One of the three main themes of the Austrian OSCE Chairmanship – ‘radicalisation and terrorism’ – is currently a major challenge to security, as it threatens the internal stability of member states. Furthermore, the rise of nationalism, fuelled by growing public discontent, has led to electoral gains by right-wing parties in a growing number of European countries.
Over the last decade it is alleged that more than ten thousand people from Europe have joined extremist organisations. Many went to Syria, Iraq, and Libya to fight, but many have also returned to take part in planning attacks in Europe. Thus, they are a security risk both in countries where the Islamic State has a stronger presence, and when they return home. This trend poses a threat to security in addition to the ‘classic conflicts’, showing how security threats have dramatically evolved in the twenty-first century.
The terrorist attacks in London, Paris, and elsewhere have highlighted the worldwide sources and the global effects of radicalisation. National borders no longer confine security threats, and the necessity to understand the dynamics of the problem and identify ways to effectively address the causes and triggers for radicalisation has become apparent. Furthermore, cooperation between states is needed to effectively fight this problem.
However, radicalisation is not only occurring within Muslim communities in Europe – it is also coming from the far right. Fear, social insecurity, and a kind of impotence were reinforced by the economic crisis in 2008 and the refugee movement in 2015. They formed a breeding ground for the right-wing populist themes and made people particularly vulnerable to simple answers, often associated with anti-liberal and racist discourses. These have impacted the centre and even left-wing circles. For example, in Austria the leader of the Freedom Party (FPÖ), known for its far-right views, has said that in the current campaigning for the legislative elections, the leader of the People’s Party (ÖVP) has been co-opting the FPÖ’s slogans and ideas, signalling an overall shift to the right among Austrian political parties.
According to reports, attacks on migrants and asylum seekers, as well as demonstrations against them, increased into the thousands after Angela Merkel’s ‘open door policy’ has led to even more refugees travelling to Europe.
Governments and international organisations are putting a lot of effort and resources into determining and combating the root causes of radicalisation and terrorism. Political leaders, social scientists, and other experts meet at conferences and other events to discuss possible ways to prevent and fight the violent extremism and radicalisation that lead to terrorism.
For example, the annual OSCE-wide Counter-Terrorism Conference is an event where experts from across the OSCE region discuss national experiences and international cooperation in countering terrorism, good practices from the OSCE region on rehabilitation and reintegration strategies, as well as prevention of radicalisation that results in terrorist attacks. Violent extremism and radicalisation that lead to terrorism are threats faced by both OSCE member states and their Partners for Cooperation, making it a priority concern for the OSCE. However, security issues are not the only important element in combating radicalisation. Education and a focus on youth play a key role.
There are different dynamics that result in radicalisation within Europe, but one of the most susceptible groups are young people. Especially in the phase of adolescence, the search for identity is at the forefront for young people. The process of identity development is characterised by uncertainty and instability. Shifts and fluctuations within societies, rising unemployment, and the associated fear of an uncertain future make it increasingly difficult for young people to orient themselves. The focus on individuality, whether in the labour market or in private, requires a constant re-establishment and re-working of one’s own identity. Young people from socially disadvantaged families find it particularly difficult. For young people who are classified by the social majority as Muslim, exclusion and everyday racism can also result in identity uncertainty. The combination of exclusion, whether it is racially motivated or caused by other factors, and unstable character development creates a fertile breeding ground for radicalisation among both the Muslim community, as well as the right-wing Islamophobic camp. These young people often have the feeling of being ‘devalued’ by society and try to ‘upgrade’ themselves by constructing different identities.
One forum that emphasises a youth-focused and educational approach is the annual OSCE Security Days conference. Here members of government, experts from think tanks and academic institutions, civil society, youth, and media come together to discuss threats and potential solutions. Security issues are examined from different viewpoints in a comprehensive approach, in order to examine emerging trends and priorities for action. This year the participants and the speakers emphasised the need for dialogue in this matter.
Other organisations such as UNESCO or the Anna Lindh Foundation, also bring experts together to study the problem and give recommendations. They are active in promoting initiatives and creating platforms for different forms of dialogue at various levels as a means of countering misperceptions, decreasing tensions, preventing conflict, and promoting stability. Furthermore, they focus on countering and preventing violent extremism through education.
The aforementioned events addressed youth empowerment in preventing and countering violent extremism and radicalisation, which is one of the priorities of the Austrian OSCE Chairmanship. This will provide a platform for youth representatives to present their recommendations to policy makers, which were drafted throughout the past year during Austria’s Chairmanship in workshops on youth and the prevention of violent extremism, organised in Western Europe, the Black Sea region, the Western Balkans, and Central Asia. Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz has highlighted these priorities for Austria and the OSCE in his speeches throughout the year. Finding it important to work with young people, organisations and governments are also incorporating tools such as social media to show that alternatives exist, and that radicalisation of any ideology is counterproductive.
 The Anna Lindh Foundation is an inter-governmental institution focused on dialogue between civil society and citizens across the Mediterranean region.