An analysis of the social ties that link a group of young people, radicalised into Jihadism in Spain, to various actors from the global Jihadist movement reveals that the number and strength of such ties has a bearing on why some individuals become involved in terrorist activities while others decide not to do so.
Not all the individuals who become radicalised in Jihadist Salafist ideology and have social links with the Jihadist movement end up participating in terrorist activities. Explaining why some do and others do not, requires an analysis of the type, number and intensity of their personal ties with Jihadist activists and with structures dedicated to terrorist mobilisation. Based on a study of the ties of a sample of young people who took opposing paths after their radicalisation in Spain from 2012 to 2019, this analysis reveals a greater propensity towards terrorist involvement among radicalised people whose social connections with global Jihadism were more numerous and stronger. These findings may be applied to the design and implementation of institutional and societal responses to violent radicalisation leading to terrorism.
Empirical research has shown the importance of social networks to Jihadist radicalisation and recruitment. Those who adopt the Jihadist Salafist ideology, even to the extent of facilitating and participating in violent acts, frequently do so in the company of individuals who are either already radicalised or are in the process of radicalisation. In this social interaction, the members of the group concerned construct shared views of reality, moulding and strengthening their communal identities, and may end up predisposing themselves towards terrorist involvement.1 The existing evidence surrounding the Spanish situation makes this clear: 90% of convicted and deceased Jihadists in Spain from 2012 to 2018 became radicalised in contact with other people.2 Moreover, prior to their respective radicalisation and recruitment processes, three quarters of them had social ties with other active Jihadists within and outside the country. These social ties were based on pre-existing social bonds of neighbourship –in seven out of 10 cases– friendship –in six out of 10– and kinship –in half the cases– each of which may combine with the others.3
That being said, not all the individuals who become radicalised in Jihadist Salafist ideology and have personal connections with members of the global Jihadist movement end up participating in terrorist activities. Explaining why it is that radicalised subjects do or do not end up involving themselves requires analysis of the personal ties that link them to Jihadist activists, as well as to structures devoted to terrorist mobilisation (as in the case of certain virtual platforms and places of Salafist worship). Thus, do all the social ties in an individual journey from Jihadist radicalisation to involvement in terrorism-related activities carry equal weight? Is the number of such ties capable of producing variations in the effects of the involvement? Is it possible that it depends on the degree of intensity of the ties?
To respond to the three questions above, this analysis classifies the type, number and intensity of the social ties and empirically scrutinises, combining quantitative and qualitative methods, their differential effect on a sample of 44 young people who took opposing paths having undergone a process of Jihadist radicalisation in Spain between 2012 and 2019; in other words, over the course of the unprecedented mobilisation cycle pursued in western Europe by Jihadist organisations active in Syria and Iraq, such as the Islamic State and, to a much lesser degree, the territorial arm of al-Qaeda and entities affiliated to it. The sociological classification of the subjects included in the sample, the data relating to their radicalisation processes and the information about whether or not they ended up involved in Jihadist terrorism-related activities stem from an extensive review of police reports and court documents, as well as attendance at trials held in the national high court; secondly, from semi-structured interviews with four of the individuals included in the sample and with the families and friends of another four young people, as well as with police experts, front-line professionals and members of the prison service.4 These sources also enabled the social links of the young people comprising the study sample to be traced and their affiliations to be recorded.
All the young people in the sample, a total of 44, share the circumstance of having started their radicalisation processes between the ages of 14 and 17 (M = 16.3; SD = 0.85), with no statistically-significant difference (t-test: p>0.05) in the ages of those who became involved (M = 16.4; SD = 0.67) and those who did not (M = 16.2; SD = 0.99). The sample includes 25 males and 19 females. In terms of their geographical distribution, 10 lived in the province of Barcelona, nine in the autonomous city of Melilla, six in the province of Girona, five in the autonomous city of Ceuta and four in the greater Madrid. The 10 remaining individuals lived in another six provinces. All the young people included in the sample came to share the goals and defend the tactics of the leading Jihadist organisations. But only 23 (52.3%) ended up becoming involved in terrorist-related activities, whereas 21 (the remaining 47.7%) did not.
Tracing their personal ties to members of the Jihadist movement enabled a social network to be drawn up comprising 136 nodes (individuals and organisations) and 202 links. The concept of a social network –in its non-technological sense– is understood here as the set of direct links between the sample subjects and global Jihadism. The actors to whom they were connected belong to two categories: (1) Jihadist activists whether in Spain, the rest of Europe or Syria. Included among these were principally individuals convicted for Jihadist activities, but also, to a lesser extent, people who were part of the Jihadist Salafist scene, but who had not been tried or convicted of any offence; (2) there were entities devoted, mainly or in a complementary way, to Jihadist mobilisation, whether virtual communities or places of worship. The links between the young people in the study sample and the actors with whom they were connected both predated the process of Jihadist radicalisation (as in the case of the pre-existing links of kinship, friendship and neighbourship) and were forged during the radicalisation process (as in the case of the organisational links with activists involved in virtual platforms and mosques, as well as their own participation in these settings, which were fruitful for recruitment purposes).
The social network deriving from analysis of the social ties linking the young people in the sample with these two categories of actors can be depicted by means of a sociogram (Figure 1). The red nodes represent the young people who became involved and the blue nodes those who did not. The Jihadist activists with whom they were linked are represented as light grey nodes, while the Jihadist mobilisation entities with which they were linked are shown as dark grey nodes.
(1) Type, number and intensity of the personal links in the global Jihadist movement
In order to evaluate the features of the social networks that operate effectively in Jihadist recruitment in Spain, this study relies on a mixed methodology. Quantitative analysis of the social network enables empirical regularities to be determined in the ties that link members of the sample with the global Jihadist movement, which in turn enables those characteristics that differentiate involved individuals from non-involved individuals. Meanwhile the qualitative methodology captures the significance of the social connections and the mechanisms through which they exercise their impact. Having said all that, the results of analysing so-called dark networks –which, as in the case of organised crime and terrorism, focus on criminal activities– need to be treated with caution on account of the methodological limitations that frequently beset the collection of data surrounding relational structures that operate in a clandestine way, in illegal circumstances and incurring the risk of infiltration.5
The results of the bivariant quantitative analysis (in other words, individual comparison of each analysed factor –the type, number and intensity of the links– with the individual variation in terrorist involvement) offer an initial approximation of the effects of personal links (Figure 2).6 First, the prior existence of links involving kinship and friendship shows a statistically significant relationship with Jihadist involvement: whereas 56.5% of the young people who took part in terrorist activities had kinship links with other individuals who were involved in the global Jihadist movement, only 14.3% of the uninvolved young people had this type of social connection. Furthermore, 39.1% of the young people who became involved were connected to other Jihadists through links of friendship, whereas only 9.5% of the non-involved had links of this type with radicalised peers. Links of other sorts, such as neighbourship and organisational connections with activists and mobilisation structures, seemed not to have a significant effect on the recruitment process.
In addition, this preliminary analysis reveals that the young people who become involved are also differentiated from those who do not by the number of links with the global Jihadist movement. Whereas the former have an average of seven links with activists and mobilisation structures, the latter maintain links with an average of approximately three actors. However, the strength of these links –measured by an indicator derived from aggregating all the connections– seems not to bear any relationship with whether a radicalised individual ends up becoming involved or not. Lastly, it is important to emphasise that gender too seems to be linked to the trajectory of the subjects scrutinised: whereas 73.9% of those who became involved were men, 61.9% of those who were similarly radicalised, but did not become involved, were women.Figure 2. Results of the bivariant analysis
Multivariant analysis, using the variables that were statistically significant in the preliminary analysis, enables the possible relationships between the variables to be controlled. At this point it is necessary to give a methodological explanation, because the limited size of the study sample could cast doubt on the validity of the research. With this in mind, an initial analysis was carried out using Firth’s logistic regression method, appropriate by virtue of its property of counteracting biases in the analysis of binary results in universes comprising a limited number of cases.7 However, both the analyses using the Firth method and the conventional binary logistic regression method generated similar results. The results obtained using the latter procedure are shown in Figure 3, which reflects the complete model (1) with all the variables and the final model (2), which includes only the significant predictors.8
Specifically, the final model rules out the possibility of the type of social link between radicalised young people and the various actors of the global Jihadist movement accounting for participation in terrorist activities. On the contrary, it indicates that the number of social links does enable the young people with involvement to be differentiated from those without involvement. In other words, it confirms that the former were connected with the Jihadist movement by means of a markedly greater number of links with activists and mobilisation structures. In this context, for every additional link, the possibilities of a young person ending up becoming involved increased 1.46 times. The final model also shows that gender has a significant relationship with terrorist participation. The chances of taking part were 6.27 times greater among men than among women.9Figure 3. Logistic regression analysis
But why does the type of social link not seem to explain the propensity for taking part in terrorist activities? Is it possible that the strength of the most important links – rather than that of the overall social network that they collectively go to make up – does play a role in the process? What accounts for the fact that the size of the network, understood as an individual’s total number of social links, does have a bearing on the propensity to action? Qualitative analysis of the documentary evidence consulted, as well as the interviews conducted within the framework of this research, enable certain clues to be discerned in order to understand the results of the quantitative analysis.
(1.1) Social proximity can inhibit Jihadist involvement
A sizeable number of cases included in the study sample reveal that pre-existing social links play a considerable role in the initial phases of the Jihadist radicalisation process, when the transmission and internalisation of the ideology take place. Family members and friends thus performed this role, generating awareness of the global Jihadist cause and establishing a positive association between the young people and the Jihadist Salafist movement. However, the importance of this type of personal link tended to diminish when the mobilisation advanced towards the construction of a propensity to take action and towards access to opportunities for recruitment.
Beyond this, the evidence indicates that social proximity may play a crucial role in attempts to inhibit the involvement of young people in terrorist activities. Parents, older siblings and romantic partners tried to frustrate participation, whether because certain courses of action were especially dangerous –generally, those involving travel to the war zone in Syria and Iraq– or to safeguard personal interests, such as avoiding the legal consequences that could stem from charges of parental negligence. In other cases, they chose to put forward legal and non-violent forms of mobilisation adapted to the premises of the Jihadist Salafist ideology by, for example, persuading young women to remain at home to become mothers, rather than travelling to the caliphate and raising new combatants there.
This behaviour of the pre-existing links shows that social links that channel extremist ideas and attitudes do not necessarily promote violent conduct. Occasionally, the processes of social influence related to violent radicalisation take on an eminently cognitive orientation, without any immediate behavioural aspiration. Even so, these results should be interpreted with caution: given that the sample includes only subjects arrested or deceased in Spain, it is highly likely to have underrepresented cases in which the immediate links acted not only in terms of socialisation but also in the structural connection with global Jihadism, something that frequently occurred among young people who managed to travel to Syria and Iraq accompanied by members of their immediate social circles.
(1.2) The stability and intensity of radical connections strengthens the behavioural commitment to Jihadism
One element that differentiates the social dynamics of the young people who become involved from those who do not is the duration of their exchanges with global Jihadist activists. The non-involved young people predominantly related to activists through transitory links, often forged on virtual platforms but also in community contexts. In the absence of prior direct links, weak links facilitated initial contact between the young people and the Jihadist movement: they offered an introduction to ideas, information and propaganda, as well as an opportunity to interact with sympathisers with the cause without incurring undue risk.
However, this type of link has proved to be fleeting in duration. Sometimes the decision to sever them was taken by the young people themselves, when they started to feel increasingly unsure about the way the recruitment process was progressing, but also at the instigation of the activists, possibly judging that the risk to their own security was too great. The severance of these connections was also brought about by exogenous factors, such as the policy implemented by various virtual platforms of taking down radical profiles. On other occasions it was due to the intervention of people within the youngsters’ immediate settings, who by actively opposing the goals and tactics of the Jihadist movement performed the role of compensatory influences.
By contrast, the young people who became involved tended to forge more solid and stable links with the global Jihadist movement. Some of them managed to restore and consolidate their fragile links with activists, which led them to progressively involve themselves in the spreading of Jihadist propaganda, the publication of messages glorifying terrorism and planning their journeys to Syria, sometimes in an exercise to demonstrate the sincerity of their commitment.
In other cases, the relational structure was sufficiently dense to ensure that the disappearance of links did not represent a real threat. The starkest illustration of this is provided by the Ripoll cell, which launched attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils in August 2017, causing 16 deaths and more than 150 wounded. This small group had come together in the context of multiple social links that overlapped: excluding the iman, Es Satty, among the remaining nine members there were brothers, cousins, neighbours, school friends and football teammates. The prolonged interaction between them, as well as their growing social isolation, accentuated the internal resonance of the radical discourse and triggered collective pressure mechanisms paving the way to involvement. In this way, the strong affective and emotional bonds helped to forge internal cohesion, strengthening individual commitment and preventing its members from deserting. The intensive mobilisation process was also facilitated by their similar backgrounds: they were all youngsters aged between mid-teens and early-20s, second-generation descendants of immigrants from Morocco, with similar leisure and professional interests.
(1.3) An abundance of links favours greater exposure to radical ideas and broader access to opportunities for involvement
To the extent that not all radical links support participation in Jihadist activities –as is the case with pre-existing links– and not all those that promote it manage to facilitate it –as is the case with weak links– maintaining a high number of personal links with agents of global Jihadism was a fundamental factor in ensuring that radicalised young people availed themselves of opportunities for recruitment and active involvement. Thus, given that only certain social connections managed to lead effectively to involvement, the more numerous were the links to the Jihadist movement the greater were the possibilities that the radicalised individuals would end up participating in terrorist activities.
This characteristic of extensive social networks is not the only factor that helps to shed light on the importance that having a large number of links with Jihadist agents acquires in the individual processes leading to involvement. The evidence suggests that being part of social settings where Jihadist Salafist ideology finds fertile territory, whether these are family circles, groups of friends or local communities, generates considerable sensitivity to the subjects that Jihadist organisations focus on, as well as a greater propensity to participate in activities of this nature and broader access to opportunities for recruitment. Moreover, living in local settings that produced high levels of Jihadist mobilisation led some young Spanish people to perceive the Jihad as a form of collective action that enjoyed public acceptance and even constituted a popular tendency, a sort of trend, which stimulated a wish to emulate it.
This occurred in instances where there were veritable ‘pockets’ or ‘hotbeds’ of radicalisation, as was the case in the districts of El Príncipe, in Ceuta, and La Cañada de Hidum, in Melilla. The deep-seated nature of the radicalisation in this type of social setting not only affected young people’s perception of participation in Jihadist activities but also shaped their preferences for action. As well as ensuring that the ideology is transferred, being connected to a broad network of Jihadist activists and mobilisation entities generated specific incentives that inculcate involvement such as expectations of satisfying a sense of belonging, obtaining collective acceptance and receiving social endorsement.
However, the creation of extensive radical social networks did not always precede radicalisation and was sometimes a consequence of it. Thus, for various young people who became involved and are included in the study sample, the process of forming the social networks stemmed from a cognitive embrace of Jihadist Salafist ideology. Driven by an interest in finding answers to concerns of a religious nature, or in acquiring a greater understanding of the events that were unfolding in the Islamic world, they initiated contact with a host of followers on virtual platforms. The broadening of their radical social circle in turn enabled connections to be made with activists who facilitated terrorist participation.
Analysis of the effects of social links on Jihadist involvement, in the context of a sample of 44 young people who were radicalised in Jihadist Salafist ideology in Spain between 2012 and 2019, enables various lines of action to be proposed, both in the field of preventing violent radicalisation and in intervening with individuals associated with global Jihadism.
First, the greater probability that individuals who have a large number of links with the global Jihadist movement end up becoming involved in terrorist activities underlines the need to act in those contexts where such extensive social networks emerge and are forged. This requires identifying the areas that act as ‘pockets’ or ‘hotbeds’ of violent radicalisation and intervening both through policing, with the dismantling of the cells and groups that recruit in such areas, and through social activities instigated by local government institutions and civil society organisations, thereby eradicating –as the European Commission proposes in its Counter-terrorism Agenda approved in December 2020–10 the exclusion, marginalisation and discrimination that predominate in such local settings. As far as Spain in recent years is concerned, such geographical hotspots of Jihadist mobilisation have been identified as the districts of El Príncipe, in Ceuta, and Cañada de Hidum, in Melilla. Although considerable police work has been carried out in both districts, which has helped to undermine the social impact of the global Jihad among their inhabitants, problems related to economic hardship, lack of infrastructure, segregation and low levels of educational attainment, among others, remain unaddressed.
Secondly, frustrating the creation of extensive radical social networks also means focusing attention on virtual platforms. There are doubts about whether the strategy of deleting profiles associated with extremist movements (what has come to be known as ‘de-platforming’) is an effective way of halting the spread of the radical message. This type of measure does however have a proven usefulness in interrupting the cycle of recruitment of new adherents to Jihadist organisations. Some of the young people in the sample who maintained a firm propensity towards activism saw their plans frustrated after their accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were blocked, at which point they were unable to retrieve the contacts that had been lost or find new connections with the capacity to facilitate involvement. Having said that, unless the neutralisation takes place in the initial stages of the radicalisation process, it is possible that the communication between radicalised young people and Jihadist activists ends up being transferred to spaces that offer greater privacy and where interventions become more difficult. Thus acting in the online sphere in a timely manner, as the European Commission advocates, is crucial for thwarting the strengthening of weak ties forged on the internet.
In addition, avoiding the consolidation of radical contacts means implementing initiatives in the sphere of preventing radicalisation, both at the educational and at the social levels. A good example of the former are the initiatives that have been developed in some European countries to instil socio-emotional capabilities in young students such as those related to identifying and resisting group pressures.11 Similarly, training parents, front line personnel (such as teachers and social workers) and members of local communities to spot vulnerabilities to radicalisation processes is already a widespread practice in the European context. Such initiatives may be undertaken and receive greater impetus in Spain as part of the Strategic National Prevention and Fight against Violent Radicalisation Plan, approved in October 2020.
Lastly, the analysis put forward in these pages has highlighted the fact that the radicalisation processes in the private sphere of the family, as well as within groups of friends and romantic relationships, are capable of having an exclusively cognitive orientation and therefore do not necessarily extend into the territory of illegal or violent conduct. This is important to bear in mind for example when taking any decision regarding the custody of young people in radicalised families, because the protection of the overall development of children and teenagers requires careful evaluation of the circumstances in which situations of risk and neglect arise. A response tailored to each case requires this eventuality to be assessed in a way that respects the principle of the overriding interest of the young person, which should always govern the implementation of any measure in this area. Spain has not yet developed a coherent response to this issue: similar cases of children and teenagers exposed to the radicalisation of their immediate families have been settled both with the separation of the youngsters from their families and remaining within their biological families and keeping families intact. A coherent policy also needs to be established for the treatment to be given to the eventual return of women and children of Spanish nationality now living in Syrian camps, where thousands of people who travelled to the Islamic State caliphate and their offspring are to be found.