Amid the past two weeks’ dehumanizing cataloging of death tolls from extremist violence—in Pakistan, Burkina Faso, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, and Somalia—an attack that claimed relatively few innocent lives likely tells us the most about the evolving ideological response to the threat, as well as its inherent cognitive dissonance.
The haphazard killing of four people in Jakarta on January 14th by sympathizers of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), who also perished in the attack, has altered a popular narrative of Indonesia. The Southeast Asian nation has gone from one that has long been praised for fostering a devout yet peaceful Muslim population to one that might soon explode into flames. Once known as the nation where 50 million Sunnis reputedly told ISIS to “get lost,” Indonesia has been quickly recast in international media as a country in which insufficient and poorly targeted government deradicalization efforts have aided the group’s growth.
The ability to change the narrative in this way points not only to the continued terrorist success in destroying the “grayzone” between Muslims and non-Muslims, but also difficulties facing the increasingly global, largely Western-led push toward preventative, soft-handed responses, and a focus on message—whether from the mouth of an imam or a popular Twitter account—as a foremost tool of statecraft.
Last week, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon codified this approach in a plan on preventing—otherwise known as “countering”—violent extremism (CVE), which aims to strengthen member state efforts to address the drivers of the problem. Its development was at least partly a result of the sustained pressure and agency of the United States, which came to the preventative approach later than some, but is fast making up time.
The great concern is that, despite its own semantic bluster, CVE might simply repeat mistakes of the larger war on terror by allocating resources to outcomes with little chance of success, emboldening misguided policymakers, curbing personal freedoms, and even increasing radicalization through unintentional marginalization.
Several elements of the preventative approach appear workable at first glance. These include targeting the technological capabilities of terrorists to attract financing or to spread their messaging via social media. Unfortunately, most others rest on the more shaky ground of targeting possible recruits themselves.
A central challenge is that there is little consensus on the factors that turn potential extremists into kinetic ones. A 2009 study for the US government summarized academic findings to that point: “Terrorists are not particularly impoverished, uneducated, or afflicted by mental disease. Demographically, their most important characteristic is normalcy [within their environment].” The idea that there is no one terrorist profile has been further refined since then.
Accordingly, the UN plan acknowledges there is “no authoritative statistical data on the pathways towards individual radicalization,” even as it references “some recognizable trends and patterns.” The result is a proliferation of largely imprecise pronouncements such as: “While some highly educated individuals have played consequential roles in violent extremist organizations, many members are poorly educated” [emphasis added].
The ability to respond is doubtful, unless enough funding and political will could be mobilized to address any and all combination of factors. Perhaps embarking on such a project but falling well short would not be damaging. What it would be is essentially coterminous with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, though perhaps unfairly redistributive away from those areas whose problems do not leak.
Where there is more agreement is on those grievances that motivate individuals from disparate backgrounds to take up arms, although it is extremely likely that governments who fund and control the CVE discourse will seek only to change perceptions, rather than attempt to eradicate the realities that might sustain these grievances.
A well-known 2010 investigation by scholar Robert A. Pape found that more than 95% of suicide attacks are motivated by foreign occupations. The radicalizing impact of Western support for Israel has also long been recognized. And governments in Muslim majority countries have often been equally complicit in grievance-making policies, as with the Arab Spring suppression of Islamist movements.
Even while CVE has taken hold across the world, poorly made decisions of this nature have continued. The well-intentioned but ultimately disastrous NATO invasion of Libya, and US-supported Kenyan and Ethiopian interventions in Somalia in pursuit of al-Shabaab and other extremists are but two examples.
Nobody can pretend that foreign policy decisions are easy in the current climate, or that allowing extremist motivations to dictate them is not problematic. But the fact remains that the persistent inability to make more fundamental changes in these areas is likely to render any CVE results temporary at best.
Unproven Return, Proven Risks
The disconnection between message and tangible realities is likely to blame for the lack of meaningful outcomes attributed to CVE. While its proponents like to highlight results from individual projects—a Pakistan-based campus network, or a social media-savvy operation in Egypt, for example—there is also readily available counter-evidence in the continuing spate of terrorist violence.
Taking a broader view, the latest Global Terrorism Index showed an 80% increase in global terrorism deaths from 2013 to 2014, while a study released last year from the Global Center on Cooperative Security titled “Does CVE Work?” produced typically inconclusive findings, citing the difficulty in measuring outcomes within the sector. A US official corroborated this while discussing efforts to counter ISIS propaganda: “You can’t prove a negative—‘How many young guys did you prevent going to Syria today?’—We don’t know the answer to that.”
Ineffectiveness is one thing, but there is also the strong possibility that motivations for radicalization could increase, particularly given Western agency in CVE, and statements from President Barack Obama such as, “we must recognize that lasting stability and real security require democracy,” which recalls the rhetoric of George W. Bush.
Efforts that place undue expectations on Muslims have regularly been criticized. The United Kingdom’s Prevent program, for example, has been accused of stigmatizing Muslims and being complicit in continued radicalization. A corollary is that an unfair burden on Muslims detracts from focusing on other extremist security threats, such as far-right terrorists in Europe and the US.
Much official literature rejects CVE being an explicitly Muslim-targeted effort. A much-derided Australian kit recently took this to farcical levels, linking radicalization to concerns such as participating in environmental protests and listening to alternative music. Nonetheless, on-the-ground realities and resource allocation don’t lie. International CVE programs funded by the US aid agency, for example, almost exclusively target areas where Islamic-influenced extremists are the threat, as opposed to violence instigated by Buddhists in Myanmar, say.
Messages, moreover, must not only compete with the narratives of ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the like. They must also shout above the nativism of US presidential candidate Donald Trump and the likes of former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has decreed that “all cultures are not equal” while calling for Islam to reform.
But Western leaders, and even ISIS propagandists, are given too much credit for influencing the dissemination of extremist ideology when compared with Saudi Arabia, which has until now faced insufficient criticism for spreading the Wahhabist creed that serves as the substrate of the radical thought of Sunni Arab extremism, and also much of that in sub-Saharan Africa, and South and Southeast Asia.
The Saudis have spent an estimated $4 billion USD per year on mosques and religious instruction globally since the late 1970s. In the height of cognitive dissonance, this proselytizing has in recent years increasingly run alongside its own CVE efforts, such as its PRAC (prevention, rehabilitation, and aftercare) program. Meanwhile, the UN’s own Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force, which led the development of the recent plan of action, is itself financed by Saudi Arabia.
The recent Saudi censure from German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel—“the time of looking away is over”—offered hope that the tide may be turning. But the US, which must necessarily act, has recently redoubled many of its commitments to the kingdom in line with the calculus of the Iran nuclear deal.
No Message to Send
Following last year’s Paris violence, terrorism researcher Scott Atran lamented that those affected by this type of violence had not created competing narratives that were suitably positive and individually tailored: qualities he attributed to ISIS. It is difficult to see how this is possible given the amorphous nature of extremism and the risk of exacerbating alienation. In present circumstances, an overly sanguine narrative could be quickly exposed as at odds with political realities.
There is no argument that the alternative of attacking the extremist threat with force alone is better. Rather, more fundamental political and cultural change is required if an assault on the deepest roots is truly desired. This at least reignites the need for a more comprehensive debate on how much violence societies are willing to sustain to protect their values, and the means by which they seek them. In its absence, the message being sent is little more than a shout into the void.
This article originally featured on World Policy Journal.