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Building Resilient Societies to Counter Global Terrorism

Janel Smith, Senior Researcher, Centre for Security Governance
March 31, 2016

Terrorist attacks in Belgium, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan and Turkey in March 2016 alone were among the latest grim reminders that jihadi-inspired forms of terrorism are likely to remain at the forefront of security challenges for the foreseeable future. In the absence of a single "terror profile" or blueprint for disrupting terrorist networks, policy makers face considerable challenges across multiple fronts related to intelligence, surveillance, national and international coordination, inter-agency cooperation and de-radicalization. In recent years, the G7 and G20 have specifically addressed the threat of global terrorism through a focus on terrorist financing, money laundering, kidnapping, trafficking, nuclear terrorism and linkages between socioeconomic impoverishment and terrorism. For the G7 Ise-Shima Summit in May in Japan and G20 Hangzhou Summit in September in China, G7 and G20 members ought to intensify their investments in programs that extend beyond security-centric approaches to terrorism by seeking to prevent the appeal and spread of terrorist networks in the first place.

While disrupting illicit networks, denying safe haven to terrorists and preventing groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS from gaining further footholds in the Middle East remain imperative, attention is increasingly devoted to the importance of building resilient societies as key to combatting terrorism. This represents a robust and long-term strategic outlook for countering violent extremism in which individuals and communities are able to withstand violent extremism and challenge those who espouse such ideologies. Efforts to strengthen resilience focus primarily on building partnerships and communication among government, security sector actors and communities to foster a culture of greater inclusion. They seek to develop deeper and more nuanced understandings of preventive and early intervention methods to combat extremism that are based on context and take account of the unique religious, cultural and ethnic make-up of the communities they strive to engage.

The growing emphasis on resilience as a strategy in countering violent extremism signals a response to new and evolving challenges in combatting terrorism. These challenges include strategic drivers, such as technological advances that enable the accelerated flow of peoples, resources and ideas, characteristic of our increasingly networked global society. These have revolutionized radicalization by generating novel and diverse vulnerabilities that terrorists exploit.

However, home-grown motivators, including disillusionment and isolation, also push people to join armed conflicts they may have little to no direct connection to and have resulted in incidences of self-radicalization and lone-wolf terrorism in many G7 and G20 members. It is often at the intersections of alienation and dislocation within society and extremist ideology that spaces where radicalization can take root and flourish are found.

Increasingly, counter-terrorism programming ought to involve integrated efforts wherein individuals and organizations also see themselves playing roles in preventing rather than reacting to terrorism. Evidence suggests that individuals may be more susceptible to interventions aimed at de-radicalization if these can be undertaken early on. It is within this context that early intervention and prevention programs designed to safeguard vulnerable people from being drawn into violent extremism and terrorist networks have arisen. Already the United Kingdom's Prevent and Channel Programme has gained traction and is the foundation upon which other countries such as Canada are basing their own approaches. These initiatives are designed to work with individuals, including with their families and communities, who have exhibited signs of being at risk of exploitation by extremist or terrorist ideologues. They bring together the expertise of multiple agencies and actors to assess risks and provide a tailored support package based on needs specific to the circumstances of the vulnerable individual. Although not without their faults and challenges, these programs offer a concerted, long-term approach to countering violent extremism that complements and reinforces more traditional counter-terrorism strategies.

Inclusive and robust societies provide a vital first-line defence in the fight against global jihadists, who prey upon feelings of societal dislocation, disconnection and alienation, and manipulate them for their own purposes. Resilience, prevention and early intervention represent key pillars in the foundation of countering violent extremism that ought also to comprise central aspects of the responses of the G7 and G20 to the scourge of global terrorism.

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Janel SmithJanel Smith is a senior researcher at the Centre for Security Governance (CSG). The CSG specializes in the study of the security dimensions of contemporary governance issues including state building, peace building and post-conflict reconstruction. She received her PhD in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Janel was a previously a senior research associate and co-founder of the Civil Society and Expanded Dialogue Unit with the G8 Research Group.

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