Known unknowns and the fight against violent extremism

2016-02-18

The question ‘can violent extremism be prevented?’ was a ‘fairly challenging proposition,’ Australia’s Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism Miles Armitage conceded at a seminar this week at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), which asked exactly that.

The question took one into the realm of Rumsfeldian logic, Armitage said. He was referring, of course, to former United States secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld’s famous reply in February 2002, when asked about the lack of evidence linking the government of Iraq with the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups. 

There were ‘known knowns … things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns, things we know we do not know,’ he said. ‘But there are also unknown unknowns; the ones we don’t know we don’t know,’ he added. These last were the difficult questions. Armitage suggested the ISS seminar topic ‘Can violent extremism be prevented?’ belonged to Rumsfeld’s second category, of ‘known unknowns.’ Nevertheless, Armitage then went on to suggest that there would always be some minority support for some form of violent extremism.

So, rather than fixating on whether the scourge could be eliminated absolutely, one should rather just focus on trying to prevent and counter it.  

Does Rumsfeld’s epistemology provide a useful framework for examining violent extremism? Certainly Armitage and ISS senior researcher Anneli Botha went on to describe what one would think are ‘known knowns’ in this field. One is that preventing radicalisation of vulnerable people is clearly better than trying to cure those already radicalised and recruited into violent extremist groups.

Relative deprivation is a bigger driver of radicalisation than pure poverty

Armitage spoke of al-Qaeda very much in the past tense, saying its core capabilities had been downgraded and the threat it posed greatly diminished by intelligence and law enforcement.

Now, in addition to more efficient security strategies, the international community also had to do much better in countering the ‘poisonous ideology,’ of the Islamic State (ISIS), which has been penetrating ever deeper and wider into society, to much younger people, through slick propaganda efficiently delivered by social media. Countries had to counter this by promoting social cohesion and community resilience.

‘We need to address the legitimate grievances of the marginalised and excluded. We need to contest the extremist narrative, promote alternative messages,’ said Armitage.

He noted that this was starting to happen globally, citing the White House’s Countering Violent Extremism process launched last year, and now more recent the launch of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Action Plan for Preventing Violent Extremism.

Botha provided useful nuances to these broad prescriptions, much of it derived from her ground-breaking research on violent extremist groups in Africa, including interviews with members of al-Shabaab and other groups in Kenya and Somalia.

She emphasised the importance of the particular rather than the general, the way peculiar regional, national, religious, familial and personal attributes of organisations and individuals drove them to violent extremism. She did, however, offer three common drivers. First she noted how ‘relative deprivation’ – the sense that one was being marginalised compared to others in one’s society on unjust grounds – was a bigger driver of radicalisation than pure poverty.

If we removed all past grievances, would the world be free of violent extremism?

Police brutality against certain groups was a second big cause of radicalisation, she said, referring particularly to the way the Nigerian violent jihadist group Boko Haram had been propelled to greater violence by the assassination of its founding leader, Mohammed Yusuf, by Nigerian security forces. And thirdly, Botha identified corruption as another important driver of radicalisation, stressing more broadly the importance of good governance in countering and preventing extremism.

But even these preventative measures, though they seem like common sense, may in fact still be ‘known unknowns’ as the task of countering terrorism is still in its infancy. It’s an educated guess, for example, that greater social cohesion will counter, not increase radicalisation. And even if we assume that addressing socio-economic deprivation and promoting social inclusion are helpful, we don’t know how far they might go in preventing radicalisation.

Armitage described how surprised Australia had been by the extent of its foreign fighter problem, with about 110 Australians now fighting in Syria and Iraq for the likes of ISIS, and another 190 in Australia under investigation for supporting it. Over the past four years, Australia had about five times the number of foreign fighters than it did during the previous 25 years, when about 30 had gone off to fight in Afghanistan, he said.

Australia is a wealthy country, and it would seem that most of those fighters didn’t come from deprived backgrounds, though perhaps Botha’s notion of relative deprivation might come into play. Perhaps also Muslims don’t feel entirely included in wider Australian society, though it must be said that the country makes a conscious and concerted effort to foster its policy of ‘multiculturalism.’

Preventing violent extremism is a luxury for those not in Daesh’s crosshairs

Another known unknown is whether Canberra’s geo-political stance might partly explain the surprisingly high number of Australian foreign fighters.

Australia is an active member of the international coalition against ISIS, participating in airstrikes against its positions in Iraq. Armitage concedes that such geo-political issues might be a driver of radicalisation, though not a major one.

He says that some young Muslims in Australia have asked his colleagues; if Australia has the ability to take out ISIS, ‘why don’t you take out the Assad regime?’. And for al-Qaeda, the issue of Palestine is obviously a driver (among international issues).

Armitage added, ‘[But] I think it’s also fair to say that if we were to remove all the conflict in the world, if we were to remove all these grievances from the past, would we be living in a world free of violent extremism? I don’t think so. They are a factor but I don’t think we should over-emphasise that.

‘I think the Australian fighters were going at quite a fast rate before Australia joined the coalition and begun the air strikes in Iraq. So I think the correlation between those is not well established. But it’s difficult to generalise. In some places those factors probably are more significant.’

The flip side of this known unknown, of course, is whether non-participation in the anti-ISIS coalition – and indeed quite vociferous criticism of, say, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and of Western militarism in the Middle East – provides any sort of immunity to violent extremism.

This appears to be the thinking of some in the South Africa establishment. Armitage cautioned against such complacency, saying ‘no one is totally immune.’ South Africa had many strengths; being a democratic and open society and a competitive economy ‘has been very helpful in terms of building that immunity and acting as a form of inoculation.’ But in an era of lone wolf attacks, of individuals being radicalised and inspired by ISIS, maybe just by surfing the Internet in their bedrooms, it was hard to be certain of safety, he suggested.

The view that the US itself created ISIS is apparently widely held

Using the Arab term for ISIS, he said analysts had described a spectrum of influence of the organisation on individuals – ‘Daesh-inspired, Daesh-enabled and Daesh-directed,’ covering the range from exhortation and encouragement and inspiration on one side to direction and instruction on the other. Across that spectrum, it was hard to be sure that South Africa was not vulnerable.

Ultimately, the question whether or not participation in the fight against ISIS inoculates a country from attack is an academic one. 

At the point where violent extremism is overrunning large swathes of Iraq and Syria, leaving mounds of headless bodies in its wake, whether to fight and destroy it is not a preventive option but an existential necessity – and a global responsibility.

Prevention, then, becomes a luxury for those not in Daesh’s crosshairs.

Some people are undoubtedly beyond the reach of sociology, morality and reason. They are killers in search of a cause. That might be called an ‘unknown known,’ something we instinctively sense but don’t care to admit.

And what about Rumsfeld’s ‘unknown unknowns’? One might say that one of the great unknown unknowns when he was speaking in 2002 was the future emergence of ISIS, as a jihadist group even more violent and extremist than al-Qaeda. What about: did the United States itself create ISIS, to undermine and control certain Middle East states, especially those opposing Israel? That view is apparently widely held, even high up, in the Arab world, especially Iraq.

Although the US presumably did not deliberately create ISIS, only Rumsfeld himself, and a very few others, could tell us for sure whether that is in fact a known known. Otherwise it will have to be placed, like Rumsfeld’s own belief that Saddam Hussein was supplying terrorists with nuclear weapons, in a new category, the ‘known unknowables’ – fantasies we claim to believe because they serve our purposes.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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