Terrorism is as old as warfare, but it still lacks a universal definition despite that many academics usually list the following: intimidation of population, seriously establishing or destroying the fundamental political economic or social structure of a country or international organization. Another deal breaker in order to define terrorist actions is whether or not the target has been made up of civilians and non-combatants.
Acts of terror are often perpetrated with the aim of changing the socio-political status quo, which gives an added value to execute the action in a psychological and propagandistic way. This consequently increases the possibility of strong public opinion and, while police and state actors hurry to round up the usual suspects, journalists and politicians start throwing around the word “terrorism” without any context or reflection.
This kind of debate culture strengthens the Clash of Civilizations theory, originally drafted by Samuel Huntington. This theory portraits an inevitable conflict between the East and the West. This notion can also be found in ISIS propaganda leaflets. Another fact that also dismantles the Clash of Civilization theory, is that the targets of radical extremist groups in the Middle-East have been, to a large extent, other Muslims or ethnic groups native to the region such as Kurds and Yazidis.
An observation that further underlines the flaws in the notion of a conflict between a united East against the West is the list of countries that experienced most attacks by violent extremist groups in 2014: Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria. In Europe, terrorist attacks in the 1970s and 1990s produced far more casualties than what we have seen in the 21st century. Maybe the fact that the perpetrators have lately been the Edward Saidian others somehow changes things on an emotional level.
Many counter-terrorism policies have been initiated and tested but with moderate success. Which provoked Colum Lynch and John Hudson to title their piece in Foreign Affairs: “Is the international community out of ideas to combat terrorism”. According to a former, British Secret Intelligence Service member, the problem is that:
- “It’s very much about bombing and arresting rather than understanding why this is happening and what can be done to try to address that.”
So what kind of approach could bear results in the battle against extremist violent groups attracting young people? Bottom-up. Whilst defeating or at least dismantling groups such as ISIS on the ground, another issue, which is perhaps, even more, pressing for sustainable development is, how to win over the hearts and minds of people. This battle is to be fought on different grounds, one being the internet, where echoes of propaganda are being transmitted to increase pull-effects.
So, what can be done? One approach is to create alternative narratives. However, these will have to spring from issues that resonate deeply with the different communities targeted by recruitment propaganda. Hence it can’t be something that is decided at some committee meetings in an ivory tower.
Another approach that experts refer to is isolation and marginalization as an approach. This is based on how the Colombian FARC has been… not defeated, but driven into to jungle and faced with a decrease in support and influence. In the case of ISIS, it would have a do considerable damage to both their propaganda machinery but also their ability to coordinate attacks. These approaches are not mutually exclusive, on the contrary, what is most likely needed in order to conquer a terrorist organization like ISIS is a multidimensional counterinsurgency.
The advantages of the bottom-up approach have not gone unnoticed in international politics. The UN resolution 2250 recognizes and stresses the challenges brought on by young people joining extremist violent groups, whilst admitting that change has to come from bottom-up in an empowering and participatory way. Whilst writing this the Syrian Democratic Forces are preparing to retake Raqqa but the battle for hearts and minds is far from being won. By Jauhiainen Johannes