WASHINGTON, D.C. — Terrorism and violent extremism are the most dramatic threats in the 21st century to state monopoly on the use of force, a cornerstone of the international system. In recent years, the failure of early counterterrorism efforts to stop the multiplication and geographic expansion of terrorist groups has shifted attention to countering violent extremism, known as CVE. Despite the expenditure of enormous human and material resources, the approaches to counterterrorism and violent extremism are not working.
Here’s why: Misdiagnosis of the problem and exaggeration of the threat for political purposes have driven flawed international responses to both.
The misdiagnosis begins with the lack of consensus on definitions for each term. A working definition of terrorism describes it as the use of violent acts to frighten people indiscriminately in order to achieve a political goal. Violent extremism lacks even that much of a definition, although an extremist ideology and targeting of civilians are featured in most discussions. Whether state and nonstate actors qualify is a matter of contention. This conceptual muddle has encouraged international responses to both phenomena to focus primarily on the tactics and to ignore the political objectives of disparate groups.
Understanding the political objectives is essential. Long-thwarted efforts to redress discrimination, marginalization and injustice are antecedents to many organizations that are labeled terrorist or violent extremist today. The inability to secure reforms through existing channels has fueled radicalization and multiplied opportunistic alliances with Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, or ISIS (or Daesh).
Examples of such alliances include Boko Haram, which is now allied with ISIS, and the Tuaregs in the Sahel region of Africa, who found common cause with a regional affiliate of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) for a limited time. In the Horn of Africa, Al Shabaab emerged as a more radical offshoot of the Islamic Courts, who were ousted by Ethiopian forces backed by the United States, fearful of the creation of a safe haven for Al Qaeda in Somalia.
The lack of distinct parameters around terrorism and violent extremism opens the door to exaggerate the threat. The international community allows individual states to determine what constitutes a terrorist or violent extremist group. The United Nations secretary-general’s “Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism,” published in December 2015, makes this explicit.
Political leaders have seized the opportunity to label as “terrorists” groups they prefer to repress; that is, groups that under other circumstances might be considered insurgencies or opposition groups. Sections of the UN’s action plan that spell out that the lack of socioeconomic opportunities, marginalization, discrimination, poor governance and human-rights violations are sources of violent extremism are conveniently ignored.
The opportunistic labeling of groups as “extremists” or “terrorists” not only legitimizes horrific actions against them, but it also magnifies the threat beyond its true dimensions.
Bundling such diverse groups as opponents of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, Chechen separatists in Russia, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and proponents of Kurdish autonomy under the” terrorist” umbrella illustrates the practice. The point is not that terrorism and violent extremism do not pose a real threat but that the broad and often arbitrary application of the terms, so common in current practice, closes the door to possible negotiated solutions and exaggerates the threat at the same time.
The international counterterrorism response is therefore missing the mark as its focus on terrorist tactics sidelines the real problems and produces an outsize, largely military response that is neither effective nor proportional.
For the same reasons, efforts to get ahead of the problem through countering violent extremism have mostly failed. Those who join extremist groups willingly are motivated by numerous factors: most commonly, these are alienation, marginalization and injustice. In addition, many people who are recruited as well as leaders of the groups are motivated by a sense of high purpose, regarding themselves as idealists acting for a cause greater than their individual selves.
A surprising number of women have joined these ranks. It is widely accepted, however, that women are more often victims rather than promoters of violent extremism. Those who join voluntarily appear to be motivated by the same factors as men: a sense of injustice and idealism but also adventure. Those forced to join fall under the victim category.
A third role casts women as important agents in preventing extremism and strengthening resilience against extremism. Many assumptions about the role of women, however, remain unclear because insufficient data is available to fully assess their categories of involvement. Recent efforts to focus on women as bastions of resilience and prevention could prove to be another distraction from the essential work of analyzing and addressing the root causes of terrorism and violent extremism.
Flawed attempts to create an effective counternarrative to ISIS, Al Qaeda and affiliated groups are emblematic of the deeper failure to understand the phenomenon and the appeal of these groups.
Instead, terrorism and violent extremism have been linked to Islam. Politicians in the West have blamed the Islamic faith and Muslim communities at large for the acts of a few. In contrast, the terrorist label is seldom applied to non-Muslim extremists who employ similar tactics. A wave of anti-Muslim prejudice has infiltrated national security policies, depriving vulnerable Muslim populations fleeing violence a safe haven. Although the role of Islam in recruitment is marginal, Western reaction has inadvertently legitimized the message of terrorist and extremist leaders who claim to represent the true Islam.
A more constructive approach requires the international community to first, disaggregate the bundle of organizations labeled terrorist or extremist. Many simply do not qualify. Careful attention must be paid to the political grievances voiced by leaders and followers of these disparate groups. To do this responsibly, international actors must have detailed knowledge of the local or regional situation, key actors and their agendas. Individualized attention to those vulnerable to extremist appeals must begin early, a capability that international actors must develop.
Second, a new approach to those groups opportunistically labeled terrorist must focus on political and governance reforms to combat the injustice, marginalization and discrimination that gave rise to many of the groups in the first place. Heavy reliance on military and police has exacerbated a cycle of violence in many cases and must be curtailed. No either-or formula, however, will succeed.
Progress in diluting the genesis and appeal of violent extremist groups must incorporate a more calibrated use of security forces combined with primary emphasis on civilian support for local reform efforts to address the political grievances that spawned extremism. Such a new approach is required in areas like Iraq, northern Nigeria, Somalia, Syria, Turkey and Yemen, where marginalization and injustice have fueled ever-more violent insurgencies.
Moreover, a different balance is necessary to combat ISIS and Al Qaeda. A robust military and intelligence effort remains important to degrade their capabilities. Recent military strikes against ISIS and its oil and finance infrastructure show promise in reducing its territory and sources of revenue.
At the same time, military and police responses alone are not enough to counter the threat. Here, too, the appeal of Al Qaeda and ISIS to deep-seated grievances must be taken seriously and addressed at the source to undermine them.
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Ann Phillips is an independent analyst and practitioner with extensive experience working on issues of foreign assistance, specializing on fragile states, conflict, stabilization and reconstruction and system transitions. She is currently a senior adviser to the Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding at the Washington-based US Institute of Peace, focusing on civilian-military relations.
From 2012 to 2013, Phillips was a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, affiliated with the Africa-Leadership and Institutional Capacity Building program. Before that, she was director of the Program for Security, Stability, Transition and Reconstruction at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch, Germany. She was a professor of international relations and comparative politics from 1986 until 2000, first at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and then at American University in Washington. She also worked in the Policy Bureau of the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
Phillips has a Ph.D. in international relations and political economy from Georgetown University and a master’s degree in international affairs from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.