Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for October 2014

If the US-led global “war on terror” since 9/11 has taught us anything, it’s that mass bombing campaigns and sweeping punitive measures don’t work to counter violent extremism. In fact, they are not very effective in conventional wars either. The ability of determined armed groups to stand up to air assaults is well attested. They move at night, engage in combat at close quarters and learn how to hide behind civilian populations.

The limited effectiveness of the Coalition’s air attacks on the amorphous terrorist caliphate called Islamic State (ISIL) must eventually compel the deployment of well-trained ground troops. But it should also lead to a more pragmatic approach by Western nations towards Iran, an acknowledgement of the military and political blunders made in Iraq and Libya, and a comprehensive arms embargo in the region (including Israel). Arming supposed “moderates” in Syria is bound to backfire, as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The biggest challenge, however, is how to stem the shocking radicalization of young Muslim men and women in some Western nations, especially Britain and France. Islamic State, like its forebear al-Qa’ida, uses killing- particularly beheadings- as mass spectacle. The filmed atrocities are also intended to goad Western populations, which is why the knee-jerk populist proposals by politicians and right-wing media pundits (“strip them of citizenship”) plays into the hands of these killing cults.

For young men and women who, for various reasons, feel alienated from the homeland adopted by their parents or grandparents, images of violence can be seductive- especially when it gives them a sense of personal significance and purpose in life (being part of a higher cause than self-gratifying consumption or collecting celebrity gossip) and is based on romantic images of Muslim heroes and poor information.

There are some signs that the beheadings of journalists and humanitarian aid workers may be rebounding adversely on ISIL. There is widespread revulsion among the Muslim communities, young and old, in Western nations. Tapping this revulsion is the need of the hour. Instead of further alienating such Muslims, governments and the media should be seeking to engage with them and Muslim grassroots organizations which have the experience and ability to influence those youngsters deemed to be vulnerable to mobilisation by Internet jihadists.

According to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), based at King’s College London, several of those foreigners going to fight in Syria end up disillusioned and in need of a way out. They have found the reality to be far different from what they were led to believe. The only authoritative study of the issue, based on nearly one thousand Islamist returnees from previous conflicts, showed that one in nine former fighters subsequently became involved in terrorist activity. This does leave a majority who do not wish to become further involved with terrorist causes, for whatever reason. In many cases they are disillusioned, psychologically disturbed, or just tired.

The researchers argue that treating all foreign fighters as terrorists, therefore, risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Arrests and prosecutions will be needed in some cases, but they are just one aspect of a government’s responsibility. It must also offer people a way out.

It is also pointed out that, following the defeat of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, Arab-Afghan fighters could not return to their home countries. They were stripped of their citizenship and threatened with long prison sentences. Instead, they regrouped in Sudan and formed a Jihadist Internationale, from which al-Qa’ida emerged.

A programme of rehabilitation for returnees would combine “de-radicalisation” with continued assessment and monitoring. In prison, by contrast, they are likely to be further radicalised while potentially exposing others to a hardened ideology and worldview.

For an innovative approach in Aarhus, Denmark’s second city, towards the rehabilitation of disillusioned Danish nationals who went to fight in Syria, see:

There is something deeply Christian about this multi-pronged approach to combating extremist violence. It combines upholding the role of governments in protecting innocent people from assault (and bringing the perpetrators to justice) with the equally biblical injunction to “overcome evil with good” (Rom.12: 21) and thus halting the cycle of revenge and counter-revenge. We need such an expanded moral imagination if we are to sow seeds of shalom even in the most unpromising human wastelands.



October 2014