I’ve spent the last few years in Barcelona studying radicalization. As the day of the terrorist attacks in Spain unfolded, I thought, what comes next? The blaming of the Muslim community, the demonizing of the town the attackers came from, and vows from politicians to throw more money at the problem. But my time in Barcelona taught me one thing: radicalization is a local phenomenon. Equipping local officials to solve local problems—and avoiding the distraction of easy, unhelpful generalizations about immigrant or local communities—is the best way to thwart the jihadists’ international aims.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks in and around Barcelona, clichés about radicalization are again making the rounds. For some, the twelve young members of the cell behind the Barcelona attacks, all men, were “brainwashed”; for others the blame falls on the town of Ripoll for becoming a “terrorist breeding ground”; for others yet it’s Islam as a whole that must be held accountable. For those who study radicalization and terrorism, all of these explanations fall short.
As our own interviews with ISIS recruits in Europe and captured ISIS fighters in Iraq have shown, simply treating the Islamic State as a form of “terrorism” or “violent extremism” masks the menace. Dismissing the group as “nihilistic” reflects a dangerous avoidance of trying to comprehend, and deal with, its profoundly alluring mission to change and save the world.