Al-Qa’ida is enjoying a period of resurgence and is attracting recruits. This is a poor commentary on over 12 years of concerted international effort to counter the threat. Governments need more community support to confront the appeal. A new global fund aims to help them do so.
The attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi last month showed once again how effective terrorism can be in gaining world attention and spreading fear - or at least apprehension. Add to that the increasing prominence of Al-Qa’ida affiliates among the rebel groups in Syria; the mayhem in Pakistan and Iraq where groups professing allegiance with Al-Qa’ida engage in almost daily attacks, and the relatively frequent arrest of people suspected of terrorist plotting in Western countries, including the United Kingdom, and it seems that twelve years of international effort has done little to eradicate the Al-Qa’ida threat. It begs the question: what more should or could the international community do?
One thing seems sure: despite the billions of dollars spent around the world on confronting those who have become terrorists, there is little obvious reduction in the appeal of the terrorist narrative to those who contemplate joining them. More must be done. Although what remains of the Al-Qa’ida senior leadership may have been corralled in the badlands of North Waziristan, it has survived to see its fortunes recover. Its ability to influence and to lead may still be limited, but events in Iraq, Pakistan, Mali, Syria and Yemen, and the faltering of the reform movements in the Arab Spring countries, have offered the Al-Qa’ida leadership a new opportunity to recast its message and reshape its image.
Importantly, the movement, which may have been in danger of becoming predominantly Pakistani, has re-established itself in the very heart of the Arab world. Syria and Yemen, even more than Iraq, are bases of great symbolism as well of strategic importance. And even if al-Nusra, the Islamic of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fail to establish a long-term political role for Al-Qaida, they have inspired a new cohort of fighters from all over the world who are likely to remain a cause for concern for many years to come.
The answer to this resurgent threat cannot be to do more of the same. Intelligence and law enforcement action against terrorist groups and their members will of course remain an essential part of any counter terrorist strategy, but more must be done to prevent one set of names replacing another as operational success is overtaken by new challenges.
As Ayman al Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qa’ida, pointed out in two statements released on 12 and 13 September, Al-Qa’ida’s resilience is not organisational, it is the resilience of an idea. In fact in his 13 September message, al-Zawahiri instructed his followers to focus on spreading the message so as to establish safe havens and strengthen the foundations of its support, rather than launch attacks on new fronts. Al-Zawahiri said that Al-Qa’ida will not be defeated so long as the focus of its enemies is on its structure; it will only die when Muslims no longer see it as a way to protest policies they regard as humiliating.
Although the number of Muslims who support Al-Qa’ida is infinitesimally small compared to the 1.6 billion who share the faith, it is a sorry state of affairs that anybody still sees al-Qa’ida as a way to restore their dignity. Al-Qa’ida-inspired attacks have led to the deaths of thousands of Muslims; many more than of non-Muslims. In fact Al-Qa’ida is in danger of becoming mired in a sectarian fight that only targets Muslims.
The resilience of the Al-Qa’ida idea is a criticism of us all. Despite all the years of effort, the international community has been unable to understand the nature of the Al-Qa’ida appeal sufficiently to be able to undermine it. The reasons are twofold: first, as al Zawahiri points out, counter-terrorism resources have focused on fighting the organisation, which is certainly much weaker as a result, rather than the idea, and second, whatever efforts have been made to counter the Al-Qa’ida narrative, they have tended to be sporadic, disjointed and poorly implemented. They have reflected government policies at a macro level rather than focus on where Al-Qa’ida operates, which is at the local, or even the individual level.
Nonetheless, the evolution of counter-terrorism from PURSUE to PREVENT is evident in many countries, perhaps none more so than the United Kingdom. This is a policy response to the obvious need to get ahead of the curve: to deal with the possibility of terrorism before it becomes a bloody reality. But the difficulty of actually succeeding in spotting an individual who is vulnerable to the extremist message and finding ways to head him off is self-evident, both in terms of knowing what to look for and in having a proper legal basis for taking action. It goes without saying that any government that puts its responsibility to protect its citizens from terrorist attack above its responsibility to protect their civil liberties is in danger of handing an easy victory to its adversaries.
But this is not just a government responsibility. Communities too have a responsibility, both to protect their own members from an infringement of civil liberties, whether by a terrorist attack or by an over-anxious government, and to protect the members of other communities with whom they live. Except where Al-Qa’ida has managed to make the fight a sectarian one, there are few communities that reject this idea of shared responsibility. They have no desire to be attacked, or to be cast as breeders or harbourers of terrorists.
Inevitably however, in areas where Al-Qa’ida is strong, there is often a degree of distrust between the government, however represented, and the local community. A lack of services, discrimination, corruption, poor governance and general ineffectiveness, are common ills that prevent government from projecting a compelling reason why communities should support a counter terrorist policy that appears to bring them little advantage. The answer therefore is to outsource counter terrorism to the community level in a way that bypasses government without further eroding its authority.
On 27 September, Secretary of State John Kerry and his Turkish opposite number announced a new Global Fund for Community Engagement and Resilience that aims to do this. The Fund, which hopes to raise some $200 million over 10 years, is designed to promote local initiatives to counter the appeal of terrorism. It will have financial support from a range of countries and aims to attract private donations as well. The initiative is overdue, but it has the potential to make a real difference.
Targeting Resources Locally
In the area of counter-narrative, international and regional organisations are most effective when they empower governments, whether by providing ideas, advice or resources. And governments are most effective when they empower communities, accepting that grass-root civil society organisations have a far better idea of what is going on in their locality, and better tools to influence it, than national, official bodies.
The future success of counter-terrorism lies in well-directed, arms-length government support for local initiatives that steer people away from the use of violence. Although much harder to organise than the kinetic, operational activity that has dominated the agenda until now, this approach would certainly be far cheaper. A focus on the narrative at the local level in communities that are vulnerable to the terrorist message will also have the benefit of putting the terrorist threat in better perspective by ensuring that the resources devoted to it are proportionate to its true size. As action and reaction moves to the sphere of ideas, al-Zawahiri will find that not only is Al-Qa’ida vulnerable organisationally, but also ideologically.
There has been a general lack of funding for community-based initiatives to counter the appeal of violent extremism, of whatever complexion. Some countries have made efforts to provide such support, but the results have not been as positive as expected or hoped for. There are various reasons for this, all of which the new Global Fund could address.
Big donors will always find it hard to deal with small initiatives, just as small initiatives will always find it hard to deal with big donors. The big donor problem revolves around the difficulties that distant donors have in evaluating local initiatives, vetting their leaders, auditing their expenditure and evaluating their impact. To do all that properly costs more money and time than the donors generally think worthwhile. It is obviously cheaper and more efficient to fund and monitor one large project than to fund and monitor a multiplicity of smaller ones.
The small initiative problem exists because local communities often don’t know how to apply for grants, how to design and execute their programmes to make them transparent and accountable, and because they often lack confidence that government authorities will support them, or they fear that government support will destroy their value by association.
A Global Fund can overcome these problems by drawing on local expertise in target areas and by forging relationships with civil society groups so as to mentor, monitor and support their activities in the most appropriate way to help them succeed; the Fund should invite, encourage and inspire applications for help at the local community level.
With the prestige of major State and private donors behind it, the Fund would have a fair chance of reaching into areas where the violent extremist message thrives: places where governance is weak and the relationship between local communities and State institutions is fragile.
Facilitate a Collective Response
The Fund could also act as an aggregator, managing to co-ordinate different initiatives into a larger whole without forcing them into an uncomfortable union. The Fund could spread best practice as well as financial and other resources, and enable community organisations to test relatively small initiatives without fear of failing. Equally, the Fund could work with local organisations to scale up those initiatives that prove successful.
A series of country teams could offer advice and guidance both to the Fund and to the potential recipients of grants, then including representatives of the grant recipients as a way to ensure the proper flow of information and complementarity between projects. The country team would also have links to the relevant government departments to ensure that projects were appropriate and their execution uninterrupted.
In addition to funding local initiatives to counter the narratives of violent extremism, the Fund could also help improve our understanding of why these narratives find fertile ground. It is not enough just to argue that violence is not the answer, there have to be alternative answers, ways to allow people to express their frustration and direct their energy towards alternative solutions to the ills they see around them. This is a way to turn potential forces for evil into potential forces for good.
To do this, the Fund and its country teams will be able to collect from their grass-roots partners, evidence of the drivers of extremist violence at the local level: the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism. With this knowledge in hand, the international community will also be able to help regional and national authorities to examine ways to address any deficiencies in delivery of the three principal requirements of the vast majority of mankind: security, equal justice for all, and economic opportunity.
The creation of the Fund is an important initiative that will help take counter terrorism to a new and different level – not up, but down. To the communities that are at most risk and are most able to do something effective about it, giving them ownership of the problem and recognising their role as part of the solution.
There may be many questions about how the Fund would operate, but there can be no question about the validity of its objectives.
Richard Barrett CMG OBE
Associate Fellow, Counter-Terrorism