When you make the wrong assumptions you make the wrong decisions

Sometimes you read something in the news that leaves you shaking your head.  Here is an example. The government of Nepal has banned pornography – again – in order to, wait for it, ban rape.  To this end,  it has added harsh fines or prison sentences for internet service providers who refuse to comply with the order.

I am going to venture that this is not a good solution.  Not only will it be impossible to take down all the porn sites but I am pretty sure that rape existed before the Internet and will survive its demise, alas.  This strikes me as a poor, if not laughable, analysis of cause and effect.

I am sorry to say that the same questionable nostrums exist in efforts to stop terrorism.

I have just come back from a week in Europe on a speaking tour of Belgium, Switzerland and Germany thanks to Global Affairs Canada (GAC).  The sojourn was packed with presentations on violent extremism, Islamist terrorism and what to do about it.  I met some wonderful, passionate people  working on a variety of levels in what has been called Countering (or Preventing) Violent Extremism (CVE/PVE).  Over the course of the week I was asked to share my views on these issues and efforts based on my experiences at CSIS and in outreach activities at Public Safety Canada.  And a busy week it was: I delivered eight presentations in four cities over three days.

As I have long experienced, there are a wide variety of approaches to CVE/PVE around the world.  Some are locally-driven community programmes, others are top-down state ones and still others are somewhere in between.  All have interesting ideas and ways of defining – and addressing – the problem.  Those that work in this field are to be congratulated for caring and sincerely wanting to reduce the number of our citizens who go down the path to violent radicalisation.

There is, however, a problem with many, if not all, of the approaches I have examined or been privy to over the years.  That problem lies in the assumptions made as to why people radicalise to violence.  These assumptions often if not always dictate the approach adopted.  And these assumptions are often wrong.  Allow me to explain.

I cannot count how many times I have heard the following: “Citizens who gravitate to violent extremism are alienated (or disenfranchised or marginalised or socially excluded or…) members of our society.”  If true we can address these feelings of not belonging and if we do so successfully we will reduce the incidence of violent radicalisation and extremism.  Seems simple , right?

Except it is not true, at least not always and, at least in Canada based on my experience, seldom true.

If we assume that factor X is responsible and thus ensure that treating factor X is at the centre of our PVE or CVE efforts, and factor X is not at play, these efforts will be all for nought.   If you assume that marginalisation leads to terrorism you won’t go looking for the next terrorist among the fully functioning members of society, will you?  And yet many terrorists are fully functioning members of society.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am fully aware that there are violent extremists who live at the margins of our societies and that dealing with social exclusion, etc. is a good idea anyway, irrespective of its effect on violent extremism.  Who in heaven’s name would NOT want a fully integrated, happy, contributing populace?  But even in cases where extremists exhibit behaviours or attitudes consistent with social exclusion, etc., is that THE factor and will “treating” it be sufficient?  I think we are nowhere near answering that question.

So when we look at what to do we need to re-examine – constantly – our assumptions.  Radicalisation to violence is complicated and individualised and ways to combat it need to be equally individualised.  Like the Nepalese approach to getting rid of pornography, we can get caught up doing a lot of ineffective things.

In closing I am pretty sure I have mentioned on occasion that I love Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  In that novel people create a computer to answer the question of life, the universe and everything.  After millions of years of thinking about it, the forthcoming answer is: 42.  The computer challenged its programmers to come up with what the real question was in the first place and they create the Earth as a living experiment to come up with that question.  As it turns out, the real question was: what is 9 X 6? (Hint: it is NOT 42).

Perhaps we are still asking the wrong questions.

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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