By V Balachandran
Sept 21, 2013
The subject of "de-radicalisation" has not received any attention in India although we have been victims of different types of armed militancy since 1947. As a result, our discourses on combating extremism have to depend necessarily on foreign studies. An excellent contribution to our understanding the experience in different countries is a 200-page report — "Countering Violent Extremism: The Counter Narrative Study — based on a year-long joint investigation in several countries by the Qatar International Academy for Security Studies (QIASS) and the Soufan Group. This was released on 9 September simultaneously from New York, Belfast, Dakar and Singapore through a Global Town Hall. I am grateful to my friend Susan Sim, vice president for Asia (Soufan Group) for sharing this informative report with us.
Let me quote their "Conclusions" first: Part of the reason why the "reappearance" of Al Qaeda had surprised even the United States, forcing them to lock down several diplomatic missions in August was because "those leading the war against al-Qaeda have failed to understand how the group has adapted over the past decade". They failed to appreciate that greater autonomy was given to local affiliates. "Many in the international security establishment, however, dismissed such affiliates as local problems and did not consider them part of the global war against al-Qaeda." I would like to add here that the same attitude applies even towards the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is considered by the international community solely as India's problem despite the Wall Street Journal (10-11 August 2013) publishing the photo of Hafiz Saeed leading Ramzan prayers with this caption: "Bold Step: Hafiz Saeed, the founder of extremist group Lashkar-e-Taiba who has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head..." Even India attaches more importance on organising "a joint operation with FBI" to catch Dawood Ibrahim as our Home Minister recently said.
Their second conclusion is: "The second part of the answer to why al-Qaeda was again deemed a major threat in 2013 is our failure to effectively counter the narratives that they and other terrorist and extremist groups use to recruit new members. This is where our study comes in. Our central message of choosing the right medium, message, and messenger calls for a global strategy. Such a strategy must include providing vulnerable communities with the proper tools and support to effectively withstand the narratives of violence. A counter-narrative program involves not only military and intelligence aid but also targeted educational tools." The study found that terrorist handlers prey upon vulnerable sections on local grievances, exploiting their feelings of anger, humiliation, resentment or "lack of purpose" in their lives. They then "incorporate conspiratorial messages" blaming the targets (government or others) coupled with "distorted religious edicts" and also achieve success "by providing both answers and a sense of purpose to vulnerable individuals". They also found that "terrorists and extremists are, in many ways, in a stronger position today than in the past. The Internet and social media provide avenues for recruiting new members and disseminating terrorists' and extremists' messages."
Their key findings are: 1. De-radicalisation methods have to vary from country to country and even within the country since people join the groups for different reasons; 2. both traditional and new media have contributed unwittingly to the spread of "extremist narratives further"; 3. education and good governance can check the spread of extremist narratives since "education is the enemy of extremists"; 4. during de-radicalisation programmes, care has to be taken "to refrain from using terms such as 'radical' or 'jihad' as the words may traditionally have positive connotations". Attempts should be made to find "what best resonates with the targeted audience". In Northern Ireland, expressions like "former terrorists" and "former extremists" were replaced with "former combatants" or "ex-prisoners"; 5. Central and local governments as well as NGOs can help in rehabilitation.
The report provides detailed case studies of the experiences in the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, Sweden, Norway, United States, Uganda, Kenya, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Nigeria, West Africa and the Sahel. Each had encountered different difficulties and achieved varying results. Here the experience of Singapore or Malaysia needs to be quoted: "The Singapore approach is clinical, with regular psychological testing and risk assessment... But in terms of preventing reengagement, the Malaysian program appears to be as successful as the Singapore program."