New Age Islam
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Current Affairs ( 13 March 2015, NewAgeIslam.Com)

The Role of Communities in Countering Terrorism


By Mohammad Ali Babakhel

March 14, 2015

Despite the fact that communities all over the world, and specifically in Pakistan, face adverse physical and psychological consequences because of the acts of terrorists and extremists, we still find many of these communities opting for silence and displaying passivity in the face of violence. Apparently, peaceful communities are in the majority and extremists are a minority, but even then savages seem to be dominating the scene. To purge our own society from extremism, fostering voluntary inclusiveness of communities is the only option.

Escapism on the part of communities and allowing communication gaps to build between them and government institutions has worsened the situation. Our communities have developed a mindset that it is not their job to work towards the eradication of extremism. Unfortunately, governments, too, have underestimated the strength and effectiveness of communities in countering extremism, therefore, it is imperative to come out of this denial mode, identify communities who may contribute in this area and establish organised communication with them.

In civilised societies, everyone is expected to keep their surroundings safe and report suspicious activities to the government. As communities are the worst sufferers of terrorism, their inclusion in countering it through information-sharing with the police can weaken extremists. In practice, terrorism challenges the collectivism of the societal fabric, hence, isolated efforts to counter it can never attain success.

Pakistan’s religious, ethnic and sectarian diversity is a living reality and needs to be protected. Certain ethnic, linguistic, professional and sectarian communities are vulnerable and have faced the onslaught of terrorism. Insecurity felt by any community erodes its confidence; therefore, such feelings require immediate addressing by the state. Well-informed and alert communities may contribute in preventive endeavours. However, there is a trust deficit between the police and the public that strengthens non-state actors. As a consequence of terrorist acts, traditionally interconnected communities have been pushed into isolation although there have been exceptions. During escalated phases of militancy in Peshawar and a few other districts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), communities, with the patronage of the administration, raised Lashkars and tried to keep extremists away from their areas. Such experience was met with mixed reactions. In a few instances in rural Peshawar, Tank and Lakki Marwat, Lashkars were able to deny space to extremists. However, this also led to questions being raised regarding the efficacy of the police and administration. Also, such measures encouraged the proliferation of weapons. Instead of arming communities, the safe option is to use their capabilities in accordance with the requirements of a modern state. In K-P since 2010, in 63 incidents, 83 members of Lashkars and peace committees were killed and nine injured. In addition, during the peak of militancy, an adverse image of Lashkars was communicated to the wider public, creating the wrong impression about them. Those who did not understand the context in which the Lashkars were operating thought that the job of maintaining security had been outsourced and that society in K-P was reverting to its tribal fabric.

Terrorists hunt for human resource from the same society in which we all live. This puts to question the role and silence of communities, particularly of parents, teachers and government institutions. Why does no one report such ‘talent’ hunts by terrorists? Why have education departments failed to carry out surveys regarding children dropping out of schools and why have they not devised comprehensive de-radicalisation plans through education?

Extremists have destroyed our cultural values. By attacking Jirgas, Hujras, funerals, shrines, schools, cinemas, mosques and churches, they have attempted to engender fear and horror within communities. Tribal Maliks and members of peace committees have been targeted with the goal of discouraging communities to cooperate with authorities. Our society is desperately looking for people who can instil hope, unity and pragmatism and convince vulnerable communities that escapism and migration from terror-infested areas are not long-term solutions. Communities need to be told that society can be purged from extremism even without resorting to violent means.

For the eradication of extremism, our religious and cultural strengths, like the mosque, Hujra, the Malik, Jirga and the clergy must be utilised in counterterrorism efforts. After the APS attack, engagement with communities, like parents, teachers and owners of educational institutions have been observed but such engagement depicts authorities working in reactive mode. Incorporation of communities should be about empowering them in a way that they shoulder due responsibilities. In the attack on the Imambargah in Islamabad, by deploying trained guards, the community played a responsible role. The guards were able to engage the terrorist for a while, which enabled the worshippers to lock the doors from inside, hence minimising the damage.

The UK introduced a counterterrorism strategy called CONTEST in 2003. It had four components: prevent, pursue, protect and prepare. The component of prevention primarily pertained to the role of the wider community. Thus without the active role of communities, countering terrorism effectively may remain an elusive goal. Our own policing system historically consisted of what are called Detective Foot Constables (DFCs) and the beat system. This system of policing is no more in vogue. The DFCs interacted with communities and cultivated intelligence. The revival of such arrangements could have positive bearing on countering extremism.

In Pakistan, research in the fields of counterterrorism and de-radicalisation are not encouraged thus interventions of the government do not match the enormity of the challenge. I believe that only research-based diagnostic recipes will deliver in the present environment. The free flow of communication with vulnerable communities, like minorities and professional groups, is imperative. With their cooperation, proactive preventive strategies can be formulated and implemented. The National Action Plan reflects the consensus and resolve of the federal and provincial governments to eradicate terrorism; however, it does not address the area of engagement and empowerment of communities. To prepare communities for the challenges ahead, the federal government’s role in engaging with communities should be that of facilitator and convener, while provincial governments, the media and the academia should provide synergies to such efforts.

One can see terrorist groups taking full advantage of social media but counter-extremism efforts have still not exploited either mass or social media. In addition, even seemingly minor details, like being aware of one’s blood group, and taking all sorts of precautionary measures when renting out a house, buying an old car or a mobile SIM, or when hiring a servant or a guard, are important and should not be ignored.

In Pakistan, public safety is a comparatively new phenomenon, so both the public and the government assume that it is an exclusively government domain. However, in peaceful societies, public safety is considered to be a government-public joint venture. Our communities need to be well-versed in taking public safety measures to counter the threat of terrorism and must be physically and psychologically prepared to face the challenge.