In every artery of society? The frontline professional on presumptive screening of cases of violent extremism among youth.

Mrs Annemarie Van De Weert1, Professor  Quirine Eijkman1

1Research Centre For Social Innovation, Lectorate Access2justice, Utrecht University, Utrecht, Netherlands

Centre for Social Innovation (KSI), Access2Justice, Utrecht University of Applied Sciences (HU), The Netherlands.

Contact:, M. +31 (0)612681518

This proposal is the outcome of a project on pro-active screening of potential risky individuals at the local level. It contains three reports which focus on detecting violent extremisme among youth done by frontline professionals.


In the course of previous years counterterrorism has started to focus more on anticipating the threat of terrorism. The aim is to discover radicalization processes towards violent extremism at an early stage. The focus here is on identifying deviant behavior and ideas that justify or mandate violent action. The policy thought is to deal with law enforcement in anticipation: aimed at ‘preventing’ instead of ‘persecuting’. The local front-line professional have an essential pro-active role to play in this early-detection set-up. Because of their position in the neighborhood they can detect and obtain information in alleged cases of violent extremism. Since 2005 the Netherlands is one of the forerunners in the use of this policy vision; internationally known as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE).

Problem statement

Leaving from the concept of ‘performativity’ (De Graaf & De Graaff 2010) -which involves the extent to which a national government, by means of its official counterterrorism policy and corresponding discourse, is successful- the outcome of this project argues that it is not necessarily the policy measures and their intended results as such, but much more the way in which they are presented and perceived, that determine the overall effect of the policy in question. Preventive activity in an early stage, before any concrete suspicion of a criminal act has been established, gives frontline professionals such as youthworkers, community police officers and civil servants much discretionary space to act according to their own judgment. The large challenge of early detection is that indicators of potential risk and problematic deviant behaviour are not always unambiguous; especially in the case of radicalisation processes (Bouhana, Corner, Gill & Schuurman 2018; Corner, Bouhana & Gill 2019; Monaghan & Walby 2012; Borum 2011; Heath-Kelly 2013; King & Taylor 2011).

Research outcome

Defining what kind of behaviour or beliefs are ‘acceptable’ or pose a ‘threat to democracy’ is always a subjective exercise (Van de Weert & Eijkman 2017/2018/2019). The analysis of 55 interviews with frontline professionals working in CVE shows this stems from three reasons:

The misunderstanding of the difference between the terminology radicalization and (violent) extremism, which leads to a lack of consensus on criteria, standards and procedures.

A lack of norm-setting which makes it clear that simply holding views or beliefs that are considered radical or extreme, as well as their peaceful expression, are not automatically a harbinger for the use of violence.

Most local professionals rely on the importance of finding the ‘best person to do the job’, instead of looking for ‘best practices’ to give content to their specific assignment in early detection. Although this is a realistic view of early detection practice – as this practice is not evidence-based – the lack of checks on their judgements and decision-making means that there is a risk of cognitive bias influencing their assessment. This gives space for prejudices in CVE-practice.

The research outcome suggests that ethical and legal boundaries are tested or crossed because of estimation errors such as false positives (Crank, Flaherty & Giacomazzi 2007). Furthermore in our research we established that due to special focus on religious extremism among Muslims in policy and trainings there might be possible unequal treatment of various forms of extremism in society – such as Islamic, left or right -. We state that this harms the function of the frontline as ‘symbol of a working constitutional state’.


By mapping the view of the local police, social worker and municipality, practical experience is shared. Empirical research provides valuable insights for self-reflection and awareness of frontline professionals’s own actions. By explaining patterns, pitfalls and dilemmas from daily practice, knowledge can be gathered to promote the practice of the local approach to tackle violent extremism among youth. The reports on the role of youth workers, community police officers and municipal security officials, provide implications for counter-terrorism (Van de Weert & Eijkman 2017/2018/2019).


Annemarie van de Weert is criminologist with a special focus on Human Rights Issues in Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism and Reintegration Programmes. In a serie of technical reports about the role of the frontline professional (e.g. youthworkers, safety-officers and community police) she points out that preventive work is aimed at detecting deviant ideas (‘ideology’) instead of concrete criminal acts, and therefore can be described as anticipatory justice. She currently works at the Research Centre for Social Innovation, Utrecht University of Applied Sciencd. The current project is ‘Local Professionals on Countering (Violent) Extremism’. Annemarie does research in Behavioural Science, Social Psychology and Human Rights in relation to Counter-Terrorism (CT) and Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) among youths.

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