‘Extremism can't be defeated on the battlefield alone’

  • 27 September 2016

As Sweden prepares to take a seat on UN Security Council next year, Abu Dhabi-based scholar and author Dr. Jamal Sanad al-Suwaidi argues for a greater UN role to fight extremist ideologies like those that fuel Isis and other terror groups.

Between the US-led coalition’s rapid closing in Mosul and Raqqa and the recent return of families to their homes in a liberated Fallujah, the past few months have been a turning point in the global war against Isis.

It took unprecedented focus and commitment for these breakthroughs to materialize. But although international forces have gained major ground, we are still losing the greater war against extremism.

Attacks in Nice, Istanbul, and, most recently, New York sadly reaffirm that extremists are winning the war of ideas. In all three accounts, marginalized individuals acted alone on Isis’s commands to brutally kill the so-called infidels. Again, even in our successes, we fail to address the root causes of the radicalism that allowed Isis to first raise its flag over Fallujah in 2014.

An unprecedented level of commitment

There is a lesson here. Extremism cannot be defeated on the battlefield alone. We must defeat the ideologies that fuel it. Indeed, for civilization to hold its ground – to truly win against Isis and extremism everywhere – what is needed is an unprecedented level of commitment to eradicating the sources of – and inspiration for – extremism and mitigating the process of radicalization.

Fallujah was a physical and symbolic stronghold to Isis. It was an example of territory the terror group conquered and administered; an important step in its destructive path towards a caliphate based on a mirage of Islamic piety. Their defeat in Fallujah thus deals a double blow to their strategy.

However, there are few institutions exclusively attacking the sources of extremism. This is partly because extremism is a global scourge. Countries may seek to address extremism within their borders – Sweden has a National Coordinator for Protecting Democracy Against Extremism; and the UAE has established a powerful anti-extremist propaganda machine – but there is still little coordination and multilateral resources dedicated to the transcendent threat.

This is counter-productive.

Extremism is not limited to one faith, organization, or region. Therefore, the world must come together to drain the swamp of extremism, augmenting battlefield tactics with the promotion of peaceful thought, tolerance, and understanding.

Universal messages about tolerance

The ideal institution for this effort is the United Nations, the only body with the moral authority and international legitimacy to conduct anti-extremist operations successfully. It is the ideal leader for a global campaign of ideas. Isis’s rationale, like that of all religious extremists, is based on a mirage of piety and duty that must be disabused.

In addition, the campaign must be conducted on multiple fronts. A coherent, scalable effort must be launched to stem online radicalization and broader radical narratives.

Where extremist groups win recruits with false and misguided promises of grandeur, wealth, and eternal glory, we must articulate universal messages about tolerance and peaceful conflict resolution. In so doing, we can make an immediate and meaningful difference on the battlefield.

From Dag Hammarskjöld to Jan Eliasson, Swedes have a long history of leadership at the UN, a tradition which adds a new chapter next year when Sweden takes a seat on the UN Security Council.

And while the Security Council plays an important role when it comes to coordinating multi-lateral responses to security threats that come from violent extremism, the UN’s General Assembly can rally even greater resources and creative firepower of private sector actors as it represents all the nations of the world. These assets have been under-leveraged against extremists.

How the UN can lead

And as a truly global actor uniquely focused on eliminating extremism in all of its forms, the UN does not define “terrorism” or “victims” by any specific religion, nation, or ethnic group. By holding that terrorism is terrorism no matter who commits the act – and victims are victims no matter whom the acts are perpetrated against – the UN can advance an important message and mission that individual countries and governments mired in their own politics and geostrategic concerns cannot.

In order to achieve its goals, there are a few practical things that the UN can do to in the short term:

  • Isis and other modern extremist organizations are known and feared for their cyber-presence, radicalizing thousands online each year. And governments are falling behind in their ability to combat these narratives largely because they fail to reach the target audience. Despite many attempts at a national and global counter-messaging campaigns, no metric for “effectiveness” has been established, nor have influential civil society actors been identified and supported. The UN should create a metric for identifying “effective” campaigns and support non-governmental groups as they seek to counter radical ideologies in communities worldwide.
  • The UN has a powerful media network that reaches every corner of the globe. Credible spokespeople should be recruited to directly attack the appeal of extremists.
  • The UN can promote better assimilation of minorities; alienation is considered by many counterterrorism experts as an accelerant to radicalization.
  • The UN can promote a curriculum for grade schools with mixed ethnic and religious student bodies that promotes better understanding of the many cultures that exist.
  • The UN should better support and raise awareness of the victims of terrorism. Mothers, siblings, and other relatives of victims can be powerful spokespeople against the appeal of extremism.

Peace-loving citizens in Sweden and the rest of the world must come together to combat extremist narratives worldwide. And if the UN can take up this mantle in a smart, socially aware, and quickly-evolving way, there is a path forward beyond guns and bombs – one that does not threaten to bite its champions in the back by feeding a never-ending cycle of grievances.