THE question of what drives radicalisation has become a familiar refrain, yet, remains a conundrum. Poverty, negative peer pressure, the lack of education, and the inadequate or immature understanding of ideology are usually offered to explain the radicalisation process. The intricacies of radicalisation, however, are far more complex than we can imagine. In an increasingly globalised world, the diverse make-up of a country’s demographics makes it impossible to cluster radicals in any one single profile, and to isolate specific push or pull factors. Though these factors vary according to one’s background and experience, most passive sympathisers or active violent perpetrators share a striking similarity in their motivation: frustration. Left to fester, simmering frustration could grow to become a larger problem that might incite acts of violence. Exploiting this frustration — especially among vulnerable youth — terror groups work at building narratives that are attractive to those who need to “belong”, desperate to find a sense of identity, or at times those who simply want to experience adventure. While most Islamic State (IS) sympathisers express anger at the oppression of fellow Muslims in the Middle East, this sentiment might belie other motives to take up arms. Muhammad Wanndy Mohamed Jedi, infamous for the Movida Club attack in 2016, reportedly had been disliked and shunned by his neighbours for bad behaviour. Deemed a failure in the eyes of society, he vowed to prove his worth.
Recognising the vulnerability and desperation of Wanndy to belong to something, his “recruiter” lured him into joining a cause that would acknowledge his bravado and validate his existence. It did not take long for Wanndy to shine. Thanks to his charm, he rose to become a prominent Southeast Asian recruiter and leader for IS. The romantic notion of “a-zero-to-hero” kept Wanndy entangled among the extremists until he died in April last year. There was also Akil Zainal, once a drummer of a famous 1990s rock band, and whose real motivation was not so much about finding a sense of belonging, but of spiritual redemption, encased within the bubble of ideology. In profiling both potential and existing radicals, experts recognise that the intense guilt for past sins could and has led radicals to commit atrocities under the guise of religion as a perceived shortcut to heaven. This desire for redemption among prospective recruits coupled with recruiters emboldened by the silence of a public unwilling to question the authority of those seen to be more religiously credible make for a ripe environment for radicalisation among the vulnerable. Unlike Akil and Wanndy, the arrest of 20-year-old Sarawakian, Muhd Alfie Kqhyriel in Pakistan late last year puzzled many close relatives and friends as he never showed any signs of having been radicalised prior to his arrest. Many suspect that he was one of IS’s innocent mules, but in his case, it could simply be his cry for attention or his desire to not be a burden to his family. A former successful businessman, Alfie’s father faced numerous ordeals that cost him both his fortunes and his family. Divorced parents and a tight financial situation might have pushed Alfie over the edge. Given the distinctive dynamics discussed in all three case studies above, it is imperative to understand that “addressing poverty”, “better education”, or “more religious classes” — though equally important and necessary — are only parts of a more comprehensive solution to curbing radicalisation. Radicalisation is not and will never be about one thing or another. It is always a cumulative effect of drivers, be they ideological, political, psychological, or sociological. Going forward, it should be the task of every responsible community member and leader to redress lingering frustrations and to engage rather than isolate the black sheep of the community. Engagement encourages a more nuanced understanding of the underlying causes of radicalisation, and therefore, greater contextualisation of responses. Isolation only cultivates stronger resentment, providing terror groups with increased leeway to influence the fragile minds and self-esteem of potential sympathisers. The radicalisation process does not happen overnight. There will be opportunities for us to leverage. Ultimately, we should be aware that radicalisation can never be killed with taunts and guns, but with empathy and respect.
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