The panic response after 9/11 was understandably riddled with errors. The horrific attack in the heart of New York required a military response, or so was the reasoning — especially because the attack, in and of itself, was seen as an act of war. Article five of the Nato Charter, which stipulates that an armed attack against one or more of the Nato member states is regarded as an attack against all, was invoked for the first time in history.
The ensuing war did not bring about a solution. Violence usually leads to increased violence and hardly ever to its reduction.
In Europe, it became quite clear that much more — or perhaps much less — is needed than a military response. From the very first, Brussels responded quite critically to the global war on terrorism. Europe chose a so-called law enforcement approach, especially after the attacks in Madrid in 2004.
Based on the argument that terrorism is a criminal act, a policing and judicial response was chosen instead of a military response. According to this European model, terrorists are being prosecuted and, if found guilty, convicted and put in prison. This approach also relates to the recognition that terrorists do not come exclusively from abroad. Europe introduced the term “home-grown terrorism”.
Shortly after the Madrid attacks, Europe formulated its strategic approach to terrorism. Its four pillars were prevent, pursue, protect and respond. In this context, the European Union is concerned with preventing attacks and radicalisation, prosecuting perpetrators, protecting infrastructure and other possible targets, and responding adequately to attacks.
A comprehensive series of measures has been formulated for each pillar. They range from tracing the flows of money that finance terrorism to intensifying the exchange of intelligence information and aligning legislation within the EU.
The package of measures is impressive. One of the most successful has been the creation of so-called joint investigation teams, which enables cross-border co-operation between the police and the judiciary of EU member states. It led to intensive co-operation between the Spanish and French police, which played an important role in establishing networks around the Basque secession movement ETA.
The next important milestone was the United Nations counterterrorism strategy, developed in 2006. The UN has so far failed to reach agreement on the definition of terrorism, but there is consensus on the question of how to combat it.
This strategy also includes four pillars. The first is what the UN refers to as reducing the “conditions conducive to”, which means implementing measures to prevent individuals from gravitating to violent political action. The next two pillars are about measures that individual member states and the UN have to take to combat terrorism.
The fourth pillar is about respect for human rights in the fight against terrorism. It is a comprehensive, near-complete and balanced list of measures that are necessary for combating terrorism.
Above all, the way in which terrorism is fought must be congruent with a country’s political and cultural tradition. The public and political response to political violence is the expression of the prevailing political culture and the imperilled, shocked citizens have certain expectations regarding the actions their government should take.
As a rule, positive measures such as providing political or social alternatives prove to be far more effective than the repressive responses. The example of Denmark is a case in point, where returning jihadists were offered reintegration. And it worked. In Canada, establishing dialogue and building bridges between communities is proving effective in counteracting radicalisation. In the Netherlands, too, results have been achieved with deradicalisation activities at municipal level, such as the deployment of community policing and counter-radicalisation experts.
New terms have been devised in the search for an alternative to the military approach. The terms “countering violent extremism” and “preventing violent extremism” are now being used, with lively discussions among terrorism experts about which is more appropriate. There was a time when it was called counter-radicalisation. But although the term has changed, the content remains largely the same. It is about addressing existing grievances and counteracting feelings of exclusion. It is about providing an effective alternative to young people who have neither a social community nor a political voice.
The European initiative, which started in 2011, is called the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN). It is a network of hundreds of practitioners who try to prevent young people from being radicalised or recruited in Europe. They do so with discussions, parent meetings, teacher training sessions aimed at recognising the first signs of radicalisation, hotlines, consultation with religious leaders, carefully designed reintegration trajectories and meetings with returning jihadists.
Each individual case demands a substantial investment of time, and success often depends on a team of people. Europe can be proud of the Amsterdam-based RAN. If as much money were available for RAN partners as for the military approach to terrorism, more progress could have been made.
There is an international variant of RAN, an Obama policy initiative that resulted from dissatisfaction both with the lack of progress in the fight against terrorism and with the strategic choices made. It came into existence in 2011 as the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum (GCTF) with about 30 member states, including Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, France, the European Commission, the United States, the United Kingdom, Indonesia, Turkey, South Africa, Morocco and the Netherlands.
The GCTF has two practical orientations. It has a prevention division that is similar to RAN, aimed at exchanging experiences in the prevention of radicalisation. It is about drawing lessons from successes and failures. This division operates under the name Hedayah (guidance) and is based in Abu Dhabi. Hedayah’s work is more complex than that of RAN, because of the greater diversity of its members and its extensive work area. Nevertheless, results have been achieved. Hedayah and the GCTF have formulated some very useful policy papers, from which governments may draw inspiration to craft their own strategies and policies.
In countries such as Nigeria and Indonesia, “soft” measures are being pursued, aimed at preventing radicalisation and engaging with young people.
The second institutional division of GCTF is in Malta. It operates under the name International Institute for Justice, provides training in the judicial field for governments from countries in the Mediterranean region, and tries to offer an alternative to the military response to terrorism. Yet this institute has a staff of only a few dedicated people and a limited number of sessions. Its interventions are simply insufficient, not least because the denunciation and imprisonment of terrorists have been ineffective in the past. Imprisonment must at least incorporate a reintegration component to prevent recidivism and provide counterbalance. After all, extremists use prisons to further develop ideologies and strategies as well as to recruit other prisoners.
Former US president Barack Obama organised worldwide meetings about this alternative approach to combating terrorism.
Regional meetings on countering violent extremism have also been organised.
The new policy is getting attention, and donors such as the Netherlands, the UK and the European Commission have made funds available. There is a proliferation of organisations with distinguished names, such as Search for Common Ground and MercyCorps, which have launched activities in the field, and established organisations such as Oxfam Novib and the UN Development Programme have discovered that the soft side of counter-terrorism is a growing market.
This is a hopeful sign, but there are also concerns. The International Crisis Group, a leading international nongovernmental organisation working in the field of conflict studies, warns in its recent report, Utilisation Disorder: Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, against too much optimism. It says when it comes to countering violent extremism, political questions demand political answers, and this requires an analysis and understanding of the underlying causes. Only from that knowledge can a structural solution be found.
Peter Knoope, former director of the International Centre for Counterterrorism, worked in Africa for many years. This is an edited extract from his book The Lone Wolves’ Legion: Terrorism, Colonialism and Capital (published by BestRed, an imprint of the HSRC Press)