The dimensions of terrorism

Anthony Barnett
21 January 2008

On Thursday, I went along to the second day's session of the launch of the International Centre on the Study Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) whose moving spirit is Peter Neumann, a brilliant organiser of the Madrid Summit workshops who worked with openDemocracy to start its terrorism and democracy section now edited by Kanishk Tharoor.

I'm getting increasingly averse to conferences where speakers have lost interest in what they are saying because they have said it so often before. So I went especially to the report-backs from the seven working groups of "experts, senior practitioners and policy-makers". I was not disappointed. It was a huge relief to listen to a well-tempered - both the sense of steely and that of not strident - presentation of the range of issues posed by contemporary terrorism. Anthony Barnett is founder of openDemocracy and OurKingdom, oD's conversation on the future of Britain.

Chaired by Harvey Rubin from the University of Pennsylvania, it opened with the somewhat theatrical Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina in his Ottoman-style turban. His group considered the role of religion and he told us that he personally wanted to present the human face of Islam. Their discussion had emphasised the importance of dialogue between religions and cultures. The Grand Mufti then reported that, thanks to the conference, he had put this into practice by meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

openDemocracy author Olivier Roy's group debated radicalisation. His sensitive approach stressed the originality of al-Qaida's recruitment pattern from Pakistan to western Europe not coinciding with any "national' struggle. Yezid Sayigh, of King's College (London sponsor of the conference and Peter's base), followed on neatly from Roy. His group looked at negotiation. Like Roy he stressed the unusual nature of al-Qaida and said it was important to de-couple it from "representing" Islam. A good way to do this was by talking with terrorists, separating the relatively moderate by engagement and thus also dividing them. He emphasised the difference between talking and negotiating (implicitly making the Israeli position on Hamas look ridiculous).

Jack DuVall of the famous International Center on Nonviolent Conflict in Washington then took a different but complimentary approach. If terrorists got real they'd understand how non-violent mobilisation is a much more effective way of achieving change than their supposedly instrumental, but actually ineffective, use of violence. He proved his case with a quick run-down of recent regime changes and challenges.

Anatol Lieven, also familiar to openDemocracy readers, and now back in London as a professor at King's, reported on the discussion of the group that looked at the economics of radicalisation. They came to the view that there is a political economy of radicalisation but it is not straightforward. For example, the combination of the rise of a middle class in the wake of development plus lack of jobs generates an especially toxic mix: "There is no more dangerous animal in the world than an unemployed graduate". Status anxiety, extreme income disparities across the globe, the way these are "framed", all this allows us to diagnose the economic forces that dynamise the appeal of extremism. The answer has to be to take a gamble on more and better development even if at first growth does not lead to a lessening of radicalisation. But we must reject the Washington Consensus idea that there is a universal model waiting to be applied to all countries. Strengthening the role and finances of women, spreading growth and opportunity especially with micro-credit, and trying to by-pass forms of state aid whose corruption is impossible to eradicate, are practical approaches.

While Anatol's report back was more interesting than the research paper setting out the group's issues, Dan Benjamin of the Brookings Institution and a former a member of the US National Security Council, was less compelling than his initial briefing paper on intelligence and security. The aim must always be to draw those attracted to terrorism into forms of legitimate opposition, he told us. How do you define legitimacy? "We know it when we see it", said the practitioner - and we believed him!

Then Nick Fielding, once of the Sunday Times and a prolific author on terrorism and official responses to it, concluded with a discussion of terrorism and the internet, distinguishing between "fountain" sites and the "vulture" sites that feed off them. It is another distinguishing feature of al Qaida that it has a web-based political strategy that seems to be essential to the attraction of its propaganda of the deed.

I came away with my confidence strengthened that not only is terrorism ineffective politics carried out by other means (as Jack Duvall made clear) but more importantly, that it can be defeated, and the conditions which create it overcome. Whether it will be is another matter: interesting and thoughtful, this remained a conference of advisors and not the men in charge.

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