by Marcel Wiegman
5 October 2017
A whole new generation of terrorists is on its way, says anti-radicalization expert David Kenning (63). "And many of our experts are busy fighting the previous war."
Along the wall of his house in Amsterdam is a series of guitars. David Kenning, Irish anti-radicalization expert, adviser to the city of Amsterdam, philosopher and psychoanalyst, admirer of Benedict the Spinoza, loves music. Long grey hair, impressive sideburns, always dressed in trendy black. He likes it here in the city and wants to keep that way.
He knows that some people struggle to understand – and others deliberately misunderstand him. Kenning, is the man who -- according to some -- sweeps the role of Islam under the carpet. "The search for causes of radicalization can be interesting," he says. "But my job is to stop radicals developing into terrorists."
This summer he watched with horror how Amsterdam’s anti-radicalization department and policies came under fire. One civil servant was fired for corruption and the entire network of "key figures" also fell under suspicion. These are young people who are role models for other young people and who keep their finger on the pulse of what is happening in all corners of the city. And now they’re threatening to walk away. The first five have already thrown it in. Confidence is evaporating quickly.
Kenning: "These people are crucial to our safety, they are part of our immune system. Who are their misinformed critics? Are they going to take the consequences of their attacks and opportunistic hysteria? What are their real motives? The public interest? I would ask them to stick to the facts and stop undermining the very people we should be grateful to. They are volunteers. They help the city and they care. "
After the attack in November 2015 at the Bataclan in Paris, Kenning was in the mayor’s official residence. "Within 48 hours of the attack, there were more than sixty key figures around the table. It was late in the evening, but Eberhard van der Laan went around them all and asked every one about the atmosphere on the street, the reactions in the neighborhoods, the schools and the mosques. Meanwhile, across Europe, when policy makers and security services were waiting nervously to see what would happen, we knew exactly what was happening in Amsterdam. "
When it comes to this type of prevention, says Kenning, cities elsewhere in the world look with envy to Amsterdam. "Of course, there can be an attack here. Tomorrow. I’m not a security-expert, but Amsterdam is as safe as any large city can be in an open society. The people who care for us are among the best in the world. "
He himself is a man of experience. He prevented the recruitment of suicide terrorists in Iraq and advised in European and American ministries and security services. In the Netherlands he is a welcome guest at the national police, the public prosecutor, the National Coordinator of Terrorism and Security (NCTV) and a series of large municipalities.
He is concerned about how things are evolving. "Many of our experts," he says, "are busy fighting the last war. They are still investigating the mentality of the travellers to the Caliphate - the jihadists who traveled to Syria. But there is a whole new generation of terrorists involved in recent suicide attacks. "The travellers felt they were victims of society, of the circumstances, of their absent father, Islamophobia, their broken relationships or whatever. "They were looking for a second chance," says Kenning. "They burned their passports and took a new name, a new bride, a new job and a new state. Statistics show that more than ninety percent went there to fight – not to die. They did not offer themselves as suicide terrorists. Of course, they may be killed, but that's not the same as actually wanting, volunteering, to die. "
What do we have now? “With this next generation of nihilists, it’s almost entirely personal.” Young people, more and more likely to be teenagers, are looking for rebellion, to revenge for their deeply-felt victimization. Psychopaths who gratefully use the language of radical Islam and the positioning of a world-historical struggle to get the attention they want. "If you kill two people in the street, you're in the newspaper. But if you cry out “Allahu Akbar” you get the instant fame that ensures you’ve left your mark, that your life has not been for nothing. "
Most are amateurs, often lone wolves. They move under the radar, in most cases they are radicalized in a very short time and do not pass through the mosque. They radicalize each other or use the Internet. The theological quality of this kind of jihadist is practically zero. "Their lives are often nihilistic and desperate. Instead of suffering as a lonely individual, it opens up the opportunity to become a player in a global battle. "
Strikingly they are often criminals. And criminals provide an excellent opportunity to source people with the right skill sets, now that the ISIS caliphate is collapsing and travelling to train has become impossible. "Criminals already know where to get weapons and how to stay under the radar. They are familiar with violence and understand where the weaknesses with police procedures and limitations. "Small criminals who take their chance to become a player on the world stage. Those seeking for their failed life seek moral salvation in death.”
As a result, fighting crime, says Kenning, has now become a more important part of our national security. And there too, Amsterdam has a head start with the approach of the top 600 of criminal youth. Being radical, he says, expressing your views, is not illegal and does not automatically make a violent extremist. "We need to separate between appearances and reality. The shouting of Allahu Akbar no more makes you religious than shouting for Ajax makes you a good football player. The next generation can even use our own values against us and demand "social justice", such as the IRA or the RAF (Red Army Faction) did. Extremists can hijack every ideology or movement. I don’t know of any major radicalization expert who still believes that ideology is an important driving force of jihadism."
Rather, he is concerned with how someone becomes a terrorist. Understanding his way of thinking, his mindset. What causes the last move towards the use of violence? Why does one person make the jump and the next person not? Why is that sometimes radicalization doesn’t precede extremist violence? "
Kenning: " You can quite easily radicalize someone, but they don't become automatically criminals or jihadists as a result. This new generation of extremists is not a socio-economic problem and it is not a serious ideological problem. In the end it comes down to psychology. "It is, he says, mostly about adolescents – and how they react and respond to the forces acting on them. Young people (men) like to take risks, are vulnerable to group pressure, have poor judgment and are often attention-seeking. And they resent authority. And that in combination with classic driving forces: feeling victimized, the idea of being an underdog or outsider. Having low self-esteem or doubts about their own sexuality. Unsure of their identity… Hate against the father and at the same time the desire for his attention. One person can cope better with that than the other. In the end it comes down to the individual."
Radicalization, says Kenning, is an important warning sign. "But not more than that. To me, the question is: how do you neutralize the next phase? How do you block the transition to violence? We are dealing with people with extreme emotions. How do you influence someone who doesn’t want to listen to you? That's something that radicalization experts still know little about. "
David Kenning is involved in the project 'Shareholders Amsterdam', whose first results are expected at the end of this year. Three creative agencies are working on three projects about negotiation skills. Kenning: "Since 9/11, the West has reacted primarily to terrorism by damaging our own democracies. In America we have the entry ban for Muslims, in France there is still a rolling state of emergency. These are all huge political mistakes. "
"The solution is: becoming more ourselves instead of less. The character of Amsterdam as a trading city plays a major role in this: the ability of young people to negotiate helps them to move towards one another’s motives and desires. The DNA program will also play a role in addressing the top 600. Young criminals learn with negotiation techniques that the world is less black and white than they think. " In the end it’s about living with doubt.
Almost a year ago Kenning decided that he would no longer accept payments from the city and continue working on a voluntary basis. He would also like to emphasise that he didn’t change anything about the pre-existing anti-radicalization programs. For this article he spoke on a personal basis.