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”