Violent extremism, otherwise known as terrorism, is no longer a rarity. According to a recent report by the Institute for Peace and Economics, the number of countries that have not suffered from a terrorist attack has declined from 111 countries in 2004 to only 75 in 2014. While the severity, extent and motivations behind such attacks often vary, there is no question that terrorism has become ‘a global phenomenon’ affecting most of the world’s societies.
Not only societies, but also businesses are, and have been affected directly and indirectly by terrorism. The 9/11 attacks, for example, have cost more than $5 billion in terms of losses related to direct physical damages, supply chain disruptions, and interruptions to the international airline industry and tourism.
A new study of 18 Western European countries reveals that each additional transnational terrorist attack has reduced their economic growth by 0.4 per cent point a year. The World Bank in its 2011 World Development Report went further to acknowledge that terrorist “attacks in one region can impose costs all through global markets.”
The disruption of Libyan oil supply following the beginning of the uprising in that country in 2011, when international oil prices jumped by 15 per cent overnight, is a good example. The same World Bank Report adds that today’s businesses regard terrorism as a major challenge to their operations in the areas where they function, and that attempts to contain it have become more unpredictable, ‘extremely costly’ though necessary for the profitability and survival of the firm.
Failed efforts to counter terrorism These facts and statistics are alarming, given that we spent more than 15 years of relentless efforts to counter terrorism. There is a consensus across the board that policies and approaches have not only failed to prevent or even undermine terrorism, but they have instead aggravated the phenomenon and made the problem worse. This consensus has recently been summed-up by the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, while addressing the Institute of D’E’tudes Politiques DE Paris on April 29, 2015, when he stated that today, “violent extremism is a growing and global threat.”
War on Terror The failure lies in our misconceived strategy employed after and since the 9/11 attacks. Known as the ‘war on terror’, this strategy has overwhelming been reliant on a hard-military approach that focuses on the symptoms and ignores the disease itself. As the anthropologist Scott Atran recently told the UN Security Council’s Ministerial Debate on ‘The Role of Youth in Countering Violent Extremism and Promoting Peace’:
“Unless we understand these powerful cultural forces that radicalise the youth into violent extremism, we will fail to address the threat. When, as now, the focus is on military solutions and police interdiction, matters have already gone way too far. If that focus remains, we lose the coming generation.”
The ‘war on terror’ approach has had another indirect but not less damaging implications. Sweeping definitions of terrorism have invariably justified violations of long established international norms, human rights, and freedom of expression in the name of security. As Mr. Ban Ki-moon warned during a summit hosted by the United States on countering violent extremism last February in Washington D.C: “Governments should not use the fight against terrorism and extremism as a pretext to attack one’s critics.”
In many parts of the world, legitimate actions of opposition groups, including civil society organisations and human rights defenders have been criminalised in the name of ‘countering terrorism.’ Through such actions we have provided violent extremists seeking to recruit youth into their violent organisations with the very ammunition they need. This goes along way towards explaining the migration of more than 25,000 foreign fighters from more than 100 countries around the world to join the Islamic State or ISIL since the beginning of the upheavals in the Arab World war in early 2011. At least 6,000 of those foreign fighters come from Western Europe, where the motivation for joining such a terrorist group remains little understood.
Reversing current strategies There is a need to reverse our current strategies if we are to win the fight against terrorism. First and for most, there is a need to restore trust, legitimacy, respect for international law and human rights, freedom of expression, and, above all, the promotion of good governance. Mr. Ban Ki-moon was right when he stated: “Military operations are crucial to confront real threats. But bullets are not the ‘silver bullet.’ Missiles may kill terrorists, but good governance kills terrorism. We must remember that.”
We need to understand better the conditions that conduce individuals to radicalise to a point of committing or attempting to commit terrorism. Continuing to ramp up security measures in response to terror threats misses the point. It might prevent an attack or two. It might also stop and detain an individual from joining a terrorist organisation abroad. However, this does little to explain why individuals radicalise in the first place.
Individuals do not join violent extremism because they are nihilists: lack of opportunities, decent jobs, high quality education, combined with the presence of oppression, corruption, injustices and little regard for human dignity breed radicalisation and extremism that lead to terrorism. Turkey provides important lessons here. In addition to billions of dollars, the pursuit of a purely military approach to the Kurdish problem cost Turkey more than 35,000 innocent lives in the 1990s alone. That is an average of 3,500 fatalities every year.
The realisation that terrorism was a ‘Turkish problem’ not simply a Kurdish one, led to the introduction of a comprehensive and successful economic reform programme that reduced poverty and inequalities, created decent jobs, and improved the living standards of all Turkish citizens in all regions. This was accompanied by a ‘democratisation process’ that protected civil society, prevented torture inside and outside prison walls, and made human rights integrity a constitutional right, not a privilege. The upshot has been the diminishing of a terrorism threat to levels that no longer occupies the daily lives of the average citizen.
Understanding youth 45 per cent of the world population is youth, the very same group most targeted by violent organisations. In some Muslim majority states, this ratio exceeds 65 per cent. Youth need not be seen as a threat. They possess energy and ideas, they are increasingly networked, and are a source of important solutions. They are the future engine of change. As Professor Atran advised the Security Council last month, there is a need to provide the youth with programmes that offer them something that makes them dream of a life of significance, a positive and achievable personal dream, and the chance to create their own local initiatives.
Engagement with community and its key members is a powerful instrument in building a society that is resilient to violent extremist ideologies, aware of its dangers and risks, and capable of building and maintaining bonds and trustful relationships. Programmes that promote community engagement and participation, debates and discussion of all sorts of problems must be encouraged. Communities must also be empowered to find solutions for their problems, including problems related to violent extremism.
The private sectors role Finally, there is an important role for the private sector in reducing violent extremism and risks associated with it. This can take the shape of direct action (lobbying governments to improve human rights and reduce corruption) or indirectly (through creating jobs and supporting domestic small-size firms). They can also operate alone or with other stakeholders to achieve these objectives.
In short, what is needed is a move away from our current reactionary approach that relies on countering to preventing violent extremism. These elements of this “new” prevention strategy are already being debated seriously inside the United Nations. Mr Ban Ki-moon himself publically declared that he is in the process of developing “a comprehensive Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism that will seek to engage and empower youth.” Some of the elements of this plan have already been discussed here. They include the protection of human rights and civil liberties, reducing corruption, promoting good governance and fostering a culture of peace by deploying “weapons of mass instruction instead of weapons of mass destruction.”
Only Member States however can ensure the implementation of the Secretary General’s new Action Plan, which will send a clear message that not only is terrorism unacceptable in all its manifestation; but that they are also genuinely taking practical steps to prevent and combat it.
About the Author Hamed El-Said is a Chair and Professor of International Business and International Political Economy at the Manchester Metropolitan University. He is the author of New Approaches to Countering Terrorism. He is also an advisor to the United Nations Counter Terrorism Implementation Task Force (UNCTITF). All opinions however expressed in this article reflect those of the author’s alone.