State of the Art Analysis: The power of good information to prevent radicalisation through awareness, knowledge and skills building


Directed at offenders, prison and probation staff, and community organisations, the HOPE project’s threefold concept focuses on radicalisation prevention efforts, needs and risk assessment, and intervention strategies in different European countries, with a particular focus on the Balkans.


Radicalisation has emerged as one of the most serious security and social problems in Europe. Although different approaches have been employed to counter radicalisation and violent extremism, notably preventive and reactive methods, with the presentation in early 2014 of the European Commission’s Revised EU Strategy for Combating Radicalisation and Recruitment to Terrorism (Council of the European Union, 2014), the focus of intervention and deradicalisation policies has incorporated other ways of combating this problem. This shift in focus has been forced given the increasing number of arrests in recent years. Mounting pressure on prisons and probation systems, coupled with the increase in the number of detained terrorists and the few but striking cases of recidivism, raises the question of whether the relationship between intervention models and disengagement and deradicalisation needs to be strengthened. Likewise, the unexpected phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters, who account for the highest proportion of arrests and convictions in Europe, has contributed significantly to increasing public interest in these issues, prompting both professionals and academics to invest resources to prevent recidivism and find ways to achieve the short and medium-term reintegration of terrorists when they leave prison. 

Radicalisation is, indeed, a complex phenomenon that each individual experiences in a unique way. Given this variability, it is necessary to identify similarities and patterns to improve our understanding of the phenomenon and enable its prevention or – at the least – mitigate its harmful effects. Although it is true that, in most cases, radicalisation does not culminate in the use of violence, the spectacular nature of acts of violent extremism increases their social impact, which violent extremists and terrorists take advantage of to try to impose their political agenda. Thus, terrorism is a threat to citizens insofar as the induction of fear produced by terrorist attacks can lead to polarisation between ethnic, religious or national groups, and the promotion of conflict among different segments of society (Doosje et al., 2016) – a society already affected by acute political polarisation, which undermines the democratic well-being of our communities (Vachudova, 2021). 

During 2019, in the Member States of the European Union alone, 119 terrorist attacks were reported, and more than one thousand individuals were arrested (Europol, 2020). Despite the slight decrease in the number of attacks with respect to previous years, the number of detainees seems to remain almost constant. Although the effects of COVID-19 have influenced these figures, this downward trajectory is not expected to continue, with some experts even claiming that radicalisation is increasing due to greater use of the Internet (de la Corte & Summers, 2021). Until these trends are confirmed and cease to be merely exaggerations of risk, the truth is that radicalisation leading to terrorism is worryingly present in our societies. 

Radicalisation in the prison context

The prison context has been linked to radicalisation and terrorism in different ways. Firstly, prisons have been considered as preventive mechanisms, with various objectives, including to: (1) deter terrorists from acting; (2) punish those who violate the law; (3) rehabilitate radicalised individuals; and (4) incapacitate terrorists from committing other attacks (Bove & Böhmelt, 2020; Neumann, 2010). Therefore, prisons act as another means for countering terrorism. Secondly, terrorism constitutes a major disruptive factor for prison systems. The entry of terrorist inmates is a challenge that has radically transformed the prison population. The profile of these inmates, their political motivations, their symbolic character and their collective nature (McEvoy et al., 2007) set them apart from other inmates and, to a certain extent, motivate them to openly position themselves against power (von Page, 1998). As a result, prisons have sometimes been used by terrorist groups to reorganise (González, 2018), increase the visibility of a conflict with the state (Passmore, 2009), or proselytise and recruit assets (Cuthbertson, 2004). 

In response, prison regimes have been toughened, prioritising security over treatment and its rehabilitative role (Giani, 2018). Concern about radicalisation and proselytism in prisons has also led to the extension of surveillance and control to segments of the prison population linked with common crime. This extension of control and security entails the risk of the perception among those subjected to these measures that they are under permanent suspicion. Thus, it has been seen that the indiscriminate and disproportionate application of radicalisation prevention strategies can be counterproductive and fuel a sense of victimisation among the Muslim prison population (Murray, 2014).

These problems and the functions of prisons concerning terrorism have been superseded in recent years within the European context. During 2019, there were a total of 1,004 arrests for terrorism crimes: 436 for jihadism, 111 for extreme left activities, 21 for the extreme right and 48 for ethno-nationalist violence (Europol, 2020). These data, which reflect a growing trend in recent years, reveal the considerable increase in the prison population – both convicted and in preventive custody – related to political violence.To this, we must add two other factors that aggravate the management of such individuals in European prison systems (Basra & Neumann, 2020). Firstly, their personal backgrounds are increasingly diverse and include more and more women with a noticeable rise in far-right ideology. Secondly, the sentences imposed cover a broad period, with a large number of short-term custodial sentences.

The challenge of social reintegration in the scope of radicalisation

With the increase of the prison population related to political violence in Europe, coupled with the often short sentences received, the chances for a rehabilitation programme or intervention to be conducted in prison are reduced. Thus, the issue of individuals leaving prison that were imprisoned based on terrorist sentences, that are radicals or are at the risk of radicalisation is of particular importance. 

Probation is an opportunity to address the existing challenges based on collaboration between prison and probation officers, allowing offenders to rebuild their place in the community, starting by developing offenders’ abilities with mentoring programmes and cooperation actions with social and family networks. As a matter of fact, reintegration into society is an important protective factor against potential re-radicalisation (RAN, 2016). Without support, disassociation with family and friends, emotional stress, and difficulties managing the practical aspects of day-to-day life can induct former inmates to return to extremist circles or even recidivism due to the lack of constant supervision and the possibility of contact with former associates. Therefore, the work of the correction system is decisive towards achieving complete reintegration to establish new behaviours, social relations, coping, identity, ideology, and performance on action orientation. 

However, leaving prison poses another type of challenges for the strategy to prevent and counter-radicalisation, such as the need to ensure a multiagency cooperative framework, the safety and well-being of these professionals, and the effective promotion of these individuals’ reintegration (Adams, 2019). On the other hand, society must be prepared to accept them and actively support them, which not always is confirmed upon the return of these offenders to their communities. 

Consequently, it is essential to build a comprehensive and early reintegration planning with social and institutional support during the transition period. Additionally, it is crucial to promote cooperation between different organisations, namely between the police, prison and probation services, psychologists, civil society organisations, family and friends, and communities (RAN, 2019).

Correctional staff management and training resources 

The correctional staff plays an essential role in achieving deradicalisation and disengagement interventions. Hence, it is crucial that these are trained in radicalisation, such as in its concept, theories, process and risk factors, so that they are able to identify, report and respond to a potential situation. 

Besides the training of prison and probation staff, a priority should also be adjusting the profile training of the trainers-facilitators, alongside psychologists, educators, social workers, and, in most cases, religious representatives, next to victims and their representatives, family members, or members of rehabilitated groups. As seen, these groups are of vital importance to the reintegration of offenders.

To address the ideological component, ‘Exit Programmes’ are vital. Activities such as dialogue between victims and perpetrators, artistic reflection, prevention work, or guided debates of a political or theological nature are crucial to the disengagement process. In addition, daily life activities such as finding a new job, family therapy, changes of residence, providing socioeconomic and legal assistance, or even psychological and religious counselling also reduce individual or collective behavioural and ideological commitment to a group, milieu or movement. 

Another factor that must be incorporated into training and everyday work is the use of risk assessment tools. Indeed, to improve accuracy and avoid human bias, risk assessment tools have been developed to gather, monitor, and analyse helpful information to make decisions on, for instance, inmate classification and resource allocation. For example, VERA, CYBERA and IR46 are powerful instruments to observational protocols and self-report measures. Nevertheless, these tools do not directly predict the future use of violence but rather indicate the likelihood of existing risk based on identifying behaviours or scenarios. With the aim of ensuring their normalisation in the prison and probation contexts, as well as its correct and adequate use, these professionals must be familiarised and trained to apply them.

The issue of radicalisation in the Balkans: A brief overview of HOPE’s State of the Art Analysis

Laying down the groundwork for the project’s core activities is HOPE’s State of the Art Analysis, gathering a comprehensive literature review and an extensive mapping of the ‘promising’ and ‘best’ approaches to prevent, deal with and tackle the issue of radicalisation and violent extremism. In addition, this report encompasses a European-wide survey aiming to understand the current prevention strategies and efforts in place (including curricular training provisions, risk assessment instruments, and deradicalisation/disengagement programmes) within various European jurisdictions.

The main type of political violence in the Balkan regions (especially in the Western Balkans) is that of religious inspiration, mainly associated with Islam and, to a lesser extent, with orthodox radicalism. While religious radicalisation is the most worrying in general, nationalist or ethnic radicalisation is the main form of radicalisation in countries such as North Macedonia or Serbia, and, to a lower degree, extreme right radicalisation (Prislan et al., 2018). Although this is the general pattern, certain differences were observed by country (see Prislan et al., 2018). For example, in the case of Greece, young people are more likely to join anarchist groups (Speckhard & Shajkovci, 2018).

Focusing on jihadism, Islamist militants have tried to gain influence in recent years. To do this, they have created an infrastructure of mosques controlled by radical clerics and located in isolated locations where extremists live undisturbed by the institutions (Prislan et al., 2018). These movements have been financed from abroad. In Bosnia and Herzegovina alone, an estimated 800 million in Saudi funds have been injected, of which around 100 are untraceable (Petrović, 2016). Despite jihadism being one of the main problems in the region, Salafism is considered a largely new phenomenon in the region. In 2017, for example, only around 15% of the population in Bosnia and Herzegovina approved of the Salafist movement, while 3% approved the use of suicide bombings (Prislan et al., 2018).

In Serbia, however, the danger from terrorist attacks and recruitment by jihadist organisations does not seem to be very relevant. Instead, the greatest threat is related to financial transactions, the arms trade across the country and the revival of terrorist ideologies that tend to have more to do with nationalism and support for Russia. In this respect, Serbia has convicted 29 people for fighting with pro-Russian groups in the Ukraine war (Rovcanin et al., 2020). 

Even though Albania is considered one of the countries with the lowest incidence of extreme right attacks (Rrustemi, 2020), some events that have occurred in recent years point to the incipient importance of this type of extremism. For example, in 2018, an Albanian of Greek origin carried out an attack in the south of the country in the name of the Greek organisation Golden Dawn, and recent videos of two Catholic Albanians were published inciting attacks against Muslim Albanians visiting the coast (Vrugtman, 2021).

The issue of returning Foreign Terrorist Fighters is also of great importance, as Balkan countries need to have a strategy in place to effectively deal with the risk they represent (i.e., risk assessment, offender management/inmate placement to avoid having further radicalised individuals in prison, deradicalisation/disengagement towards their social reintegration). In total, it is estimated that between 800 and 1,000 people from the Balkan states travelled to Syria and Iraq between 2012 and 2016 (Azinović, 2017; Metodieva, 2018). Of these, at least 800 were from the Western Balkan countries, mainly Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and Macedonia (see Table 1); the first three rank among the European countries with the most foreign fighters per capita. Other estimates indicate that approximately one-third of these have returned (Azinović & Bećirević, 2017; Metodieva, 2018) and that specific cities and towns have been more affected than countries (Metodieva, 2018).

Table 1 – Western Balkan war travellers to Syria and Iraq

CountryTotalReturnedKilledStill in the conflict zone
Bosnia and Herzegovina2604946171
MontenegroUp to 305
North Macedonia135802735

Note: Adapted from Metodieva (2018)

Regarding radicalisation in prisons, several risk factors of the prison environment in this region contribute to inmate radicalisation, such as overcrowding, the lack of activities and a violent environment. Moreover, inmates convicted for terrorism-related crimes are usually placed in high-security wings and treated like other high-security inmates, at least in Kosovo (Bartetzko, 2015). As such, radicalisation in prison is also a problem in the region, with Bartetzko (2015) having estimated that in Kosovo prisons specifically, there were a total of 22 jihadist inmates and another 26 who had been radicalised in prison (see Table 2).

Table 2 – Terrorism-related sentences in the Western Balkans

CountryForeign conflictsSentenced for recruiting to fight abroadSentenced for fighting abroadSentenced for attacks in the countryTotal convicted for terrorismAccumulated years in prison
Bosnia and HerzegovinaSyria0251439164
North MacedoniaIraq/Syria0233356736

Note: Adapted from Rovcanin et al. (2013)

Hence, the Balkan and adjusting Southeastern and Eastern European counties represent a particular challenge for the European approach to radicalisation, mainly connected to the foreign terrorist fighters that are returning to the region.

Why is HOPE important?

The issue of radicalisation leading to terrorism and violent extremism poses a threat to the states’ security and fundamental values, including human rights

As we live in a political-polarisation society (between ethnic, religious, or national groups), terrorism is a threat to citizens by inducing fear itself. Although in most cases, radicalisation does not particularly culminate in the use of violence, the nature of violent terrorists’ acts increases their social impact, which violent extremists and terrorists take advantage of to impose their political agenda.  

Much scientific research has focused on finding a profile that would define terrorists, yet it has been concluded that their profile is no different from the general population’s individual. Instead, an individual’s vulnerability to radicalisation depends on their behaviours, intentions and attitudes, supported by a number of personal factors regarding family elements, school, peer-group and community engagement. 

In terms of radicalisation, identification and prevention in correctional systems, the HOPE initiative is developing newly designed, innovative and multidisciplinary approaches to training and learning, raising awareness and fostering overall knowledge.

That is why the HOPE initiative strives to improve the skills set of judicial, prison and probation practitioners, as well as enhance the competencies within a regional stakeholders’ network. In addition, this network promotes training sessions, workshops, high-level seminars, and policy forums while developing and implementing effective training programmes to increase the efficiency and results of training interventions towards radicalisation prevention for those at risk and who have already been radicalised. Furthermore, this project increases the skills of community organisations’ staff (including religious institutions) on dealing with individuals at risk or who have been radicalised at several levels, acting on prevention, management, and intervention.

Achieve, adapt, overcome! 

As we have seen, radicalisation has emerged as one of the most serious security and social problems in nowadays society. Although different approaches, methods and practices have been developed to counter this problem, the increased number of detained terrorists and the unexpected phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters contributed significantly to increasing public and professional interest in these issues.  

To effectively respond to this matter, corporations and partnerships must be promoted with Balkan, Southern and Eastern European countries due to their particular exposure to these and related threats.  Focusing primarily on the anticipatory and direct levels, the HOPE “Holistic radicalisation prevention initiative” resources strive to prevent recidivism and find ways to achieve the short and medium-term reintegration of inmates within prisons (or probation) and ex-inmates. 

In order to add value to the European discussion on radicalisation, the HOPE project is currently designing a networking structure for continuous training and knowledge sharing about radicalisation and violent extremism in the Balkan, Southern and Eastern European countries.

This project involves training and research organisations, academics, prisons and probation administrations working together to create a European Learning Hub on Radicalisation.

Cooperation between various actors such as public sector representatives, professionals of the prison and probation sector, consultancy-orientated private firms, research institutions, and NGOs are working together to achieve the project’s primary goal – a holistic radicalisation prevention initiative. 

The Consortium is represented by six EU Member states and two non-EU countries, through the collaboration of IPS_Innovative Prison Systems (Portugal), the Bulgarian Association for Policy Evaluation (Bulgaria), Bucharest-Jilava Penitentiary (Romania), Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Slovenia, Probation Administration (Slovenia), General Directorate “Execution of Sentences” (Bulgaria), Foundation Agenfor International (Italy), Euro-Arab Foundation for Higher Studies (Spain), Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia (Serbia) and University College of Norwegian Correctional Service (Norway).


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