May 5, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Violent Extremism and its Long-Term Treatment

• Although the narrative of Usama bin Ladin continues to show signs of growth and resilience, the international community is more focused on the symptoms than the causes

• Terrorism is exacerbating conflicts and adding to the humanitarian crises that result from war

• Millions are now displaced and the young among them are particularly vulnerable to radicalization by violent extremists

• There is a need to plan for peace while waging war to accelerate the return to stability when the fighting stops.

The chaos caused by violent extremism continues to grow. But the consequences for our security are not limited to attacks such as the one that occurred in Garland, Texas on Sunday; they are far more serious and far-reaching. The narrative of resistance first promoted by bin Ladin, whether practiced by lone shooters or by the so-called Islamic State, finds a ready audience all over the world and its support appears to be growing. The international response so far has been to try to dismantle and degrade extremist groups while seeking ways to immunize people against their appeal. But even with over 13 years of experience, we are still far more successful at dealing with terrorists than we are at dealing with terrorism.

The problem here is that in trying to deal with the immediate threat to our security, we are overlooking a more serious long-term danger, and may even be adding to it. Violent extremists have been able to exploit failures of government to provide a sense of purpose and belonging to vulnerable communities and they have exacerbated the political and social frictions that have arisen as a result. They have created a battlefield and drawn the rest of the world into a form of direct confrontation. This has led to a major humanitarian crisis that has provided fuel for further radicalization.

In Syria, the United Nations estimates that the civil war has forced 7.6 million people from their homes and a further 4 million to flee the country. The number of dead since March 2011 is hard to quantify but a UN estimate in January put it at 220,000. In Yemen, the Saudi-led air campaign is believed to have forced 150,000 people to abandon their homes in a country where the UN estimates that 16 million people were already in need of some form of humanitarian assistance. In Nigeria, the International Organization for Migration estimates around 1.5 million people have had to leave their homes as a result of Boko Haram attacks, and that a total of 4.6 million Nigerians have been affected by the violence; in neighboring Chad, 25,000 have already registered as displaced. On the other side of Africa, al-Shabab violence has led 350,000 Somalis to seek refuge over the border in Dadaab, a camp that the Kenyan government would now like to close. In addition, there are still 1.5 million Afghan refugees registered with the UN in Pakistan.

The international humanitarian community is struggling to meet the basic needs of those displaced by conflict, and at the same time must respond to the victims of natural disasters. There is little time to pay attention to the future when the problems of the present are so pressing. But others do pay attention, and the lost generation of children growing up in the camps, with inadequate education and no exposure to competing narratives, are likely to absorb the hatred of their parents for those whom they blame for their condition. They will be vulnerable to the messages of sectarianism and susceptible to recruitment by violent extremist groups who, at the very least, offer them something to do.

It would seem to make sense therefore, for at least a small portion of the billions of dollars spent each year in shoring up our security to be redirected towards initiatives that tap into the potential for refugees and the displaced to contribute to a more stable future for their countries and regions. This may be hard to achieve in a time of war, but ideally should be part of war planning. Military victory in Syria, Iraq, or Yemen will be hard to achieve and hard to define, as it will be in Nigeria and Somalia, but it is clear that whatever it looks like, ‘victory’ will not lead to the immediate return of all refugees and internally displaced people to their homes. The reconstruction of infrastructure will take time, and so too will the reconstruction of society.

Clearing up the mess is a lot less exciting than creating it, but it will need to be done. The value of education, the need to preserve culture, and the importance of tolerance and inclusion are not automatically recognized by a society struggling to survive. But they will be the most effective weapons in the long-term battle against violent extremism.


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