Can “soft power” defeat terrorism?

There is a lot of talk these days about what approach is best when dealing with radicalisation to violence.  Some advocate harsh state-controlled measures (arrest and incarceration), or even harsher military ones (drone the bastards!) while others tout the intervention model.  Still others are somewhere in between.  Which leaves us with the question we began with: what should we do?

Not surprisingly, the answer is: it depends.  We have learned that there is so much variability in the radicalisation process and that each person elects his or her own path (NB I said “elects” not “is forced down” or “is brainwashed”).  There are so many apparent random occurrences along the way as people and groups come into and go out of any one person’s environment and it is the combination of all these factors, influences and events that lead to each individual’s end state.  Once that is done, there is still the unpredictability of human behaviour and decision making.  We are left then with more questions than answers.

How, given all this, can we render any judgment on what tack to take when confronting radicalisation?  How can anyone baldly state that idea X is the only one?

I was struck yet again by this problem when I read that an Emirati scholar thinks that “soft power” is the answer.  In fairness to Dr. Al-Suwaidi, he does note that this is a “war on multiple fronts” and that no one solution will suffice.  But is soft power worth pursuing?

Again, it depends.  Not all people who venture down the road to radicalisation come to the attention of others – authorities, families, religious leaders, teachers, friends, etc. – at the same point in their journey to violence.  Each person will be at a different stage and hence will need a different set of treatment.  There is no “one size fits all” remedy here.  It is far from clear that a person arrested on the eve of a plot will respond to the same approach as another person who has taken an unhealthy interest in violent jihadi Web sites.

Getting back to soft power, what role if any does it play?  Dr. Al-Suwaidi speaks of “vision” and “dialogue” and “changing attitudes and behaviours”.  These are all noble goals but how do we go about achieving them?  I used to hear a lot on “winning hearts and minds” when I worked in intelligence and government but I never saw any concrete plan to do that.

There is no question that we have to engage in efforts that aim at talking about why the extremist narrative is so appealing to a disturbing number of Muslims.  And we need to talk about all the grievances that keep getting raised as contributing factors.  This puts some ill at ease, especially those in government who are not willing to admit that policies (namely foreign and military ones) do have an effect and do account for some percentage of the radicalisation process.  So let us have these dialogues and allow everyone to have their say so we can come up with a better picture of what is happening.

But there are caveats.  First, as noted, there are instances where the dialogue window closed a long time ago.  In these cases, individuals need to be dealt with using the state’s most onerous tools and communities need to accept this.  Secondly, debating foreign policy is a right and a necessity, but there are ground rules.  You can disagree with any given government position, but you cannot decide that your opposition justifies the use of violence.  Protest, lobby, run for office or throw the bums out – that is all consistent with and supported by our system of governance.  Blowing things up or joining a terrorist group are not.

We have to acknowledge that our strategy will have to encompass multiple avenues.  We must deal with the already violently radicalised in the harshest way possible at times to protect public safety.  And yet if we ever want to get to a point where terrorism is “background noise” – like it used to be – then we need to use many aspects of soft power to eliminate the feed stock of violent extremism by nipping the radicalisation process in the bid or, even better, prevent it from launching.

Soft power is best exercised, as Dr. Al-Suwaidi states, not by governments but by communities – with government assistance where required.  What are we waiting for?


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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