A fresh approach to countering radicalism – from an unexpected source

Ellie B. Hearne, a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, writes about Google Ideas' Summit Against Violent Extremism.

Ellie B. Hearne is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in New Delhi

With much buzz around the growing popularity of “soft” counter-terrorism of late – including the government’s recently revised Prevent strategy, written about here by George Readings – and the meteoric rise of social media in international relations, it was only a matter of time before someone combined the two.

However, the source of that new nexus has surprised a few. Google Ideas, the search engine’s new “think-and-do-tank” launched last year, has kicked off its first project in Dublin this week, with a Summit Against Violent Extremism (SAVE).

Like many programmes geared towards countering radicalisation, Google’s project brings together what it terms “formers” – former terrorists and reformed violent extremists – with academics, survivors, victims’ groups, and government figures, to begin dialogue on lessons learned and possible strategies for the future.

It’s an admirable goal, and Google’s power to harness technology for good is hard to rival. (Indeed, however one feels about the rapid growth of this company, their work on flu trends and tracking deforestation, inter alia, are excellent examples of good work achieved through new technology.)

However, questions about the company’s true aims have plagued the initiative. Its executive chair, Eric Schmidt, told the Toronto Star:

“Maybe Google has a little extra time to try to encourage a discussion about important problems… The best thing for us as a business to do is absolutely nothing. If we do absolutely nothing, we don’t get criticised.”

Despite the dissenters, the company and those who gathered in Dublin remain undeterred.

Moves towards tackling terrorism preventively and holistically have been gaining prominence for some time – and in circles beyond the private sector. Even without the internet giant’s involvement, so-called “de-radicalisation” programmes have become increasingly popular in a number of countries.

In Algeria, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, measures adopted under this label include:

• Dialogues with religious figures;

• Provision of education and vocational training;

• Involvement of families and communities in supporting individuals’ transitions away from extremism;

• Counselling;

• Contact with victims of terrorism; and even

• The arrangement of marriages, to provide stability where terrorist groups might otherwise step in.

Similar programmes were launched in the 1990s in Northern Europe to help white supremacists and other extremists “exit” or “disengage” from violence. In the UK today, the government hopes to challenge extreme ideologies through providing support to “vulnerable people” and working with key sectors, like the internet.

What Google proposes is, as is their wont, somewhat novel. By using their convening power, they have brought together around 250 guests deemed qualified to contribute to finding solutions to the problem of extremist violence, and using the search engine’s reach, will build “teams of stakeholders with different resources and perspectives to troubleshoot challenges”.

With the relative lack of a strong British national identity (but plenty of strong identities within our shores – Scottish, English, Welsh, Northern Irish, etc.), extremist groups are able to appeal to youths in particular by urging them to adopt or glorify new, more extreme brands of their identities or religions. While “de-radicalisation” programmes have been mixed in their successes, any measures to counter this negative influence should surely be embraced.

Conference organiser and head of Google Ideas Jared Cohen has emphasised the need to involve youth in this process, since more than half the world’s population is aged under thirty.

Indeed, as former Hizb-ut-Tahrir member Ed Husain memorably wrote in his memoirs:

“Today, across the world, I believe there are tens of thousands of people in this position [of being partially radicalised]. They harbour a confrontational worldview, but are not actively involved in the world of the Islamist movement.

“However, a cataclysmic event would bring these people, along with new recruits, back to the organisational front line.”

Statements like these, of which there were plenty in Dublin this week, bring home the importance of using all means possible to counter radicalisation. And all the better if those means are respectful of civil liberties, appeal to many demographics, and are representative of partnerships across government, civil society, the private sector, and the public alike.

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