Countering new forms of violent extremism

Hamed El-Sa’id  Issue No:351

The terrorist attacks in Paris and Verviers in eastern Belgium represent part of a new shift in the world of terrorism and an increasing global trend. 

On the one hand, the attacks represent the failure of kinetic approaches pursued vehemently since 9/11 to counter violent extremism and, on the other, terrorism today is carried out mostly by a small number of home-grown individuals, often friends and relatives, where a high level of secrecy and trust is maintained.

This makes terrorism more unpredictable and difficult to counter. Not least, of course, because the terrorists need to be lucky only once to wreak havoc in our society while our counter violent extremism staff need to get it right every time. 

Despite almost 15 years since 9/11, the so called global ‘war on terror’ continues unabated. This war has lasted longer than the first and the second world wars combined. Worse, global terrorism has increased in recent years.

A deteriorating situation 

According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, in 2013, almost 18,000 people were killed in terrorist attacks, 61% more than in 2012. There are obvious reasons for this disappointing outcome and deteriorating situation: The 9/11 attacks garnered the largest military response in the history of terrorism – despite being criticised from the very beginning. 

The criticism reached its apex in 2009 when a former British foreign secretary, David Miliband, openly stated that the “war on terror was wrong. The phrase gives a false idea of a unified global enemy, and… implied that the correct response was primarily military.” 

Miliband added that the use of the 'war on terror’ as a western rallying cry since the September 11 attacks had been a mistake that might have caused more harm than good. 

Apart from the tragic loss of lives, wastage of billions of dollars, occupation and destruction of two Muslim states, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the hostilities and radicalisations it generated, the ‘war on terror’ has had another harmful effect: It undermined our understanding of the root causes or, as the European Commission likes to call it, “conditions conducive to radicalisation and extremism that lead to terrorism”. 

Roots of radicalisation

In a recent paper published by the Hague-based based International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, or ICCT, Alex Schmid, a world renowned counter terrorism expert and a former UN official, “plead[ed] to look for roots of radicalisation” at all levels in the European Union. 

This included “the radicalisation of public opinion and party politics”, as well as “the role of state actors and their potential for radicalisation”. 

The is no question that the use of torture techniques and extra-judicial renditions, drone attacks, and target killings in recent years has been a drastic departure from the democratic rule of law and international human rights standards. 

But what is the link between such state actor policies and radicalisation? How do western democracies’ policies and attitudes towards the Palestinian question, democracy in the region, human rights violations in the Arab World, the occupation of Iraq, corruption of regimes, and recent Western interventions in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Mali, to mention but a few examples, affect the radicalisation of Muslim communities in the West? 

The literature on most of these issues is non-existent. The ‘war on terror’ dragged the literature in one direction: Who commits acts of terrorism? (Muslims). How they do that? (Suicide operations, hijacking, assassinations...). 

What can be done to deradicalise the radicals (through counter narrative and ideological rehabilitation – what is often referred to as de-radicalisation programmes). 

Yet little attention has been paid to the root causes, or conditions conducive to the radicalisation and extremism that lead to terrorism inside each society. This lacuna is caused not by an innocent misdirection, misunderstanding or wrong focus. 

Rather, as many observers have noticed, it was the result of Western democracies attempts and deliberate policy to shift the blame away from us, from our foreign policies and their role in radicalising millions of Muslims around the world.

Miliband was right when he noted: “The reality is that the motivations and identities of terrorist groups are disparate. Lashkar-e-Taiba has roots in Pakistan and says its cause is Kashmir. Hezbollah says it stands for resistance to occupation of the Golan Heights. The Shia and Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq have myriad demands. 

“They are as diverse as the 1970s European movements of the IRA, Baader-Meinhof, and ETA. All used terrorism and sometimes they supported each other, but their causes were not unified and their cooperation was opportunistic. So it is today.” 

How these conflicts are transferred to affect Muslim communities in the West is under-researched and little understood. Some observers have already talked about the role of all types of media in causing ‘secondary’ or 'psychological trauma' or traumatisation, through live transmission of events from a distance, in radicalising Muslim communities around the world. 

Universities can fill the gap

Universities are placed in a strong position to fill the gap in the literature. Through their teaching programmes, research drive, dynamism of their staff, diversity of their members, variety of their academic and educational backgrounds, and, most importantly, their strong links with community, universities can play a significant role in contributing to the literature. 

The broad and ever-expanding field of terrorism confers on universities a special advantage, while leading on terrorism projects is not a new phenomenon either. There are think-tanks inside universities that focus on the field of security and terrorism, and which work closely with government agencies. 

An increasing number of universities house terrorism research centres, the oldest one being the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews. Then there are virtual networks, such as the Terrorism Research Initiative, that try to create synergies between a wide array of researchers and topics. 

Another good example is Monash University’s Global Terrorism Research Centre, which published Understanding Terrorism in an Australian Context: Radicalisation, de-radicalisation and counter-radicalisation. 

The project, conducted in collaboration with the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Muslim community, has produced one of the most comprehensive pieces of research on root causes of terrorism in Australia, and has tremendously improved understanding for the internal and external environmental factors that led to the radicalisation of many Australian Muslims. 

This project has also had important policy implications, particularly on changing the nature of counter-terrorism policy in the country.

Universities can, and some have, also been developing key links with other state and societal institutions and offer capacity building and training programmes. 

Some Dutch universities, such as the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael and the Centre for Terrorism and Counterterrorism at Leiden University have contributed to the establishment of the ICCT, an independent think tank and knowledge hub in The Hague that focuses on information creation, collation and dissemination pertaining to the preventative and international legal aspects of counter-terrorism. 

ICCT connects academics, policymakers, civil society actors and practitioners from different fields by providing a platform for productive collaboration, practical analysis, and exchange of experiences and expertise. It also holds regular conferences, workshops and capacity building in effective rule of law based approaches in terrorism court cases.

So there is a strong role for universities to contribute to countering violent extremists. This role is broad, significant and desirable. 

What universities must not do, though, is become involved in direct security-intelligence gathering tasks. This not only will destroy their credibility, but will also, judging from the recent Paris attacks, perhaps endanger the lives of their staff. 

At any rate, universities must maintain and defend their credibility, neutrality and academic credentials and responsibilities. 

Professor Hamed El-Sa’id is chair of international political economy at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK, and is an advisor to the United Nations on violent extremism, counter-radicalisation and de-radicalisation.


SourceUniversity World News