everything behind us and run for the defense of truth and its supporters, representatives, and relics. The Jihad ul Asghar (minor jihad) must also be accompanied by Jihad ul Akbar (bigger jihad) so that we prepare ourselves spiritually and deserve the honor of defending Islam. Every man must be ready to join the armed forces and every woman must urge the male members of her family to go seek this noble cause and do anything she can to serve this cause … May Allah enable us to put our words into actions and to defend Islam and its principles till our last breathe and drop of blood!” It appears that some British Shi’ites have been willing to travel to Syria and Iraq to fight for Iranian-backed groups.


Ahlul Bayt Islamic Mission (AIM) is the UK branch of the Ahlul Bayt World Assembly, an Iranian Shi’ite clerical organization with global outreach, by Muhammad Hassan Akhtari, a leading Iranian cleric and one of the founders of Hezbollah.


According to the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Ahlul Bayt’s “activities are directed by the office of the Supreme Leader Khamenei”. Speakers at events organized by AIM regularly include officials tied to the Iranian regime, such us Mohammad Ali Shomali, a prominent Shi’ite cleric who runs the Department of Religions at the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute in Iran.


Senior AIM officials, meanwhile, include Samir Al-Haidari, who also works for the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute. Al-Haidari, in an interview with an Iranian regime website, voiced support for Khomeini’s fatwa ordering the murder of the author Salman Rushdie, stating that Khomeini “courageously and bravely defended Islam.”


Besides fighting a fierce struggle with Saudi Arabia to have the upper hand in the whole region the Iranian regime is even more encouraged – after the JCPOA – in its ambitions to become the leading guide for all Muslims of the world,  and  is fuelling many fires between Sunnis and Shi’ite factions. Iran’s influence among European  Muslims has been growing for years, and even more so now. Teheran’ money supports: Islamic centers of Shi’ite denomination; some of the largest mosques in the Western world, as those in Copenaghen and Helsinki; wealthy Foundations as the Ahlul Bayt Foundation; it promotes also in Europe anti semitic events such as the  Al Quds Days in London and Berlin. In Italy the Iranian regime can rely upon an organization – Assadakah – very active in promoting Teheran positions and interests in the Syrian war, in Lebanon, Yemen, close to Hezbollah whose officials are invited to events in Italy. Assadakah director is Mr. Schiavone, active for years in pro Iranian and hatred propaganda, anti West, anti USA, anti Israel statements.  Furthermore, Teheran’s views are promoted in Italy through a network of radios, publications, social media and web sites. Radio IRIB and Radio Islam are just two examples.


VII.   Counter Extremism Project: US and European Surveys

The Counter Extremism Project (CEP) is a not-for-profit, non-partisan, international policy organization formed to combat the growing threat from extremist ideologies. Led by a renowned group of former world leaders and diplomats it combats extremism by pressuring financial and material support networks; countering the narrative of extremists and their online recruitment; and advocating for smart laws, policies, and regulations.

CEP authored an impressive research on American and European perceptions of international security in the immediate aftermath of the atrocious killings od James Foley and  Steven Sotloff‎. CEP’s Surveys compare the situation of June, 2014, just before those atrocities, with the response given in September 2014, right after the Islamic States put on Internet the horrifying pictures of its latest crimes.

I am would like to underline the conclusions of that important work because it shows how deaf and blind have been western political and media environments have minimized and even denied the nature and the extent of a fast growing threat from Islamic radical forces.


As of June 2014, according to the CEP’s Report, economic security and security issues were the most important issues for Americans and Europeans. However the proportion mentioning domestic security issues or foreign policy issues dramatically grew after June. In two months only, economic concerns decreased by 6%, while those of domestic security extremism and terrorism more than doubled. To the question “how likely is it in your opinion that Islamist extremism will present a serious threat to our national security over the next ten years”, there were the following results:

*          In UK those who said “very likely” went up from 42% to 51%. In Spain from 22% to 28%, in France from 42% to 43%, already a sign of alarm preceding the 2015 wave of terror. In Germany those who answered “very likely” grew from 27% to 34%, in the Netherlands from 23% to 32%,in Sweden from 18%to 26%‎.

*        From June to September 2015 Islamic extremist movements became for 56% of those interviewed the “greatest threat to the National security of the Country”: a 15% increase in only three months.

*‎          Fighting Islamist extremism was seen, over the same period, as a growing priority in UK, Spain, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden. Training and funding terrorist in foreign countries, cultivation of homegrown terrorists threats by the radicalization of Muslims and promoting intolerance towards other religions were seen as the highest risks to national security. For the UK, the infiltration of the school system by extremists Islamic teaching was also considered a serious risk.

In conclusion, the 2014 CEP’s Report did clearly anticipate that‎ Islamic extremism was seen as the greatest threat to national security  in the U.S. and in Europe.


VIII. A fight for values

The “fight for values” should be fully understood: it is the most vital challenge against a fundamentalist Islam which is trying to impose upon us a war of religion. But our democratic and free societies will always abhor and for refuse wars of religion. In order to win that challenge, an extraordinary push for democracy and the full implementation of the Rule of Law must take place at home and be globally sustained. Liberal democracies must not lose their appeal, they must inspire again as it happened at the turn of last century, admiration or emulation.‎ Americans and Europeans appear now to be less confident in their national project; they do not seem to trust their institutions, or to have faith in their common destiny.


David Brooks recently wrote in the New York Times about “a crisis of national purpose…that is about personal identity and the basic health of communal life. Anger and pessimism are more fundamental that anything that can be explained by GDP statistics”. But in confronting a war waged against our democracies by a radical Islam, our nations must coalesce again. They have to be determined in asserting their national identity their fundamental values, in implementing all State laws equally, with undeterred firmness when it is needed. During the ’90s, at the end of the Cold War, democracy flourished as never before. Over the last fifteen years however, upheavals in the Muslim world and in Europe did erode that pattern. Democracy broke down in 27 countries. Some of them are States like Russia, with huge international responsibilities, being a Permanent member of the Security Council. But also others took a turn for the worse. Freedom House has documented worldwide contractions of political liberties, collapse of the Rule of Law under the weight of corruption, setbacks  in authoritarian states practicing censorship, arbitrary arrests, unacceptable restrictions to NGO’s. Since 2012 more than 90 laws have been adopted to restrict freedom of association and assembly. The Rule of Law should therefore be reaffirmed and implemented as the most vital asset for the international community. Democracies are less violent toward their own citizens, more protective of human rights, do not go to war with one another, are open to market economies, they respect more then other political systems social and economic rights of their citizens, they are more likely then others to generate science and innovation, sustainable development, prosperity, higher life expectancy, lower levels of infant and maternal mortality.


Fighting for our values in the war against extremism and radicalization means therefore that we become confident of a national project, and that our Institutions are trustworthy. We cannot reduce this vast challenge to a materialistic cause. Are Muslim terrorist motivated mainly by lack of economic opportunities? Obviously not. We seem constantly surprised by crises determined by threats to our identity more than by materialistic considerations. To win the fight against Islamic fundame‎ntalism, to gain respect and thrust also of the Muslims communities we have to restore all citizens confidence in our democratic institutions. Relativism and indifference may be fashionable in easier times. They are self defeating when we are under attack.

©2024 Giulio Terzi

Log in with your credentials

pergot your details?