Abigail Watson is a researcher at the Legatum Institute.
A recent Daesh video directly addressed David Cameron: “You will lose this war as you lost in Iraq and Afghanistan.” However, the difference between winning this time around will not just be in the quality of our airstrikes but also in the quality of our “social defences”. While the Government has made progress in strengthening these, more work needs to be done.
The 2015 Prosperity Index assessed the vulnerability of societies in the Middle East and North Africa to Daesh. The societies that were deemed most vulnerable had experienced large deterioration in their citizens’ freedom of choice, perception of the job market, levels of worry, employment, strength of social support and economic expectations. These declines increase the chance of vulnerable individuals “slipping through the net,” and can be exploited by Daesh.
The impact of deterioration in these areas is devastating. For example, in Tunisia the massive increases in pessimism towards the economic and employment situation – especially among the young – has been a significant factor in the country experiencing the largest exodus of “holy warriors” in its history. Youth unemployment is at 31.2 per cent, and many young Tunisians interviewed by the New York Times argued that they were tempted to join Daesh because of promises of “social justice”. One argued that the caliphate promises a society “where you don’t have to follow somebody’s orders because he is rich or powerful.”
The same factors encourage Westerners to join Daesh. The group target (especially via social media) those that feel alienated by society and are more likely to be enticed by promises of a better, more egalitarian, caliphate which claims it will give individuals a sense of significance and purpose. It is unsurprising that the profile of Westerners who sympathise, fight and attempt terrorist attacks for Daesh are often those most affected by deterioration in these areas. Most “come from troubled backgrounds, in difficult suburbs with a history of petty crimes and in some cases prison”.
In the UK’s fight against Daesh, these areas must be central. Cameron announced in the House of Commons that the military aspect of British strategy would be no more than “one part of the answer,” and in many areas the Government’s work has seen excellent results. Since 2010, many more people feel optimistic about the economy, more are employed and have a greater freedom of choice. Following massive declines in the number of people believing “Now is a good time to find a job” (which fell to 9 per cent in 2012), 2015 saw it increase to 46 per cent:
However, the Government needs to address increased levels of worry and deteriorating social support. 35 per cent claim they “worried yesterday” in 2015, up from 23 per cent in 2010. Similarly, fewer people have faith in the social support around them. While the number of people believing they can count on others has not changed, the number of those claiming to have “thriving” “supportive relationships” saw a 9 per cent drop between 2013 (32 per cent) to 2014 (23 per cent).
The Government must ensure it provides the social support for vulnerable individuals and stop the continually negative, mass-messaging of them as its counter-narrative to Daesh’s propaganda. Continuing with this method will increase worry and do little to dissuade potential sympathisers.
Daesh spends hundreds of hours creating a personal bond with one individual, allowing them time to “share and refine their grievances,” and promising them adventure and significance with the caliphate. The Government’s counter-narrative must achieve the same personal connection. As a former Daesh imam notes, “the young who came to us were not to be lectured at like witless children; they are for the most part understanding and compassionate, but misguided”. Moreover, the Government must avoid continual negative counter propaganda and instead, as Scott Atran notes, offer the young the chance to achieve their dreams and gain a sense of significance.
As Cameron argued, the recent video shows a group that is desperate and losing ground militarily. However, this is when our “social defences” are most important. We must ensure that Britain continues to work to respond to the isolated and worried so we win the war of hearts and minds as well as the one of hard power.