French soldiers patrol following the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack. Photo: Getty
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In defence of soft power: why a “war” on terror will never win

The recent rise in global terrorism is alarming, but it also reaffirms the failure of our purely hard military approach to counter the phenomenon.

Not all is good within the world of counter terrorism. Despite almost 15 years of “war on terror”, terrorism remains one of the major threats that the world community is facing. The phenomenon has recently assumed a new and mystifying phase of brutality. Decapitations, assassinations, kidnapping, suicide operations, and even burning the “enemy” alive have all become the landmark of a gruesome thought that adopts extreme brutality and violence as a tactic. This abominable thought seems to be spreading globally at a pace unseen before. From Ottawa to Ontario, Boston, Sydney, Brussels, Copenhagen to Paris, terrorism has become truly global, although this was not the case just a few years earlier.

While most victims of terror are Muslims living in Muslim majority states, “the number of terrorist attacks around the world has increased dramatically”, according to a recent report by the Institute for Economics and Peace (2014). This raises important questions regarding our counter terrorism strategy, one that remains overwhelmingly kinetic in nature.

There is no military solution to terrorism. As David Miliband, a former British Foreign Minister, stated in 2009, “the war on terror was wrong”, and it brought “more harm than good”. It has also undermined the search for alternative, more successful approaches to countering violent extremism by giving the impression that only a military solution exists to counter violent extremism.

Both the European Union and the UN long recognised the futility of a purely military approach as a solution to violent extremism. Therefore, the 2005 European Union Counter Terrorism Strategy and the 2006 United Nations Global Counter Terrorism Strategy viewed terrorism as a process and tactic, and thus called for a better understanding of the "conditions conducive to radicalisation and extremism that lead to terrorism" as a prerequisite for developing effective counter terrorism policies.

Although the EU and UN’s “soft” approaches, which called for “addressing the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism” in the first place, held great potential, they were watered down by the continued prevalence of hard military approach worldwide. The United States, for instance, has never bought into the “soft” approach and continued to follow a military strategy, despite noticeable change in terminology. As a report by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Security Preparedness Group concluded in 2001, the US government has shown little interest in “soft” counter radicalisation and de-radicalisation policies.

This is despite the fact that home-grown terrorism has become more prominent in America. The American government has also ironically been active in promoting “soft” de-radicalisation programmes abroad (such as in Afghanistan and Iraq), as well as the establishment of several regional centres and forums allegedly aimed at countering the global rise in violent extremism through “soft” power. This contradiction has undermined the credibility of the US as a genuine leader of, and believer in, the role of “soft” power in countering violent extremism, including the upholding of the rule of law, freedom of expression, and respect for human rights.

Even globally, the “soft” power approach remains the exception, not the rule. A report by the United Nations Counter Terrorism Implementation Task Force in late 2009 showed that no more than 30 out of 192 UN Member States injected some form of “soft” powers into their counter terrorism strategies. The rest continue to rely on a kinetic approach that is only capable of creating more hostilities and antagonism. Many of those countries are close allies of the US in its so-called war on terror.

Neither in Europe nor in North America did de-radicalisation (an extensive form of rehabilitation of violent extremist detainees) receive sufficient attention. The practice has been either to “deport” the “terrorists” or to detain them “forever” in individual cells. The value of rehabilitating the detainees to prepare them for peaceful reintegration into their societies with a minimum risk was lost. Many academics and observers, including the author, have repeatedly warned that the benefits of effective de-radicalisation policies go beyond prison bars to affect the whole community from whence the detainees came. No heed was paid. The upshot has been the kind of attacks that we recently experienced in Paris and Copenhagen, both of which were accomplished by former un-rehabilitated convicts.

Europe and America however showed more interest in counter radicalisation policies that seek to stem the rise of violent extremism at a societal level. Such policies included, among others, community engagement and community policing. Rather than “winning hearts and minds” by solving problems and showing interest, these were intelligence-led, causing them to be perceived by most Muslims as no more than spying-tools targeting their communities. This undermined trust between Muslim communities and the police, a prerequisite for successful collaboration and effective community engagement in countering radicalisation in society.

As a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission Research concluded, counter radicalisation measures have turned “Muslims [into] . . . the new suspect community.” This, the report added, has stigmatised whole Muslim communities, fuelled resentment and even bolstered “support for terrorist movements.”

It is against this background that the recent rise in Islamophobia in Europe and North America should be understood. Islamophobia is reflected in an alarming increase in anti-Islamism in Western societies and rise in fatal attacks against Muslims, which hardly receive the attention they deserve from the Western media, and state officials, especially when compared to incidents when the victims are Westerners and the perpetrators are “Muslims”.

Some Western countries have recently ramped up security measures in response to some terrorist acts. This will neither make us safer nor answer the important, still unanswered question of what led some individuals to choose a nihilistic view of life in Western societies. Arresting somebody or cancelling his or her passports will also not prevent new attacks, nor will it explain why such attacks were attempted in the first place. As Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D.-Hawaii), and an Iraq combat veteran, stated: “This war cannot be won, this enemy and threat cannot be defeated unless we understand what’s driving them, what is their ideology.” That we have not done.

In sum, despite the much talked about role of “soft” counter de-radicalisation policies in countering violent extremism, such policies have never been given a genuine opportunity to succeed. It is not surprising therefore that the main aim of the current White House summit, which is taking place in Washington DC between 18-20 March, is to combat violent extremism through the “search for strategies that go beyond only military action for countering terrorists”. Let’s hope that the summit will provide an opportunity to reverse our misguided military approach to countering the phenomenon of “terrorism”. Although it is doubtful.

Hamed El-Said is a chair and professor at the Manchester Metropolitan University. He is also an adviser to the United Nations Counter Terrorism Implementation Task Force (UNCTITF), the UN body responsible for implementing the United Nations Global Counter Terrorism Strategy, and the author of "New Approaches to Countering Terrorism: designing and evaluating counter radicalization and de-radicalization programs"

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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