Radicalisation, extremism, and propaganda

Understanding radicalisation processes, detecting radicalisation

Radicalisation is a process in which a person adopts increasingly extreme political, social or religious aspirations, including extreme violence. In this way, individuals or groups increasingly adopt an extremist value system. The path here can go from a neutral position to sympathy, the justification to endorsing extremist ideas and actions. (Zurich Cantonal Police – Prevention Department)

Different reasons can lead to people becoming radicalised. The process of radicalisation is neither straightforward nor predetermined. Certain individual, collective, social and psychological factors can favour its triggering. One event alone cannot explain the radicalisation process. Instead, it is the result of the coincidence of an individual life path with a value system that justifies violence – which can be reinforced by a perceived threat to identity or morality and further fuelled by social networks, both physical and virtual. It is often difficult to say with certainty why a person becomes interested in radical movements because there is no typical profile of persons susceptible to radicalisation. (Swiss Security Association)

Online radicalisation cannot be decoupled from offline events, and a separation of digital versus ‘real-world’ is not very useful because internet use is an increasingly natural part of everyday life. The offering of the internet and (alternative) social media theoretically enable self-radicalisation independent of offline contacts, i.e. only based on published content – without personal interaction. In practice, however, this process is limited. (Sophia Rothut, Heidi Schulze, Julian Hohner, Simon Greipl & Diana Rieger)

Certain conditions can promote vulnerability to radicalisation. These are so-called push factors. With reference to the target group of this guide, the combination of the following characteristics should be mentioned in particular:

  • Identity crises
  • Political, socio-economic or social fears and frustrations
  • Individual and collective experience of discrimination, hostility, and humiliation, for example, due to religious affiliation or origin
  • Social discontent/indignation at the unfair treatment of others
  • Lack of social integration
Extremism in the context of this guide

The Swiss Safe Games Guide is based on an absolute definition of extremism, in line with the Federal Council’s position.
“The Federal Council understands extremism to mean those political directions that reject the values of liberal democracy and the rule of law. In general, movements and parties, ideas and patterns of attitudes and behaviour that reject the democratic constitutional state, the separation of powers, the multi-party system and the right to the opposition are described as extremist.
Extremists substitute the distinction between friend and foe for political opposition. Consequently, they strictly reject other opinions and interests and believe in particular, supposedly irrefutable political-social goals or laws.” (The Federal Council)
“Extremists do not describe themselves as such. On the contrary, they and their activities exploit the achievements of the liberal democratic order, which they oppose: among other things, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and legal protection.
What remains decisive is the rejection of fundamental democratic values and principles of order, not the political fringe of extremist ideas.” (The Federal Council)

Extremism-free games

Extremist groups also use online content for their purposes. They even use games to spread their ideologies. Various forms of extremism can be promoted through propaganda with relevant information carriers. Be it in digital form, for example, in social media or paper form, or through direct contact. Classic forms of extremism are in alphabetical order:

  • Jihadism,
  • Ethno-nationalism,
  • Left-wing extremism,
  • Monothematic extremism,
  • Right-wing extremism.

Understanding extremism

A wealth of violent extremist propaganda material is available online. Vulnerable persons may come across it by searching or be actively pointed out by others.

Extremists do not describe themselves as such. On the contrary, they and their activities exploit the achievements of the liberal democratic order, which they oppose: among other things, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and legal protection.

Not everything that is extreme is also extremist: the decisive factor for extremism is the rejection of fundamental democratic values and principles of order, not the political fringe. (The Federal Council)


A narrative is a story that creates meaning. Within a grouping of people, it creates meaning by propagating important values, usually in an emotional way. Naturally, this is appealing to the proponents of these values.

Not every narrative is extremist: the narrative refers to an ideologically shaped opinion or fact, often internalised as an easy-to-memorise formulation and slogan. In extremist groups, certain narratives are constantly repeated, deepened using lectures and writings, presented graphically appealingly, and thus solidified. Nevertheless, almost all radicalised people increasingly adopt extremist narratives, which are politically, socially or religiously influenced.

Should people from your environment increasingly use such ways of thinking and speaking, codes, abbreviations or arguments, this can signify progressive radicalisation.

Examples of individual narratives of certain forms of extremism


Islamic extremism is a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam to establish an Islamic society based on corresponding values. When this intention is pursued using violence, it is referred to as jihadism. Examples of narratives are:

“Be a martyr; come to Paradise!”

“The warriors of God do not love life, they love death!”

“Only Götzenanbeter want democracy!”

Left-wing extremism

Left-wing extremism includes communist and anarchist currents as well as ideologies described as revolutionary, which pursue calls for resistance against state structures and institutions. In addition, left-wing extremists call for the fight for an egalitarian society. Applications of violence can be directed against material assets, against security authorities, as well as representatives of the economy or politics. Examples of narratives are:

“Overcoming fascism by fighting the oppressive state!”

“Anarchy against capitalism!”

“We fight against Nazis – Smash right!”

Right-wing extremism

Right-wing extremism manifests itself in xenophobia, racism or exaggerated nationalism, with the belief in inequality legitimising violence. Calls for or exercise of violence are accompanied by demands for stricter laws and consistent action on the state and the forces of law and order. Calls for structural violence through exclusion can result in the expulsion or annihilation of groups. Examples of narratives are:

“Holocaust is an invention, it never happened!”

“Our cultural identity is under threat – stop the great exchange!”

“The purer the race, the clearer the path!”

Symbols and scenes

There is no exhaustive list of banned extremist symbols in Switzerland. Even established and unproblematic symbols, icons, logos, trademarks, etc., can be used by extremist groups and are thus not forbidden. The decisive factor is whether they violate penal norms, for example, the penal norm on racism. In extremist circles, codes consisting of numbers or combinations of letters are also used to manifest the extremist ideology.

Extremist scenes can move online as well as offline. Virtual or other online offerings can accelerate radicalisation dynamics by increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of potentially radicalising communication processes. Extremist groups make use of the full potential of online offerings. Multimedia content, such as videos, podcasts or memes, is produced with high effort for specific target groups. (Sophia Rothut, Heidi Schulze, Julian Hohner, Simon Greipl & Diana Rieger)

In Switzerland, violent extremist scenes are composed in different ways. The left-wing extremist scene, for example, can be divided into two main currents: Anarchism and Marxism-Leninism. The violent left-wing extremist scene continues to be oriented towards international and national daily news and is well-networked internationally. These networks are also partly visible in violent actions.

The violent right-wing extremist scene usually behaves conspiratorially and is reluctant to use violence in Switzerland. This is in stark contrast to the developments in other countries, especially Germany, although there are many connections. (Security Report Switzerland)

Good to know

In Switzerland, organised efforts by a group to abolish democracy, human rights or the rule of law democracy, human rights or the rule of law are insufficient to trigger preventive measures by the intelligence service. To achieve these goals, a group must also commit, promote or advocate acts of violence. (The Federal Council)

Detect propaganda

Recognising extremist propaganda is not always easy, as often credible arguments are given on the surface, invoking the right to freedom of expression. Often there is no direct call to violate the law. There are several forms of propaganda: from lectures at events to information carriers, digital as well as analogue.

There are hardly any limits to the dissemination of digital content: propaganda can be spread directly from device to device and via groups or forums, social networks, media platforms, encrypted channels, etc. Extremist groups use some portals. While extremist groups create some outlets to propagate their ideologies, others use established platforms. Even media and other channels without extremist references can be misused for extremist propaganda work and, in some cases, reach a large circle of recipients. Individual extremist groups use digital possibilities extensively and professionally.

Extremist propaganda often contains the following three elements, which can be recognised, assessed accordingly and named as follows:

  • Propaganda usually claims to highlight a “grievance”. It identifies those supposedly responsible for the grievance and does this with the help of emotions, such as the reference to innocent sufferers. It thus reflects who is good or bad, perpetrator or victim.
  • Propaganda shows a possible solution to the identified problems: The identified grievances are to be eliminated through personal commitment or struggle by individuals using violence.
  • Propaganda then calls on the addressees to act. Inaction is discredited concerning the supposedly right cause, and the prospect of winning is held out. Depending on the ideology, the gain can be both individual, for example, with the individual potential of paradise in the hereafter, and social, for instance, in paradisiacal conditions in this world.

The police and customs authorities seize material that may serve propaganda purposes and whose content specifically and seriously incites violence against people or property (Jürg Marcel Tiefenthal). Suppose such material is disseminated via the internet. In that case, FEDPOL may, after consulting the FIS, order the deletion of the website in question if the propaganda material is located on a Swiss computer or recommend that a Swiss provider block the website in question if the propaganda material is not located on a Swiss computer (Art. 13e para. 5 letters a and b BWIS) (The Federal Council).

Concept of an enemy

Extremist propaganda creates enemy images or serves narratives that promote them. Creating or serving victim narratives establishes a reason to legitimise its extremist worldview. By creating images of the enemy, violence is legitimised to carry out this violence then.


As with all stigmatisation processes, extremist propaganda attempts to depersonalise communities as a first step. Tendentially, in a second step, these groups classified as hostile are then disparaged or dehumanised. This can be observed, for example, in the designation of the migrant population as a “cancer”. Security forces are described as “thugs of the state” against whom any means is justified. Fellow human beings degenerate into worthless infidels who must be fought.