Extremism and Terrorism Response – Tools that Need Sharpening

22 Jun

Over this past week there have been a number of UN events aimed at reviewing global policy towards eliminating terrorism.  Obviously traditional approaches such the role of the intelligence community and state based military responses are key component of this discussion. Also of interest however were suggestions for a range of tools that can be used as complimentary measures for dealing with terrorism. These approaches seem to have the advantage of supporting good governance without losing focus on terrorism. In addition, these tools can help successfully address terror threats without strengthening military and intelligence capacities in countries where these institutions are not accountable or are actually a threat to democratic development.

Two themes that came to the fore were how the criminal justice system can be used in combating terrorism and how development and engagement strategies can help mitigate extremist rhetoric.

The latter topic was examined by the missions of Burkina Faso and Denmark as well as the Global Centre for Co-Operation, with a special focus on West African countries and the Sahel.  The meeting focused on the need for multilateral, multi-scale approaches that would help take more conventional development aid programs and orient them toward combating extremism. A key part of this effort, it was argued, was directing more resources towards women and youth. These groups were deemed particularly vulnerable to radical ideology and are target groups for recruitment. Suggested examples for these sectors include skills training, cultural activities and sports programs.

Beyond normal development aid it is also possible to create new programs that help to counter extremist rhetoric. Examples noted include implementation of inter-faith events, cultural exchanges, more creative use of local radio, and de-radicalisation programs in prisons. These initiatives all serve very specific policy ends and can be funded from within current aid packages although further negotiation is needed to increase the range and effectiveness of these programs.

Development itself is not a magic bullet for dealing with extremism, but must be complemented elsewhere. Civil society groups attending the session pointed to how early warning systems are being used effectively to monitor and assess the ‘temperature’ of political rhetoric.  One particular areas of concern:  Calls for the suspension of “terms limits” for government leaders in West Africa and the Sahel, they warned, are creating significant political instability and swelling the potential for increased extremism.

Another UN session organized by the Pakistani Mission explored judicial-legal contributions to countering terrorism. Institutions associated with law and courts are not always seen as useful in preventing terrorism, but rather as a reactive tool to investigate and prosecute once terrorist acts have been committed. This session showed ways that legal systems can be used within a broader policy framework to prevent terror incidents in the first place. One innovation highlighted methods to help encourage more effective communication between intelligence agencies and civil authorities, for instance in building frameworks to ensure inter-agency information privacy and processes to ensure that integrity of evidence. Unregulated, these systems tend to hinder effective joint action among diverse government agencies. Better co-operation can more effectively address some of the unsavory activities that enable terrorism, such as money laundering.

Also stressed was the need for trustworthy, transparent, accountable police services. One positive example cited was in Afghanistan where police engagement with communities regarding less serious security threats (such as traffic safety) has helped build the trusting relationships needed to counter larger threats, including terrorism.

Training was also cited as being very important for the criminal justice system as a whole. Potential avenues for innovation include the need for judges to understand the international law implications of their decisions; the police to have a more robust engagement with regard to the human rights aspects of their work; education focused on how to conduct safe, lawful surveillance; and the importance of assisting women to find their rightful places within the still male-dominated security sector.

None of this precludes the importance of traditional military-intelligence requirements for the combating of terrorism. The approaches outlined above however help prevent the overuse of more traditional solutions — the proverbial “hammer” that creates a “nail” out of every aspect of terrorism prevention.  Given more political will, innovative thinking, clever legal craft and some spin on traditional development activities, counter-terrorism and extremism measures can be improved without undermining measures to ensure more effective governance.

Benji Shulman, GAPW

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