26 April 2016, by Marcel Weigman
For a man who likes to remain under the radar, the Irish radicalization expert David Kenning (62) has a striking appearance. He seems to have come straight out of the nineteenth century. Long silver-grey hair, big sideburns, always dressed in sober black. He has friendly eyes, a soft face and gentle voice. He is every inch a gentleman.
Kenning, philosopher and psychoanalyst, lover of blues and guitar, made one of his rare public appearances in the Great Hall of Utrecht University at the launch of the campaign “Dare to be Grey.’ There he explained his theory of radicalization. Grey is his colour. The radical middle between the black and white of the extremists. He has personally inspired the students with their campaign name.
Kenning says, "It's about the Islamization of radicals and not the radicalization of Islam. Radical Islam is not the cause, it's an excuse. " And: "Jihad is a adolescent solution for an adolescent mind."
The young audience listens politely to what the Irishman is saying, but seem to understand little. What about the ideology? And the neighborhoods in which many young Muslims grow up?
Mayor Eberhard van der Laan has promoted Kenning as the man behind the City’s new anti-radicalization plan. He has advised Van der Laan since last year, but now it looks as if he has been raised onto the shield. He is without doubt the new guru of the municipality.
That raises eyebrows. Just as some are inciting the Muslim community to take up critical self-reflection on their faith -- with the likes of Imam Yassin Elforkani, Labour MP Ahmed Marcouch and Rotterdam Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb - Amsterdam appears to hold the narrative that Islam is not the driving force behind radicalization.
"It's a risky signal," said Marcouch, former spokesman of the Moroccan mosques in Amsterdam. "If you want to fight bad ideas, you need better ones. Or has this man invented a pill against radicalization? "
In the City Council too there is doubt. VVD council member says Dilan Yesilgöz gets a rash on her neck when she talks about it. "He offers a theory people feel comfortable with, but my experience of humanity does not fit with what he says."
Coalition Architect Jan Paternotte D66 says: "A theory should be based on evidence. I do not know, and I would not allow, Amsterdam to be an experiment. This will not result in the municipality having fewer religious networks - I have great doubts about it. "
Experts on radicalization in the Netherlands know Kenning mainly from hearsay. Last year, when he spoke to the newspapers for the first time, the Amsterdam professor Bert-Jan Box NRC responded: "Kenning focuses on one type of radicalisation: the thrill seeker. He has underestimated the ideological factors. Dismissing radicalisation as a problem with the adolescent mindset does not do justice to the complexity. "
Big question: who is he?
“A failed psychologist,” said the friends of far-right blog GeenStijl. “A charlatan. "An idiot who would be better selling homeopathic mixtures slowly to depressed housewives." A whole row commentators said these kinds of things.
It really is astonishing said Kenning. As he said to his wife with some resignation: "I was bombed in Belfast, shot at in Baghdad. Being shouted at in Amsterdam feels like a vacation. "
When we met he brought a thick dossier of confidential documents with him. It proves that he advises many countries and organizations at the highest level. People with whom he was attached and who are working in counter terrorism -based in Iraq, from the Middle East, North Africa and the United States - absolutely confirm his status as a radicalization expert. Without exception they praised a man whose sharp mind has no equal.
The National Coordinator for Counterterrorism and Security said through his spokesman that he regularly uses Kenning’s advice. In London, Julia Purcell confirmed that he is a welcome guest at Wilton Park, the country-house retreat of the British Foreign Office where he speaks on global strategic issues. Kenning says with a laugh: "I'm famous, but not very well known."
He says he is a practitioner. You will not find scientific publications in his name. "Unlike academics and researchers," he says, "we practitioner experts are responsible for finding solutions and not only advising on the nature of the problem."
Kenning was born in 1954 in a small fishing village near Belfast in Northern Ireland the son of the only two village teachers, liberal Protestants. He was fifteen years old when The Troubles started in Northern Ireland - the violent conflict between Catholics and Protestants.
"It was the first time I saw people radicalize," he says. "The speed with which it happened was astonishing. People I knew were trying to murder other people, we both knew. I was almost blown up in the bar that I went to with my future wife. Several times I had a gun in my face - just because I was at the wrong time in the wrong place. "
What has it taught him? "It is not just about the killing, but the disruption of the community - the anxiety and stress. That is the real story of terrorism: it is a psychological battle. Catholics who wanted to unite Ireland? Protestants who wanted to remain British? Nonsense! It was a spiral of sadistic revenge. The ideology was only used to raise money and attract recruits. " He sees IS now as the same: because the ideology is only the excuse. Almost all the suicide bombers who were arrested had little or no knowledge of Shar’ia law or Islamic texts.
He studied philosophy at the University of Ulster, did doctoral research on the Amsterdam philosopher Benedict Spinoza in Dublin. Eventually, when he was 29 years old, he become a tax inspector as it was too difficult to make a living as a philosopher. It brought him in 1987 for the first time to Amsterdam, where he worked for several years at the head office of KPMG.
Though he has never conducted a patient-practice, between 1993 and 2002, Kenning trained as a psychoanalyst in London. "Spinoza," he says, "is also known as the philosopher of the subconscious." Psychoanalysis is like interpreting a poem. Our lives are like poems. We are not rational - we consist largely of hidden drives and meanings. "
In 2000 he became a business strategist and brand expert with Bell Pottinger, a multinational company in PR and marketing. Its customers included: Bank of New York, Church of England, Nasdaq and KPMG. After two years he moved again, but early in 2005 he was asked to advise them on a big contract to organize free elections in Iraq. He had to help explain how democracy worked to Iraqis.
At that time he also became involved in another project, one of the largest covert communication campaigns ever organized to stop people joining Al Qaeda and bombing other Muslims in the name of Allah.
"I was the first to define Al Qaeda as a brand," says Kenning. "A Copernican moment that can change your whole way of thinking." Now it's commonplace to think of them like that. Brands, he teaches, have two forms: one official, the brand such as the company or organization describes itself, and the unofficial, the brand as it is seen on the street. Damage the unofficial brand and there is little that the official brand can do about it.
With reference to the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin: "IS is exploiting the " useful idiots ", the populists in the West, who with their Islamophobia are creating jihad as an attractive alternative for adolescents seeking a second life. By reacting in such a hysterical way, and by reinforcing the message of fear and the call for tough measures, they are making the greatest advertisement for jihad. "
He pauses. Then: "If you've ever smelled a suicide bomber after he detonated, if you've ever seen the carnage, you would realize how important our work was. It requires bold thinking. It was like trying to bring a forest fire under control, but it worked. "The combination of philosophy and psychoanalysis helped him to get into the heads of young suicide bombers, he said. "It is a way to make the irrational, rationally understandable - and then deal with it."
His thesis: "The point is not to inflict damage on the opponent. That won't change their ideas. The point is to try and make the other person see things from your perspective. Let's be smart. A boxer’s defence requires self-discipline. A boxer who is angry or loses his temper is soon on the canvas. "
What we did, says Kenning was to administer antidotes. "We were like the good doctor, looking for ways to keep young people from committing attacks. We placed other ideas in their heads, without knowing where it came from, to make them doubt their monochrome ideas. Not by speaking in the language of ideology, not by propaganda companies, not by mentioning religion, but by putting them into a different state of mind. Making them feel better about themselves. "
How? Kenning: "Think about that question? It would be a disaster if they knew. "
Amsterdam has the best DNA that you can propose to combat radicalization, says David Kenning. "It is rooted in the history of the city, - the culture of tolerance and freedom." In America, freedom is changing according to him "into the nightmare of every man for himself." "In Amsterdam, the result of cooperation from the tradition of trade and protection from the sea." It comes down to learning to negotiate the perfect antidote to fundamentalism, he says. Whoever negotiates cannot be a fundamentalist. He needs to compromise, listen and try to move towards the other.
As a person gets older, their DNA begins to wear out, to unravel. It needs to be refreshed. Amsterdam’s DNA must be regenerated by our own children and transferred to the children of new immigrants. Kenning; "We are now developing ideas to see how we can do best. Through education but also in other ways. "
Hippie talk? "No. Spinoza-talk," Kenning says. "Amsterdam is not only a city, an infrastructure or a collection of people. It is a state of mind. The ideas we are using are not mine. They belong to, and are from, Amsterdam, and because of that, stand a better chance of being accepted.”
Amsterdam is his spiritual home, he says. He retired five years ago and he moved back with his wife from the south of France. During a visit to the city, he was asked to his own surprise to come talk with team officials at City Hall on combating radicalism. One thing led to another. "What matters," he says, "is not confusing terrorism with the act of terror. Terrorism is about the reactionthat it unleashes in society. The goal of IS is to damage Western democracies with fear.”