The refugee crisis, rising terrorism and seeking reconciliation wisdom

Plotting a course for reconciliation wisdom

Reflecting on an extraordinary career in conflict resolution Canon Andrew White is canonwhiteclear that a feeling of having “lost something” is at the root of terrorism. Stepping into the mind of an expert in reconciliation has tremendous value when looking at trends in radicalised ‘lone wolf’ individuals, because I believe the same connections that keep a rebel force at the reconciliation table serve the same function in keeping an individual from turning to violence within their community.

In this article I’m going to explore trends and open up the dynamics of conflict reconciliation to examine how the loss of key connections in society can contribute to trends in terrorism. I’ll conclude by outlining how acknowledgement thinking can play a part in tackling these trends.

But what is acknowledgement thinking?

new%20maslows%20heirarchy%20of%20need-copyThe unmet need for acknowledgement in citizens of contemporary Western societies is growing. It’s an unmet need that is a modern phenomenon, which I believe is why Maslow didn’t include it in his hierarchy of needs in 1943.

Acknowledgement thinking provides a platform to frame the challenges this acknowledgement deficit creates while also offering insight and strategies into how to tackle it. As this is the first article of many I’ll be writing on the subject I’ll be framing various key concepts for the first time. I will attempt to do so efficiently and without disrupting the momentum of the piece. However if there are elements of this article that need further explanation, feedback or discussion do message me to continue the debate.

Terrorism; even the use of the word is violent

At the outset it’s important to acknowledge that the term terrorism is irresponsibly used by many sections of the Western media.

Acts of violence and killing connected to those with openly opposing express12views to the predominant western belief system are quickly labelled with the term, while similar atrocities motivated by racial or sexual prejudice are spared the word. It is important to state that I will be exploring all acts of terror whatever the political philosophy or motivation of the assailant. This will include hate crimes. I believe if we are to build a fair and unbiased perspective of the dynamics at work in our communities we should observe acts without prejudice.

Fundamental to establishing a context for this article are questions of what the current trends actually are:

  • Are acts of terror really on the rise as portrayed in the media?
  • Are current levels of migration contributing to any rise in terror?

To what degree “a crisis”

The events labelled the “refugee crisis” started to unfold in the month that the UN published its global migration report. In this report for 2010 to 2015 the data showed that the vast majority of migration taking place is happening within continents. Therefore the migration that made up the total movement of 244 million people over this five year period to July 2015 was largely due to people moving within Europe and the Americas.

July 2015 however was a record month for people entering Europe

In the year following July 2015 the total number of people who crossed into Europe according to FRONTEX reached an estimated 1.82 million. Compare this figure with the 282,000 from the previous year and it’s clear to see that the “refugee crisis” is a very recent phenomenon. As a result any substantial data on its impact is going to be limited at this stage. However we can agree that the migration of refugees into Europe has increased since July 2015.

So there is truth in media reports of an increase in refugees arriving into Europe.

Is the media’s reporting of increased terrorist activity supported by the data?

The Global Terrorism Database created by the University of Maryland shows an interesting narrative for the same five year period as the UN’s migration report.

It documents 14,806 acts of terrorism picked up globally from media sources in 2015, with 2.17% of these taking place in Western Europe compared to 40.2% happening in the Middle East. Interestingly on a closer inspection, the annual data held since 2010 shows the percentage of global terrorism perpetrated in Western Europe has stayed between 1.27% and 2.76% throughout the five year period from 2010 to 2015.

So there is no substantial rise in the percentage of global terror that is committed in Western Europe; however the total number of terrorist acts has fluctuated.

The long view (1970 – 2015)

Studying a graph of the last 45 years, the peaks in terrorist activity of the 70’s and 80’s make recent levels look low, but the graph does clearly show an increase in activity since the start of the Iraq war in 2003.

So what does this mean?

Western Europe is no more dangerous in a global context than it was 5 years ago, however with the growth in global terror means the number of acts committed in Western Europe has increased from 132 to 321.

So with Western Europe not getting any more dangerous relatively speaking, but more reported incidents taking place, it’s clear to see where media reporting of a “rise in terror” is coming from.

Is there any evidence connecting this increase in terror to the rise in people entering Europe? 

It maybe unsurprising that in Germany, where the intake of refugees has been higher than the rest of Europe, there is a clear connection between the refugees offered asylum in Europe and increased terrorist activity. However it may not be the connection you’d expect.

The Global Terrorism Database shows a rise from 13 to 50 reported incidents between 2014 and 2015, but doesn’t document any perpetrated by newly arrived refugees. This increase in attacks comes entirely from terror targeted at refugee centres and homes, with these reported incidents increasing from two in 2014 to thirty six in the following year. Unfortunately the Global Terrorism Database has yet to publish 2016 data, though press reports suggest this trend is continuing to rise. It’s fair to say there have been a small number of violent acts committed by recent refugees since the beginning of 2016 in Germany, though there is no evidence of a significant trend in terrorism committed by refugees.

The tide of rising terror in Germany is very clearly from acts targeting refugee communities.german-data

Europe’s second highest asylum application country France saw a rise on a similar scale to Germany. The number of incidents in France increased from 14 to 36 between 2014 and 2015, however the increase in this case came from acts perpetrated by radicalised ‘lone wolf’ European nationals.

So what should we be learning from these trends?

There are three themes in the data and the situation outlined above:

  • An increase in the refugees entering established communities
  • A growth in hate motivated terror in many Western European countries
  • The ‘lone wolf’ terrorist model becoming increasingly commonplace

In the opening paragraph of this piece I quoted Canon Andrew White speaking in a Vice documentary in Baghdad, observing that “terrorism is always to do with one thing, those who feel they have lost something”. It strikes me that Western Europe is faced with an opportunity in the lives of its nationals as well as the lives of second and third generations of refugees and newly arrived asylum seekers. As countries receive refugees into their communities and cities, the time is now to ensure nobody is left feeling as if they have “lost something”.

What are people in danger of losing?

I believe across these three themes the potential loss is the same.

In an article for Time magazine following the Ottawa shootings in Oct 2014 Peter Neumann, Director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence in London outlined “that lone wolf terrorism has increased in the past few years”. The article goes on to point out that “lone wolves are more likely to suffer from social isolation” and are often radicalised online.

Many talk about eradicating websites and online platforms that radicalise individuals as if that alone would deal with the entire issue at hand. However I believe people are driven to engage with these channels to satisfy an unmet need; a need that isn’t being met by their geographic community. A Google search of the phrase “join us” returns 850 million results, and so any obvious trends in recruitment like terrorist radicalisation tell a story. What loss drove ‘lone wolf’ terrorists online to be radicalised in the first place?

I believe what many have lost within Western European communities, especially those suffering from social isolation, is a feeling of belonging.

Where does a feeling of belonging come from?

As a white man living in Western Europe I am surrounded by an environment that acknowledges my existence, history, cultural identity and future aspirations. Having a privilege like this can leave us blind to the role that acknowledgement plays in our daily lives. Further more privilege itself is often something we are not aware of. I believe belonging is a product of how our environment, relationships and the organisations we engage with acknowledge our existence, history, cultural identity and aspirations.

Sadly I believe feelings of not belonging, as a result of not being acknowledged, are common across communities.

What has belonging got to do with terrorism?

The acknowledgement of existence, history, cultural identity and aspiration is a dynamic that also exists in the room when two sides in conflict sit across a table to negotiate a peace. Observing the dynamics of a room where two sides are engaged in reconciliation is a powerful tool in making the invisible visible.

When two sides of a conflict sit across a table the dynamics occupy space; the table divides the conflicting parties, there’s a consensus among the peers along each side of the table and breaks in proceedings are used to consult the broader communities that the representatives represent. However part of what holds the two sides of a conflict in accountability in the reconciliation process is each side’s shared history and future within the community they belong to and represent. I believe that same dynamic plays out inside every individual in every community. When your normal is for your environment to consistently acknowledge your existence, history, cultural identity and future it’s hard to appreciate what it might feel like to not have that. To truly feel isolated; like sitting in that reconciliation room facing conflict absolutely alone.

Belonging is a product of how society acknowledges us and that sense of belonging plays a part in holding us to account.

How do feelings of not belonging manifest themselves in our communities?

When you wake in the middle of the night hungry, do you go snack or remain restless in bed? We all encounter needs that are unmet in our daily lives and have a spectrum of responses; some healthy and some less healthy. Hopefully in the vast majority of occasions we’re able to find a response to an unmet need that gets that need met.

Feeling a need for belonging is a bit more abstract than a rumbling belly, so where might we find evidence that this need is at large in our societies. If we return to Germany, I think it’s significant that prescriptions for anti-depressants have been on the rise in women since the year 2000. But that’s only half of the story…

german-suicide-ratesAmong German men, for whom taking issues of poor physical and mental health to a doctor is less common, it is striking to see decades of falling suicides rates across the population are being reversed. Suicide among German males increased over the five years between 2010 and 2015 from 18.6 to 18.9 suicides per 100,000 of the population.

In a community where people carry an unmet need for belonging, many will have a positive response and get that need met. However for those who cannot find a positive response there will be a spectrum of consequences. These individual may experience a lack of well-being, a range of mental health issues or very occasionally something more extreme. I believe seeking belonging through radicalising websites is part of a very narrow spectrum of responses, but a response never the less.

How do we address this in our own communities and cities?

Belonging comes from the acknowledgement of our existence, history, cultural identity and future aspirations through the many things we have a relationship with:

  • our workplace or school
  • the street on which we live
  • the village, town or city we call home
  • our relationships with those around us

Tackling a feeling of not belonging therefore involves creating opportunities for acknowledgement in these same spheres of life. The tools of acknowledgement include culture, identity and connection; things that all too regularly are squeezed out of over developed cities and employment practices that don’t acknowledge the individual. It can be as simple as:

  • creating space for the history of communities to be acknowledged through the arts
  • creating opportunities for cultural identities to be acknowledged through events
  • opening up forums for individuals to have their stories heard and acknowledged
  • supporting communities with resources to set up groups and organisations to respond to their needs

Fundamental to addressing a lack of acknowledgement is giving individuals ownership over how they shape their participation. All too often Western societies deny us a sense of ownership in our relationship with where we live, the place we work and what we achieve at work for the organisation we work for.

Facing the challenge of equality and addressing loss

An unmet need for belonging can be found across our communities.

What’s more feelings of having lost something will be generated among established communities when redressing privilege and tackling the cultural bias. An common view shared by those troubled by the arrival of refugees is the fear of a loss of cultural identity. In a community that is undergoing change, the feelings and unmet needs of the established community are equally important to acknowledge in a healthy forum as those of new arrivals. However the motivation and resource to create that healthy forum for the established community can be harder to find. What often sits beneath views that appear racist are very genuine concerns that need acknowledging in a healthy forum!

“Resistance persists, acceptance changes”

The good news is that even if these steps feel challenging, your community holds all the resources required to make them happen. All you have to be is the catalyst of small steps in the right direction…


This is a short article from a book being written on the breadth of areas and issues which acknowledgement thinking can make a positive contribution. I’ll be posting regular articles, ideas and stories. Watch this space!