TERRORISM: Is it time to ask whether strategies to counter terrorism are the right ones? And what does sustainability have to do with it?

Je Suis Charlie

One of the cartoonists killed in the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices was Jean Cabut, known as Cabu, whom I knew many years ago. His death and that of his colleagues was shocking – because I knew him and for its cold-bloodedness, of course, but also for what it said about the mind-set of the killers. Did they really imagine their act would quench France’s commitment to free speech?

The subsequent Je Suis Charlie demonstrations proved that liberté d’expression is a principle that matters a lot to billions of people, of all faiths and none and that, regardless of the fact that Charlie Hebdo’s humour was not to everyone’s taste, defending its right to publish is the right thing to do.

But as the victims are buried and a defiant ‘survivor’ issue of Charlie Hebdo is published, isn’t it time to ask whether the so-called ‘war on terror’ is any nearer resolution than it was in August 1998. That was when the US launched Operation Infinite Reach to bomb terrorist bases in Afghanistan and a suspect pharmaceutical factory in Sudan in retaliation for bombings of American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Those attacks were in turn a response of terrorists to other perceived injustices.

Despite shows of strength from major democracies resolution seems further off than ever. Osama bin Laden became world famous, terrorist groups proliferated even after his death, and more and more not always poor or uneducated but socially dislocated or alienated young (mostly) men have been recruited, Terrorist leaders carefully exploit the vulnerabilities of potential recruits, the cleverest weaving a compelling story of a higher cause that will relieve the suffering of others with cultural, political and religious traditions to give a sense of purpose and meaning missing from so many young people’s lives today.

Researchers note that many terrorists enjoy intensely the communion in their group. Also, despite the danger, they talk of the feeling of self-worth that comes from seeking revenge for an injustice, from being commended for their bravery (in perpetuity thanks to on-line video), and from watching the reaction of media and governments (the Paris killers did radio interviews while on the run). Louise Richardson, in her 2006 book What Terrorists want, distils the complex motivations of terrorists into three key ones: revenge, renown, reaction. If she is right, then the response of governments around the world to terrorist activities would seem to consolidate rather than disrupt this pattern.

Time, therefore, for a new strategy. One that stops using the word terrorist even? These are criminals – killers – who are using terrorism as a tactic for, presumably, getting power for their ideas. And have they been radicalised? Radical is a good word; it means going to the roots of something, which the Paris killers do not seem to have done. In truth, those who believe violent revenge will secure any desired change are not connected to the profundities of any religion nor the reality of our hugely complex and interrelated world. They are operating at the extremes of a dangerously simplistic good v evil view of the world. Something US Presidents have been known to do too.

Whether the Paris killers were operating as they claimed with a direct line to al-Qaeda or ISIS HQs or were home groomed while in a French jail, Louise Richardson’s 6 rules for counteracting terrorism are helpful. I have added a bit of a sustainability spin to them, as the absence of terrorism as a tactic for righting wrongs, real or perceived, will never be possible without a parallel positive project that deploys collaborative tactics on behalf of the higher cause of social justice:

Have a clear and defensible goal: don’t aim to conquer terrorism or evil, try to catch and convict the killers and those who train and bankroll them. Recruit widely and fairly to the social and environmental reconstruction of localities everywhere. Bankroll that.

Live by your principles: demonstrate the behaviour you want, practice what you preach. Hypocrisy in ‘liberal democracies’ gives extra power to those justifying terrorist tactics. That goes for bankers and polluters as well as prisoner guards.

Know your enemy: end ignorance, build good relationships, find out what the world looks like from other perspectives, respect (better than merely tolerate) differences and try to enjoy them. Compassion for other people and the environment is not a value confined to any one culture.

Intervene in the recruitment process in communities: Offer more appealing options than joining groups wedded to terrorist tactics; undermine the motivation. Help especially young people find a different order and meaning to their lives so they feel good about themselves, their relationships and the places they live in without joining a destructive gang. This is at the heart of what constitutes individual and community well-being. It will mean facing up to the gross inequality and poverty of all kinds of opportunity lived by huge numbers of people – most likely involving a more sophisticated approach to democracy as well.

Engage others to counteract terrorism with you: Make it more attractive to choose other tactics, and more difficult to resort to violence. Seek collaboration around a shared project: economic activity that grows rather than undermines natural, human and social capital can start immediately – anywhere. Anyone can contribute.

Have patience and keep your perspective: Arguably if the US had followed these rules in 1998 the number and impact of groups using terrorist tactics might not have grown. Even so, preventing the use of terror tactics for pursuing any goal is a long term project. One that is inextricably linked to the biggest and most urgent social project of all – that of shifting human activity onto a sustainable trajectory.

We should ask why we don’t talk more openly and freely about that. Not least because already environmental degradation is a far bigger killer than terrorism.