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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Commons Confidential: Dave's picnic with Dacre

Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

Sulking David Cameron can’t forgive the Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, for his role in his downfall. The unrelenting hostility of the self-appointed voice of Middle England to the Remain cause felt pivotal to the defeat. So, what a glorious coincidence it was that they found themselves picnicking a couple of motors apart before England beat Scotland at Twickenham. My snout recalled Cameron studiously peering in the opposite direction. On Dacre’s face was the smile of an assassin. Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

The good news is that since Jeremy Corbyn let Theresa May off the Budget hook at Prime Minister’s Questions, most of his MPs no longer hate him. The bad news is that many now openly express their pity. It is whispered that Corbyn’s office made it clear that he didn’t wish to sit next to Tony Blair at the unveiling of the Iraq and Afghanistan war memorial in London. His desire for distance was probably reciprocated, as Comrade Corbyn wanted Brigadier Blair to be charged with war crimes. Fighting old battles is easier than beating the Tories.

Brexit is a ticket to travel. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is lifting its three-trip cap on funded journeys to Europe for MPs. The idea of paying for as many cross-Channel visits as a politician can enjoy reminds me of Denis MacShane. Under the old limits, he ended up in the clink for fiddling accounts to fund his Continental missionary work. If the new rule was applied retrospectively, perhaps the former Labour minister should be entitled to get his seat back and compensation?

The word in Ukip is that Paul Nuttall, OBE VC KG – the ridiculed former Premier League professional footballer and England 1966 World Cup winner – has cold feet after his Stoke mauling about standing in a by-election in Leigh (assuming that Andy Burnham is elected mayor of Greater Manchester in May). The electorate already knows his Walter Mitty act too well.

A senior Labour MP, who demanded anonymity, revealed that she had received a letter after Leicester’s Keith Vaz paid men to entertain him. Vaz had posed as Jim the washing machine man. Why, asked the complainant, wasn’t this second job listed in the register of members’ interests? She’s avoiding writing a reply.

Years ago, this column unearthed and ridiculed the early journalism of George Osborne, who must be the least qualified newspaper editor in history. The cabinet lackey Ben “Selwyn” Gummer’s feeble intervention in the Osborne debate has put him on our radar. We are now watching him and will be reporting back. My snouts are already unearthing interesting information.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution