Preventing violent radicalisation: An evidence-based approach to countering terrorist narratives
Carthy, Sarah Louise
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Since the start of the 21st century, understanding the process(es) by which an individual comes to perpetrate an act of terror has become a multidisciplinary pursuit, and a key focus of enquiry for those seeking to stop it from happening. Psychological science has, in large part, shifted this focus towards a deeper understanding of the specific, psychological mechanisms that become activated during the process of violent radicalisation. The narrative, and its ability to depict violence as an instrumental means achieving certain goals, has since emerged as a source of this activation. Strategies that attempt to challenge terrorist narratives, by deconstructing and delegitimising the violence-promoting messages they espouse, have been signalled as a promising avenue for prevention efforts. This deconstruction falls under the umbrella term, counter-narrative. However, despite an overwhelming volume of guides, reports, and individual studies on the topic, there has been little theoretical premise informing the design of counter-narratives. Furthermore, to date, there has been no synthesis of their effectiveness at targeting violent radicalisation. The primary aim of this research was to address this gap, by exploring the potential for evidence-based counter-narratives to prevent violent radicalisation into terrorism. Informed by the findings of a meta-analytic review (Study 1) as well as a Narrative Analysis study with former perpetrators (Study 2), this research sought to begin the process of experimentally evaluating counter-narratives in reducing propensity towards terrorism (Study 3). The results of Study 1 (k = 19) indicated that, whilst counter-narratives showed promising effects on certain risk factors, such as realistic threat (d = -.60), in-group favouritism and out-group hostility (d = -0.41), the effects on other risk factors were less consistent. In terms of technique(s), the use of alternative accounts and inoculation were amongst the most promising. From here, Narrative Analysis was used to explore how narratives of perpetration were constructed (Study 2), leading to the identification of thirty-two individual narratives, as well as six, broader, template narratives. The use of irrational, causal fallacies were amongst the most common techniques used to legitimise violence. However, the findings from Study 2 also supported the concept of a quasi-rational narrative, comprised of both irrational, and rational content, rendering it particularly resistant to deconstruction. Using this knowledge, the counter-narrative strategies used in Study 3 (n = 150) involved two, theoretically distinct, approaches (identified in Study 1) to counter a typical, terrorist narrative (identified in Study 2). The findings indicated that participants’ critical thinking skills weakened the effects of the terrorist narrative, as well as generic attempts to counter it, resulting in some unintended effects. However, informed by Inoculation Theory, having participants create their own, tailored counter-narrative(s) reduced their legitimisation of terrorist violence, irrespective of cognitive ability. Conclusion. The results of these studies illustrate, first, the complexity of terrorist narratives, which, in turn, complicates strategies to counter them. By considering this in light of some methodological challenges associated with measuring violent radicalisation-related constructs, the potential for tailored counter-narratives in the context of violent radicalisation is broadly supported. The results are discussed in terms of their contribution to future and existing research on violent radicalisation. The implications of these findings for counter-terrorism practice and policy are also discussed.