Jonathan Eyal

Where efforts to counter radicalisation fall short

Families and schools need to help prepare youngsters from religiously devout homes for life in a multi-cultural society. They need to start early if they are to prevent the alienation that has driven some to violence

As a young boy, he was lucky enough to escape the vicious civil war in Yugoslavia, and settle with his family to a peaceful life in Germany. He did well at school and in sports, twice winning the title of world champion in muay thai, a martial-arts discipline.  

But 29-year-old Valdet Gashi suddenly disappeared, only to resurface last week as another European fighter for the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the band of terrorists and murderers now tearing apart the Middle East.

His story is a vivid reminder that the vast resources which governments are putting into efforts to prevent their youngsters from being lured into terrorism are largely of no avail.

What has gone wrong? Sadly, every ingredient in the so-called counter-radicalisation programme, from a basic understanding of what propels young people to violence, to the policies which may combat or at least contain the problem.

Missing indicators

NO ANALYSIS of counter-radicalisation efforts is either fair or comprehensive without an admission that this is not a precise science: Government officials have to implement such schemes without access to even the most basic of relevant statistics.

It is, for instance, impossible to know how many people may be willing to join terrorist organisations and where they live, so it's difficult to allocate resources. Government officials in Britain, whose "Prevent" strategy is one of the world's oldest and most extensive counter-radicalisation programmes worldwide, decide on which cities or communities get cash on the basis of numbers of existing terrorist volunteers, rather than estimates of potential ones, a tactic which does nothing to prevent future militant recruitment.

Nor has anyone devised a method to assess the success or failure of such schemes: The £40 million (S$82.9 million) which the British government allocates each year to grassroots counter-extremism strategies may seem an awful lot of cash for no return, but if it can be proven to prevent even one terrorist atrocity, it's an absolute bargain.

Yet despite the absence of indicators, there is plenty of evidence that counter-radicalisation strategies are not working. Germany, France and Britain alone have accounted for about 600 volunteers each to the ISIS terrorist network, with many other states also providing fertile ground for recruitment.

Furthermore, most governments agree that the flow is likely to continue: "Before the end of this year, there may be 10,000 Europeans fighting in Iraq and Syria," French Prime Minister Manuel Valls predicted recently.

One of the biggest problems facing all counter-radicalisation programmes is the lack of understanding of why young men and women (with the latter representing about 10 per cent of current terrorism volunteers) should choose to leave behind their lives, friends and comforts to live and die in countries they have never visited and whose languages they often cannot speak, in support of a nebulous ideology they hardly understand.

A popular, early explanation that youth are attracted to terrorism because they are economically marginalised has largely been discredited: Most of the Western terrorism volunteers come from average middle-income families and have never cited poverty as the cause of their resort to violence.

Nor does the supposed lack of education play an important role: Most of Europe's ISIS fighters have had a perfectly respectable education record, and the one British school which holds the dubious record of "contributing" the largest number of terrorist recruits from the United Kingdom is Holland Park in an affluent part of central London, the favourite educational establishment for all of Britain's socialist politicians.

Sense of alienation

A MORE recent and probably more accurate explanation for the terrorism volunteering phenomenon is that some youngsters - and particularly those belonging to Europe's Muslim communities - are attracted to violence by a sense of political and social alienation: They are citizens of the country in which they were born, but feel that the state is not theirs, so they look for a new identity, and this search may occasionally turn to violence. It is noticeable, for instance, that many Europeans end up being radicalised after spending their school holidays in the original "home countries" of their immigrant parents, in places such as Pakistan for British Muslims, or Algeria and Morocco for French ones.

The snag is that combating this sense of alienation requires a different set of strategies from the ones most counter-radicalisation programmes operate on. Largely for reasons of political correctness, most of the current programmes rely on Muslim "community leaders" to understand and treat the roots of radicalisation.

Yet the reality is that a lot of these community leaders are self-appointed busybodies who represent nobody but themselves and have zero traction with a younger generation.

Far from being a transmission mechanism between the authorities and the population at large, such community leaders are often part of the problem, a contributing factor to the alienation of young people.

Nor have such leaders been particularly moderate either: Britain's "Prevent" strategy has often been hit by popular outrage that some of the cash intended to fight extremism went to people or organisations which espoused pretty shocking and violent arguments of their own, such as the belief that homosexuals should be killed, or that non-Muslim women are "prostitutes".

Another misdirected counter-radicalisation effort is that of trying to sponsor a more "liberal" interpretation of Islam through a new generation of imams and the publication of new religious tracts.

But, as Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh of Deakin University in Melbourne pointed out in a recently published study of Australia's efforts in this field, a state's sponsorship of "moderate Islam" is inherently dangerous, for "it makes moderate Muslims vulnerable to accusation of 'betraying' Islam by the more radical elements in the Muslim community".

Besides, young people do not read theology books: Those who vow to die fighting on behalf of ISIS often have a very basic, even crude, understanding of Islam's holy scriptures.

None of this suggests that existing counter-radicalisation efforts should be abandoned but, rather, that they should be restricted to what is feasible, and redirected to what is doable. And, paradoxically, that actually means a far greater effort, over a longer period of time.

Bridge the gap

AS ANY parent knows, there are limits to how much one can preach reason to a younger generation; if governments have not succeeded in persuading a substantial percentage of today's youth to refrain from smoking tobacco or using harder drugs, it stands to reason that there will also be a percentage of youngsters who will resist all advice and engage in terrorism.

For many of the current volunteers for violence, the fighting in the Middle East is just a more realistic version of a movie or a computer game, in which fighters dressed in sleek black outfits "zap" their opponents.

There is also an element of fashion in this terrorism trend. During the late 19th century, hundreds of Europeans - all Christian, incidentally - volunteered for anarchist causes: They planted bombs and managed to assassinate many politicians, including a Russian czar and a French president, in pursuit of a utopian dream to create a "government-free world". No country managed to stamp out the anarchists, but the movement petered out when the fashion wore off; it's not impossible that something similar may happen to today's terrorist movements as well.

Modern versions of Islam will emerge, particularly in Europe, where today's Muslims face a different environment to that which their immigrant parents had in their countries of origin. But the process cannot be dictated from above, or encouraged with government subsidies: It has to start from inside the Muslim communities.

And the most important defence unit against terrorism remains the family. Most of the alienation of young Muslims in Europe today is fuelled by the disconnect between devout parents who fail to prepare their children for their subsequent lives in the multi-cultural societies in which they live, and by an education system which also fails to bridge this gap.

As former chief superintendent Dal Babu, who was responsible for counter-extremism efforts at London's Metropolitan Police, remarked recently, a successful programme is one which "does not put the Muslim community in a separate box when it comes to safeguarding vulnerable young people". 

Seen from this perspective, almost everything a state does from the birth of an individual and right through to his or her maturity should, at least in part, be a counter-extremism effort. The narrative of violence needs to be combated at home, at school and in all subsequent government activities; it cannot just be tackled when an individual has already reached maturity.

Yes, that is a tall order which will take many years. But many of today's industrialised nations have undergone vast transformations in just a few decades, so they are perfectly capable of repeating the feat.