Between November 2015 and April 2016, the world witnessed deadly attacks that claimed the lives of civilians in Paris and Brussels. Kenya also suffered when al Shabaab militants killed dozens of our soldiers at the El-Adde camp in Somalia. Behind all these attacks, one finds young Muslim men and women who have been radicalised, recruited, trained and deployed to carry out terrorist activities in the name of their religion.
I have always advocated a soft-power approach to counter the narratives adopted by extremist groups to lure young people into militancy. Soft power is different from hard power where the coercive instruments of the state are deployed to fight extremism.
Soft power requires collaboration between civil society and the persuasive instruments of the government to design a mutually beneficial strategy to stop young people from being recruited into violent extremism and to persuade those who have already been recruited to abandon their antisocial activities and return to peaceful society.
We need to adopt a national counter-violent extremism (CVE) strategy that addresses the issues that make violent extremism attractive to many young people. And we should caution against possible extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances and profiling of members of certain communities. A successful national CVE strategy aimed at undermining violent extremists narratives requires a well-articulated counter-narrative system.
Why? Because those who recruit have done their homework and identified real challenges that face communities across the world. They then assemble a compelling narrative that very few youth can resist. CVE stakeholders often mistakenly think religion is the main motive of the young people who carry out attacks.
But the profiles of the attackers reveal they are usually not religious at all. The mastermind of the Paris attacks, for example, was known to be a ‘party animal’ who did drugs and had hardly any knowledge of the Koran.
What did the recruiters of the Paris attackers do in a very short time to convert such a person into a ‘devout’ militant ready to die for his faith? The brains behind violent extremist propaganda have created eight compelling narratives laced with religious sentiments.
These include what they consider as unfair exploitation of economic resources belonging to Muslims; double standards exhibited by the international community when dealing with politics and governance in the Muslim world; wars waged in Muslim countries; the unresolved Israeli- Palestinian conflict; Western imperialism; humiliation of the Muslim societies; and infiltration of the Muslim value system.
Messages from extremist groups through various media channels reveal that they are more concerned with the socioeconomic and political issues that afflict Muslims than the desire to propagate Islam. In fact, the extremists only cite religious texts to justify their cause.
Unfortunately most of us in the CVE agenda confine ourselves to responding to the spiritual narrative instead of responding to the socio-economic and political issues that the extremists are talking about. We miss the point while the violent extremists are scoring points with the youth because their message resonates with their real challenges.