A new piece as part of a Room for Debate conversation on the New York Times opinion pages. This one looking at the phenomenon of radicalisation in the west and how to counter it. Honoured to be in the company of friends and distinguished academics on the topic. The surge in attention around Brits in Syria and Iraq has led to a spike in media requests and conversations, including the New York Times, Economist, Voice of America, Los Angeles Times, AFP, and Press Association among others. I also spoke to Voice of America about the Shanghai Cooperation Organization counter-terror ‘Peace Mission’ exercise last week as well as USA Today about the China’s attempt to use the new Silk Road Economic Belt to ameliorate the situation in Xinjiang.
British nationals (and many from other Western countries) have been a feature of jihadist battlefields for almost two decades. Some are drawn for idealistic reasons – going to fight for a cause, defend a people, or for some religious vision. Others go for more prosaic reasons, fleeing trouble at home, or seeking redemption for a criminal past. And yet others are simply young people at a juncture in their lives where the idea of going to run around a training camp and shooting guns seems quite appealing.
Countering this complicated mix of motivations is difficult. Part of it is developing programs that give people alternatives in their lives. These are not dissimilar to programs to help dissuade people from being drawn to gang culture. Part of it is also countering the spread of ideas in communities. While the Internet and social media play a role in drawing people to think about Syria and Iraq and find ways of getting there, it is often through real-world interactions that they will meet individuals who help provide the push, contacts or motivations to actually go to fight. Communities need to reject such people, but in addition, alternative pillars within society need to be developed to provide voice to credible alternative narratives.
A great deal of pressure is often put on communities within this context – the expectation is that they will somehow police themselves and this will resolve the problem. But at the same time, the reality is that sometimes people within communities simply do not know what they are dealing with. Families find themselves dealing with children or siblings who are becoming drawn to ideas, but it is difficult to know whether they are being drawn to dangerous ideas or simply going through a phase.
A partial answer to this problem can be found in a program initially developed in Germany, now being introduced in Britain, where a special hotline is established within communities and provides people with a place to ask questions without having to resort to the authorities. Creating spaces in which people can ask about what they should do if a relation is starting to flirt with radical ideas, without actually having to report it to the police, offers a moment at which an intervention could be made. This is something that will be more appealing to people within communities who are fearful of destroying someone’s life by reporting something innocuous to the police.
Ultimately, the phenomenon of young Britons (or Westerners more generally) being drawn to Syria and Iraq is not one that is going to be resolved overnight. There will ultimately be no longterm solution to this problem until the respective civil conflicts in Syria and Iraq are drawn to some definitive conclusion. This will involve creative diplomacy and bolstering of regional allies, as well as a recrafting of the current status quo across the broader Middle East. But until this happens, the battlefields will continue to be a draw to a certain community of young Westerners seeking adventure, meaning and ideals.