Counter violent extremism expert shares fresh perspective

Dr. Khalid Koser, MBE, executive director of the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund. Photo by: Stephan Röhl / Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung / CC BY-SA

One week on from a series of coordinated attacks in Paris for which the Islamic State group has claimed responsibility, a global debate is raging about how to respond. 

Much discussion has focused on military intervention, and, in fact, France has launched airstrikes deep inside Syria. But since many of the terrorists involved in these attacks were French and Belgian citizens, there is growing interest in understanding and counteracting the root causes of violent extremism.

To get a different perspective for the global development community, I asked Dr. Khalid Koser, an expert on countering violent extremism, for his thoughts in the wake of this latest tragedy. A version of his responses, which have been edited for length, follows, but I want to point out a couple of key takeaways.

First, Koser helps to clarify a point that has been a source of tension in much of the conversation so far: poverty can be a factor in extremism but more important is social injustice. This sense of injustice is key to understanding why some people respond to recruitment efforts by extremist groups. So when observers point out that a terrorist was unemployed or recruited from a relatively economically depressed neighborhood or region, this information is not irrelevant. It is however insufficient to explain why some people may be particularly susceptible to extremist ideologies.

Second, Koser, who leads the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund, emphasizes the importance of addressing these challenges at the local level — the focus of his fund. That’s a call to action for all of us working in local communities around the world.

Finally, Koser helps us to begin considering what each of us can do. I encourage all who read this to share your own ideas for how the development agencies, NGOs, implementers, corporations, social entrepreneurs, and other members of the Devex community can play a role here. We intend for this brief discussion to open a conversation that we at Devex will continue over the coming days.

Here are some highlights from our conversation:

In the wake of attacks in Paris, how should we understand the challenge the world faces when it comes to the Islamic State group?

I am not an expert on [the Islamic state group], but it seems to me that we need to reframe our understanding of, and more importantly our response to ISIS, in response not just to Paris but also the attacks in Lebanon and Egypt.

First, it’s becoming clear that ISIS poses a truly global threat. Of course it was understood that ISIS activities in its immediate sphere of influence had impacts outside the region, for example by attracting foreign terrorist fighters and disseminating propaganda through social media. But now the direct sphere of influence is expanding. The only way to respond to a transnational threat is through international cooperation; it cannot be done on a unilateral basis.

Second, I think we need to confront the depressing reality that ISIS poses a long-term threat. Even if it can be stopped in the Levant, it has the legacy profile now to inspire others elsewhere. This implies to me the need for a long-term and generational response. Of course military responses are legitimate and necessary; but equally we need to focus on prevention, especially among the youth, to reduce the risk of new recruits to violent extremist agendas.

Third, I would argue that the lessons of the global war on terror behoove us to guard against knee-jerk reactions, however tempting and politically expedient they may be. A comprehensive response is required. Mothers, teachers and religious leaders will be as important as analysts and soldiers in defeating ISIS.

What should development agencies, multilateral banks, nongovernmental organizations and others advancing global development be doing that they aren’t yet doing to counter this global threat?

First, we need to bridge the gap between security and development actors. Quite understandably, development agencies may be concerned that their principles will be undermined, their resources diverted, and their development goals deprioritized by engaging in countering ISIS. But development investments are fundamental for prevention. More than poverty, ultimately what is making people susceptible to recruitment is social injustice, and only development can address this challenge effectively.

Second, the international donor community should redouble its efforts to support grassroots initiatives. The threat may now be global, but the solution is local. Local communities almost certainly know better than anyone else why some of their members are taking the wrong turn, and they need support to launch initiatives to respond. This is precisely the objective of the new Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund.

Third, there is value in extending the traditional international donor community, in particular to include the private sector. This is not about corporate social responsibility: there is a clear business case. Violent extremism diverts talent, disrupts supply chains, and increases investment risks. The private sector can bring not just resources to the fight, but also local networks and access in affected countries.

What role can the 1 million aid workers and development professionals around the world play in countering violent extremism?

Be vigilant. ISIS and other terrorist groups have demonstrated through their actions that they consider anyone to be a legitimate target. Violent extremism in countries like Somalia and Yemen is already reducing humanitarian space and increasing the risks to aid workers there.

The need for vigilance applies not just to aid workers themselves, but also the communities among whom they work. One of the real concerns about supporting community efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism is that we risk painting a target on the backs of the recipients.

Aid workers can also be vigilant in identifying people at risk of radicalization or recruitment, in schools, hospitals, religious and community gatherings, and prisons. Beyond individuals at risk, aid workers and development practitioners can also be vigilant against the myths and misperceptions that abound within communities. Scapegoating people because of their religion or ethnic group or nationality, or because they are [internally displaced persons] or refugees, not only risks blaming the victims and inciting hate speech and acts, it also risks further marginalizing people and making them more susceptible to recruitment.

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About the author

  • Raj Kumar

    Raj Kumar is the Founding President and Editor-in-Chief at Devex, the media platform for the global development community. He is a media leader and former humanitarian council chair for the World Economic Forum and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. His work has led him to more than 50 countries, where he has had the honor to meet many of the aid workers and development professionals who make up the Devex community. He is the author of the book "The Business of Changing the World," a go-to primer on the ideas, people, and technology disrupting the aid industry.