The rise of violent extremism, particularly groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), in the beginning of the 21st century has brought a new brand of terrorism to the international sphere. It is rooted in the digital era that has emerged in the last two decades enabling terrorism avenues through the digital sphere to promote its cause and recruit followers. Now, not only do policy makers and citizens need to be concerned about areas such as northern Iraq and Syria, but also with online chatrooms and popular media such as Twitter and Facebook. The fact that these platforms are globally accessible means terrorist narratives can grasp the attention of the world at the expense of counter-narratives provided by groups such as victims’ groups and international organisations.
In countering this new terrorism, governments need to include counter-narratives that have occurred organically in communities affected by terrorism. Currently, propaganda used to counter the terrorist narrative has largely utilised a top-down approach, where counter-terrorism organisations deliver narratives they have developed themselves.
The debate between using “soft” approaches or “hard” approaches in counter-terrorism is worth having. Hard approaches to counter terrorism are largely reactionary, and include legal interrogation, law enforcement, and punitive measures to combat terrorism. Thus, the focus is on strict removal and punishment once radicalisation has already occurred and crimes already committed. President Trump’s recent air strikes in Syria and bombing in Afghanistan are examples of this. These approaches can be powerful political tools used by governments to appeal to their constituents, on the grounds that these approaches are strong and assertive. Critics of hard counter terrorism approaches suggest that this strategy is only symbolic and largely ineffective in removing or undermining terrorism in practice.
Soft approaches aim to take more pre-emptive and preventative action. It is important that government policy prioritises investigating why and how terrorists become radical. With this information, it is understandably easier to be able to engage in a preventative approach. Rather than capturing or killing grassroots recruiters in areas prone to radicalisation, in which instance new recruiters would simply take their place, it would be more effective to undermine their influence on a broader level. This can be done by providing counter-narratives to the terrorism narrative that currently accelerates radicalisation. This includes satisfying the community needs, assisting to develop a sense of community purpose, and providing alternative pathways to those susceptible to radicalisation. It is a bottom-up approach, emphasising the engagement of local, grassroots communities to provide solutions to radicalisation, rather than traditional counter terrorism methods, which utilise a reactionary, top-down, government-driven approach.
Successful European de-radicalisation and intervention programs include Denmark’s Aarhus model and Germany’s Hayat model. In Germany, a help-line has been created to allow people to flag concerns about the radicalisation of family members or friends. This approach aims to assist those prone to radicalisation by providing support and community alternatives to give the sense of purpose that radicalisation can provide to vulnerable individuals. The Radicalisation Awareness Network, a non-governmental organisation under the European Commission, operates on a similar grassroots-orientated platform. The organisation also includes the valuable expertise of police and prison officers in working with those who are radicalised or vulnerable to radicalisation. The use of the combined social authority and social work skills of police and prison officers results in a combination of soft and hard approaches, or “smart” approaches. This can also be effective in counter terrorism policy.
In counter terrorism policy, there is no panacea. Effective counter-narratives develop organically. These narratives can also take the form of social responses: for example, the Je Suis Charlie movement following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and the I’ll Ride With You movement following the Sydney siege, which saw the Sydney population offering to accompany Muslim residents on public transport to provide support and security. Observing the counter-narratives that occur organically in response to terrorism is useful in developing effective counter-narratives in government policy.
To combat terrorism effectively, policymakers must include the community at large. Governments, media, non-governmental organisations, victims, and regular citizens are equally responsible for creating a united discourse that discredits terrorist narratives. It is important that grassroots initiatives are prioritised and that solutions for each community include a bottom-up approach. The discourse must also remain vigilant in its engagement through empirical evidence and facts, despite the undeniably sensitive nature of violent extremism. It is only in the truth that the many groups depending on counter terrorism may find refuge.
This blog was based on the ideas and research conducted and discussed by Anne-Marie Balbi during her Big Think Breakfast on 30 May 2017. You can read more here.