You’d be forgiven for thinking counter terrorism is all about secret spies, dawn raids and military-style operations. The truth is that what we call ‘hard’ counter terrorism is only one piece of the puzzle. The ‘soft’ side is referred to as countering violent extremism, and this is the side I work in. As associate professor and head of Curtin University’s Countering Online Violent Extremism Research Program and founding chair of People Against Violent Extremism, I have met with terrorism survivors in the country town of Omagh, outside Belfast in Northern Ireland; visited a small cafe in Java staffed with former terrorists; and travelled in a convoy of armoured vehicles through the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.
This time I’ve landed in Washington DC during its coldest winter in decades. I am the only Australian civil society representative invited to the White House by President Barack Obama for the Countering Violent Extremism Summit.
I arrive well ahead of the 7am call time and join a queue of counter-terrorism experts, government officials, law enforcement officers and private sector CEOs waiting to clear security. After a two-hour wait in -18°C, I get pulled aside by a couple I later discover are FBI agents. Apparently, I’m showing signs of hypothermia, despite four layers of clothing. I’m quickly ushered through security and escorted inside to receive medical attention. Finally, I am cleared to join the rest of the delegation in the auditorium. The room is packed; every seat is occupied, the back of the room filled with journalists. The summit has made front-page news in the United States but not for all the right reasons. Media coverage in the lead up focused on President Obama’s refusal to explicitly use any religious references in discussions about violent extremism. American Muslim community groups released statements expressing concerns that the summit would focus solely on violent extremism of the Islamic variety, while ignoring acts of violence carried out in the name of other religious, social or political causes. On the other side of the spectrum, conservative groups in the US took the President to task for kowtowing to political correctness and refusing to pinpoint Islamic-driven violent extremism as the summit’s focus. The controversy is not unexpected. As a frequent commentator on terrorism and violent extremism, I am familiar with the rhetoric of armchair experts from both sides of the debate. The fact is that violent extremism is much more complex than a sketchy checklist of characteristics and descriptors.
Today is the first of two days of formal proceedings. Around 150 delegates arrive to hear presentations about success stories in the US for countering violent extremism. The list of presenters and attendees reads like an international who’s who of counter terrorism practitioners and experts, as well as some ‘celebrity’ personalities: Congressman Keith Ellison – the first Muslim elected to Congress and the first African American elected to the House from Minnesota; and Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris. One of the more recognisable faces is Pakistani pop star
Haroon Rashid. He is the creator of the popular Burka Avenger, an award-winning cartoon series featuring the character Jiya, a schoolteacher by day and burka-clad superhero by night. Jiya fights extremists who want to shut down her girls’ school, foiling their plots not with bombs and missiles but with books and pens. Burka Avenger is just one example of how non-traditional methods are being used to counter terrorism. Another is Abdullah-X – the creation of a former extremist – a hip, young British Muslim with dreadlocks, chains and low-riding pants. Abdullah-X uses his brand to reach out to Muslim youth and challenge extremist narratives from groups like the Islamic State. Presenters from YouTube, Facebook and Google Ideas discuss the challenges of removing terrorist material from the Internet. And while Australia is not the focus of any of these presentations, our #illridewithyou campaign, which grew out of the Sydney siege in December 2014, gets a special mention via Facebook.
The more traditional models are showcased, such as inter-faith dialogue, individual mentoring of young people, and partnerships to build trust between law enforcement, local governments and communities. Most of the discussion is focused on the current wave of jihadi-inspired terrorism but there are also examples from Northern Ireland and a particularly inspiring presentation by a 21-year-old man who has set up
a foundation to mentor young people in criminal gangs.
We are all keen to hear the last speaker of the day – President Barack Obama. He receives a standing ovation, and starts by asserting US commitment to pluralism, reminding us that countering violent extremism is not just about military action but about taking action at all levels to confront violence perpetrated in the name of a distorted and destructive world view. I’m particularly inspired by his call to “amplify voices of peace, tolerance and inclusion”.
As I write, it’s almost 11pm in Washington. I’ve spent the last three days in the company of some of the world’s best-known political figures – people like UK Home Secretary Theresa May, former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. I’ve forged new relationships with some of the world’s quiet achievers, some in their 20s, who are working tirelessly in conflict-ridden states to combat the scourge of terrorism and violent extremism. What I take away is the heartening fact that, while we are fighting violent extremism in different conditions and diverse contexts, we are united against
a single enemy that threatens peace, tolerance, inclusion and human rights.
As my time in Washington draws to an end, I get a call about a young Perth man who has travelled to Syria to fight alongside the Islamic State. Yet another family has lost a son to the malevolent ideology of this brutal group. I am reminded of the importance of what we do as researchers and practitioners in this field. There’s no time to rest. We need to keep resisting and we need to keep finding new and better ways to counter violent extremism in whichever form it takes – not just for those families mourning the loss of sons and daughters, but for ourselves.