Counterterrorism Doesn't Need More Strategy, It Needs Action

By Ahmad Naveed Noormal and Karina Y. Valenzuela

In the wake of recent ISIL attacks in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Turkey, France, Germany and several other countries that claimed many innocent lives, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter were part of a meeting held between the ISIL coalition defense and foreign ministers to hasten the multi-faceted approach to counter the terrorist group.

John Kerry started the meeting by saying "We are engaged in a historic effort. Nothing like this coalition has ever before been assembled. And we're not following a manual on antiterrorist coalition building, we're writing it."

Forming a coalition and writing such a manual seem like positive steps towards fighting ISIL, however, several academic papers, formal declarations and international agreements clearly state terrorism as one of the major threats to the world. To date, none of these documents has helped the world to fight the safe havens of terrorism and give a tangible outcome to those communities that lose lives on daily basis to terrorist acts.

Counterterrorism doesn't mean killing a few members of Taliban or ISIL. If we are sincerely committed to fighting this phenomenon, we ought to fight the supporters of these groups, identify their financing sources and safe havens and target them irrespective of our political interests in those countries. Terrorism does not only target the citizens of a single country, it targets humanity.

According to Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic Studies at American University, one of the main reasons that immigrant youths are vulnerable to recruitment by ISIL is they're not fully absorbed as citizens in their host countries. With the amount of youth displaced by violence in host countries reaching unprecedented numbers, their susceptibility to joining these terrorist groups is higher than ever before.

If you are living in a country with no means to support yourself or your family and someone offers you the means, you will be more likely to take it. The marginalization of Muslim communities, especially immigrants and refugees, leaves already vulnerable populations even more at risk of joining terrorist groups. When terrorist groups are able to exploit the grievances of youth with the idea of shared anger, it gives people a sense of control in their lives. This control creates a sense of community where there would otherwise be none, and for that they can commit terrible acts. Furthermore, with the advancement of social media, groups like ISIL are able to reach more people all over the world in a way they never could before.

Today, if we are writing papers and strategies to fight terrorism, we are one step behind terrorist groups who are ready to take action. Writing strategies today cannot predict or stop their plans for tomorrow. If we are to fight terrorism, we need to target the right people, at the right time in the right place. Lingering and waiting for strategies to instruct the governments to take action against terrorism strengthens the terrorist group, giving them a chance to victimize more civilians. Governments need to be held accountable to take actions based on those strategies, otherwise they are just words on paper.

The fight against ISIL should have two parts, the grassroots level and the international level. So far, the strategies that have been put into practice have been largely unsuccessful; in fact terrorist attacks have been on the rise. Currently the U.S. is leading the coalition against ISIL along with regional and Western allies. The entire international community has voiced opinions that ISIL must be defeated. Why then with all this support does there seem to be no change? The answer is mostly because ISIL is not an enemy that can be defeated with traditional military combat. The current strategies are very limited, and with so many actors in play the situation grows more complex. We have seen with the examples of Iraq and Afghanistan that it won't work to just send troops on the ground, to lose countless more lives and in the end have even more unstable countries when those troops leave. In order to fight ISIL the international community should cut off the financial sources of the group, this means placing sanctions and ending financial support to the countries that are known for providing safe havens and funding terrorist groups. The coalition should work with local governments and legitimate military forces to prevent ISIL from gaining more territory, and regain territory controlled by them.

In addition to efforts made to fight ISIS in the world, we must empower the most vulnerable countries. Supporting the efforts of these countries can enable them to identify terrorist resource channels, safe havens and major supporters. Information sharing and taking immediate action against these groups can deteriorate them. However, while conducting any operation to fight ISIL, countries should fully consider humanitarian code, do no harm principles, and the principles of International Humanitarian Law. Irresponsible action, instead of weakening the terrorist groups, can further enhance the number of people fighting for them.

It is not enough to sit in rooms and hold meetings and discuss strategy. It is not enough to condemn attacks on social media, change profile pictures and create hashtags. There are a number of online campaigns and Twitter feeds against extremism, but that is not enough. Create safe community spaces where people feel like they belong, hold open discussions on the true meaning of Islam, promote projects that make immigrant and refugee populations feel included. By taking tangible steps and starting from the ground up, that's where the real impact will be made. Every day that no action is taken, more civilians are killed and more people are forced to flee their homes.

Naveed Noormal is an Afghan diplomat currently working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan at the Office of the Deputy Foreign Minister in Political Affairs. He is a Fulbright Fellow with a master's in Conflict Resolution and Coexistence, specializing in Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Management from the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. He can be reached at noormaln@brandeis.edu.

Karina Valenzuela is a recent graduate of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. She has a master's in Conflict Resolution and Coexistence with a specialization in Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Management. She is a returned United States Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Burkina Faso from 2011 to 2013. She currently resides in Boston, Massachusetts. She can be reached at valenzuela.ky@gmail.com.