Europe’s Response to Extremist Threats: Exceptionalism or Global Unity?

Experts’ Panel: Response to Extremism

Pedro Liberado

It is estimated that (approximately) 11.5 million individuals are currently incarcerated worldwide (Penal Reform International, 2023). This marks an increase of over 20% in the last two decades, setting a world record for the highest incarceration rate to date.

Focusing on terrorism statistics (which could be the subject of a different article or discussion), and narrowing our view to the members of the Council of Europe, it is estimated that 28 507 individuals are serving prison sentences for terror-related crimes (Aebi et al., 2023).

This number is significantly influenced by the 27 654 individuals imprisoned in Turkey, so, any comparisons between continents/regions tend to be impaired by the (very) different policies and legislative practices of each country or jurisdiction. Nevertheless, irrespective of the numbers, radicalisation, violent extremism and, as a consequential outcome, terrorism, are characterised by their transnational nature. These issues transcend borders and are encompassed within the political agendas of countries.

Therefore, it is crucial to engage in transversal discussions about new threats, challenges, and opportunities to prevent the perpetuation of long-standing reactive practices and policies that only come into play once “the bomb goes off’ (cf. Neumann, 2008, p. 4). However, one could argue that the predominant focus continuous to be reactive.

In addition to the invaluable rehabilitation efforts – whether centred on cognitive distancing (i.e., deradicalisation) or behavioural cessation (i.e., disengagement) – implemented in several countries (e.g., Abrunhosa et al., 2020), the detection of (potentially) radicalised or extremist individuals is, unquestionably, rooted in security concerns focused on the aftermath (i.e., radicalisation has already occurred), rather than adopting a dual-focused approach involving pre-emptive efforts to identify individual vulnerabilities on the one hand, and providing necessary support (at various levels) on the other – thereby reducing the influence of some push and pull factors on an individual.

The landscape of extremism has changed dramatically compared to what we knew a decade, eight years or even five years ago. While it could be argued that Islamist-focused, securitised (and reactive) policies at the time may not have been the best approach, nowadays it’s evident that a more holistic and proactive approach should be the norm. Different challenges have emerged, but that is not necessarily a negative development.

Embracing new challenges as opportunities is a mindset that can foster innovative solutions. Without trying to (re)invent the wheel, this article proposes drawing attention to some contemporary issues, with the hope of stimulating critical discussions within the sphere of criminal justice.

Addressing the Impact of Conspiracy Narratives and Disinformation

The rise of conspiracy theories (e.g., QAnon, anti-vax, anti-5G, anti-technology) and disinformation (leading to an increased social polarisation) presents a growing threat to democracies, especially amidst global security vulnerabilities. These phenomena have become intertwined with major crises in Europe, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Unsurprisingly, according to the European Union Barometer (EU, 2022) survey, over 60% of the respondents report exposure to disinformation or fake news, with many unable to discern the truth. This fosters hate speech, online radicalisation (Sampaio & Liberado, 2021) and threatens democracy.

Conspiracy narratives exploit individuals’ vulnerabilities, contributing to societal polarisation and animosity. As “conspiracy theories may be associated with violent behaviours and attitudes” (Vegetti & Littvay, 2022, p. 19), it is unsurprising that extremist (and terrorist) organisations (both from the left and right-wing, although mostly the latter) also intend to exploit this opportunity (EUROPOL, 2021, 2022, 2023).

In fact, the right-wing motivated attacks carried out in Germany (Hanau, Halle), New Zealand (Christchurch), and in the United States of America (El Paso, Pittsburgh, Poway) have perpetrators referencing conspiracy theories as part of their justifications (i.e., manifesto) (Rottweiller & Gill, 2022).
Right-wing groups, in particular, are capitalising on opportunities generated by the aforementioned societal traits, with the rise of the Siege culture and accelerationism theories (EUROPOL, 2023).

Siege culture is arguably the most extreme manifestation of fascism and national socialism to date, whose supporters are vehemently anti-democratic, anti-enlightenment, racist, espousing white supremacy, and believing that they belong to a superior (Aryan) group at the pinnacle of the racial hierarchy. They target non-whites, non-heterosexuals, Jews, and governmental institutions, who they believe to be against Siege’s interests (Lee, 2022).

Accelerationism supporters believe that individuals of white ethnicity are being threatened and systematically targeted, often through mechanisms such as immigration. Thus, it tends to focus on violent tactics (usually analogous to terrorist-related acts) to intensify social conflicts (Institute for Strategic Dialogue, 2022).

According to Lantian et al. (2020), individuals who believe in conspiracy theories tend to exhibit various traits such as heightened suspicion and mistrust, diminished self-esteem, alienation, neuroticism, narcissistic tendencies, and antagonistic behaviour, in addition to expressing discontent with or rejection of societal norms.

These beliefs can thrive in the criminal justice system, affecting inmates and those on probation due to their heightened vulnerabilities. Inmates have limited access to information sources, hindering their critical thinking and the ability to verify claims made by others, such as prison staff (incl. librarians and educators), external contacts (incl. family members), and other inmates (Canning & Buchanan, 2019), the three groups that inmates mostly rely on to solve their questions.

Consequently, prison staff should possess the skills to address disinformation and conspiracy theories among inmates. Effectively deconstructing certain ideas and providing accurate and reliable information is essential for increasing inmates’ scepticism and critical thinking when they encounter new information.

Challenges persist during probation and post-release, marked by reduced supervision and increased internet access. As a result, these individuals are especially vulnerable to polarising and divisive influences.

Probation and community organisations must be prepared to manage these issues during rehabilitation and reintegration.

Raising Awareness of Incel Culture and its Impact on Criminal Justice systems

The incel ideology, considered a subset within the broader far-right spectrum (Brace, 2021), revolves around the belief that genetic factors determine physical appearance, which affects men’s attractiveness to women (e.g., Hoffman et al., 2020).
Based on a misogynistic ideal, those who adhere to this ideology, known as incels, perceive themselves as physically inadequate and destined for a life of involuntary celibacy. Incels may promote violence and harassment against women and target men they view as elite within the male hierarchy, often referred to as Chads or Alphas.
Similarities with other extremist ideologies include us vs. them mentality, a sense of belonging to a group with a common goal, and a lack of social status, often tied to their perceived physical shortcomings (Salman, 2023). The misogynistic incel movement lacks a formal organisation, defined leadership, or structure. The movement comprises loosely affiliated individuals who share grievances and operate similarly to traditional delinquent and criminal subcultures.
The internet plays a central role in the misogynistic incel movement by providing a platform for anonymously expressing socially unacceptable grievances. The rise in violent incidents associated with incel ideology (including killings has led to increased attention from the public, academia, and policymakers.
Addressing incel extremism is crucial for public safety and requires efforts to tackle contributing factors such as toxic masculinity, misogyny, and social isolation. In the criminal justice system, and despite the recent unprecedented ruling in Canada (Halpin & Maguire, 2023), incel individuals who commit violent acts often face charges for other criminal offenses, such as murder, attempted murder or hate crimes (Stelloh, 2022). Despite differences in ideology)and context, there are commonalities in extremist thinking and objectives, particularly the pursuit of political or social change through violent means.

Addressing incel-related consequences within the criminal justice system is essential. Increasing the understanding of this topic among prison and probation staff, through awareness-raising and training, is a proactive approach to counter this form of extremism.

Changing Approaches to Combat Disinformation amid Russia’s War on Ukraine

The initial reactions to Russia’s war against Ukraine, as observed in the early months of the conflict, were primarily within the realm of right-wing extremism (EUROPOL, 2023).

Despite the decline of Daesh in the Middle East, the issue of foreign fighters remains relevant to the EU (Kaunert et al., 2023). Saiz’s 2022 report states that approximately 20,000 individuals from 52 countries voluntarily fought in Ukraine since the conflict’s onset. While many had altruistic intentions, there is a noticeable, though limited (EUROPOL, 2023; Kaunert et al., 2023), presence of right-wing extremist groups among them, raising concerns among state authorities, given historical instances where foreign fighters have established transnational extremist networks capable of carrying out terrorist attacks (Saiz, 2022).

Russia’s war against Ukraine has become a focal point for extremist individuals and organisations, while shaping Western extremist narratives (Pantucci & Singam, 2023). Hence, it is argued that the far-right has capitalised on the conflict to promote propaganda and attract sympathisers, using it as a platform for individuals to acquire combat experience for future ideological skirmishes (Brzuszkiewicz, 2022). 

However, it’s important to note that positions within the far-right realm are not unified, with some supporting the Ukrainian forces’ far-right components while others support Russia’s concerns (Enstad, 2018)1.

In this context, returning radicalised foreign fighters pose potential threats to their home countries. Addressing this issue requires a comprehensive approach involving all segments of society. Special attention should be given to justice professionals, as they bear significant responsibilities in upholding the rule of law and ensuring public safety.

Judicial actors must have a holistic understanding of the characteristics of far-right extremism and not assess its dangerousness disproportionately. Although national legislations recognise foreign fighting as a criminal act regardless of the destination, returnees from the Middle East (e.g., Syria) faced robust security-based response in their countries of origin (e.g., subjected to police raids and seizures, heavy surveillance, severe sentences, trials in absentia), whereas those returning from the previous Ukrainian (i.e., Crimea’s annexation and the partial seizure of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions by pro-Russian separatists) conflict usually remain exempt from prosecution and severe sentencing (despite fighting alongside pro-Russian separatists) (Belsin & Ignjatijevic, 2017). Nonetheless, it’s important not to overemphasize the scale of far-right foreign fighters in Ukraine, as it could align with Russian government interests.

Despite the limited numbers, it is in the EU and its Member States’ best interest to address the issue of far-right individuals traveling to Ukraine and include it on the policy agenda (Kaunert et al., 2023).

Enhancing P/CVE Practice Evaluation among Frontline Practitioners

Research reveals a significant disparity in how the evaluation of P/CVE (Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism) initiatives is conducted across different organisations and sectors, including the criminal justice system (Sarif & Raven, 2022).

This variation hinders practitioners from actively participating in the evaluation process, especially due to a lack of adequate training (Afonso & Neves, 2023). As a result, evaluation often becomes confused with risk management, risk assessment, and post-event debriefings, rather than being carried out in a systematic and professional manner (Sarif & Raven, 2022).

The absence of comprehensive evaluation is widespread and can be attributed to multiple factors, including political reluctance, resistance to change, limited knowledge, financial constraints, a lack of technical expertise, and the complexity of procedural requirements (Sarif & Raven, 2022). This lack of evaluation capacity is closely linked to insufficient training procedures, as the quality and rigour of an evaluation depend on the expertise of staff responsible for designing, implementing, and evaluating programmes and initiatives (Afonso & Neves, 2023).

In addition, Afonso and Neves (2023) have identified gaps in theoretical knowledge within the realms of P/CVE, a basic understanding of the evaluation process, and essential competencies and procedures, such as critical thinking, data analysis, and problem-solving. Inadequate intra- and inter-organisation cooperation mechanisms further compound the problem across various jurisdictions.

Regarding rehabilitation practices within the P/CVE framework, evaluation procedures are frequently unstructured, highly descriptive and reliant on anecdotal evidence and practitioners’ subjective perceptions of participants’ progress (Costa et al., 2021). This raises questions about the effectiveness of efforts with individuals who will soon be released from prison.

Even when P/CVE evaluation procedures exist, they are often marred by issues such as inadequate planning, mismanagement of expectations, ineffective communication, underutilisation of evaluation results, gender bias, politicisation, and methodological shortcomings (Sarif & Raven, 2022).

In conclusion, there is pressing need for criminal justice systems to change their evaluation culture (including improving induction and continuous training (Vicente, 2022). Otherwise, funds from governmental or other donors may continue to be spent without clear indications of the effectiveness of P/CVE initiatives, how to improve them, or how jurisdictions can adapt evidence-based practices that have proven to be effective.

1 Research has shown that Russia has observed right-wing violence much more than Western countries, emphasizing the convergence of an anocratic system of governance, high levels of violence, a significant immigration rate, and a minimal societal stigma surrounding extreme right-wing ideologies.

Two Topics Deserving Mention

Exploring the link between Terrorism and Organised Crime

Some research has pointed out that individuals involved in organised crime sometimes offer services such as providing weaponry, explosives, or fraudulent documentation to those associated with terrorism or violent extremism. This has raised additional concerns about the potential connection between migrant smuggling and terrorism. Individuals linked to terrorism or violent extremism have been known to use migrant smuggling services as a means to travel discreetly, as reported by EUROPOL in 2023.

Assessing the Consequences of Imprisonment Policies on Islamist Extremism

In the context of Islamist extremism, there has been a decrease in the number of attacks, but those that do occur, especially those that are successfully carried out, tend to be perpetrated by lone actors. Another concerning issue is the release of individuals who have served terror-related sentences without undergoing any rehabilitation efforts while in custody. This problem is particularly significant in the Western Balkans, where a majority of repatriated foreign terrorist fighters are expected to be released from prison between 2023 and 2025, according to EUROPOL’s 2023 report.

Is there a unique regional characteristic, or do we observe transnational or continental similarities in response to extremism?

Let’s take a moment to reflect on this, as the challenges mentioned earlier can potentially be reshaped into opportunities for us to reconsider and reprioritise our endeavours.

Read the point of view of experts and decision-makers.


The author would like to express gratitude to IPS_Innovative Prison Systems colleagues (listed alphabetically) for their contributions to research projects that have been developed with consideration for the premises identified in various parts of this article: João Gomes, Leonardo Conde, Raquel Venâncio, Sara Afonso, and Vânia Sampaio.



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Pedro Liberado

Pedro Liberado joined IPS_Innovative Prison Systems in
2018 and soon began coordinating the Radicalisation, Violent
Extremism, and Organised Crime Portfolio team. Two years later,
he was appointed Chief Research Officer and also became a
shareholder and member of the Managing Board on January 1st,
2022. Pedro holds a degree in Sociology from the University of
Coimbra, a master’s in Criminology from the University of Porto,
and is currently pursuing a PhD in Criminology at the University
of Granada.

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