If there is one thing the 2010s taught us about preventing and countering terrorism and violent extremism, it is that this landscape is continually transforming. In the face of such an ever-changing and ever-evolving threat, policymakers and practitioners cannot afford to be complacent. Continued vigilance, sustained pressure and clarity of mission is vital.
At the turn of the decade in 2010-11, I remember watching protestors flood the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Morocco. These uprisings, which spread across the region, did not emerge from politico-religious forces or insurgent groups, but from ordinary citizens. I also remember how, at the time–if only briefly–it felt like we were witnessing the decline of the global jihadi movement. It was clear then, even to Osama Bin Laden, that two decades of Salafi-jihadi propaganda had failed to inspire the masses to take to the streets. The early days of the ‘Arab Spring’ were the antithesis of what the movement stood for–secular, pluralistic and democratic reform. Peaceful protest had deposed the leaders of regimes that al-Qaeda had long claimed could only be toppled by violence and terrorism.
By the spring of 2011, Osama Bin Laden had been killed by US Special Forces. We now know that months before Bin Laden’s death, the Abbottabad papers–captured during the raid on his compound– show that the group was re-examining its strategy in the face of such change. We also now know that in 2011 we were not witnessing the decline of violent Islamism or the global jihadi movement. Instead, we were about to enter a period of resurgence.
Today, we face as many as 97 different violent Islamist groups operating in 40 countries. Just one among these is ISIS, a group that terrorised communities in Syria and Iraq from 2014, captured and killed aid workers and journalists, and claimed deadly attacks all over the world. The concerted efforts of the international coalition against ISIS has seen the group’s territorial control shattered and its capabilities reduced, yet the black flags of the so-called Islamic State continue to be raised in territories far beyond the borders of the Middle East. The territorial defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria remains significant, but the group’s legacy continues to pose an immediate and long-term threat to the region, with challenges around repatriating foreign fighters, resettling internally displaced people and rebuilding towns, cities and communities.
Meanwhile, the security situation in West Africa continues to deteriorate, with extremist groups in the Sahel and the Lake Chad regions vying for control and supremacy, as local communities continue to suffer the consequences of their violent campaigns. International support for military efforts has been forthcoming, but the combination of widespread corruption, governance challenges and a lack of basic services creates an environment in which extremist groups flourish and extremist ideologies thrive.
While the threat of Islamist extremism remains among the foremost security challenges facing countries around the world today, too often the understanding of this threat is one dimensional. The recent growth and proliferation of Shia Islamist extremism in the Middle East and beyond is a cause for concern. Religiously-inspired, ideologically-motivated and heavily-armed proxies across the region have increasingly demonstrated their willingness and ability to target civilians while pursuing a sectarian-driven agenda, sowing division and tearing communities apart.
From Europe and North America to Australia and New Zealand, the longstanding concerns about the rising influence and activity of the far-right have manifested themselves with deadly consequences. No longer simply confined to the dark corners of the internet and low-level, sporadic incidents, this increasingly transnational movement is responsible for ever-sophisticated, coordinated attacks targeting religious and ethnic minorities.
What we hope to confront can feel overwhelming and enigmatically complex, but it is not beyond resource and global capability. The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change begins a new year and a decade looking forward for solutions. We have convened leading experts from around the world to share their expertise on some of the most pressing global extremism challenges. They each explore how best to overcome them and the opportunities that lie ahead. These valuable contributions provide policymakers with a clear sense of direction in countering and preventing extremism in the coming years.
Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League argues that despite signs that policies to combat rising hate are moving in the wrong direction, the damage can be reversed if governments, technological enterprises and civil society organisations work shoulder-to-shoulder on solutions.
The PAIMAN Alumni Trust’s Mossarat Qadeem focuses on the intangible harms on societies resulting from extremism. She argues that even though the majority of people in Pakistan have ‘internalised extremism’, education institutions and the role of women can play a central role in reversing this development.
Cleo Blackman of the Tony Blair Institute explores the challenges around proving the impact of extremism prevention programmes. She calls for a professionalisation of the sector that draws on decades of lessons from the field of development to fill the evaluation void.
Usama Hasan, also of the Tony Blair Institute, challenges the notion that it is impossible to rehabilitate and deradicalise terrorism offenders. He argues that we need to understand the difference between deradicalisation, desistance and disengagement. Once these differences are identified, the opportunities for rehabilitation are also clearer.
The Atlantic Council’s Jasmine El-Gamal tackles a critical question on the repatriation of foreign nationals who joined ISIS or lived under its rule. Should they be taken back by their home countries or not, and what are the risks of not doing so? She puts forward a plan for a ‘managed repatriation’.
Leanne Erdberg of the United States Institute for Peace calls on policymakers to embrace the complexity of violent extremism by unleashing the potential of development aid and expertise to stem the spread of groups who exploit all too readily the vacuums left in fragile states.
Joana Cook from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation focuses on what has been learned in the last decade about women and violent extremism. She argues that a gender lens must be applied at every step when designing our response to violent extremism. She warns that if this is not done, we will remain limited in our understanding of the threat of violent extremism.
Khalid Koser, Kevin Osborne and Lilla Schumicky-Logan of the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund examine the momentum that has resulted in the development of dozens of national action plans since 2016. They agree that these are important first steps for achieving national ownership vis-a-vis a transnational policy agenda but argue that there are still weaknesses that will make it difficult for many of these action plans to be implemented.
Finally, the Tony Blair Institute’s Mubaraz Ahmed looks at the challenges and opportunities for policymakers and platforms in addressing online extremism. The Christchurch Call represents a great step forward in building international consensus, but it is the actions of governments and social media platforms that speak louder than words.
Beyond the overriding belief that violent extremism is reversible, there is clear consistency in the messages from all of our expert contributors this year. Extremism is not only harmful when it becomes violent. Extremism harms societies in a multitude of ways that are not yet fully understood. Extremism is a political and ideological problem, so the antidote to extremist ideology must be political. Security measures are not enough. Strategic prevention of extremism will require a multi-sector, interagency response in government, and a whole-of-society approach. Policies should no longer be reactive and tactical–as they have been since 2001–but should align state institutions and communities in confronting extremisms.
This decade brings opportunities to recalibrate and develop a new set of strategic policies for confronting global extremism. These policies should be underpinned by a coherent political strategy that reflects today’s more complex landscape and harnesses new technologies and political opportunities. Global and regional coordination is key to meeting the scale of the demand. The dynamics driving and sustaining extremism cross national boundaries, and therefore powerful partnerships are needed to mobilise the resources and will of the international community.
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Foreword: Recalibrating the Response to Global Extremism