Author of How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat
To reclaim the ideological battlefield and curb terrorist recruitment, we need strong collective action, specialised programming, and greater focus on our young generations.
In August 2019, European leaders took to Twitter, threatening to block trade between the EU and Brazil if the latter did not act to extinguish the fires raging across the Amazon. Attempting to “guarantee” the rainforest’s protection, leaders admirably refocused the world’s attention on human-led climate change and environmental destruction.
It is vital that we maintain such urgency, and that we also apply it to another threat that is currently burning out of control: extremist ideology. Pernicious “us versus them” thinking is reducing our collective safety and threatening one of the world’s most vital assets: our shared human norms of civility and equality. If the Amazon represents the world’s lungs, as many observers have reflected, extremist ideologies threaten our globe’s metaphorical heart by eroding kindness, compassion, community cohesion, and empathy—the very traits that define our collective humanity.
Nations have coordinated around military activity, intelligence sharing and terrorist finance, but they have failed to address the ideology that enables recruitment to extremist causes. Soft-power initiatives have gone underfunded, and all too often they have been unimaginative, ad hoc and limited in scale. With so much attention paid to the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), other groups like al-Qaeda have managed to regenerate themselves. While on the far right, Neo- Nazis, White Supremacists, Identitarians and others have developed strong global networks.
Technology has further enabled extremist ranks to swell, as most recruits comprise the young demographic of ‘digital natives’ who network and coordinate across the world with astonishing ease.
To reclaim the ideological battlefield and curb terrorist recruitment, governments must take three immediate steps: (1) concentrate multilateral conversations around extremism; (2) pursue a more specialised approach to the ideological war, and (3) focus on the young generations most often targeted for extremist recruitment. Let’s review each of these in turn.
A Real Agenda Item
In wielding soft power, nations have been vague in their requirements, overly broad in their goals, imprecise about metrics and lax in accountability. They have spent undue time repeatedly probing extremism’s ‘root causes’ and attempting to combat the ideological aspects of the extremist threat unilaterally. But most of all, they have attacked the threat in disorganised, uncoordinated ways. No country working alone can execute the necessary programming and real-time initiatives needed to undermine extremist ideology as it is truly global in scope. To reduce extremist recruitment, nations must prioritise soft-power initiatives and collaborate with
one another to implement them effectively. And they must put countering extremist ideology on the agenda at important meetings of heads of state, to ensure that meaningful change actually happens.
Strong collective action has proven successful in reining in a number of global threats in recent years. Leaders at the G8’s 2004 summit responded to the HIV/AIDS epidemic by prioritising scientific challenges, aligning and challenging existing resource allocations, and coordinating product development efforts. Such clear cooperation and metrics have helped produce a dramatic change in this global health scourge. The same holds true for the United Nations, whose 2000 Millennial Summit helped reduce extreme global poverty, decrease the spread of malaria, and achieve gender parity for children enrolled in primary schools.1 As the world reels from wave after wave of hate-fuelled violence, it is time to put the world’s attention squarely on the task of combatting extremist ideology.
If the Amazon represents the world’s lungs, as many observers have reflected, extremist ideologies threaten our globe’s metaphorical heart by eroding kindness, compassion, community cohesion, and empathy—the very traits that define our collective humanity.
Nodes of Specialisation
Nations also have much to gain by cultivating their own, specialised ‘nodes of excellence’ as part of larger, multilateral efforts. To address female recruitment, for example, the United States might produce effective social-media content aimed specifically at teenage girls targeted by neo-Nazis. Indonesia might scale a one-on-one anti-recruitment initiative using former extremists that it has mastered, while Kenya might further enhance an anti-hate school programme that proved especially effective for seventh graders.
Such specialisation would not require governments to relinquish control over their own national anti- extremist programming, but rather fine tune and scale areas of focus across the globe. Allowing a nation or group of nations to ‘own’ a particular tactic and advance it allows them to deliver that tactic more efficiently, effectively and affordably.
For specialised programming to work, governments must understand the global threat landscape in real time, which in turn means that nations must identify and assess every programme devoted to blunting the appeal of extremist ideology. Once in possession of this information, we can create a global spreadsheet or ‘heat map’ tracking extremist ideological activities and their reach and allowing nations to mobilise.2 We can only create such a tool if nations work together and reveal all public, NGO and corporate anti-extremism activities occurring within their borders. While sovereign nations might well desire to protect certain anti-extremist strategies and other intelligence (including failures), such secrecy is no longer viable. This state-of-the-art knowledge-management tool is now a prerequisite to combatting extremism. Without it, individual nations will continue to shoot in the dark, their efforts bereft of rigour and metrics.
Optimising Millennials and Generation Z
To date, nations have classified threats according to the regions in which they appear, building programmes accordingly. This siloed approach to planning does not allow policymakers to fully understand current trends and anticipate new ones, since many of these trends play out along demographic lines, not geographical ones.
While localised differences do exist, the life experiences of sixteen-year-olds in New York, Newcastle and New Delhi share remarkable similarities: their motivations, patterns of socialisation, sources of online provocation, and consumer behaviour converge in fascinating and revealing ways. Since governments do not necessarily collect this demographic data, they should partner with companies and academics that do. Such interdisciplinary partnerships can help develop the kinds of programmes needed to build community resilience, showing school systems, for instance, how to deal with the rise of hate and informing educational policies dedicated to undermining ‘us versus them’ ideologies.
Armies of extremists cannot win if they fail to lure young recruits. Arresting global recruitment among youth means stopping extremism. As a first step, countries must share data and knowledge about their youth so that they can target their counter-extremist efforts at vulnerable age groups across the globe.
As the world reels from wave after wave of hate-fuelled violence, it is time to put the world’s attention squarely on the task of combatting extremist ideology.
Combatting extremist ideology has not received the urgency and focused attention that other important issues have. By reimaging what is possible and developing a more sophisticated approach to extremist ideology, nations can curb this global contagion. But we must act now. If governments fail to coordinate and scale their anti-extremist initiatives, ‘us versus them’ ideologies will continue to spread, weaponising youth across the world. We can expect incidents like those in El Paso, Christchurch, Pittsburgh, and Sri Lanka to increase in frequency and virulence, as extremist networks become even more nimble, coordinated and effective. The invisible toxin of hate may not mobilise the G7 as the fires in the Amazon have done. But hate is just as deadly to global stability and wellbeing. Let’s save our world’s lungs and its heart.