Will Baldét is a Regional Prevent Coordinator and a Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right.
The threat from Islamist terrorism has evolved in both its complexity and application. Initially relying on spectacle to capture the attention of the world’s media, the degradation of Islamic State has led to a reliance on unsophisticated, self-starter attacks by individuals often inspired, rather than directed, by terrorist groups.
While the violent methodology is continually evolving, there is an underlying factor that remains largely unchanged: an extreme Islamist ideology redefines Islam though its own political prism. Just as the first victims of terrorism are often Muslims themselves, the predominant victims of Islamist extremism will be Muslim-majority countries and the religion of Islam.
Governments have united to push back the military threat from Islamic State, but amidst the carnage of a terrorist massacre it’s easy to forget that terrorism itself is merely a tactic, albeit one with horrific consequences.
Are we confident that enough is being done to tackle the ideology itself, or that Muslim-majority countries, without whom we cannot dispel the Islamist threat, are equally at the forefront of implementing Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) strategies to inoculate communities against the doctrines that underpin global terrorism? I have been involved in the UK’s CVE strategy, Prevent, for over a decade, and I have seen how vital it is to involve Muslim communities on the front line in the fight against Islamist extremism. Yet too often the approach to disengagement and de-radicalisation has been dominated by non-Muslim academics, policy-makers and practitioners.
However, last year I attended the Global Counter Terrorism Forum (GCTF) in Abu Dhabi and its host, the Hedayah Centre based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is arguably the first concerted effort by the global Muslim community to face up to the deeper risks posed by Islamism and recognise its distinction from terrorism.
Tackling an evolving threat requires an equally flexible and adaptable approach, and Hedayah has developed a multi-disciplinary programme that operates across different layers of society. While Islamist extremism is a global problem, it often exploits local grievances, both real and perceived. It is increasingly clear that an effective CVE strategy must be hyper-local; that is, rooted in the very communities at risk from exploitation.
Recognising that governments are not the best actors to operate at this level, Hedayah promotes engagement with other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and communities themselves to bring young people, women, families, and local religious leaders together to include their perspectives in the application of CVE policy and equip them with the knowledge and the tools to counter Islamist narratives.
To complement this grass-roots approach to CVE, Hedayah works with governments to help them build an effective national framework, bringing together relevant sectors and ministries, within which NGOs can operate most effectively. This is crucially important for the ongoing challenge of repatriating returning foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs). Although this is not a new phenomenon, Islamic State fighters are more likely to return in a highly radicalised and indoctrinated state and require careful reintegration back into society once countries are assured they no longer pose a threat. Such efforts require close cooperation between national governments, local municipalities and local NGOs. Hedayah’s approach is to understand the original motivations of individual fighters and utilise this knowledge to develop safe integration strategies.
My own experience has shown me that it is vital to secure the support of Muslim communities in tackling Islamist extremism, and I cannot emphasise enough the existential threat now facing them. These communities are under siege not only from the industrial-scale recruitment efforts of terrorist organisations and the alacritous rise of neo-fascist groups who see Islam as a threat to their own way of life, but also the increasingly invisible and pernicious influence of non-violent Islamist groups.
While our attention must always stay focused on preventing the next terrorist attack, we must also recognise that the difference between the tactics of violent Islamist ideologues, whose aim is to establish a Caliphate and implement their own interpretation of Sharia, and their non-violent counterparts is often one of pragmatism. More initiatives like UAE’s Hedayah Centre, involving not only Muslim communities, but entire Muslim nations and cultures, is the most effective way the world can push back against Islamist extremism.