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“Can we ever actually prevent terrorism?” – Dr. Anneli Botha

August 9, 2018


“Can we ever actually prevent terrorism?”

By Anneli Botha

Volume 6 (2018), Number 13 (August 2018)

When receiving peer review feedback on a recent policy document I wrote, I was struck by the question posed by one of the reviewers, now only starting her career: ‘Can we ever actually prevent terrorism?’ This is in reference to counterterrorism presented as a negative, while preventing violent extremism (PVE) is presented as the absolute positive. Getting over the initial disbelief in the reviewer not being able to see the connection between PVE and counterterrorism (CT), I started to think how far we’ve come since 9/11, only seventeen years ago (not disregarding all the valuable lessons before this deciding event in history):

From introducing new terminology to describe old practices and tactics, for example referring to the decentralized nature of terrorist organisations and their networks as ‘New Terrorism’ while the Anarchist in the late 1800s managed to operate in a similar fashion spreading its ideology not through the internet and social media, but through immigration from Europe to the United States (opening a new debate on Western fears surrounding immigration – however not to be discussed in this commentary).

Back to the ‘latest strategies’ in preventing terrorism. For example, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 as reflected in UN Resolution 1373, the prevailing thought was that ‘draining the swamp’ would be achieved through introducing initiatives to prevent the financing of terrorism. In other words, should terrorists not have access to funds, those organisations would cease to exist. This ‘flawed’ strategy was justified in reference to examples of earlier cases where money was transferred from the main organisation to the execution cell: flawed, not because it was not important to address weaknesses in the legal international financial system, but flawed in thinking that by not being able to receive money through legal means would cause terrorist organisations to end their existence, disregarding the role ideology and the reasons why the organisation exists play. This is not even mentioning the reasons individuals join, play in driving terrorism. Therefore, seeing terrorism not only as a tactic, but also a form of communication, the best strategy preventing and countering it is to adopt a holistic approach that includes the criminal justice system, the military when confronted with an insurgency, as well as non-conventional actors in this debate. It would be wise to include governmental departments such as education, urban and rural development etc. as well as non-state actors, for example the broader civil society, non-governmental organisations, etc.

In the middle is a group of young analysts and ‘experts’ getting swept away in the ‘new’ craze of preventing and to a lesser extent countering violent extremism (P/CVE). I refer to this wave as “The new big business” considering the amount of donor money spent addressing domestic manifestations of radicalisation into violent organisations (especially Islamic State during the peak of the era of foreign fighters) and in support of other countries experiencing the devastating consequences of terrorism – and yes, violent extremism manifests in terrorism. What is wrong with this ‘industry’? In a nutshell the following: The temptation to introduce or rather ‘sell’ programs to prevent individuals from joining terrorist organisations (despite preference to rather refer to violent extremist organisations) without understanding why people resort to these organisations in the first place. Secondly, the tendency to see social and community development programs through the PVE and CVE (to a lesser extent) lens although the majority of recipients in the first place were never at risk to be radicalized and then claiming success that cannot be empirically tested. I am not implying that these initiatives do not play a positive role within these communities, but rather that history proved over-and-over again that only a small minority of individuals join terrorist organisations and continue to execute acts of terrorism. Reaching these individuals that are truly at risk requires a very different approach than what is commonly used. For example, when individuals that had been radicalized into joining al-Shabaab in Kenya and Somalia and Islamic State in West Africa (more commonly known as Boko Haram) in Nigeria were asked if they were aware of initiatives to prevent people from joining, a minority answered in the affirmative. When those who had been aware were asked why these initiatives were not successful, it became apparent that not trusting those who led these initiatives and the fact that the organisation and their friends were more convincing introduced some new concerns associated with the PVE ‘industry’.

Returning to the initial question: ‘Can we ever prevent terrorism’ my answer is: If we have any doubt, what are we doing and why are we doing what we’re doing? Why are we studying radicalisation and terrorism for any reason other than to identify new trends and weaknesses in an attempt to get ahead of the threat. A threat that manifests differently over continents, within continents and between countries sharing a common border in an attempt to prevent the manifestation of violent extremism in the form of acts of terrorism. Yes, we can prevent terrorism if we first understand the why, who and how on an individual level and develop counter and preventative strategies to provide answers to these questions, tailored to each organisation. Secondly, by equipping the state and its security forces to develop and implement initiatives aimed at addressing the short-term threat, while considering the medium- and long-term consequences of these short-term initiatives. Thirdly, by investing in the intelligence capabilities of the state and structures to facilitate the timely sharing of intelligence within and between countries. Lastly, and probably the most important, to appreciate and recognize history by learning from lessons in the past and those who came before us who have the experience that money cannot buy.

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