Democracy under threat: The increasing normalisation of threats and violence directed at politicians and electoral candidates. 

While the main headlines after the recent European elections highlighted the surge in far-right gains, another key story was the series of violent attacks against politicians throughout the campaign. A string of incidents that occurred in Germany and Ireland during May and early June underscore the worrying trend of mounting hostility and aggression directed towards politicians in what has become an increasingly incendiary political environment. These attacks, which seem likely to continue, pose an ongoing threat to the democratic process.

The physical and verbal harassment of politicians by the electorate has become more frequent in recent years. During the 2019 European Parliament elections, the act of “milkshaking” became a viral protest tactic in the UK, as milkshakes were thrown at right-wing and far-right political candidates, sparking debates on whether or not it normalised political violence. During the COVID-19 restrictions, aggressive anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine protests targeted and intimidated politicians across Europe, with widespread death threats, verbal harassment, and protests outside the homes of public officials becoming commonplace.

Throughout the 2024 European Parliament election campaign, these developments intensified. In Ireland, where the backdrop of an anti-immigration backlash has fuelled protests at accommodation centres housing international protection applicants, the tense political environment has significantly heightened the danger towards public officials. A concurrent local election campaign has stood out for a shocking wave of violence and threats directed at candidates, with opposition to immigration typically triggering confrontations targeting those canvassing on campaign trails, ranging from verbal to physical attacks.

Earlier in May, Independent Councillor Tania Doyle and her husband were violently assaulted while putting up posters in Dublin by two men aggravated about immigration. On the same day, Councillor Janet Horner, a Green Party representative was also similarly attacked while hanging election posters in Dublin by a man espousing far-right views. Two women campaigning for the Social Democrats also reported to have been threatened with a knife while out canvassing by two men. Meanwhile, a man was arrested after allegedly threatening to kill anti-immigration campaigner and European election candidate Malachy Steenson, highlighting how opposition to the growing wave of far-right ideology can also prompt threats and intimidation. Violent attacks and threats of this nature in Ireland are unprecedented in recent memory.

Alongside these incidents, the far-right was particularly preoccupied with non-white candidates running in the Irish elections. The canvassing team of Suzzie O’Deniyi, a candidate for Fianna Fáil in Limerick, whose parents are from Nigeria, was subject to racist and misogynstic abuse by a man who filmed and followed them. Sarah Adedeji, a Fine Gael candidate received similar abuse while putting up her election posters. Footage circulating on social media showed Linkwinstar Mattathil Mathew, a Fine Gael election candidate from India, being ordered by men to take down his election posters, while independent candidate, Roopesh Kumar Panicker, also originally from India, reported being subject to such constant racist abuse, that he no longer felt safe, stating “I’ve stopped picking up the calls. I’m scared of who’s going to say what.”

Meanwhile, in Germany, there have been similar developments, where verbal and physical attacks on politicians have more than doubled since 2019. Throughout May, as the campaigns for European Parliament and district council elections got underway, a number of high-profile assaults targeting politicians took place as both government and opposition parties members and their supporters faced physical and verbal attacks, leading to calls for more police protection for politicians at election rallies.

Matthias Ecke, a politician with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and member of European Parliament, was hospitalised after being beaten by a group of men while hanging campaign posters in Dresden. The same group of men also ambushed a Green Party campaigner in the same area just before the attack, punching and kicking him to the ground. Another attack in Dresden targeted Greens candidate Yvonne Mosler, who was assaulted and spat upon while hanging posters in an attack caught on camera by a DW film crew. Franziska Giffey, a Berlin State Senator and German politician of the SPD was hospitalised after being hit on the head and neck from behind with a bag “filled with hard contents” during a visit to a library in the capital. 

Attacks are not only directed at left-leaning and Greens politicians, but have targeted those across the political spectrum, including an assault on Roderich Kiesewetter, a conservative parliamentarian by a far-right activist in Aalen, an assault on two AfD politicians at an information stand in Stuttgart and most recently, an AfD candidate was stabbed in Mannheim after confronting a man who had been taking down his election posters. The latter attack took place just days after, and in the same city as, an Islamist knife attack on members of an anti-Islam party, in which five people were injured and an intervening police officer was killed. 

The threat posed by ideologically orientated attacks comes from a mixture of far-right, far-left and other issue-specific grievances. Statistics show that when all kinds of threats, verbal and physical attacks are counted, the Greens havebeen subject to most of the surging harassment in Germany, with its members reporting in 2023 that incidents had risen sevenfold since 2019. The AfD, are the second-most targeted party, but suffered more violent attacks (86 recorded in 2023) on AfD party representatives than any other party. Some politician attack perpetrators have also suffered from mental health problems, or have not yet been established as having a clear political motive, such as a recent assault on the Danish Prime Minister.

Taken together, events in Ireland and Germany represent samples of what is a broader trend happening not just across Europe, but also beyond. In the United States, threats to public officials has also grown, with federal charges for such offences rising by nearly 60 percent over the last ten years, and numbers on track to reach record highs. That these attacks are occurring more frequently suggests a worrying societal shift, in which violence and threats directed at political figures is being increasingly normalised and considered justified by a growing number.

Electoral candidates, often made vulnerable to violence through their campaigning activities, risk reducing their democratic participation due to intimidation. The level and range of threats varies for different political parties, with left-leaning and pro-environmental parties bearing the brunt of incidents and far-right activists at a higher risk of violence. However, it is female and non-white candidates who are perhaps at a higher risk of reducing their participation in election campaigns due to being disproportionately affected by feelings of insecurity. As physical attacks and harassment against politicians continues, defending the democratic process may require installing measures to better protect these elected representatives and candidates from threats and physical harm.


Influence of social network processes on radical conspiracy theories (PART 2) 

PART 1 proposed that the Internet’s horizontal distribution of power and equal opportunity are illusory or lost to the past, having been replaced with the logics of algorithms, which merely increase the influence of those who already possess it, as described by the ‘Matthew effect of accumulated advantage’.

Beyond that, it is also interesting to consider social media influencers and their role not only in disseminating (mis/dis)information, but also in guiding interpretation (telling people how to understand a piece of news, for example), and providing others with reasons for action (for instance, boycotting a determined business, purchasing products from a determined company, contacting representatives with certain demands, donating to certain organizations, voting for a determined party, organizing protests, etc.).

Such influencers can participate in deliberately coordinated networks of influencing activities and be engaged in the dissemination of strategic talking points […], but their posting activities can also be self-started, aiming at the advancement of personal brands, i.e. increasing personal popularity. Often, they are doing both. (Madisson, Ventsel 2021: 17)

The crux of the matter is that there are different possible ways to configure knowledge or to encode information, and “those that gain precedence will influence what it means to know; what kind of knowledge is culturally valued; how we learn; and who will have access to knowledge and power” (Birchall 2006: 8). 

Therefore, in the same way that one may speak of an economic elite (a minority group that holds wealth) or a political elite (a minority group that holds decision-making power), it may also be possible to speak of a “semiotic elite” – those nodes and actors who are in possession of the power to influence interpretation for larger groups of people. This semiotic elite, created by the cost of visibility, is who decides how the world should be interpreted. Naturally, this is not a product of new media or technology, since there has always been a group of people who more or less guided (or sought to guide) how information was interpreted at least ever since the printing press. However, the issue is that nowadays we are leaving the formation of this powerful group in the hands of social media algorithms and its logics.

Other than the previously explained ‘Matthew effect’ (see PART 1), the second network process described by Leal (2020: 500) is called ‘clustering’. In essence, clustering “reveals our tendency to connect with people who are similar or close to us”. This, in turn, leads to segregation, that is, the so-called social media bubbles or echo-chambers (Leal 2020; Stano 2020).

Echo-chambers are densely connected network clusters with few, if any, links to other groupings. They are bounded spaces marked by the internal reproduction of ideas rather than the external production of knowledge. […] As clustered, tight-knit communities, echo-chambers forge particular beliefs and shield their members from outside influences. With little or no exchange of information with opposing or even different groupings, the adopted viral narratives will reverberate in feedback-loops leading to persistent worldviews and resistance to change. (Leal 2020: 507)

Echo-chambers thus thwart the development of people’s critical faculties and analytical analysis, a configuration that “feeds propaganda and extremism and reduces democracy and critical debate” (Stano 2020: 487). And the

ideological effect of the echo-chamber is based on both homophily (similarity) and heterophily (dissimilarity) if we think of the two extremes of a social structure (the complete community or a complete network). In this way, if ideological discourses or orientations are repeated inside each echo-chamber (or subcommunity), the discourses – being ideologically similar – resonate, and the discourses are reproduced and reinforced within each online community, resulting in a nondialogue between communities. (Caballero 2020: 140)

In conclusion, the architecture of social media platforms itself promotes fertile ground to this reproduction of segregation that is central to the process of radicalization and conspiracy thinking (‘us-vs.-them’ logic). As such,

Proliferation of conspiracist discourse in a society creates micro-areas of shared meaning that are impermeable and in conflict with each other. (Leone, Madisson, Ventsel 2020: 47)

This way, social media platforms create these isolated and conflicting world-views/ways to interpret events and circumstances that are particular, almost tailored to each individual, as opposed to shared (Leone, Madisson, Ventsel 2020).

The fact of the matter is that, despite it being a space for politics and community-creation, the internet is “first and foremost, a place of business in which most of the information and data produced are employed to make a profit” (Puumeister 2020: 519). In concise terms, “the hunt for profit and the transformation of behaviour and experience into data and information can be said to constitute the underlying logic for constructing the affordances of new media environments” (Ibid) – social media works the way it works because it is profitable that way.

In this sense, it seems naïve to point out to community-building and dialog efforts as solutions to the problem of conspiracy thinking when these efforts are obstructed by the very structure of the online networks that host most of present-day human communication on the basis of this notion that division and conflict generates profit.

It appears that some fundamental change is needed in the underlying logics upon which social media environments are constructed. Hence, “understanding the way networks operate and how they can be manipulated by actors with vested political or economic interests is key” (Leal 2020: 499) to thinking of solutions to this issue.


Birchall, Clare 2006. Knowledge Goes Pop: From Conspiracy Theory to Gossip. Oxford: Berg Publishers.

Caballero, Estrella 2020. Social Network Analysis, Social Big Data and Conspiracy Theories. In: Butter, Michael; Knight, Peter (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories. New York: Routledge, 135-147.

Leal, Hugo 2020. Networked Disinformation and The Lifecycle of Online Conspiracy Theories. In: Butter, Michael; Knight, Peter (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories. New York: Routledge, 497-511. 

Leone, Massimo; Madisson, Mari-Liis; Ventsel, Andreas 2020. Semiotic Approaches to Conspiracy Theories. In: Butter, Michael; Knight, Peter (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories. New York: Routledge, 43-55.

Madisson, Mari-Liis; Ventsel, Andreas 2021. Strategic Conspiracy Narratives: A Semiotic Approach. New York: Routledge.

Puumeister, Ott 2020. Conspiratorial Rationality. Sign Systems Studies, 48(2-4): 519-528.

Stano, Simona 2020. The Internet and The Spread of Conspiracy Content. In: Butter, Michael; Knight, Peter (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories. New York: Routledge. 483-496.


French terrorism legislation in light of the Russian attack

On 22 March 2024, the Islamic State of Khorassan, linked to the former Syrian state, carried out a bombing at the Crocus City Hall concert venue in Moscow. The attack killed almost 150 people and injured 300[1]. In the following days, France announced its decision to raise the level of the emergency plan to “bombing urgency”, the highest level, only two months after it was first downgraded to level 2, “increased security – risk of attack”, since the 2015 attacks[2] in the Bataclan concert hall.

According to French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, “the Islamist terrorist threat is real, it is strong” and “it has never diminished”. It is therefore surprising that the level of urgency was lowered in January. It is also puzzling that it was raised again after the events in Moscow. 

Considering that the Islamic State of Khorassan has been getting stronger since the Taliban came to power in 2021, and that other geopolitical events could also have triggered a French response, such as the increase in tensions in Israel/Palestine or the problems in sub-Saharan Africa, why was the level of the antiterrorism plan raised specifically in the wake of the Moscow attacks? 

Rather than directly answering this question, which is a matter of internal politics, we will show how the similarities between the French Bataclan attack and the Moscow one have been used to justify an increase in security measures, increase that seems to be getting more common, regardless of human right violations.

To provide some historical and legal context, the three emergency levels are part of the Vigipirate plan[3] which was created in 1991 after the Gulf War and was used regularly until the London bombings of July 2005, where it remained at the “red” level until the colour code was abandoned in 2014.

The plan is to be used when the State has serious reasons to believe that an attack could take place in the near future. It applies to a wide range of sectors, including public gatherings, cyber security, transport, health, and even the food chain. While the lowest level implies a “permanent state of security” for all national actors[4], including citizens, the higher levels allow the closure of roads and the suspension of public transport. 

After the 2015 Bataclan attacks, this plan was used extensively, especially in conjunction with the “state of emergency”. Created during the Algerian war, it allows prefects to prohibit the movement of people or vehicles in certain places and to refuse entry to anyone who might pose a “threat to security and public order”. The government can dissolve associations and the minister of internal affairs can place anyone who might be considered a threat under house arrest. Following the 2016 attacks, there was an increase in the number of measures taken, with 2,000 house raids between 14 and 30 November 2016, and 150 house arrests in the first week and 300 by 1 December 2016[5].

Given this, it is surprising that of the 670 house searches that resulted in administrative proceedings, only 25 revealed acts that could be considered terrorist in nature. This situation, added to the long and extensive use of the Vigipirate plan, has raised concerns, especially at the international level, about the legality and the risk posed by these measures. 

For example, in 2017, Amnesty International[6] called for an end to the “state of emergency”, stating that it had “led to a series of human rights violations” and had produced “very few tangible results”. There has also been growing criticism in the international media following the reinforcement of the Vigipirate plan in 2020, with concerns about increased police violence and fears of corruption and the deployment of military forces in the country.    

While Gabriel Attal claimed in front of the National Assembly that “we have to prepare for every scenario, we have to exclude none. We must be everywhere, all the time”[7], we can still question the extensive use of counter-terrorism measures by French policymakers and their more or less direct link to a real and clear terrorist threat. 

Indeed, as Ní Aolain[8] writes, “it is generally accepted that certain terrorist acts and the actions of terrorist organisations can create the necessary and sufficient conditions to reach a threshold likely to trigger a state of emergency” (Ní Aolain, 2018). However, the lack of a clear definition of terrorism added to the legal practice of many states tends to standardise “the use of exceptional national security or emergency measures to combat terrorism” (Ní Aolain, 2018). This leads her to speak of “de facto” or “secret” emergency practices and situations in which “exceptional” measures are slowly institutionalised and thus become “normal”. 

Ní Aolain claims that “the notion of a permanent state of emergency seems to be better accepted by the public, thus enabling the authorities […] to adopt repressive measures” (Ní Aolain, 2018). Looking more closely at the case of France, the author explains that the “state of emergency” ended in November 2017, but the adoption of the “law to strengthen internal security and the fight against terrorism” a month earlier could be understood as a kind of normalisation of the state of exception.

While the European Convention on Human Rights claims that exceptional measures restricting liberty can be taken in “times of war and other dangers threatening the life of the nation”, we have to keep in mind Peoples’s observation that “states can be the biggest threat to the liberty, human rights, and lives of their citizens” (Peoples, 2010)[9]

Lindekilde[10] also speaks of “state radicalisation”, where a state slowly descends into increasingly repressive measures, which might make sense in the case of France. However, this scenario is not exclusive to France – as Peoples explains, since 9/11 “the ‘normal’ state of affairs in the US has become one where the ‘significant risk of terrorist attacks’ is permanent” (Peoples, 2010). This culture of fear, which can also be found in Europe, leads to a “climate of suspicion”, especially towards certain social groups (Mavelli, 2016). 

As a result, “security has become increasingly synonymous with surveillance and control, rather than maintaining human rights and the rule of law” (Peoples, 2010). Mavelli[11] therefore concludes that “the outcome has been not governing despite terrorism, but ‘governing through terrorism’” (Mavelli, 2016). For the author, the impossibility of reducing the risk of attack to zero has led politicians to implement a form of “precautionary risk management” based more on imagination than on scientific knowledge per se.

In conclusion, we can infer that France’s swift response to the Russian attacks in March 2024 is not just a normal geopolitical event. Rather, by bringing closer the Moscow bombing and the 2015 Bataclan attack, it uses the classical security repertoire of democratic states, with the calling for a state of emergency. However, democracies can´t maintain this state for long as it could create a popular rebellion. Therefore, French politicians seem to have constructed, in the past ten years, a new legal system with an increased attention to security issues, sometimes questioning the freedom and human rights of its population.






[6] Amnesty International, Dangerously Disproportionate: The Ever Expanding Security State in Europe, 2017.


[8]Ní Aolain, F., 2018, « L’exercice contemporain des pouvoirs d’urgence : réflexions sur la permanence, la non-permanence et les ordres juridiques administratifs », Cultures & Conflits, vol. 112, no. 4, pp. 15-34.

[9]Peoples, C., Vaughan-Williams, N., 2010, Critical Security Studies. An introduction, Routledge.

[10]Lindekilde, L., 2016, “Radicalization, de-radicalization, and counter-radicalization”, in Jackson, Routledge Handbook of Critical Terrorism Studies, Routledge.

[11]Mavelli, L., 2016, “The governmentality of terrorism: uncertainty, risk management, and surveillance”, in Jackson, Routledge Handbook of Critical Terrorism Studies, Routledge.


The Jihadis’ Path to Self-Destruction – Book Review

Editor’s note: This is part two of a three-part series blog post. For part one, see Orwa Ajjoub’s review, “On Salafism: Concepts and Contexts.

The second book that covers a different aspect of Sunni Jihadism is Nelly Lahood’s The Jihadis’ Path to Self-Destruction. Lahoud examines the internal dynamics and ideological foundations of jihadi groups, particularly how their ideological disagreement may lead to their downfall or self-destruction. The book aims to address the overarching question of “whether the religious philosophy of jihadis is sustainable and whether it will lead them to realize the Caliphate or Islamic State they aspire to achieve” (p. xvii). Structured into five chapters, Lahoud’s book is designed for selective reading, with each being independently comprehensive. ‘Past and Present Jihadis’, ‘Contesting Islam: The Kharijites’, ‘Islam Re-considered: Islamism and Jihadism’, ‘Why jihad and not Democracy’ and ‘Islam Giveth, Islam Taketh Away: Takfir and Jihad’. Notably, chapter two diverges from the focus on contemporary jihadism to explore the Kharijites, an early Islamic sect that emerged from the political chaos following the assassination of the third Caliph, Uthman, and the subsequent conflict between Ali and Muawiya, who competed for the title of the fourth Caliph. The Kharijites are known for their strict puritanism and the principle that leadership should solely be based on piety, leading to violent conflicts with other Muslim factions and within their own ranks (p. 31-40). This historical examination provides context for understanding modern jihadist ideologies.

Lahoud offers critical reading of the contemporary polemical discourse claiming that because of their violent actions, the jihadist are the heirs of the Kharijites. Also, it considers jihadi response to such accusations and proceeds to present a balanced comparisons between the doctrinal beliefs of the Kharijites and today’s jihadis, most notably their Scripturalism, their individualism in interpreting scriptural, including resorting to takfir and to individual jihad in defence if their religious principles. This approach in dealing with the ‘other’, according to Lahoud is what separated the Kharijites from the larger Muslim community and is separating contemporary jihadis from the rest of the Muslim community. Yet, significant differences exist. Today’s jihadis look up to the salaf al-salihin (the pious predecessors; the first three generations of Muslims) as exemplary figures, whereas the Kharijites opposed this emerging orthodoxy, which they saw as a betrayal of God’s law. ‘The Islam challenged by the Kharijites is the same Islam that jihadis aim to restore… The Kharijites opposed an Islam evolving into an empire, whereas jihadis oppose an Islam diminishing into nation-states’ (p. 94). While such argument could partly explain why jihadi group fight each other’s, it seems to overlook other factors (social, political and personal) that could influence jihadis leaders’ decision to peruse inter and intra group violence. In other words, the argument places too much emphasis on the role ideology plays in legitimizing violence among jihads.   

A central argument running through the book is that internal divisions among jihadis, that is based on their ideological rigidity, significantly hinder their unity, like the historical Kharijites whose doctrinal inflexibility led to internal strife (p. 54). Notably, the book’s 2010 publication predated the Islamic State’s caliphate declaration by four years, providing a context for evaluating Lahoud’s hypothesis. Although internal ideological conflicts have played an important role in weakening of the Islamic State, the group initially overcame these disputes, declaring a caliphate in 2014 and controlling vast territories in Syria and Iraq. While Lahoud’s argument was vindicated by the group’s internal divisions contributing to its downfall, external pressures, such as the US-led coalition’s military intervention, were decisive in ending the Islamic State’s territorial control in March 2019. Nonetheless, the jihadis managed to maintain their caliphate for around two years.

Political Islam or Islamism has long been the accepted conceptual umbrella under which jihadi groups have been studied. This approach has led some to categorize jihadis as Islamists, a classification that Lahoud challenges by highlighting the ideological and political differences between jihadis and other groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which are more accurately described as Islamists (p. 98). While Islamists emphasize allegiance to their group and leaders, functioning within the confines of nation-state politics and prioritizing extensive religious education for their followers before any action, Jihadis, on the other hand, reject the nation-state concept, favor enthusiasm over religious education, and support individual autonomy in interpretation and decision-making (p. 149).

One of the significant contributions of the book is its examination of why jihadis leave their countries for jihad in places where death could be imminent. Given the book’s intense focus on the textual analysis of jihadi intellectual outputs, a more precise question might be what ideas and arguments from jihadi ideologues legitimize these actions. Under the title ‘From Islamization to Jihadization of Islam,’ Lahoud traces the conceptual evolution of jihad and how the concept has been radicalized from the 1960s with Islamist Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb to other ideologues who transformed it into a doctrinal issue (p. 117). This aligns with Bishara’s argument about the evolution of Salafi thought across different historical epochs.

The book is detailed and dense, which may present a challenge for those not already versed in the subject. However, scholars interested in the theological and philosophical aspects of jihadism will discover essential insights necessary for understanding the complexities of this phenomenon.


Re-focusing Family Counselling in Extremism Prevention

For family members and friends, the radicalisation of a loved one can cause considerable ‘grief, anxiety, despair and upset’ (Gielen 2015, 23). Fortunately, alongside those directly involving radicalising individuals, there are also counselling services that offer support to their relatives and friends (Koehler 2013; 2015). Family counselling is often used as an element of a systemic prevention approach or within exit programmes. It focuses on the person who is believed to be radicalising and seeks to intervene in this process or support a rehabilitation by supporting the person’s systemic environment, which includes relatives and friends but also the professional and social environment in a broader sense. The counselling aims to support them in gaining agency and building skills that enable them to maintain a relationship with the radicalising person or to have a preventative influence on them (Cragin, Robinson, and Steinberg P.S. 2015; Williams, Horgan, and Evans 2016). In Germany, such counselling as part of a systemic approach to prevention is currently offered by several organisations, albeit with different emphases, such as Legato, the Violence Prevention Network, Grüner Vogel e.V. and BeRATen e.V. Another example is the former Hayat model, which advised family members of people who intended to join a terrorist group in the Middle East (Köhler 2015, 9).

The benefits of supporting relatives in this way are manifold: First, in the best-case scenario, relatives and friends still have informal, possibly even daily or recurring access to the radicalising person. Secondly, they may have an intrinsic interest in the person’s well-being or in maintaining family or friendly relationships (Ellefsen and Sandberg 2022). Relatives are thus uniquely positioned to recognise and report early signs of radicalisation (cf. Gielen 2015), a potential that can be strengthened through counselling: ‘By teaching the relative of radicalised individuals about arguments and ideological narratives used by radical groups, the family will be able to counter them’ (Koehler 2015, 5).

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, similar family counselling services have emerged to support relatives and friends in dealing with people within their personal environment who turn to conspiracy theories. The development of a referral system for counselling with the focus on people attracted to conspiracy narratives and their environment aims to further support the professionalisation and network building of this field and is supported in the scope of the federal program ‘Demokratie leben!’. In the German context, examples of such services include ‘Entschwört’ or ‘Veritas’, which focus on the psychological needs of the person receiving counselling beyond the purpose of intervention, in addition to developing skills to intervene. Counselling of the social environment of radicalising individuals in extremism prevention always aims at emotionally stabilising the person seeking counselling and encouraging them to further seek support and build up their own resilience in dealing with the emotional burden and stress of the situation they find themselves in. However, this aspect is rarely prioritised by policymakers who instead focus on the use of family counselling for extremism prevention. As will now be described, sole focus on the latter is problematic in multiple respects, making a stronger awareness for the consideration of relatives’ and friends’ needs mandatory when planning and funding entire extremism prevention programmes. 

From a deontological perspective, for example, one could argue that it is not appropriate to make family members agents of change in a radicalisation process. When counselling relatives of conspiracy believers, it is often children who seek advice on how to deal with their parents, and they in particular do not have positive duties towards their parents, as could perhaps be argued in the parent-child relationship. Yet, in cases where parents seek advice on their children, for example, where they suspect a radicalisation, it is equally questionable whether an intervention in a radicalisation process constitutes such a ‘positive duty’ or whether it places too much responsibility on relatives given the multifactorial nature of radicalisation processes. Some authors doubt that relatives and friends can play a decisive role in prevention (Weggemans, Liem, and van der Zwan 2021; Sikkens et al. 2017). The intentions of the security authorities behind such counselling services can be particularly problematic: Relatives could be assigned ‘heavy responsibilities in nation-states counter-terrorism’ (Haugstvedt 2022) or not use counselling services at all because they are worried about security authority consequences for their relatives or fundamentally distrust the state.

This is echoed by a consequentialist perspective: The success of the intervention may be low or counterproductive and the psychological consequences for relatives who fail in their attempts to intervene can be great. In the case of conspiracy theories, for example, counter-evidence is even said to have a reinforcing effect on conspiracy ideology (Sunstein and Vermeule 2009, 223). At the same time, it is also possible that counselling fulfils a natural desire of the relative to acquire skills to help the radicalising relative and preserve relationships (Noddings 1986). In accordance with the intrinsic interest of the person seeking counselling in the well-being of the radicalising individual, one could also argue from an ethics-of-care perspective that relatives are in a reciprocal caring relationship and that counselling is necessary to support relatives in this.

However, the latter requires a shift in the focus of counselling for relatives: instead of seeing counselling for relatives as a means to the end of preventing radicalisation, the needs of those seeking counselling should come to the fore to meet the need for psychosocial support and competence development. This will ultimately have the same effect in the best-case scenario, but will also buffer any negative effects if an intervention is not successful. For example, a nuanced two-track counselling model could be possible, in which counselling acts as a stress reliever and competency provider (Haugstvedt 2022, 9). On the one hand, counselling services should meet the possible desire of some relatives to acquire skills with which they can intervene. The focus should be on the relative as ‘the one caring’ and the opportunities to act as an agent of change should be explored, while at the same time preparing them for the risks involved. Despite the potential that such counselling services have for the prevention of radicalisation, it must also be possible for relatives to simply seek psychosocial support without being held responsible as agents of change. This includes, for example, counselling on how to maintain family relationships and support in developing coping strategies. The focus here is on the relative as ‘the one caring for themselves’. Such a two-track model also allows those seeking counselling to switch back and forth between the two tracks. If an attempt at intervention fails or the relative is overwhelmed despite initially expressing a desire for intervention, it is sensible to abandon the intervention logic and instead focus solely on the well-being of the person seeking counselling. On the other hand, psychological support can also trigger a motivation to intervene.

In conclusion, relatives and friends of radicalising individuals have a variety of needs that counselling should fulfil in some way. Some relatives wish to help their loved ones and try to intervene in a radicalisation process. However, despite all the potential that relatives have as ‘agents of change’, it can lead to ethical problems if feelings of responsibility arise, counselling becomes a tool for the purpose of prevention and potential risks for relatives are not sufficiently considered. Hence, when planning and promoting extremism prevention programmes that seek to take advantage of the undisputed benefits of family counselling, care should be taken to ensure that psychosocial support of family members and friends is offered, which is already often the case in systemic counselling or counselling for relatives of conspiracy theorists. Policymakers should acknowledge the ethical difficulties of regarding relatives and friends of a radicalising individual solely as potential intervention actors and thus make sure that future prevention programmes always contain both: Support regarding the advice seeker’s confidence and agency in dealing with their radicalising relative and psychosocial support for the advice seeker themselves.

Named organisations and projects offering counselling for relatives and friends in Germany (non-exhaustive list):


Cragin, Bradley K., M.A. Robinson, and Steinberg P.S. 2015. ‘What Factors Cause Youth to Reject Violent Extremism? Results of an Exploratory Analysis in the West Bank’. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corportation.

Ellefsen, Rune, and Sveinung Sandberg. 2022. ‘Everyday Prevention of Radicalization: The Impacts of Family, Peer, and Police Intervention’. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, February, 1–24.

Gielen, Amy-Jane. 2015. ‘Supporting Families of Foreign Fighters. A Realistic Appraoch for Measuring the Effectiveness’. Journal for Deradicalization, no. 2: 21–48.

Haugstvedt, Håvard. 2022. ‘What Can Families Really Do? A Scoping Review of Family Directed Services Aimed at Preventing Violent Extremism’. Journal of Family Therapy, February, 1–14.

Koehler, Daniel. 2013. ‘Family Counselling as Prevention and Intervention Tool against “Foreign Fighters”. The German “Hayat” Program’. Journal EXIT-Deutschland 3: 182–204.

———. 2015. ‘Using Family Counselling to Prevent and Intervene Against Foreign Fighters: Operational Perspectives, Methodology and Best Practices for Implementing Codes of Conduct’. In Understanding Deradicalization: Pathways to Enhance Transatlantic Common Perceptions and Practices, edited by Middle East Institute.

Noddings, Nel. 1986. Caring: A Relational Approach to Ethics & Moral Education. Oakland: University of California Press, 2013.

Sikkens, Elga, Marion van San, Stijn Sieckelink, and Micha de Winter. 2017. ‘Parental Influence on Radicalization and De-Radicalization According to the Lived Experiences of Former Extremists and Their Families’. Journal for Deradicalization 12.

Sunstein, Cas, and Adrian Vermeule. 2009. ‘Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures’. The Journal of Political Philosophy 17 (2): 202–27.

Weggemans, Daan, Marieke Liem, and Marieke van der Zwan. 2021. ‘A Family Affair? Exploratory Insights into the Role of Family Members of Those Who Joined Jihadist Groups’. Security Journal.

Williams, Michael J., John G. Horgan, and William P. Evans. 2016. ‘The Critical Role of Friends in Networks for Countering Violent Extremism: Toward a Theory of Vicarious Help-Seeking’. Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression 8 (1): 45–65. 


Reflections from the first module of the Europaeum Scholars Programme

During a rainy week at the University of Oxford in early March, I joined 29 other doctoral students from across Europe for the first module of the Europaeum Scholars Programme. Taken alongside PhD studies, in 8 modules over an 18 month period, this is a policy and leadership programme for the ‘most talented, energetic and committed doctoral candidates from within the Europaeum network – the people who will make a difference to Europe’. During the next 18 months, we’ll take part in workshops, seminars and discussions on issues pertaining to policymaking and leadership, before coming up with our own policy proposal to ‘make Europe a better place’ in small, multidisciplinary groups.

Each module has a different theme, and this first one was on societal problems and ethics. Over the course of an action-packed 4 days we heard from experts on everything from ethics in AI to the impact of Brexit to embodied leadership. For me though, the highlight was hearing from the heads of three charities – Aspire Oxford, Refugee Resource and Abianda – about the vital work they are doing to support homeless people, refugees and gang-affected women respectively, in the face of a crumbling welfare state in the UK. As is often the case with these sorts of issues, its easy to get caught up in the important, but nevertheless more abstract, high-level political processes. Hearing from these inspiring individuals who are carrying out direct and impactful work at a grassroots level was a reminder that these processes have concrete, often adverse, effects on some of society’s most marginalised people.

Beyond the programme content itself, it was an absolute pleasure to spend the week with such a lovely group of people. It’s no secret that doing a PhD is lonely, so to spend time with others going through the same thing was just what I needed. The fact that people come from a wide range of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences made discussions multifaceted and intellectually stimulating. I won’t pretend that everyone in the group agreed on everything, in fact we often didn’t, but it was good for me to have my views challenged and to have to defend them in a way that I don’t in my usual echo chamber. 

We ate all our meals together with the teaching fellows, the highlight of which was the dinner on the last evening in the beautiful dining hall of Balliol College. I had some great company at my table and the food – especially the banging deconstructed pavlova for dessert – was delicious. I’m already looking forward to the second module – on EU institutions and policymaking – in Brussels in June. 


Tensions between Security and Support in P/CVE

In discussions about preventing extremism, there is a recurring debate between focusing on security measures and providing support. On one side, security agencies like the police intervene to stop criminal activities and prevent potential attacks by arresting offenders for example. On the other side, civil society organizations are rather concerned with the well-being of individuals and aim to promote paths that steer away from extremism. While it is difficult to fully entangle social and security concerns, navigating this balance presents challenges for both prevention strategies and their public perception. Trust in civil society initiatives can be undermined if people fear their information might be shared with the authorities. Discussions often center on different aspects of the tension between security and support at political, organizational, or practitioner level. Although, the tensions become manifest on all these levels, the negotiations taking place do differ. However, the extent to which these levels differ has been addressed much less to date. What is debated politically does not always translate directly to how prevention work is carried out on the ground. This can be attributed to the discretion practitioners have, highlighting not only mentioned top-down influence of policies but also the importance of bottom-up processes.

Starting at the macro level, the focus lies on the direction of policies to prevent extremism. In this regard, the securitization of preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) is often discussed (Baker-Beall et al., 2014; Ragazzi, 2017; Sivenbring & Malmros, 2019; Walkenhorst & Ruf, 2018). “While social and security policies have always overlapped in complex ways, recent developments in counter-terrorism policy suggest that Western European states […] are accelerating what can be termed the “securitization of social policy” – namely the increased submission of social policy actors and their practices to the logics of security and social control” (Ragazzi, 2017, p. 1). Notions of securitization within P/CVE discussions often imply a link between policy discourse and professional practices, potentially resulting in efforts being perceived as subordinate to societal security concerns. This suggested link will be explored further in the following. 

In addressing radicalization as a complex phenomenon, there is often a request for the involvement of various actors (Christensen et al., 2023). Thus, at the meso level, different institutions are engaged in extremism prevention to varying degrees across many countries. These institutions are distinguished by references to hard and soft approaches, security and non-security actors, as well as societal security and support logics (Christensen et al., 2023; Hardy, 2023; Ragazzi & de Jongh, 2019). Typically, institutions associated with prevention efforts are ascribed to either the ‘support’ or the ‘security logic’ paradigms (Malmros & Sivenbring, 2023; Sivenbring & Malmros, 2019). These logics describe how respective actors engage in preventing extremism. Civil-society actors such as teachers, social workers, and youth workers commonly provide support to foster the well-being or emancipation of individuals. Police and security agencies on the other hand are concerned with the security and safety of citizens and thus aim at stopping criminal behavior via prosecution. 

Despite the differences of these actors, they have also shared responsibilities in some regards. To which degree this is established is however very much country dependent. For example, collaboration between state actors and civil society has been more popular in the Nordic countries. These cases have shown that multiagency collaborations require cross-professional trust as well as convergence of approaches and logics to some extent (Gøtzsche-Astrup et al., 2023). Such cooperation has been associated with ambivalences in the self-understanding and role clarity of practitioners raising “ethical and professional dilemmas, especially regarding work transparency and client confidentiality, indicating an outside influence of security onto prevention work” (Haugstvedt & Tuastad, 2023, p. 677). The effects are not limited to the practitioners themselves, but also have consequences for the impact on (potential) target groups, which may put trust at stake (s. also Ragazzi & de Jongh, 2019). 

Despite the relevance of these logics in delineating different approaches, the theory of street-level bureaucracy emphasizes the significance of practitioners in shaping prevention practice (Lipsky, 2010). Understanding how institutional logics influence individual actions remains a subject of interest, particularly in P/CVE implementation. It is commonly assumed that institutional logics provide a normative reference that guides social behavior in specific social contexts (Sivenbring & Malmros, 2019, p. 38). However, professionals have also been able to find common ground in multi-agency collaborations. Although concerns about securitization of P/CVE have often been voiced at the political level, multi-agency cooperation in the Nordic countries has shown a shared recognition of supportive approaches (Figlestahler & Schau, 2020; Gøtzsche-Astrup et al., 2023). The dominance of societal security matters in many policy texts may therefore not be directly reflected in the actions of the corresponding agencies (Thomas, 2017). Nevertheless, the margin of discretion may also be used in a way that contributes to social control and promotes bottom-up securitization processes. In these cases, greater emphasis is placed on control and monitoring in prevention efforts, which tends to result in increased general suspicion of potential threats (Ragazzi & de Jongh, 2019; Walkenhorst & Ruf, 2018). 

Nevertheless, discussions around the securitization of extremism prevention work often assume top-down processes of policy implementation. This process implies translations of policies into institutional structures and ultimately into prevention practice. However, taking a closer look at those who implement the programs suggests a space of discretion that may allow to shape prevention to a significant degree highlighting the relevance of bottom-up processes. Thus, although the tensions between security and support are discussed and negotiated in different ways, there are also interactions between the political, organizational and practitioner level. The extent to which such alignments between security and support are balanced and communicated can significantly impact how the public perceives and trusts prevention efforts, ultimately shaping their effect. 


Baker-Beall, C., Heath-Kelly, C., & Jarvis, L. (Eds.). (2014). Counter-Radicalisation: Critical perspectives (1st ed.). Routledge.

Christensen, T. W., Lindekilde, L., Sivenbring, J., Bjørgo, T., Magnæs Gjelsvik, I., Solhjell, R., Haugstvedt, H., Malmros, R. A., Kangasniem, M., & Kallio, H. (2023). “Being a Risk” or “Being at Risk”: Factors Shaping Negotiation of Concerns of Radicalization within Multiagency Collaboration in the Nordic Countries. Democracy and Security, 1–24.

Figlestahler, C., & Schau, K. (2020). Zwischen Kooperation und Grenzziehung – Aushandlungen von Sicherheitsbehörden und Akteur*innen Sozialer Arbeit in der Radikalisierungsprävention. Soziale Passagen12(2), 421–439.

Gøtzsche-Astrup, O., Lindekilde, L., Maria Fjellman, A., Bjørgo, T., Solhjell, R., Haugstvedt, H., Sivenbring, J., Andersson Malmros, R., Kangasniemi, M., Moilanen, T., Magnæs, I., Wilchen Christensen, T., & Mattsson, C. (2023). Trust in interagency collaboration: The role of institutional logics and hybrid professionals. Journal of Professions and Organization10(1), 65–79.

Hardy, K. (2023). Rethinking CVE and public health prevention. In J. Busher, L. Malkki, & S. Marsden, The Routledge Handbook on Radicalisation and Countering Radicalisation (1st ed., pp. 355–368). Routledge.

Haugstvedt, H., & Tuastad, S. E. (2023). “It Gets a Bit Messy”: Norwegian Social Workers’ Perspectives on Collaboration with Police and Security Service on Cases of Radicalisation and Violent Extremism. Terrorism and Political Violence35(3), 677–693.

Lipsky, M. (2010). Street-level bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the individual in public services (30th anniversary expanded ed). Russell Sage Foundation.

Malmros, R. A., & Sivenbring, J. (2023). Multi-agency approaches to countering radicalisation. In J. Busher, L. Malkki, & S. Marsden, The Routledge Handbook on Radicalisation and Countering Radicalisation (1st ed., pp. 369–383). Routledge.

Ragazzi, F. (2017). Countering terrorism and radicalisation: Securitising social policy? Critical Social Policy37(2), 163–179.


Sivenbring, J., & Malmros, R. A. (2019). Mixing Logics: Multiagency Approaches for Countering Violent Extremism. Gothenburg: the Segerstedt Institute.

Thomas, P. (2017). Changing experiences of responsibilisation and contestation within counter-terrorism policies: The British Prevent experience. Policy & Politics45(3), 305–321.

Walkenhorst, D., & Ruf, M. (2018). „Vertrauen ist gut, Kontrolle ist besser “? Sicherheitspolitisches vs. Pädagogisches Handeln in der Extremismusprävention. Von Drachenfels, Magdalena/Philipp Offermann/Carmen Wunderlich, Radikalisierung Und De-Radikalisierung in Deutschland, Eine Gesamtgesellschaftliche Herausforderung1, 101–106.


The proscription of Terrorgram as a terrorist organisation in the UK: Insights from the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation

On 26 April the UK became the first country in the world to proscribe the ‘Terrorgram Collective’. From today, membership, support, or the display of articles associated with the network is now illegal and can carry a punishment of up to 14 years in prison or an unlimited fine. The listing of Terrorgram represents a novel use of the proscription power as it is the first time that an online terror network has been proscribed as a terrorist organisation in the UK under the Terrorism Act 2000. The wording of the act has been deemed sufficiently broad enough to encompass such a network, despite its “entirely fluid, online presence”.

Terrorgram is a network of neo-fascist terrorists based on the encrypted messaging app Telegram. They promote militant accelerationism, a doctrine which strives to bring about the collapse of liberal, democratic and capitalist societies, by placing pressure on and exacerbating “latent social divisions, often through violence, thus hastening societal collapse”. Terrorgram produces and disseminates violent propaganda and instructional material to encourage terrorism. This includes digital publications in the form of zines, collectively authored by individuals across the network, which stand out for their visually appealing aesthetic and graphics providing instructions for bomb-making or sabotaging critical infrastructure.

Another hallmark of Terrorgram is ‘Saints Culture’, where far-right terrorists, including the Christchurch attacker Brenton Tarrant and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, are glorified and worshipped as ‘Saints’ in visual propaganda. By sanctifying each new perpetrator and retroactively anointing historical white supremacist terrorists as martyrs, Terrorgram encourages the mobilisation of further attackers by community-building around the cause of ‘white terror’.

In October 2022, the first attack linked to Terrorgram took place, when Juraj Krajčík, shot and killed two and injured a third outside an LGBTQ+ bar in Bratislava, Slovakia. Krajčík addressed and thanked Terrorgram for their propaganda in his manifesto and directed readers to Terrorgram publications, praising them for “building the future of the White revolution, one publication at a time.” The Terrorgram collective responded by enthusiastically adding him to their pantheon of Saints, and anointed him as “Terrorgram’s first Saint”.

Terrorgram is the 81st group to be proscribed in the UK, and the sixth Extreme Right-Wing terrorist organisation to be listed, alongside National Action (2016), Sonnenkrieg Division and Feuerkrieg Division (2020), Atomwaffen Division/National Socialist Order and The Base (2021). The inclusion of Terrorgram showcases the ability of the proscription tool to be used against an online terrorist network and highlights how existing legislation, which has traditionally been geared towards groups and organisations, can be applied to emerging terrorist threats in a digital age to meet the challenge posed by a post-organisational terrorist landscape. I spoke to Jonathan Hall KC, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation in the UK, about the significance of Terrorgram’s proscription:

How does the decision to proscribe an online network like the Terrorgram collective, rather than a ‘traditional’ group, reflect the evolving nature of terrorist threats in the digital age?

It strongly reflects the evolving terrorist threat in the digital age, it’s not the first predominantly online group that has been prescribed. In the UK there have been groups like Sonnenkrieg Division, Feuerkrieg Division and Atomwaffen which have a very strong online presence, but have been involved, either here or abroad, in physical acts. What is unique about Terrorgram collective is that it’s being proscribed purely because of its online content. 

It reflects the nature of the threat and the risk. Online content is just becoming more and more dangerous, persuasive, and effective. It’s capable of being exploited very effectively by tech-savvy actors and there is an emerging aspect of accelerationism, which is so actor neutral. It doesn’t matter who carries out the acts. All they want to do is to inspire someone, and that can be someone anywhere in the world. As we have seen, the Terrorgram collective’s propaganda inspired that attack in Bratislava.

How has Terrorgram met the proscription criteria?  

So, the really interesting one is the fact that it is assessed to be an organisation. If you look at the government’s explanatory memorandum to the draft statutory instrument, it talks about a ‘core leadership’, which directs the output. So, first of all, it qualifies as an organisation, which is a necessary aspect if it is going to be proscribed under UK law. Because only groups or organisations can be proscribed. You can’t proscribe an individual, you can’t proscribe content, you can only proscribe an organisation. So that was a really crucial assessment.

And then the criteria, there’s the single criteria of being ‘concerned in terrorism’. But that means, and there are two limbs of this, one is that it ‘promotes or encourages terrorism’, and that’s pretty self-explanatory. The interesting one here, is that it was also assessed that it ‘prepares for terrorism’, and this has a slightly extended meaning. It prepares by providing instructional material to other people. So, its helping other people prepare for their acts and that could be, for example, providing a manual on how to carry out a knife or weapons attack or how to build a 3D-printed gun or something of that nature. So, it’s assessed to actually be involved in facilitating other people’s attacks. 

Do you anticipate any challenges in enforcing the proscription of an online network like Terrorgram, particularly in terms of identifying and prosecuting individuals involved in its activities?

I think it depends on the facts. The government has been able to assess there is a core leadership, so it then depends on where that core leadership is located, and whether or not there is any evidence that can be used to prosecute them. So, the primary response of proscription is to find the members and prosecute them. As I say, if they are in the UK that’s possible. If they are not in the UK, it is going to be very difficult. It depends on their operational security; it depends on whether there will be any useful evidence they are responsible for the Terrorgram collective. So, there is this question of facts, is there any evidence? 

Probably, the greater dividend is the ability to say to tech companies they should remove any branded material, because this is now a UK proscribed organisation. And the fact that the UK has proscribed, is seen as a legitimate reason for removing material. It’s a step beyond the bounds of what is acceptable. So it is probably going to be used most, I mean I can’t say for sure, but as a way of disrupting its presence on the internet. 

This actually brings us to my next question. What role could the proscription of online networks play in addressing the dissemination of terrorist content, such as instructional material aimed at aiding preparation for terrorism?

Obviously, most content is going to be hosted by overseas platforms. It could be on Telegram, or it could be on a standard platform like Facebook. Now, depending on their capability, whether they have the human moderators or technical capability to identify this, you would hope that those bodies would remove it. Not because they are bound by UK law, but because they sign up to a set of standards and they are prepared to accept, from a democracy like the UK, with checks and balances, the opportunity of appeal, and the fact that it is ratified by parliament, they are prepared to accept this is something that they should remove. But to some extent, it is brokered. It is not something that is demanded by the UK.

There are obviously much smaller platforms, some of whom are just very antagonistic, either because they are obsessed with free speech, or because they are just used by terrorists, who won’t comply. And there is a problem with terrorist-operated websites, there are problems with small platforms that are hosted in jurisdictions, who don’t really feel responsible for their conduct, where it is going to be really hard. In general, proscription will provide a basis for UK and intermediate organisations like the Global Internet Foundation to Counter Terrorism and Tech Against Terrorism, which are these trade bodies, to say, “you should remove this stuff”. Whether it’s going to be removed from all the platforms will depend upon a lot of things like, where they are, if it’s encrypted, what their capability is, and what their attitude is. 

How do you assess the effectiveness of the UK’s proscription regime in adapting to the challenges posed by post-organisational terrorism, and do you have any recommendations for further enhancing its capabilities in this regard?

I’m impressed about how adaptable it’s proven to be. It does depend upon that ability to say, and if there is a challenge, to prove that there is central leadership. I had a look in one of my annual reports, I think my ‘Terrorism Acts in 2021’ report. I looked at the proscription tool and sort of posed the question, “what could you do when you can’t identify core organisation?” And I think the answer is, probably nothing using the proscription tool, without changing it beyond its intended use. 

We don’t have a tradition in the UK of making content illegal, unlike in Germany, where it is illegal to display a swastika. We make conduct illegal. With our history of Northern Irish terrorism, we’ve focused on the conduct of groups as being the most dangerous. I think it would be very odd to proscribe an individual. If you adapted to a post-organisational world, and said “well why don’t you have the ability to ban an individual?” It would be impossible to implement. You can’t commit a crime for being you, you can commit a crime for being a member of a terrorist organisation, and you can choose to leave that terrorist organisation, which would be good, but if you were to ban an individual, well they’re always going to be that individual. The framework of membership offences wouldn’t be available. The framework of giving money to a proscribed organisation also wouldn’t work, would it? Because people are allowed to have money, to receive money from the benefits system, they are allowed to pay money in shops. The framework, which said “you shouldn’t give money to or receive money from a terrorist organisation”, wouldn’t work when applied to individuals. 

And if you start banning content, first of all, it has not been our tradition, but even if it was, you would have to constantly update your database. You would have to say “we’re banning this publication, now we’re banning this publication”, which is not something you can easily keep up with. It’s something that New Zealand did in relation to the Christchurch video. And it has something that Australia has done with what they call ‘abhorrent materials’, they’ve created a special category of first-person perpetrator video. But that’s very different from the proscription methods. So I think the answer is, there is probably not much more that you can do, but it’s proven surprisingly adaptive. 

Where proscription has been used against groups that operate predominantly online or have more of an online than an offline presence, it’s been a different sort of counter-terrorism campaign. Because these groups have historically just sort of disappeared quite quickly. It has proven quite effective. If you contrast that to the groups which remain of concern, like Al-Muhajiroun, al-Qaeda, but thinking more about British-based groups, like the IRA, I mean, those have endured. That probably tells you something about the original solidity of the group. Some of these internet groups will be a bit ‘here today, gone tomorrow’. And proscription will be a way of finishing them off. 


Influence of social network processes on radical conspiracy theories

Editor’s note: This post is part one of a two-part series that the author intends to publish over the next two months.

There is a structural tendency for extremists to uphold conspiracy theories, which is reflected in their dichotomic thinking style aimed at making sense of societal events by providing oversimplified explanations (van Prooijen et al. 2015). More specifically, “tragedies caused by extremism are rooted substantially in a tendency to be distrustful and paranoid toward groups of other-minded individuals” (Ibid), which is also a characteristic of conspiracy thinking, known as ‘us-vs.-them’ logic. In a general manner, conspiracy theories and radicalization are both fundamentally related to meaning-making processes that “may compensate for personal uncertainties by providing self-regulatory clarity, and by imbuing the world with meaning and purpose” (Ibid, 571), thus, meaning is “created in a situation of existential fragility” (Önnerfors, Steiner 2018: 33). Accordingly, conspiracy thinking may be seen as a core component of the process of radicalization into extremism.

Recent studies have been moving away “from debunking conspiracy theories towards exploring their meaning for those involved” (Harambam 2020: 280). A possible approach regards how “conspiracy theories serve as a way to express distrust and discontent with authorities, and perhaps even distrust towards society more generally” (Thórisdóttir et al. 2020: 313), showcasing how, in a more general manner, “relationships in public based automatically upon authority are in decline” (Fairclough 1995: 137).

In general, the last few decades have shown how epistemic authorities and distributions of power have changed (Lorusso 2022). More people are now able to intervene in the public sphere, feeling empowered by new media and its logics to act as reliable information sources (Ibid). In this context, the base of conspiracy narratives becomes what Mari-Liss Madisson (2014) calls ‘social trust’ – that is, the verification of these narratives transcends any reference to proven facts, but instead, they rely on other narratives to support it (Madisson 2014; Stano 2020), creating an interdependent web of conspiracy narratives.

Further, it is crucial to consider that the circulation of information – and consequently of mis/disinformation – is regulated by network processes rather than being driven by chance (Leal 2020: 499). This means that, when speaking about online communication, it is also important to consider some of the socio-technical affordances of social media and how they impact communication. Leal (2020) describes two basic processes by which online networks generally operate: “The ‘Matthew effect’ (related to centrality and power) and clustering (related to homophily and transitivity)”.

The ‘Matthew effect of accumulated advantage’ is “determinant of hierarchies in online social networks” (Leal 2020: 499), describing the emergence of interconnected hubs, actors, or nodes, whose path is “dependent and favours those who are already central, powerful and influential” (Ibid).

A couple of years ago, the Director-General of the World Health Organisation declared: “we’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic” (WHO 2020: vii). In the face of this infodemic, the expansion of social media has reached a paradox:

The number of opinion holders and discussion platforms has multiplied to such a degree that it is quite likely that any particular posting will not be noticed by nearly anyone against the background of a general flood of information. This information overload has increased the relevance of focusers or filters of attention, which can be institutions, individual mediators (e.g. social media micro-celebrities) or algorithms (e.g. those that mark trending themes), that can bring attention to a certain topic or an event. (Madisson, Ventsel 2021: 17)

Visibility has thus become one of the most desirable resources in the landscape of online media, and yet, it largely tends to be obtained by those who are already in possession of it. Therefore,

While the scale, speed and reach are generally conceived as providing equal opportunities for communication between people and the spread of narratives, the reality shows that this horizontality is illusory. […] In social networks, especially, it is not the equal distribution of interconnections, but the fact that some nodes are more well-connected than others that makes an idea or a virus circulate faster and more efficiently. (Leal 2020: 499)

As a consequence, the “turn-of-the-century utopian dream of the internet as a space of liberation and as a birthplace of new democratic communities has vanished” (Puumeister 2020: 520). Horizontal distribution of power and equal opportunity are now illusions or lost to the past, having been replaced with the logics of algorithms, which merely increase the influence of those who already possess it. The effects of this can be seen on many spheres of human life, especially in processes of meaning-making.

Follow the continuation of this discussion (PART 2) here on the VORTEX blog, coming June 2024.


Fairclough, Norman. 1995. Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of Language. London: Lohgman.

Harambam, Jaron 2020. Conspiracy Theory Entrepreneurs, Movements and Individuals. In: Butter, Michael; Knight, Peter (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories. New York: Routledge, 278-291.

Leal, Hugo 2020. Networked Disinformation and The Lifecycle of Online Conspiracy Theories. In: Butter, Michael; Knight, Peter (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories. New York: Routledge, 497-511.

Lorusso, Anna M. 2022. Fake News as Discursive Genre: Between Hermetic Semiosis and Gossip. Social Epistemology37(17): 1-13, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2021.2001604.

Madisson, Mari-Liis 2014. The Semiotic Logic of Signification of Conspiracy Theories. Semiotica 202 (2014): 273-300.

Madisson, Mari-Liis; Ventsel, Andreas 2021. Strategic Conspiracy Narratives: A Semiotic Approach. New York: Routledge.

Önnerfors, Andreas; Steiner, Kristian (2018). Expressions of Radicalization, Global Politics, Processes and Practices. London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 1507-1508.

Puumeister, Ott 2020. Conspiratorial Rationality. Sign Systems Studies, 48(2-4): 519-528.

Stano, Simona 2020. The Internet and The Spread of Conspiracy Content. In: Butter, Michael; Knight, Peter (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories. New York: Routledge. 483-496.

Thórisdóttir, Hulda; Mari, Silvia; Krouwel, André 2020. Conspiracy Theories, Political Ideology and Political Behaviour. In: Butter, Michael; Knight, Peter (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories. New York: Routledge. 304-316.

van Prooijen, Jan-Willem; Krouwel, André P.; Pollet, Thomas V. (2015). Political extremism predicts belief in conspiracy theories. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6 (5), 570-578. DOI: 10.1177/19485506145673

WHO 2020. An ad hoc WHO technical consultation managing the COVID-19 infodemic: call for action. Geneva: World Health Organization. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO. Retrieved from:, 06.03.23.


On Salafism: Concepts and Contexts. The book review.

Azmi Bishara’s book, On Salafism: Concepts and Contexts, takes a deep dive into Salafism, aiming to clear up some of the confusion around this important but often misunderstood tradition of Islam.[1] Bishara looks into what Salafism really means, how it has changed over time, and its impact today. The book breaks down different views within Salafism and looks at why these differences matter. Bishara’s work helps readers get a clearer picture of Salafism, making it easier to understand its role in both history and the modern world.

Bishara’s book is divided into four relatively long chapters: ‘What is Salafism?’, ‘On Apostasy’, ‘Religious Associations and Political Movements’, and ‘Wahhabism in Context’. The book lays a foundational understanding of Salafism, detailing its key concepts and their application in various contexts, thus offering a broader understanding of the ideological roots of certain jihadi movements. From the start, Bishara critically addresses the terminological confusion surrounding terms such as ‘Salafism’ and how it has evolved and been used in modern times by many Western academics and policymakers. Generally, Salafism is understood to mean exclusive adherence to the Quran, Sunna teachings, and the practices of the first three generations of Islam, while eschewing innovation. Nevertheless, as Bishara argues, the term has transformed over the years across different socio-political contexts, meaning that it has been reproduced in several forms, thereby necessitating the discussion of multiple Salafisms, as opposed to a singular Salafism. 

Bishara distinguishes between different types of Salafism, delineating a crucial distinction in contemporary Islamic thought and practice. He defines ‘conservative’ or ‘traditionalist’ Salafism, which describes the Islamic institution in Saudi Arabia, also known as Wahhabism, as an approach that legitimizes current rulers, rooted in emulating the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, along with unwavering obedience and allegiance to an imam—that is, a ruler who governs in accordance with Sharia law. Conversely, Bishara characterizes ‘revolutionary’ jihadi Salafism as a contrasting interpretation that invokes the same early Islamic figures to challenge and discredit incumbent regimes (p. 30). This type of Salafism, associated with groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, often labels Muslim leaders as apostates, even if they publicly conform to Islamic precepts and hold religious titles. Another variant, often overlooked in policy discussions, is ‘Reformist Salafism,’ which, unlike other Salafi traditions, calls for a return to Islam’s roots not for imitation but for inspiration from early teachings when addressing contemporary issues (p. 15). This distinction is vital not only for academic clarification but also for formulating effective policies to address the phenomenon.

Chapter two engages with one of the most fundamental and consequential concepts in Islam, namely takfir or apostasy.[2]Building on the arguments presented in the first chapter about the heterogeneity of Salafism, Bishara demonstrates that not only do different strands of Salafism apply various methods to excommunicate others and legitimize violence against them, but even within a particular strand of Salafism, there exist contradictions on how to apply the concept. In theory, Salafi doctrine identifies ignorance, coercion, and unintentional errors as protective against declarations of infidelity among Muslims; however, Bishara points out that there is considerable contention within ‘revolutionary’ jihadi Salafism regarding this, particularly the interpretation of ignorance, as evidenced by al-Qaeda’s position against excommunicating ordinary Shi’a due to religious ignorance, contrasting with its Iraqi affiliate’s refusal of this stance, resulting in widespread violence against the Shi’a community. (P

The third chapter explores the various strands of Salafism and how they are shaped by different socio-political contexts and sometimes unintended intellectual borrowings from other radical groups, both Islamist and secular. Bishara challenges the Salafi narrative of a continuous ideological lineage from their intellectual ancestors, such as Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (780–855 CE), Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328 CE), and Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792), noting that followers and ideologues have historically reinterpreted the teachings of these figures, and often and reproduced a much radical version of their work (p. 64). This observation counters orientalist views on the static nature of not just Salafism but also Islam as a ‘discursive tradition,’ as Talal Asad describes. It also disputes claims that contemporary Salafism is merely a revivalist movement, arguing instead that Islamist movements arising in the modern context of nation-states and modernization are indeed contemporary, addressing current issues through historical lenses, yet remain distinctly modern. (p. 79)

The final chapter scrutinizes Wahhabism as a version of Salafism derived from the intellectual synergy between Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (780–855 CE) and Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792). Significantly, Bishara demostarte the reasons behind the successful expansion of Abd al-Wahhab’s initially marginal religious call, which came to dominate and represent Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment. He attributes this success to the political alliance between the Saudi rulers of the time and Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, which empowered the latter to spread his teachings, and to the weakness of religious institutions and traditions in Saudi Arabia’s rural areas, enabling such teachings to thrive (P.127). This sociological analysis offers a more nuanced comprehension of the interplay between religion and society, acknowledging the role of religious belief while also considering a spectrum of additional factors.

The book is conceptually rich and crucial for scholars of Salafism and jihadism. Yet, it would benefit from additional citations, particularly for minor arguments made by the author. Despite this, its insightful analysis and depth of knowledge make it a valuable contribution to the field.

[1] Bishara, Azmi. 2022. On Salafism: Concepts and Contexts. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[2] In jihadism literature, the term ‘apostasy’ is frequently translated as ‘excommunication’ to provide a more precise and contextually relevant meaning within Islamic doctrinal discussions. While apostasy typically describes the act of abandoning Islam, excommunication denotes the process through which jihadis legitimize violence against individuals they consider to be excommunicated.