Five steps for defeating terrorism

About the author
Karin von Hippel, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Defence Studies. She is a member of the Advisory Council for the Club of Madrid Summit.

In the aftermath of 11 September 2001, Americans discovered to their horror how negatively they were perceived in the Islamic world, and not just by the terrorists. While the United States President, George W Bush, tried to lay blame on a simplistic ‘hatred of our freedoms’, numerous polls have indicated that the anger is directed at more specific causes - such as various aspects of US foreign policy or more recently, the hubris of President Bush.

Fares Braizat’s recent polling results from the Arab world now published in openDemocracy confirm this. They serve as an alarm-call, a warning of just how much work needs to be done to reduce the appeal and influence of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.

Contrary to Bush’s assertions, anger across the Arab world is directed neither at the ‘American dream’ - which remains as sought after today as it was a century ago - nor at ‘democracy and freedom’. This is why pitching the fight against terrorism as being a conflict between those who are ‘with us’ and those ‘against us’ is fundamentally mistaken.

New survey data from across the middle east shows that Arab public opinion on terrorism is radically at odd with US views. Read Fares Braizat's important findings here.

What are needed, rather, are significant practical policies that can remove the fundamental causes that feed and support the appeal of terrorism. In the over three years since the 9/11 attacks neither Europe nor America have implemented such measures. In fact, several notable ‘reforms’ have achieved the opposite.

The Club of Madrid-sponsored summit on ‘Democracy, Terrorism and Security’, to be held in March 2005 is an opportunity to internationalise the debate in a truly democratic manner, given that it will be comprised of representatives from both governments and civil society, from both the global ‘north’ and ‘south’. Indeed the summit could, and I hope will, prove to be the ‘tipping-point’ in terms of reaching a global consensus that will drive forward constructive action on confronting the root causes of terrorism.

Like Mary Kaldor, I have a five-fold wish-list for the summit. Even though all five wishes can be found prominently in many US and European policy papers, almost nothing has been done to make good on the commitments that have been recommended. But tangible, practical progress can be made in all five of these areas. Together they would do more far more to win the war of ideas and isolate the appeal of terrorism than any of the initiatives which have been undertaken thus far.

1. Poverty

First, we need to focus on those parts of the poverty debate that relate to terrorism. There is not a direct link between poverty and terrorism in general terms. But terrorists use the plight of the poor as one justification for committing violence, and for broadening their appeal. Therefore a serious effort to fulfil the Millennium Development Goals as well as being the right thing to do, would remove one of the platforms commonly used by terrorists. Given that total overseas development assistance (ODA) has been on the wane in the last decade, this goal will remain elusive unless the United Nations can capitalise on its current reform process to push donors and agencies to make far reaching changes, both qualitatively and quantitatively to their development efforts.

There does seem to be a direct link between poverty and terrorism, however, in certain specific areas especially education. A practical agenda could be adopted in Madrid to assist reform when it is most urgent, in Islamic countries such as Somalia, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan where poor parents have no other option but to send their children to madrasas and Qur’anic schools because these are heavily subsidised or free of charge. Even if most of these children do not become terrorists, those who attend the radicalised madrasas are taught to despise ‘corrupting western influences’ from an early age, and gain few practical skills to prepare them for working in modern society. Many of these children do not learn any maths or science, for example.

How should democratic societies respond to terrorism? On 11 March 2005, a year after bombs in Madrid killed 191 people and almost killed thousands, a major summit in the Spanish capital will address this most fundamental question. Here, Mary Kaldor suggests an agenda.

Tentative steps have been taken by donors to support quality public education and reform of the madrasasin some countries. For example, USAID has committed $100 million over a five-year period to Pakistan for educational reform. Yet these efforts are piecemeal and do not form part of a comprehensive strategy, nor are the dedicated funds sufficient. And while it can be argued that ODA has been cut due to other necessary domestic concerns, it is difficult to claim that some such costs are so vital.

For example, the US missile-defence system, now being deployed even though evidence does not exist that it actually works, already has cost US taxpayers over $31 billion, and estimates of the total cost are more than $100 billion. Compare this figure to the amount spent on education just as an example, and it is evident that educational reform is not the priority despite the claims of President Bush.

2. Civil conflicts

Second, as also noted by Mary Kaldor, it is critical that the international community endeavours to resolve conflicts that are perceived as threatening Islam, hopefully before they are exacerbated by transnational terrorists. Conflicts in Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir, and Iraq, among others, have been intensified due to the participation of ‘Muslim mercenaries’, many of whom have links to al-Qaida.

Al-Qaida involvement can also transform these territories into terrorist breeding-grounds. This provides new recruits, expands their networks, and leads to the improvement of strategies, tactics, quality of equipment, and to the adoption of more violent methods of confrontation, such as suicide attacks involving civilian casualties.

3. Stopping terror funding

Third, if the international community is serious about stopping the flow of funds from the extremist Islamic charities, which have been involved in indoctrination through their charitable work, these charities need some competition. At the most basic level, it is often simply the dearth of OECD-funded international assistance that makes some developing states susceptible to terrorist ideology. While the religious aspect may not appeal to many families, the lack of alternatives for schooling or health care fuels the growth of the movement.

OECD charitable assistance is far too low in vulnerable areas throughout the developing world, though recent US and European aid in areas affected by the tsunami in southeast Asia should demonstrate goodwill towards Muslim-inhabited areas. Donors should ensure that emergency relief is followed by substantial development programmes after the immediate consequences of the tragedy have been addressed in order to build on that good will and continue to assist those in desperate need.

4. Addressing recruitment and radicalisation

Fourth, how much do we know about the recruitment and radicalisation processes that target disaffected, mostly male, Muslims in Europe and North America? Europe alone is home to around 20 million Muslims of both indigenous and immigrant origin, with numbers growing fast. Pockets of Muslim immigrants live in fairly isolated areas, often on the margins of society. It is therefore understandable that some of these areas have become ripe grounds for recruiting, fundraising, and providing sanctuary. Asylum procedures need to be fundamentally overhauled in Europe and North America, and this should be coupled with municipal and social welfare reforms to integrate all members of society.

Moreover, given that prisons in Europe and North America have been ripe areas for recruitment for years, more energy needs to be dedicated to countering the influence of radicals in prisons, who in turn convert others when they are released.

5. Pressuring authoritarian states

Fifth, how can we apply pressure on authoritarian states, which may be the real breeding grounds for international terrorism? Many ordinary Saudis or Algerians or Egyptians are resentful of their own governments, but are unable to express that anger in any peaceful way that will bring about meaningful change. It is hardly surprising that many direct their anger at the United States which often supports their authoritarian and non-representative leaders.

An argument often heard by leaders in these countries is that if elections were to be held today, the Islamic extremists would be voted in, and therefore the time is not yet ripe for opening up society. Do we know for certain this is the case, or might it be a fallacy perpetuated by opportunistic leaders who merely want to stay in power? Moderate Islamic and secular civil society organisations and media do exist in many of these countries, and could provide a potential counterweight to the extremists, who tend to dominate the opposition side of the debate. These moderates need to be supported on their own terms.

If Europe and North America can do more to make good on commitments already made to eliminate poverty, to end civil conflicts, and to promote social inclusion and democratisation where this is required the popularity of terrorists shown in Braizat’s poll results could begin to wane significantly.

As Bill Clinton, one of the founders of the Club of Madrid, recently remarked: ‘If you come from a wealthy country with open borders, unless you seriously believe you can kill, imprison, or occupy all your enemies, you have to make a world with more friends and fewer enemies.’ The opportunity to make serious headway in Madrid should not be lost. Terrorism can be defeated, but only through a committed partnership of government representatives and their citizens, from north and south alike.