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The Other Side of the Story: A qualitative study of the biographies of extremists and terrorists


The events that happened in the last few years in conjunction with the international phenomenon of Islamist-jihadist terrorism once again have shifted the focus of attention more strongly to the motives behind terrorist acts, i.e. to the question, “Why?”. The fact that international terrorism seems to be
thriving in Germany, too, has been obvious at least since the conviction of the members of the socalled ‘Sauerland Group’. There is no doubt that under certain circumstances even individuals who have been brought up in Germany are ready and willing to embrace Islamist/jihadist interpretation options; but it is not only an Islamist or religiously - in the broadest sense of the word - motivated kind of extremism that arouses our interest: Considering the broad spectrum of politically motivated extremism and terrorism, it is society as a whole that is challenged. Before we can take up these challenges, we must first of all answer the crucial question, ‘What are the motives that lead terrorists
to commit their brutal acts’? Only if we shed light on their deeper motivation will we be able not only to react more appropriately but, above all, act in an adequately pro-active and pre-emptive manner.

This study entitled “Extremism – a biographical perspective” is based on a biographical approach to understanding its subjects’ life histories with a focus on the motives behind radicalisation and the corresponding use of extremist-motivated violence: Are some distinct biographical constellations and/or motivations - whatever their ideological origin - more likely than others to lead an individual towards extremism? What kind of lifeworlds do we see if we try to look at them from the extremists’ or terrorists’ own points of view?

The results presented in the book at hand are manifold, and if we want to tackle this phenomenon with a focus on crime prevention, the key finding is a challenging one as the psycho-social dynamics of the radicalisation careers of offenders with different extremist or terrorist backgrounds seem to have more in common than the respective ideological backgrounds of the different milieus would suggest. Or, in other words: We did not find any fundamental differences. In fact, the similarities between the individuals’ key motivational impetuses and trigger factors outnumber all visible manifestations that the various types of extremism can take.

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