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Tough is not enough: ten smarter ways to counter violent extremism

Governments have generally invested much more in hard-edged military and policing responses than in smarter and more sustainable ‘soft power’ approaches to countering violent extremism. EPA/Bagus Indahono

More than a decade of security-based transnational approaches to combating terrorist activity and propaganda have demonstrated that these alone are ineffective. Sometimes, security measures can actually damage efforts to roll back the appeal and take-up of violent extremism. While such measures should be used in domestic contexts where threats are critical or imminent, failure to accompany these with robust “soft power” initiatives will prove fatal in the longer-term.

Business as usual is not an option. Here is what needs to change if we are to succeed in countering violent extremism.

1. Rethink current approaches to creating a counter-narrative

Counter-narrative remains a key strategy in the struggle to diminish violent extremism’s appeal, especially for young people. Governments around the world have been slow to respond to community needs and desires regarding this.

Most governments now accept that credible counter-narratives must be community- rather than government-generated. Yet many agencies have remained ambivalent about forming genuine partnerships with community organisations that can develop authentic counter-narratives to reach and, more importantly, influence those at risk.

Communities have tuned out to the “negative case” made by standard counter-narratives. They are seeking more “affirmative” narratives that offer genuine alternatives to hatred, enmity and terror.

Greater effort is needed to promote social inclusion and community belonging for those who feel marginalised and disempowered. This involves focusing on what binds us together rather than on what divides us.

An inclusive narrative must acknowledge the social and political idealism that makes some young people vulnerable to dimensions of terrorist messaging that promise a new or better world. We must offer genuine alternative forms of social activism and transformation, which explicitly reject violence while seeking change.

2. Follow the lead of Germany and Denmark in rehabilitating returned fighters

Counter-narratives are not just about what we say but also what we do. This includes how we treat those returning from foreign conflicts.

While it is clear that some foreign fighters return home hardened and committed to violent extremism, others do not. They find themselves disillusioned by the gap between the propaganda and the reality of foreign conflict. Rehabilitation for this latter group is essential.

The Hayat program in Germany and the Aarhus program in Denmark are good examples of how to bypass over-securitisation of returned fighters and instead offer counselling, support and rehabilitation. These programs acknowledge the different reasons people participate in foreign conflicts. These reasons include idealism, humanitarianism and peer pressure, as well as a commitment to violent extremism as an ideology.

A key benefit of rehabilitating returnees is that they have greater credibility with potential recruits and can positively influence them.

Embracing those who respond to rehabilitation demonstrates the principles of a supportive society. That in itself is a powerful message to undermine the narrative of alienation, isolation and rejection that terrorist recruiters promote.

3. Assertively challenge media’s role in fostering disunity and xenophobia

Some media reporting can severely undermine the crucial message of social inclusion by amplifying xenophobia, eroding trust and promoting social disharmony. The more coverage of terrorist-related issues demonises Muslim communities at large, the more entrenched a victim mentality can become for those targeted by sensationalised coverage.

The sense of being ‘under siege’ alienates and potentially radicalises the targets of xenophobic media coverage. AAP/Julian Smith

The sense of being “under siege” by media is experienced by the vast majority of peaceful Muslims around the world. This produces frustration, humiliation and fear for these communities and can actually increase radicalisation leading to violent extremism.

Such coverage also encourages attacks on ordinary Muslims in diaspora communities because it appears to legitimise such actions. Those who experience such targeting become more mistrustful of the democracies in which they live. This makes them less likely to co-operate with authorities, even when they have important information or views to share.

The “us and them” narratives of much media reporting need to be confronted assertively, by governments as much as by communities.

4. Demystify the ‘special nature’ of violent extremism

Part of the appeal of violent extremism is that it seems to transcend ordinary criminal violence. It is characterised as a higher form of social action, in which forms of social, religious and ideological power and aspiration combine to reach beyond the ordinary and everyday.

An effective way to diminish the appeal of violent extremism is to demonstrate that it is no different from other, more mundane violence. Stripped of its romanticised trappings as a higher calling, violent extremism should be treated as part of a broad-spectrum campaign against violence of all kinds.

This approach exposes the ordinariness of violence, its consequences and its failure to achieve the promise of social change that lures many young people.

5. Use social media more often, more strategically and more creatively

Social media outlets have been exploited by those promoting online dimensions of radicalisation and violent extremism. Sustained effort to challenge extremist messaging and representation through social media has been lacking, yet examples of effective strategies do exist.

Programs such as All Together Now in Australia and Exit in Europe are leading the way in helping disengage those on pathways to extremism through social media. While in democratic countries censorship of social media remains untenable for excellent reasons, much more could be done, more nimbly and more creatively, to use social media as a counter-strategy.

If, as some leading research has argued, terrorism is a communicative act, then we need to invest seriously in challenging and disrupting its messaging using the same communication channels and strategies.

A key element here is embracing multimodal communication platforms that combine image, text and sound to reach people in the same way that sophisticated violent extremist propaganda routinely achieves.

Extremists have been issuing effective propaganda on the internet and social media for years – and authorities have been slow to counter the insidious messaging. EPA/DB

6. Develop cognitive and emotional skills to deconstruct extremist ideology

Education is a key to disrupting and dismantling terrorist ideology. In an age awash with information, media and diverse forms of knowledge, many young people struggle with the critical skills required to sift, sort and evaluate it all.

These cognitive and emotional skills need to be comprehensively embedded in the curricula of schools and universities. The goal must be to equip young people to evaluate and argue against the interpretations of religion, history, politics and identity that are the bread and butter of terrorist recruitment narratives.

Nor should we stop at the cognitive domain in thinking about how best to skill up our youth to critique and reject violent extremist ideology. Terrorist messaging does not just target the head. It focuses in increasingly sophisticated ways on the heart through visual and aural communication.

Understanding the nexus between cognition and emotion, and developing in young people the understanding and ability to step back and analyse before acting, should be a primary focus of any counter-terrorism strategy.

7. Understanding the ‘supply chain’ means targeting recruiters

Recruiters are the middle-men and women in the supply chain of violent extremism. Counter-terrorism strategies have tended to focus on grassroots initiatives to prevent the take-up of violent extremism at community level, while “disrupt and degrade” efforts have concentrated on the leadership of terrorist groups.

Targeting figureheads may have symbolic value for authorities, but recruiters are the linchpin of terrorist organisations. EPA/Andy Rain

Focusing on remote figureheads may help score largely symbolic goals for governments and task-forces. But the middle-men and women, as always, are the linchpin. Without them the leaders cannot marshal the human resources to execute their strategies.

Targeting recruiters should not just be about removing them from circulation – as a securitisation model would propose. It should also aim to undermine their influence with alternatives that speak to the deeper needs and desires of those susceptible to their influence. It is vital to work with communities to identify, understand the strategies of and disempower locally influential recruiters in order to nullify their messages and reduce their reach and appeal.

8. Women are emerging as key players in violent extremism

Programs to counter violent extremism tend to focus on alienated, angry young men and the ways that certain constructs of masculinity and violence may be linked. But the complexities of contemporary violent extremism have increasingly seen women emerge as influential players – as spokespeople, recruiters, enablers and in some instances as fighters.

While female fighters and violent extremists are hardly new, complex issues involving power, disenfranchisement and agency for women are making themselves felt in new ways.

Strategies relying on the assumption that women are generally key influencers away from violent extremism need to be rethought. While this may be true in some instances, the increased involvement of women in terrorist propaganda and social influence suggests a more complex social and gendered territory. It raises the question of whether we need to develop more nuanced, gendered strategies of countering violent extremism.

While community leaders can help promote a message of rejecting violence, no effective community strategy can afford to exclude women, young people and voices of difference or dissent. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

9. Community, community, community

All of the previous points require deep, long-lasting, inclusive partnerships with communities at a grassroots level. A signal weakness in transnational strategies to date has been the tendency of government agencies to focus relationship-building efforts on selected community leaders.

These leaders, while important in some instances, are only part of the story. Communities are increasingly telling us that an older generation of leaders lacks the credibility, authority or authenticity to work effectively with younger community members who are radicalising towards violence.

The central issue of trust – the single most important element in brokering successful joint efforts between governments and communities to mitigate violent extremism – goes well beyond developing trust and engagement with a relatively small number of community leaders. They may sometimes lack the backing of critical elements within their own constituencies.

We must be smarter, more expansive and more multi-layered in developing community relationships. A multi-level strategy – one that targets and builds grassroots trust, transparency and engagement as well as cultivating leadership roles and government liaison – is far more likely to succeed in tackling violent extremism than one that is narrowly focused on selected representatives and structures.

These structures often exclude women, young people and voices of difference or dissent within communities. These groups are precisely those we need to engage if we are to mount credible alternatives to violent extremism. This means listening carefully and genuinely to what communities are saying, and adopting not only a “whole of government” but a “whole of community” strategy.

10. Help researchers by sharing key data and information

National security expert Marc Sageman recently published an essay calling for greater leverage of research capacity by government agencies concerned with countering violent extremism. Sageman focuses on ways in which government agencies’ reluctance to share primary source data have stalled research capabilities – an essential contribution to the evidence base on which strategies, policies and programs are founded.

Intelligence agencies have the empirical data but not the methodological skills to analyse and interpret these; researchers have the analytical and methodological skills but lack the data. The result is that breakthroughs in understanding terrorism and how to counter it are being impeded.

A smart strategy would develop security-sensitive ways of giving researchers the data they need. This would help spur transnational effectiveness by enabling researchers to develop the large, robust datasets and theoretical underpinnings that are essential to serious inquiry in this space. Without this, research remains a severely under-utilised resource.

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