Trouw Interview with David Kenning
31 October 2017
By Kristel van Teffellen
In recent years, David Kenning has been the most important adviser on anti-radicalization policy to the recently deceased Mayor of Amsterdam, Eberhard van der Laan. That fact was used to criticize both men. However, according to Kenning, many cities envy the Amsterdam approach.
Other cities are envious of e.g. the idea to distribute videos through YouTube that seem to come from an anonymous young Moroccan citizen of Amsterdam, yet are actually created at City hall. This idea from Kenning, a ‘deep secret’ project as Elsevier (erroneously) wrote, stirred up a lot of fuss last weekend. Kenning doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about: he is proud of the idea. If there is something that characterizes anti-radicalization policies, it’s that it can’t always be shouted from the rooftops. “You sometimes have to stay under the radar, because that’s where the extremists are.”
Moreover, according to him, the project was never finalised. Under the guise of a pilot, two or three short sample films were recorded, which never appeared online. Van der Laan fell terminally ill and the project came to a standstill.
The online videos were designed to help young people at risk of radicalisation to another, non-violent, state of mind. "Young people don’t listen to adults or distant role-models, hence the choice of a peer – someone just like them", says Kenning. An actor in the videos spoke about typical problems that young people face: such as the relationship with their father, and unjust authority figures. Kenning specifically excluded the topic of religion.
Excluding religion in anti-radicalization policy is a key part of his approach. Kenning doesn’t see radicalization as a religious problem: "Religion was important, fifteen or twenty years ago. Today, jihadism is mainly the result of a specific state of mindthat’s characteristic of mostly violent and damaged young men. The new generation of European jihadists is younger than ever. Genuine religious views are almost never present as a breeding ground for radicalisation. They don't attend mosques. Personal issues such as crime, family, identity, relationships and anger about exclusion and Islamophobia are the major factors."
Kenning came to Amsterdam for the first time in the 1980s because of his love for the Dutch philosopher Spinoza. A love that both he and Van der Laan shared, he says. He calls the former mayor of Amsterdam 'a giant of the city', and stipulates how important it was that Van der Laan’s approach was not led by fear but by practical considerations.
Nevertheless, the mayor was criticised for his collaboration with Kenning. The city council grew into the opinion that the mayor leaned too much on one specialist with unusual ideas when designing the anti-radicalisation policy.
The Irishman himself also came under fire, labelled a “fake” expert by different weblogs. They say he doesn’t conduct scientific research on the phenomenon nor does he hold a doctorate on the theme of anti-radicalisation. Yet Kenning’s view is like this: there are two types of experts; the academics and the experience experts, both equally valuable in the fight against terrorism.
"Academics consult statistics, they look back and analyse facts. But that is never enough. Countering radicalisation is about dealing with people's psychology, about influence. Extreme emotions are too rare, too random, hidden and subjective to produce statistics - nor can they be reliably reconstructed in a laboratory. There are simply too many variables for that, everyone is different. "
For the past fifteen years Kenning has worked as a counter terrorism advisor for various governments and cities – often in warzones. "I can not talk much about it, just that it was my job to stop recruitment for terrorist organizations, and if you've seen it up close as I have, you know it's not about religion." Later in the conversation Kenning shows a folder, containing various letters from governments and security agencies, asking for his advice or inviting him as a key-note speaker at counter-terrorist conferences.
What was your contribution to the Amsterdam anti-radicalisation policy in addition to the project with the YouTube videos?
"My goal in Amsterdam is to bring Spinoza's ideas back to life in a way that can contribute to our social cohesion and long-term security. I do this through the so-called DNA project, which is about the culture and nature of the city; the history of freedom, tolerance, cooperation and negotiation. Everyone gains from negotiation. Because, if you want to be successful in a negotiation, you need to know both what you want and what the other person wants. It’s a win-win situation. You can’t get stuck in black and white thinking, as the negotiation won’t succeed. In this way, negotiating makes it impossible to think like a fundamentalist.”
"The character of Amsterdam, and of many European democracies, is under pressure because of fear. Fear is a powerful weapon, it’s used deliberately to stop us from thinking for ourselves. Fear is also contagious, easy to create and difficult to remove. Populist parties, politicians, weblogs - and IS - understand that. They feed fear. They drive us to react with our gut instead of our head, and when we do, we weaken ourselves by undermining our democratic values. "
Europe has roused by a series of attacks. Hence is it not logical that people experience fear?
"Being frightened doesn't help, it doesn't change anything. The risk remains exactly the same."
But that’s a rational response. Fear is not rational.
"Terrorism is about projecting irrationalfear. Terrorists are waging a psychological war. And if you stop thinking during a psychological war you lose: you defeat yourself. So my message is; keep thinking! IS is not the real danger to our democracy, only voters can destroy it.”
"Our democracy revolves around freedom and equality, legal concepts that are found in the constitution. Currently freedom is not under pressure; processes, institutions and justice system are functioning properly. But equality - the equally essential but softer value - is under pressure, you can see it happening everywhere in the world – inequality is increasing. Everyone is fighting their own corner, which is fine, everyone is allowed to do that. Except that the joint centre is crumbling away. The centre where we listen to each other, negotiate and search for compromises together.”
"Eberhard van der Laan recognised that. While other countries are abandoning democratic values o counter terrorism through fear (US, France, UK etc) he saw that the best solution for Amsterdam was to become notless, but more like itself – to double-down on its values and character. That the city must return to that what made us what we are today. Eberhard acted with his head and his heart. I hope that his successor will choose to take the same course."
Did Van der Laan lean too much on you?
"Absolutely not, he received advice from different people. The anti-radicalisation programmes that already existed remained exactly the same. I had nothing to do with the ‘key figures’ (young people deployed as role models) or other projects.”
"Amsterdam has developed a broad approach at the individual level, which includes dealing with the terrorist ideology if it seems necessary. The Amsterdam approach is envied by other cities and countries, they come here to learn. My contribution consisted of adding depth to, on a long-term basis, counter polarization and radicalization. That was it.”
"Furthermore I work pro bono-- since last year I have refused payment for my advice."
It is not so strange to receive money for the work that you do?
"For me Amsterdam is a special case, I see it as an honour to bring back Spinoza's ideas. I have other clients, so enough to live on."
Do you ever make a mistake?
"Of course I can be wrong. However, everyone who works with me knows that my first rule is: Do no harm. Before I decide something, I always look at it from different sides to make sure that I never make anything worse. Only then do I decide to intervene.”
"Since September 11th, the Western world has made many mistakes that have actually contributed to jihadist recruitment. After the attacks, western governments prepared their populations for war by launching the narrative of “clash of civilisations”. Yet Al-Qaeda did exactly the same with their attack on the West; there too the clash of civilizations was their main story. As both sides were saying it’s a clash of civilizations, it caused marginalised Muslims to ask themselves: well, which side am I on? That definitely drove some over to the radicals’ side."
The DNA project that you developed for Amsterdam is aimed, among other things, at getting young people to negotiate with each other. How do you know it works?
"It’s extremely difficult to demonstrate that anti-radicalization policy works, particularly because many influential external factors cannot be controlled. You do not know for certain if there is a direct link between the municipality's policy and the choice of an individual not use violence. The fact that there has not been a terrorist attack in the Netherlands is no proof of a functioning anti-radicalisation policy. However, the people in the field intuitively know that my approach is effective, even though it has not been scientifically proven. They feel it, hear it and see it for themselves."
Why don’t you believe that religion plays a role in being a jihadist?
"Even IS knows that religious ideology is not sufficient to gain recruits. They have, more or less, stopped engaging in discussion about religion. Instead they use images and ideas that appeal to adolescent fantasies of power, fame, brotherhood and revenge to recruit followers. Where Al-Qaeda generated recruits with the slogan 'Islam isunder attack, come and defend it', IS developed this into 'Islam is on the attack– join us', and the latter holds the attraction for a new kind of recruit.”
"In Europe, radical Islam is used to justify extreme violence, as part of a worldwide conflict. It gives purpose to existing grievances. Of course Islamic extremists use the language of ideological jihad, that is one of their main marketing products. But their theological foundation today is practically nil."
What does that mean for the approach?
"It makes no sense to tell someone that his or her feeling, to defend his or her faith, in a worldwide conflict, is simply untrue – or argue against it. It’s not effective. This would be the same as telling people with anorexia that they are not fat, that their own image of their bodies is not right. When you make such an argument you are factually correct. You are objectively correct. But did you manage to change the state of mind of that anorexic person? No. There’s something else going on, something psychological and hidden. That is also one of the reasons why I did not want religion to play a role in the YouTube videos. Not only does it validate propaganda – and advertise the religious ideology -- it doesn’t make any sense either. Its simply not effective.”
"What matters is that you stop the next phase, of preventing radicalised people from wanting to attack. This wanting differs from person to person. Of the hundreds radicalised, only one will become a terrorist. The question is: who?"