To Their Excellencies Heads of State or Government,

One of the biggest problems faced by the international policy community in countering violent extremism is the lack of consistency in the understanding of the issue and approach to addressing it. This lack of consistency is clearly evident in many definitions of ‘terrorism’ and ‘violent extremism’ used across the world and the differing criteria allocated to labelling groups and individuals as ‘terrorists’ or ‘extremists’. Added to this, the numerous government departments and the individual counter extremism strategies they respectively employ further complicates the picture, making the global fight against violent extremism one which is fragmented and ineffective. It is safe to say that this is an on-going and global battle which will last for generations to come, but without a universal understanding of the threat and challenges faced, do we know what exactly what our policies are battling against? And are we sure that they are doing it in the right way?

In this memo, we would like to share with you our thoughts on the key challenges faced by the international community in countering terrorism and violent extremism and why we think a new 21st century agenda is needed to ensure that future efforts are successful.

Challenge 1: Lack of universally accepted definitions of ‘terrorism’ and ‘violent extremism’

The first hurdle faced by the international community is knowing exactly what it is trying to counter in the first place. In this, there needs to be globally accepted definitions of the terms ‘terrorism’ and ‘violent extremism’, which are currently far from precise. Both terms can mean exactly the same or two very different things. Their essence can be tactical in nature (seeking to enable terrorist/violent extremist groups or persons to engage with their enemy to make them aware of their continued presence), or strategic (seeking to bring about political and international change in the interest of the terrorist/violent extremist groups or persons). However, neither term has, to date, been defined in a way which is universally accepted. In fact there are over 300 existing definitions for ‘terrorism’ alone and numerous ongoing debates about how any, all or none of these definitions differ from those related to ‘violent extremism’. Likewise there is no consensus about the relationship between religion and violence or indication as to how much of a part religion plays in terrorist or violently extremist acts. To add to the confusion, it can be argued that the numerous definitions of ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’ circulating the globe have led to the international community failing to accurately conceptualise infamous ‘terrorist’ groups, such as Al Qaeda. Without an accurate picture of such groups’ motives and actions, the international community stands no chance in being able to successfully challenge their threats.

Challenge 2:  Lack of clarity around labelling groups and individuals as ‘terrorists’ or ‘violent extremists’

Apart from misunderstanding of the so-called ‘enemy’, this lack of consistency among the international community can pose problems when it comes to differentiating between the terrorist and/or extremist groups and individuals it fights against and those it tolerates. And in fact, following the Arab Uprisings such problems are increasingly occurring. For instance, many groups and individuals previously classified as ‘international terrorists’ are now being praised as ‘leaders’ of the Middle Eastern uprisings and in some cases are even being supported by western governments. A recent example of this is Syria, where the international community is rightly supporting rebel groups opposing dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime. With a lack of control over the final recipients of this support, however, some of it is unintentionally aiding Salafi-Jihadist rebel groups which have dangerous long term goals for the country and region.

Challenge 3: Understanding our own failings

Before we can start to understand who should be and who shouldn’t be supported, however, we need to understand why there has been such a rapid rise in terrorism and violent extremism over the years and why we are in this position in the first place. Key to this is identifying where we, the international community, have gone wrong and understanding how we can learn from the mistakes made when we waged the ‘War on Terror’ in 2001. Perhaps the most obvious error lies in calling it a ‘war’ in the first instance, as the scale of the problem is far from that and the term is not only highly inappropriate but also extremely provocative. Rather than reducing the threat from terrorism and/or violent extremism, it is clear that the ‘war’ unintentionally promoted generalisations of  and marginalised whole Muslim populations,  declaring them  the enemy without any regard for the vast majority of them who have no radical or violent extremist beliefs.  In effect, what the ‘war’ has done is spread the perception that the enemy of the ‘West’ is Islam as a religion and anyone who follows it rather than just the ‘terrorists’ or ‘violent extremists’ who use their own interpretation of Islam to justify jihad. This in turn has served to increase the threat of terrorism or violent extremism across the globe.

Language aside, it is also important to note that the tactics used by the international community underline the sense that its struggle against terrorism and violent extremism is in fact a ‘war’. For instance, the drone policy of the USA – a military tactic – is increasingly being used in ‘terror hotspots’ across the world. USA initiated drones have killed a large number of innocent civilians, as well as claiming to have killed only a handful of ‘terrorists’. But to date, no concrete evidence exists of the drones’ ability to bring about victory for the international community nor is there any established methodology by which to measure such perceived victory.

Towards a new 21st century attitude towards and agenda for countering terrorism

With such pressing challenges being faced by the international community, there is a clear need for a new attitude and agenda towards countering terrorism and violent extremism.

To be successful in its objective, this agenda must be:

1. Be developed by a coalition of governmental and non-governmental stakeholders from across the international community and be inclusive of the invaluable role of society in countering terrorism and violent extremism at the grass-roots level.

2. Able to reflect the critical link between the development and success of the strategy itself and the creation and existence of a robust structure to execute it at the domestic and international levels.

3. Be implemented consistently by governmental, non-governmental and civil society stakeholders across the world and minimise the use of provocative language and military tactics.

4. Focus not only on countering terrorism and extremism through anti-terrorism and anti-extremism strategies but also on those numerous socio-economic factors which influence the rise of extremism and lead to terrorism.

5. Be accompanied by a global shift in attitude so that instead of seeing it as a ‘war’ or a ‘fight’, we can start to understand the real issues underpinning the rapid rise of terrorism and violent extremism across the world.

Such agenda is critical to the international community’s struggle against terrorism and violent extremism and must be developed to ensure that any strategies put in play in the future do not have negative effects amongst already vulnerable populations and do not manage to increase the number of terrorist recruits, as policies and practices of the past have done.

We are grateful to Your Excellencies for taking the time to read our memo – your views will be most welcome and much appreciated.

With highest regards,