Middle East

Viewpoint: Confrontation key to tackling violent extremism

People mourn one of the victims of the Pakistani Taliban's attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar (16 December 2014) Image copyright Reuters
Image caption People mourn one of the victims of the Pakistani Taliban attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar

Boko Haram's kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls, the graphic beheadings of journalists and aid workers by Islamic State (IS) and the Pakistani Taliban's (TTP) cold-blooded murder of schoolchildren in Peshawar have meant that 2014 has been characterised more by terrorism than any year since 2001.

The question many would ask as we approach 2015: is the world less safe than it was at the start of 2014 due to extremism? What have we learned about the nature of extremist terrorism and what does it tell us about future trends?

The first thing to note is that these groups did not suddenly change into bloodthirsty organisations in 2014.

What changed was that the Western world was awoken to their horrors.

Brutal tactics

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had established a penchant for beheadings by 2004 when he founded al-Qaeda in Iraq, which eventually became IS.

Long after his death in 2006, the group consistently employed his ghastly methods. For example, in June 2013, it publically decapitated two men.

The Vatican originally identified one victim as a Catholic priest, a charge later denied by some sources.

The point remains that IS-style horrors have occurred for more than a decade without much attention being paid.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Islamic State's brutality was a factor in al-Qaeda's decision to disavow the group in February

The TTP too had a long track record of brutal murder.

It has bombed innocent men, women and children in mosques, market places and in their homes. These attacks occurred almost weekly over the past decade.

The Peshawar school massacre was only distinctive in its scale and in directly targeting Pakistan's elite families.

Boko Haram came into existence in 2002.

By 2009 it had killed more than 5,000 people, mostly civilians, but was only proscribed by the US in late 2013, months before its shocking abduction of the schoolgirls.

Reports of child marriage, rape and murder of the girls continue to horrify their friends and families. The girls seem no closer to being released.

Governments failing

The success of these three groups owes as much to the failure of established governments as it does to their own strategies.

Boko Haram exploits the grievances caused by the economic corruption and ineffectiveness of the Nigerian state, which in turn has partly resulted from the encouragement of corruption by some firms operating in the region.

Years of corruption within the defence ministry and Nigerian army have meant that the army has so far proved incapable of confronting Boko Haram.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Thousands of people have been killed by Boko Haram, most of them in north-eastern Nigeria

Similarly, IS gained strength by mugging groups receiving Western-backed financial and material support for the Syrian opposition.

The free rein given to Shia militia by the Nouri al-Maliki regime in Iraq, leading to the torture and murder of thousands of Sunnis and Baathists, provided IS with ready support in Iraq's Sunni majority areas.

Politicisation of senior Iraqi army positions, financial mismanagement and a lack of national leadership were as much the reason for Islamic State's spectacular territorial gains as any inherent military brilliance of its commanders and fighters.

The TTP also survived because of a lack of commitment by the Pakistani army to completely eradicate it, brought about by the army's desire to discriminate between elements that were useful to the country's foreign policy and those that were not.

Allegedly its neighbour, Afghanistan, was playing a similar game by allowing the TTP's leader Mullah Fazlullah to take sanctuary on its soil, while the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) looked on.

Previously, the Pakistani army conceded to Mullah Fazlullah's demands for Islamic law, or Sharia, to be implemented in certain areas.

Rather than pacifying him, the concession emboldened him.

"Secular" politicians, including Imran Khan, have lent credibility by supporting the Taliban's grievances against US drone strikes and in calling for talks to accommodate their demands.

Confrontation

What these patterns tell us is that terrorist organisations need to be confronted early to prevent them growing in strength and employing increasingly terrifying tactics.

Successful confrontation requires effective and just governance and a security strategy that fights all terrorists, without nurturing any that might prove useful for short-term political benefits.

Terrorism is primarily a rhetorical act intended to send a message. Without an audience, it has little utility.

So the increasing use of social media in communicating terrorist messages makes the imperative to counter violent extremism that much greater.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption A US-led coalition has carried out hundreds of air strikes on Islamic State positions in Iraq and Syria

Even if the proposed measures to force internet companies to censor terrorist communications come into force, terrorists will always be able to get some messages through, just as they will always be able to get some bombs and bullets past good security systems.

The challenge for societies is to react and respond to terrorist communications in a different way.

Terrorists do and say things they believe will be successful.

When journalists and analysts comment on terrorist communications they unwittingly serve the terrorists' purpose.

While ignoring them is not a realistic option, highlighting their failures whenever reporting on terrorism is an important way to achieve a balance.

Not enough has been made of the failure of Islamic State's strategy to use beheading videos to deter the West from getting involved in Iraq. The result has been the opposite.

The massive repulsion of the vast majority of Muslims to all three groups mentioned, the many conferences and rallies, have been grossly under reported.

Discredited ideologies

The most positive new development in terrorism has been that its veneer of championing a noble cause has been stripped to reveal its vulgar lust for violence.

By targeting children, education, sympathetic journalists and aid workers it has exposed its inherent ignorance, its absence of humanity and its innate cowardice.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Pakistan has long been accused by the world of treating terrorists as strategic assets

No counter-narrative could have done this as effectively as the behaviour of these terrorists.

Even al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban have been forced to condemn the actions of IS and TTP, their ideological offspring.

The behaviour of Boko Haram, IS and the TTP does not just discredit al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban but also the political ideology that inspires them.

The very idea of mixing religion and political activism pioneered by the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East and Jamaat-e-Islami in the Indian sub-continent is now seriously challenged.

Their ideas survive not because of their attraction but because the alternative forms of government in the relevant countries fail to provide the dignity and living standards required by their citizens.

Slow progress

The attraction of terrorism has therefore been reduced to the myth of success through violence.

As long as IS can continue to hold the territory it seized, it will continue to attract people from across the world, seduced by the idea of fighting to create a "utopian" state.

As long as the TTP can kill Pakistan's religious minorities and strike at the military, its largely brainwashed madrassa graduates will sacrifice themselves to commit vile acts of terror to establish their interpretation of Sharia.

As long as the Nigerian army retreats from the advances of Boko Haram, it will capture and abuse children of all backgrounds to prevent what it regards as foreign influences.

In 2014, Islamist terrorists handed the world a half victory by discrediting their own ideology.

The other half, arguably the easier half, requires the establishment of better governance at both the national and international levels.

It also requires more rapid and effective use of force to undermine the territorial and operational gains by which these organisations define their success.

Optimism for 2015 is prevented by pitifully slow progress on both these fronts.

Dr Afzal Ashraf is a consultant fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi). He was a senior officer in the Royal Air Force and worked as a counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency strategist for the US Commanding General and US ambassador in Iraq, as well as head of the Political Military Section in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office

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