UCL News


Understanding ’radicalising environments’ key to tackling extremism

31 July 2019

Environmental and contextual factors are key to understanding the causes of extremism alongside individual characteristics like susceptibility to moral change, according to research from UCL.

Anonymous person

Combinations of external drivers need to be taken into account in order to understand why some people take up unlawful extremist behaviour while many don’t.

Dr Noémie Bouhana (UCL Security & Crime Science) carried out her conceptual research as part of a call for papers from the UK Commission for Countering Extremism.

Her paper, The Moral Ecology of Extremism, looks to explain what drives extremism and why some individuals come to see committing extremist acts as morally legitimate. It also provides an analytical guide to help policymakers and stakeholders answer that question.

Among key drivers are those that induce people to perceive that their current moral belief system no longer serves as the most advantageous guide for action. This includes conditions that heighten the perception of competition between social groups.

“Interventions designed to counter extremism, especially violent extremism, aim more often than not to shore up individuals’ resilience to extremist moral influence, by addressing a number of personal, psychological and life factors,” Dr Bouhana explained.

“This overlooks the fact that most of the drivers that contribute to the emergence of extremism risk are found outside people; they’re in the physical spaces, communities and social systems they live in.”

To help policymakers assess how social change might contribute to an increase in extremism risk, Dr Bouhana developed a Risk Inference Framework called S⁵. The framework is informed by earlier work conducted with Professor Per-Olöf Wikström (University of Cambridge), produced for the Office of Security and Counter Terrorism ahead of the 2011 revision of the Prevent Strategy.

S⁵ sets out how five categories of determinants interact to generate or suppress the risk of individuals acquiring extremist moral beliefs and engaging in unlawful extremist behaviour. The framework is already the foundation of several studies on lone-actor terrorism risk and the emergence of radicalising environments.

Dr Bouhana analysed each of the five categories and put forward plausible contributions for some of the factors reportedly associated with extremist behaviour, such as social media exposure, economic disadvantage and social segregation.

The paper demonstrated that being vulnerable to extremism isn’t just a matter of being psychologically susceptible to moral influence – it is also a matter of being susceptible to sustained exposure to settings that enable extremist socialisation. These settings typically only emerge in particular environments and under certain conditions.

“This is lucky for us, or we would have a much bigger problem”, Dr Bouhana continued. “If we want the problem to remain as small as possible, however, future counter-extremism strategies should focus on suppressing the emergence of extremist moral ecologies, as well as on encouraging individual resilience, if not more so.

“When dealing with a complex social problem like extremism, we should maybe spend a little less time asking ourselves ‘why do they do it?’ and a little more time asking ‘why here and now?”

Sara Khan, Lead Commissioner at the Commission for Countering Extremism, said: “The public are fearful of violent extremism, but they are also deeply concerned about hateful extremism. At the same time, minorities are having their rights restricted.

“To unite the country – and to protect our freedom and democratic principles – we have to address each of these issues.”

The paper is published as one of eight peer-reviewed academic papers released by the Independent Commission for Countering Extremism on the causes of extremism, online extremism and approaches to countering the issue.

The commission is building up to a report of recommendations on tackling extremism for the Home Secretary.




Media contact

Kate Corry

Tel: +44 (0)20 3108 6995

Email: k.corry [at] ucl.ac.uk