Given last week’s alleged “lone wolf” terrorist attacks in Canada, as well as the general state of terrorist related violence worldwide for the last few decades, it’s time to rethink how we approach the issue of radicalised extremism, which of late has risen to a level of violence and geopolitical instability never before seen.
To paraphrase Maslow’s Law of the Instrument, “If your only tool is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” Unfortunately, this tends to be the rule when discussing counterterrorism strategies, particularly among political leaders, where all too often military or law enforcement approaches are the only instruments in the toolbox – the “hammers” so to speak – for most countries. The problem with a military approach is that it leads to a never-ending cycle of violence where the real victims are innocent civilians caught in the middle. And even though militant extremists may be killed captured, there will always be more to take their place, much like a game of “whack-a-mole”.
While the law enforcement approach tends to be more focused on identifying and prosecuting terrorists, giving it wider public support, the reality is all too often those investigations don’t start until after a successful attack. Both options are essential tools in a country’s overall counterterrorism strategy, but it’s important to understand that neither addresses the underlying, root causes of radicalised extremism that created the problem in the first place. For that, you need a well-stocked toolbox that includes a workable and effective long-term programme for countering violent extremism (CVE).
At its core, CVE refers to a multi-faceted approach towards preventing individuals from becoming radicalised to begin with or rehabilitating those who already have. The concept is not new, having been the subject of countless studies and programmes since 9/11, with varying degrees of success. However, it is oftentimes very misunderstood by policymakers who tend to talk the talk but not walk the walk when it’s time to fund and implement the steps needed to make it work.
Like politics, terrorism is local, which is why extremists use local grievances as initial motivators to recruit. Until governments and the international community address those grievances … conditions at hand will continue to fester and give rise to new generations of extremists.
In Countering Violent Extremism: The Counter Narrative Study, released by the Qatar International Academy for Security Studies in September 2013, a number of key findings were detailed based on in-depth studies of CVE programmes in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America.
As noted in the forward of that study, the Achilles’ heel of any strategy against terrorism has been the often-repeated failure to counter the very narratives used by extremist groups to recruit. The more salient points covered in the study are worth taking a look at.
First, there is no cookie cutter approach to countering the narratives of extremism. What works in one country or against one group may not work elsewhere. Extremists base their narratives on what appeals to their recruiting pool.
Those narratives can centre on economic factors, poor governance, religion, alienation from mainstream society or a host of other local grievances.
Rather than broad, empty statements still in use like: “The West is not at war with Islam,” counter narrative messages need to be direct and specific to the group at issue: undermine the terrorist leadership, highlight civilian suffering, portray the terrorists as criminals and detail the realities of life as a terrorist.
Terrorism is local
Whether in Syria, Iraq, North Africa, New York, London or Ottawa, dealing with local and regional issues is the starting point for countering the narratives of violence. Like politics, terrorism is local, which is why extremists use local grievances as initial motivators to recruit. Until governments and the international community address those grievances, whether they are poverty, lack of education, lack of opportunity, perceived disenfranchisement or poor governance, conditions at hand will continue to fester and give rise to new generations of extremists.
Education is the enemy of extremists. A common thread with al-Qaeda, ISIL, al-Shabab, Boko Haram, Neo-Nazis or any other extremists group is the absence of critical thinking skills among most members. And that explains why they easily accept the distortion of religion or conspiracy theories that are so obviously wrong to a thinking person. An absolute essential for any counter narrative campaign is to promote education and critical thinking in vulnerable communities.
With the internet and spread of social media, it’s far easier today for extremists to recruit than ever before, which is the primary reason for the rise in self-radicalisation and the phenomenon of “lone wolf terrorists”.
Professionally produced recruitment videos such as the one featuring Canadian-born Andre Poulin, who converted to Islam and was then killed while fighting with ISIL in Syria last year, are chilling. And yet, websites and social media used to counter those narratives are far and few between. It’s time to start using those same tools, along with young, creative and tech-savvy messengers to counter the extremist narratives.
Religious leaders and groups can play an important role in both countering extremist narratives and rehabilitating extremists. Extremist groups carefully chose their narratives and the messengers who communicate them. Likewise, when there is a distortion of Islam, religious leaders – not government bureaucrats – are the best messengers to deliver the counter narrative. In Singapore, for example, scholars from the Religious Rehabilitation Group play a critical role in countering these narratives by emphasising the importance of moderation.
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Reformed terrorists can also serve as powerful messengers for the counter narrative. They know from first hand experience how the radicalisation and recruitment processes unfold. And having once been among the extremist ranks, they have a level of credibility with those who are being radicalised.
In Indonesia, for example, the former head of Jamaah Islamiya, Nasir Abbas, and Ali Imron, who assembled the explosives used in the 2002 Bali bombing, have both written best selling memoirs denouncing much of what they did.
Given the many thousands of foreign fighters currently in the ranks of extremist groups in Iraq, Syria and myriad of other conflicts, it’s a fair assumption that many will eventually return home. It’s also a fair assumption that some will have made up their minds that for whatever reason, the path they chose towards radicalisation or what they did was wrong. Those are the individuals that have to be identified, and then leveraged to counter the extremist ideology used by recruiters or found online. Allowed to tell their stories, they might just deter would-be extremists from taking that final step towards radicalisation.
To be effective, counterterrorism strategies need an assortment of tools, to include military, intelligence and law enforcement options. But more importantly, those strategies need a dynamic, multi-faceted CVE programme that addresses the root causes of extremism. That programme starts with countering the extremist narrative. Then and only then will we begin to tackle the problem.
Martin Reardon is a Senior Vice President with The Soufan Group, a New York-based strategic security and intelligence consultancy, and Senior Director of Qatar International Academy for Security Studies. He is a 21-year veteran of the FBI, and specialised in counterterrorism operations.