Topic: Disasters, terror and stress management

Concern work. Dilemmas and possibilities in local prevention of radicalization and violent extremism in Norway

Førde, K. E., & Andersen, A. J. (2018). Bekymringsarbeidet. Dilemmaer og muligheter i lokal forebygging av radikalisering og voldelig ekstremisme i Norge [Concern work. Dilemmas and possibilities in local prevention of radicalization and violent extremism in Norway] Norwegian only. (Rapport 4/2018).


During the last decade, the Norwegian authorities have stepped up their efforts to combat terrorism and political violence. An important aspect of this intensification is that the work has not been restricted to the prevention and minimisation of the scope and harmful effects of terrorism. The new effort is also aimed at radicalisation and violent extremism, which are thought to be the underlying causes and processes that lead up to terrorism. While the prevention of terrorism has primarily been the task of the security service, a large portion of society has been mobilised to prevent radicalisation and violent extremism: family, friends, municipal authorities, local communities, schools, workplaces/colleagues, child welfare service, health services, volunteers, organisations, police, faith and belief communities, recreational activities, the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV), the Norwegian Police Security Service (PST) and the Norwegian Correctional Service.

Local police forces have been assigned a so-called ‘key role’ in this wide-ranging effort. In line with this, the Government’s Action plan requested the police districts to task earmarked positions with the prevention of radicalisation and violent extremism – often referred to as radicalisation contacts. This report presents a qualitative, explorative study of their work. The data were collected through individual interviews and participant observation for a period of seven months in 2016 and 2017. We also interviewed a small number of people working on prevention in municipalities and at NAV, in addition to two relatives of people who were under suspicion of the police for radicalisation and/or violent extremism.

We have approached this topic with a particular focus on the concept of concern [in Norwegian: bekymring] and what we refer to as ‘concern work’ [in Norwegian: bekymringsarbeid]. That is, the work that the police and other preventers carry out to identify, assess, handle and minimise the risk of someone being or about to become a violent extremist. The term concern is used frequently in government policies and practical prevention work, but it is neither thematised nor problematised. What it refers to is taken for granted. Inspired by critical research in this field, we problematise the notion that terms such as concern and radicalisation are neutral and unpolitical. We examine concern as something that arises during discussions between various actors in everyday prevention work and the premises underpinning politics, research and public debates. We take as our starting point what we believe are especially important political and professional premises for prevention work set out in the Government’s plan of action, namely, that prevention work must be characterised by a broad approach and that violent extremism needs to be addressed well before violence actually occurs. The target area for the work will be much wider, and include more contexts and areas of life and policies than ‘combating terrorism’. The new interpretation of the problem also requires a much more unified and cross-sectoral way of working, where democratic development, security policies and social policies merge. We demonstrate that these premises frame a new field of work where new meaningful contexts and connections are created between the various interpretations, agendas and actors involved.  We demonstrate that concern contributes to a shared language for the different actors to understand, and describes the problem across different perspectives and agendas. This helps connect the different sectors in the government prevention services, such as law, health and education, in a joint project aimed at an individual or a group. In the same way, different aspects of these people’s lives are linked together in new ways. Participation in work or training, social networks and mental health are seen in relation to ideological development and attachment to extremist groups where applicable. Finally, the initiatives and approaches of various moral spheres, with care on the one hand and control on the other, can be connected together in a meaningful way. A good example of the so-called ‘conversation of concern’ [in Norwegian: bekymringssamtale], held with individuals who are assumed to be at risk, also aims to obtain information, warn and investigate the need for help, as well as offer help if necessary.

At the same time our study shows that the boundaries for concern work and what tasks it specifically involves, remain vague and unclear. For example, what constitutes a cause for concern? What should be prevented – violence or the ideas that legitimate violence? Is extremism only a problem because it can lead to violence or should it be combated because, for example, it creates insecurity, hinders the inclusion of certain groups and contributes to a polarised society in general? When and which agencies should intervene? The fact that the political authorities have not clarified these and other questions, has consequences for those who carry out prevention work in practice. We can also demonstrate that concern as a frame of reference may contribute towards underplaying various tensions and antagonisms that those working in the field unquestionably experience and have to deal with. In the report, we highlight some of the tensions, especially between the care and control aspects of the work carried out, often expressed as the ‘helping track’ and ‘policing track’. We demonstrate that the boundaries between these two agendas sometimes become unclear and that the control aspects start to dominate. For example, help in the form of welfare benefits becomes an instrument for reaching intelligence goals.

We demonstrate that the notion of violent extremism often arising from social issues helps contribute to the security policy agenda being tightly linked to the social policy agenda and vice versa. By extension, the distinction between care and control becomes ambiguous in everyday prevention work. For example, this is clear in the challenges ‘concern workers’ encounter when working with next of kin. For most next of kin, concern about radicalisation is a complex phenomenon of an emotional, relational and moral nature. The situation is characterised by doubt, ambiguity and ambivalence. We argue that the challenges encountered in the cooperation between the authorities and next of kin may illustrate definite and real conflicts of interest. Furthermore, different interpretations are under-communicated in the construct concern, and the same applies to the substantial power imbalance that occurs when the authorities, spearheaded by the police, intervene in people’s private lives.

We demonstrate that ambiguity and unclarified questions arise when the police investigate specific cases in which it is necessary to distinguish between ‘real’ and ‘baseless’ concern. Concern workers must achieve a balance to eliminate the risk of doing too little or too much. At worst, they risk escalating the problem they are trying to counteract by potentially creating mistrust towards the police and society, in addition to stigmatising certain groups. The report demonstrates that cases constituting a cause for concern are assessed using collective interpretation skills, largely based on shared experience and intuition rather than theoretical knowledge and management guidelines. We also discuss how concern as a frame of reference not only draws the police’s attention to new phenomena, such as certain religious practices or political online activity, but also how it gives new meaning to familiar phenomena, such as social marginalisation or mental health disorders.

All these topics impact what we have identified as an overarching tension between civil protection, democracy and the individual’s right to due process under the law. For those actually engaged in the work, it becomes a question of finding the right balance. When national security is potentially at stake, where should the threshold for public intervention in a person’s life be drawn? Through this report, we intend to contribute to the knowledge base for this important discussion.

The Researchers