Rethinking the Global Fight Against Extremism

US President Barack Obama addresses the opening of the Ministerial Meeting of the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism in Washington, DC, February 19, 2015. (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

Between February 17-19, a large conference on “Countering Violent Extremism” convened in Washington, bringing together senior foreign dignitaries from over 60 countries, law enforcement officials, religious leaders, and experts. The meeting constituted a reaffirmation of the need for an effective multilateral strategy to counter and prevent violent extremism in today’s increasingly challenging environments. At the same time, it hinted at a very significant change in the international community’s approach to these problems: Scope, strategy, and semantics are being duly reconsidered. And yet a series of contradictions threaten to hamper the possibility of making credible headway.

A Change in Scope

9/11 is considered the paradigmatic moment that transformed definitions of terrorism and the general global security framework. Today we are experiencing another paradigm shift. The scope of the “problem” itself has changed dramatically and the response to the problem is slowly following suit.

The crucial distinguishing feature of today’s threat boils down to one word: territory. That violent non-state actors—epitomized by Daesh—are in control of territory as large as the United Kingdom marks a serious evolution, both tactically and strategically, from the al-Qaeda-esque organizations of the last decade. They also act as trend-setters for other non-state actors—Boko Haram, for example—that “territory” is both up for grabs and attainable. Indeed, “black holes”—to borrow a term from John Simpson—are traceable across the Middle East and North Africa from Mali to Iraq, from Libya to Syria. The counterterrorism and counterinsurgency architecture in place since 2001 and customized to al-Qaeda-style organizations is therefore out of tune with the realities on the ground. Shortsighted military response—while necessary at times—is no longer adequate to deal with such deep-rooted entities that have a persuasive ideological premise.

The sustained use of terror by said rogue elements may constitute continuity, though today’s actors are proving to be true “entrepreneurs” of violence. Tactics and methods have evolved. Daesh is the innovator of barbarism par excellence with its sophisticated video productions of immolations, beheadings, and other atrocities, all of which is part of a sensationalist propaganda campaign that intends to both shock the world and inspire new recruits. With over 90 nationalities now represented in Daesh, a dynamic online presence, and reverberations in Ottawa, Paris, and Copenhagen, it is a decidedly “global” operation.

Getting the Strategic Diagnosis Right

The statements that came from Washington indicated that we are slowly coming to the correct strategic diagnosis of the problem. In his remarks, President Barack Obama raised the “undeniable” nexus between oppression and the socioeconomic exclusion that gives rise to terrorism. This is a clarion call that fighting extremism is anchored in human rights. But it is also a reminder that violent extremism is a symptom of an underlying cause and a physical manifestation of governance deficits. Member states are thus faced with asking an important introspective question: what policies are incubating violent extremism? What are the economic, social, and political circumstances that render certain individuals vulnerable to recruitment and prone to radicalization?

Elephants in the Room

When it comes to the appropriate response, a number of elephants continue to crowd the room in which this discussion is being had at the highest level of international diplomacy. First, the discussion on human rights and oppression becomes more complicated when some of the major players in the fight against extremism are amongst the least inclusive and undemocratic countries in the world. This is a paradox that requires overcoming and serves as an example of the real disconnect between the “national” and “multilateral” channels of political play. Second, a similar contradiction exists in the “global” will to address the scourge of terrorism versus the tendency by some members of the international community to instrumentalize the use of armed groups to further national interests at the expense of the sovereignty of other states. There has yet to be a frank and open conversation about this two-tiered chess game: the one taking place on the table and the other taking place directly below. This geopolitical contradiction will continue to undermine any concerted international effort to address violent extremism.

The third and final elephant relates to the issue of religion. President Obama’s deliberate decision to opt for the umbrella term “violent extremism” rather than the more specific “Islamist” label has some practical benefits. It keeps the conversation broad by recognizing other “extremisms,” from the ilk of Anders Breivik in Norway to Buddhist groups in Myanmar. Additionally, it prevents the United States—and the world at large—from feeding into the propaganda ploy that the West is at war with Islam more generally (a statement President Obama chose to deliberately refute in his remarks). This should not deter from the reality that the majority of extremist groups are “perverted” variations acting in the name of Islam. Part of addressing this burden thus falls on the Muslim world itself, to play a more engaged role and mobilize a counter-narrative through its religious institutions, authorities, and civil society groups.


There is now momentum for a meaningful change in the global fight against extremism. It first manifested itself following an international solidarity rally in Paris last month and more recently at the Washington meeting. But to go beyond the symbolic pageantry of a street rally and a political summit requires a serious and frank conversation that addresses how best to implement and frame the question within the lens of social inclusion and effective governance, and one that acknowledges the troubling disconnect between so-called national interests and global security when it comes to violent extremism.

This article first appeared on New Kerala on February 22, 2015.