The Integrity of the Terrorism Debate

(Image courtesy Beth Kanter, CC license)

International gatherings can be both educating as well as amusing. Educating because they bring together a critical mass of knowledge and experience on a particular issue. Amusing, and at times funny, because some of the participants come across as story-tellers, crowd-charmers, regardless whether their stories resonate real facts on the ground or cloaked in an exciting, albeit cooked up, a fantasy that is sweet music to donors. Such occasions, therefore, are also an opportunity to see how much the entire debate is anchored in intellectual honesty and professional integrity, prompting participants reflect as to how much are they being honest to one another, and to the cause itself, or just pursue this as a business for many purported defenders of human rights.


The recent Second Global Meeting on Preventing Violent Extremism at Oslo, organized by UNDP, offered a similar chance of interaction among as many as 160 officials, experts and NGO professionals from all over the world. It provided a good forum for a candid conversation on issues surrounding interventions in counter-terror and extremism. It was a good occasion to introspect approaches and recalibrate where needed.


The Norwegian Minister of International Development, Nikolai Astrup, rightly pointed out on the outset that public-private partnerships, as well as a whole-of-government approach, were unavoidable to deal with violent extremism. He identified the rule of law as a must for sustainable, inclusive development and social cohesion, and that security was indeed the precondition.


This was indeed an apt stage-setting for the rest of the debate most of which centered on failures of governance, the porous rule of law, social-political exclusion, economic marginalization, unemployment and denial of political space as some primary drivers of violent extremism.


And to fight this, hard power alone offered no panacea. Additionally, the solutions have to spring from within. In the words of Somia Okoued, State Minister, Sudan, “No one can come from outside and teach me how to deal with issues which are rooted in my society.” We can do a lot of damage if we don’t listen to national implementing partners, she said while cautioning against the imposition of foreign recipes to societies which remain tribal in nature.


UN officials and other experts were happy that — based on the experiences of the past few years — the debate on Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) has shifted from containment (of militants and extremists) to a contextual talk (on the causes) in a particular society.


But such international debate, as two participants pointed out, often shy away from identifying some of the major geopolitical drivers of extremism in affected countries. All but one person mentioned recent Palestinian deaths by Israelis. Nobody mentioned Indian brutalities in Kashmir since July 2016. One Jordanian participant, for instance, drew the attention of the havoc that IDPs from Syria and Palestinian territories have played with the demography of Jordan. He also took a swipe at the Arab spring which had triggered a big influx of refugees into his country.


“I don’t know who brought it (Arab Spring), but we in Jordan are reeling from its effects today. We were 6 million in 2009, now 11 million, including 1.3 million Syrians and 600,000 Palestinians, Libyans, Yemenis. Now, we are also fighting foreign fighters in Jordan who target women and youth.” He also implied that it’s the same fighters who served as proxies in the war against Syria or the Libyan insurgency.


Another big missing element from the Oslo debate was the mention of local ruling elites — who are self-serving, corrupt and given only to short-term party politics in societies such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq.


How do we dissuade mainstream politicians from providing their shoulders to groups/persons who are the vehicles/mouthpieces — direct or indirect — for groups that advocate and justify the use of violence for their ideas? Examples are the monthly or quarterly stipends to mosques or their clerics from state kitty in Punjab, the big hand-out to Haqqania or recent donation of 150 acres of land by Bilawal Bhutto to a religious group.


In the latest report by John Sopko, the US inspector general for Afghanistan’s Reconstruction (SIGAR), Sopko literally indicts the US strategy which he says has created a system that is hardly different from terrorists that this system was supposed to fight.


Corruption within the INGO system was also conspicuous for its absence from the discourse. The UN-led INGO sector — as far as the Pakistan and Afghanistan context is concerned — suffers from internal corruption and massive systemic delays which usually shorten project lives, with the pressure for disbursing project funds within a specific time-frame, regardless of whether it makes sense or not.


The rush for off-loading time-barred project funds, even some UN staff — both local and international — wouldn’t mind compromising the integrity of the entire process that is supposed to adhere to the rule of law and transparency strictly. At times they go for projects that sound very exciting and unique but may, in reality, be a cocktail of truth and misleading fictions. The quest for project funding sometimes prompts NGOs to tailor projects in a way that would excite donors but not necessarily sync in with ground realities or would appear tendentious when scrutinized critically.


The writer is Editor, Strategic Affairs, and also heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad and author of Pakistan: Pivot of Hizbu Tahrir’s Global Caliphate. He can be reached at


This article first appeared in Daily Times. Click hereto go to the original.

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