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Time To Get Smart About Countering Terrorism

02/09/2015 5:28 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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You would be forgiven for thinking that counter terrorism is all about military action, dawn police raids and stealth drones. At the White House Summit in February this year, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon stated: "Missiles might kill terrorists, but they will not kill terrorism."

The Summit, hosted by President Obama, brought together world leaders, law enforcement, researchers and civil society practitioners in countering violent extremism -- or CVE. CVE is often referred to as the 'soft' side of counter terrorism because it includes efforts to understand and address the root causes of terrorism and involves government and civil society partnerships.

In contrast, hard counter terrorism encompasses the range of strategies that use coercive means to deter or disrupt terrorism. These include military intervention, target hardening, legislative measures and law enforcement.

From the first declaration of 'war', it was clear that the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001 would instigate the conditions for a hard response. As the world watched the capture and demise of Osama Bin Laden on May 2 2011, almost a decade after the terrorist attacks on the United States, scholars reasonably argued that the prolonged war on terror failed to eradicate the threat of international terrorism.

While the hard power approach of the war on terror succeeded in decimating the operational and tactical capacity of Al Qaeda central, the belief that the destruction of training camps would successfully eradicate AQ's affiliates and its ideology was misplaced.

The wisdom of employing an orthodox military response against an unorthodox enemy whose regenerative capacity relies on its ability to employ 'soft' strategies of influence and mobilisation has, rightly, been questioned. The so called 'war on terror' was co-opted and reconstructed by AQ and its affiliates as a 'war on Islam'- providing a powerful rally cry to potential recruits and sympathisers.

The belief that the 'war on terror' was code for a carefully constructed attempt to undermine global Islam is no longer limited to conspiracy theorists and 9-11 truth seekers. Instead, it has become the pillar upon which ISIS has built a powerful narrative that appeals to disconnected and disparate Muslims around the world.

Among Muslims who interpreted jihad as a call to duty in defence of Islam, and who may not have supported the use of violence during peaceful times, the war on Islam was an instant and effective justification for armed conflict.

In 2010, the Obama administration made a strategic decision to change the way that the U.S. government talked about the conflict announcing that they were not at war with 'jihadists', 'Islamists" or "terror". In place of the 'war on terror', President Obama began referring to the war on al-Qaida, referring to AQ as the enemy and AQ's Muslim victims as friends. The new terminology reflected a much needed and long neglected understanding of the importance of language and perception in counter terrorism.

The attempt to shift the language of the war on terror however, came too late. The task of undoing a decade of damage done by a prolonged military campaign required more than a shift in the language of war. Subsequently governments have had to contend with the reality that now presents itself in the form of what has been variously dubbed a 'war for hearts and minds' and a 'battle of ideas'.

Today, more and more governments, international and non-government organisations are increasingly getting serious about the business of countering terrorism through the 'soft' CVE approach.

Ideally CVE should harness the state's soft power resources and instruments of civil society. It should extend beyond the operations of government and law enforcement, potentially applying the actions of private enterprise, individuals and civil society groups.

But getting the balance right is not always easy -- especially when non-government organisations rely on government funding to provide the kind of services and programs that can make a difference. Government led or funded CVE programs often lack the credibility required to reach the populations most in need of prevention and intervention programs.

The challenge of developing viable and effective programs to counter the root causes of terrorism is not one that Australia faces alone. As a follow up to the White House CVE Summit, regional summits have been taking place around the world with the Australian regional CVE summit held in Sydney in June. In October the Club de-Madrid comprising former prime ministers and presidents will reconvene in Spain for the Madrid +10 Global Dialogue on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism.

The Dialogue comes after the United Nations General Assembly in September which is set to adopt the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

With growing international recognition of the importance of CVE and a platform for coordinating international responses, there is hope that a smarter approach to terrorism, one that acknowledges that the war for hearts and minds will not be won by military action, will emerge.

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