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Combatting Terrorism: Soft Power Approaches

Bedouin protest over the recent terrorist attacks in 2006. Image: John Barker/Flickr

This article was originally published on 20 July 2015 by The Strategist, a blog run by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).

Over a decade of securitised transnational approaches to combatting terrorist activity and propaganda have shown that such approaches are ineffective on their own. Sometimes, these ‘hard power’ measures can actually damage efforts to roll back the appeal and participation in violent extremism.

While such steps may be justified in domestic contexts where threats are critical or imminent, failure to accompany these with robust ‘soft power’ initiatives will prove fatal in the longer-term. If we are to succeed in countering violent extremism, these are some key strategies to invest in:

Target recruiters

Recruiters for terrorist groups are the middle-men and women in the supply chain of violent extremism.

Focusing on remote figureheads can score largely symbolic goals for governments and taskforces, but influential recruiters at grassroots levels are the lynchpin without which ISIS leaders couldn’t marshal the human resources necessary to wage their battles.

Targeting recruiters shouldn’t just be about removing them from circulation—as a securitisation model would propose. It should also aim to undermine their influence with alternatives that speak to the deeper needs and desires of those susceptible to their influence. Those needs and desires are often bound up with sense of belonging, peer approval, feeling important and needed, the desire to live beyond one’s own immediate experience, and the yearning for active participation and contribution to broader social causes and values.

Recruitment takes multiple forms and proceeds along variable timelines and axes of intersecting influence and resistance. Designing tailored strategies that recognise local dynamics, networks and influences is essential.

It’s vital to work with communities to identify, understand the strategies of and disempower locally influential recruiters to nullify their messages and reduce their reach and appeal. Similar approaches have worked well in reducing recruitment to violent youth gangs in the US, for example, through programs like Colorado’s Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives or the NYPD’s diversion and community outreach programs for youth.

Such approaches could yield new knowledge and tactics. In turn, these could help produce new and effective strategies by concentrating on the pivot in the supply chain of violent extremism at grassroots level.

Demystify the ‘special nature’ of violent extremism

Part of violent extremism’s appeal is that it transcends ordinary criminal violence. It’s characterised as a higher form of social action, in which social, religious and ideological power and aspiration combine to reach beyond the norm.

We need to demonstrate that it’s no different from other mundane forms of violence. Stripped of its romanticised trappings as a higher calling, violent extremism should be treated as part of a broad-spectrum campaign against violence of all kinds.

This approach exposes the ordinariness of violence, its consequences and its failure to achieve the promise of social change that lures many young people.

Community, community, community

A weakness in transnational strategies to date has been the tendency of government agencies to focus relationship-building efforts on selected community leaders.

However, young people are increasingly signalling that an older generation of leaders lacks the credibility to work effectively with younger community members to prevent them radicalising.

Trust is the single most important element in brokering successful joint efforts between governments and communities, and as such, it should go well beyond engagement with a relatively small number of community leaders.

A multi-level strategy—one that targets and builds grassroots trust, transparency and engagement as well as cultivating leadership roles and government liaison—is far more likely to succeed than one that is narrowly focused on selected representatives and structures. These structures often exclude women, young people and voices of difference or dissent within communities.

Women are emerging as key players

Programs to counter violent extremism tend to focus on alienated, angry young men and the ways that certain constructs of masculinity and violence may be linked. But women are emerging as influential players—spokespeople, recruiters, enablers and, in some instances, as fighters.

Yet increasing evidence is emerging that complex issues involving power, disenfranchisement and agency for women are being felt in new ways. This raises the question of whether we need to develop more nuanced strategies that focus specifically on the role of gender in preventing the take-up of violent extremism.

Help researchers by sharing key data

Leading counterterrorism researchers have called for greater leverage of research capacity by government agencies involved in countering violent extremism.  They’ve called for a change in agencies’ reluctance to share primary source data that researchers need to contribute effectively to government efforts. As Marc Sageman has noted, intelligence agencies often have the empirical data but not the methodological skills to analyse and interpret the data while researchers have the analytical and methodological skills but frequently lack the data.

A smart strategy would develop security-sensitive ways of giving researchers the key data they need, enabling them to develop large and robust datasets that will lead to stronger analysis and outcomes.

Develop cognitive and emotional skills to deconstruct extremist ideology

In an age awash with information, many young people struggle with the development of critical skills required to sort and evaluate it. Cognitive and emotional skills need to be embedded in the curricula of schools and universities to help equip young people to evaluate and argue against the interpretations of religion, history, politics and identity that are the bread and butter of terrorist recruitment narratives.

In particular, a better understanding of the nexus between cognition and emotion, and developing in young people the understanding and ability to step back and analyse a situation before acting, should be a primary focus of any counter-terrorism strategy.


Michele Grossman is director of the Centre for Cultural Diversity and Wellbeing at Victoria University.

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