Terrorism and Deradicalization: A perspective from Spain

On the 17th of February, Casa Árabe and Fundación CIDEAL, two Madrid-based institutions, organized an online event titled, “Coexistence and prevention of violent radicalism: Experiences of Interest and Findings from a Developmental Perspective.”

This seminar brought together three of the most important Spain-based researchers that work on terrorism, radicalization, and ways to counter and prevent them: Jesús Nuñez Villaverde, co-director of the Institute of Studies on Conflicts and Humanitarian Action (IECAH); Carola García Calvo, Senior Researcher at the Real Instituto Elcano think tank; and Moussa Bourekba, researcher at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB).

The three speakers talked about the main challenges that prevail when it comes to dealing with radicalism and terrorism, and how to address them specifically. While apparently focused on a European perspective, the three experts talked about perspectives that can also be applied to many situations throughout the world. The main points that they developed were as follows.

Jesús Nuñez: “Solution needs to be considered in political rather than military terms”

Jesús Nuñez builds his thoughts from a long experience of observation. His background is at the crossroads between security-related aspects and a humanitarian approach. According to Nuñez, while terrorism and threats of it are a reality, we should not exaggerate the global impact of these attacks. To keep things in perspective, it is important to consider that a vast majority of terrorist attacks take place in and around South Asia and the MENA region, and that most of the victims are Muslim. On a more positive note, 2020 was the fifth consecutive year that the number of people that died of terrorism in the world decreased.

According to Nuñez, it is also important to look into the structural causes of terrorism. Radicalization is due first and foremost to social, political, and economic causes. From here, there are two possible lines of action that must prevail: preventing radicalism and its causes and strengthening the actions of those that have efficient political and socioeconomic tools in hand. Add to this the importance of strengthening the rule of law: 97% of terrorist attacks happen in countries in active conflict where torture is frequent.

For Nuñez, a solution to the problem needs to be considered in political rather than military terms. If a security-based approach really worked, the Taliban and al-Qaida would no longer be active in Afghanistan.

Carola García Calvo: “Women have a multidimensional reality”

Carola García Calvo first reminded the audience of the important role that women can have when it comes to both countering radicalization and being agents of radicalization in some zones of conflict. In 2014, for example, the Islamic State called on Syrian women to join the organization. Many were receptive to the call and played a growingly active and central role within the organization. In other words, while women are generally associated with peacekeeping efforts, their reality happens to be multidimensional.

But many women do suffer violence and its effects. At the same time, there is a general correlation between violence and radicalization which is why we need to reconsider our way of looking at things. Women can be active and positive drivers for change. In Morocco, for example, some initiatives led on the ground proved that women can raise awareness about radicalization. They can also become negotiators. Add to that the fact that they are very influential figures due to their central role within their own families.

García Calvo agrees with Jesús Nuñez on the political and the socioeconomic roots of radicalism (economic environment, vulnerability of the youth, etc.). She also emphasizes the importance of creating concrete opportunities if we really want to be able to succeed and deviate the youth from the path to radicalism. The same goes for women: making them stronger requires us not only to raise their awareness, but also to provide them real opportunities.

In other words, according to García Calvo, while we have to think long-term and to analyze and better understand the processes of radicalization, it is also important, as the Elcano Institute has put in one of its reports, to be aware of the importance of gender perspectives. They need to be present at the macro (global governance), meso (national), and local levels.

Moussa Bourekba: “Have a bottom-up approach and put the youth at the center”

Moussa Bourekba has been working in the field for years. Part of his work has consisted of interviewing youth in the European Union and the South Mediterranean and to ask them about their future aspirations. According to Bourekba, the global percentage of youth that form part of radical organizations has grown regularly over the years. Furthermore, the average age of the perpetrators of terrorist attacks is between 18 and 30 years old. In Spain, people jailed on terrorism charges are on average less than 31 years old.

Bourekba mentions multiple factors that explain this over-representation of the youth: unemployment, marginalization, lack of concrete perspectives, absence of a feeling of belonging to the nation, and emotional detachment among others. This is why it is important to give the youth opportunities to express themselves and to make their voices heard if we want to avoid ending up in failure.

Bourekba also insists on the fact that since the youth generally don’t trust the government, they tend to reject any counternarrative campaign that emanates from political leaders and their representatives. This is why the involvement of young people in socioeconomic and political perspectives is key.

Finally, Bourekba mentioned two interesting examples of integration and involvement for the youth.  First, was the case of Fatima Zahraa, a 26-year-old Moroccan woman who, back in 2013, had fears for her own safety. She is now involved with an NGO that seeks solutions for young people and tries to turn them into agents of prevention. The second example comes from Tunisia. After the Sousse attacks in 2015, a group of young Tunisians organized a platform to engage the youth and encourage them to participate in operations of prevention. The initiative generated a positive response beyond any initial expectations.

In conclusion, Bourekba insists that initiatives work best when they are bottom-up and when the youth is put at the center. This is how projects become credible and sustainable.

On deradicalization: “Understand dynamics, avoid the usual suspects, and talk to everybody”

How do we reintegrate radicals? According to García Calvo, there are three main ways to proceed: think about the role that prisons can play, base anti-terrorism policies on prevention rather than repression, and put more focus on development and international cooperation. Things may seem to move a bit slowly as we continue to learn more about the processes that lead to radicalization and different ways to overcome them, but great experts do exist and they can help us create effective solutions.

In parallel, looking at perspectives from a political point of view, we must be aware of three things: the importance of understanding the dynamics that prevail at the local level if we want to be able to establish a dialogue with people that feel rejected; the significance of considering projects that are sustainable and consider long-term perspectives; and the need to regularly evaluate progress. Otherwise, none of the efforts deployed will be sufficient.

Bourekba believes there are three main challenges when it comes to improving international cooperation. First is determining how to assess the efforts led in order to prevent violence. Second, how do we avoid working with people that are considered as the “usual suspects”? And finally, how do we reduce the gap between the expectations of the founders and those of the people and structures that receive their support? According to Bourekba, experience proves that while exclusion causes radicalization, the fact that some sponsors want to have their name and/or their intentions appearing officially within initiatives can sometimes be problematic. An efficient approach needs to back the action and projects of the youth without necessarily telling them that this is done in the name of “deradicalization.”

Finally, Nuñez considers education and the creation of employment opportunities to be key elements in aiding reintegration. It is important that we hear not only the youth, but also Islamists. As for development aid, it is not meant to fix the problems that are often created by the same countries that claim that they want to eradicate terrorism. Development aid is a tool meant to back development, nothing else.

To quote this article, please use the following reference:  OCC (2021), “Terrorism and Deradicalization: A perspective from Spain”, https://crisesobservatory.es/terrorism-and-deradicalization-a-perspective-from-spain/

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