Countering the lure of Islamist extremism

The unmasking of Jihadi John, the Kuwait-born Briton so nicknamed by the British media, as Mohammed Emwazi has led to substantial introspection. Those engaged in excavating the psychological depths of terror are asking what could have radicalised the man irreparably to have made him participate, it is believed, in the beheading of Western hostages by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Clues include anger management therapy he underwent in secondary school; but he was still, in the words of a former teacher, a "lovely, lovely boy" and a school success who went on to attend a university of his choice. The graduate's career and life aspirations should have paralleled those of his British peers, both Muslims and non-Muslims. Yet, he headed for the lawless wilds of the ISIS realm.

It's troubling when a host society thinks it's doing enough to nurture culturally different youngsters but might be unwittingly contributing to a rise in resentment. It is the subterranean presence of alienation that societies must address if they wish to protect impressionable members from being waylaid by siren calls to reorder reality violently, an exercise in which terrorists specialise.

Problematically, racial exclusion or economic disenfranchisement cannot explain the alienation of Emwazi or the London schoolgirls who fled Britain to join up with ISIS through Turkey. They may well have been unhappy with some aspects of their immediate ethnic or political environment, but so are many others. Yet, the latter do not seek to join terrorists whose ambitions are based on a complete negation of values associated with the way of life in free societies. The slick ISIS propaganda machine created an alternative world that appealed so much to some would-be adherents that they were prepared to cross arduous obstacles in a possibly one-way journey to the bowels of war. The fear of death was no deterrence.

Stronger than the potential hold of subversion on some must be that of social inclusion. The scope actually available to participate in all aspects of society, amplified in the media and in familial and private circles, can do much more to deter youngsters at risk than laws that merely constrain their movement. Britain, for example, is planning to stop airlines from carrying passengers believed to be headed for terrorism-related activities. Such safeguards might provide some comfort but do not get to the heart of the issue, which is to rehabilitate those flirting with deadly causes.

Social integration is undoubtedly a two-way street, but any joint effort will require a greater climate of trust than currently exists in many Western communities with a blend of different cultures.