ISIS: Beyond bombs and missiles – a call to mobilize civilian society

What about investing in families over boots on the ground?

What about investing in families over boots on the ground?

The international front against IS, now wholly characterized by air attacks and targeted bombing, is based, as President Obama has stressed, on a broad alliance. But already in these early stages there are concerns that the Arab nations’ participation is only a fig-leaf for a majority of attacks flown ostensibly by Americans.

The shocking images from Syria, Iraq and the border regions of Turkey leave no doubt that action must be taken. It affects us all, it is not (only) a clash of religions, but a barbaric war against humanity, against everything that unites civilized human beings — a belief in equality, dignity and respect. Unquestionably the fabric of this belief is being torn.

Even if in a best case scenario and the entire IS leadership is bombed into oblivion, there will always be a steady stream of willing new generations from all points of the compass, from Europe to Asia that will ensure that ISIS can continue its destructive mission.

We have just returned from Indonesia, a country with the world’s largest Muslim population. We were in the province of East Java to launch a project together with our resident partners to raise awareness among the mothers of families to the dangers of volatile extremism. The project is part of a joint five country effort in Zanzibar, India/Kashmir, Tajikistan, Indonesia and Pakistan.

This time it was manifest: IS has created a new frame of mind among the populace — a feeling of fear, but also determination to combat the danger with all possible means.

Here a telling case from Jember in East Java: at a discussion with the teachers association of the city we meet Hadijah who approaches us after the meeting. She is here because she is searching anywhere she can to find help to save her 14-year-old son. For months he has been obsessed with the idea of a setting off for Yemen to learn about the true form of Islam. Now he fantasizes about jihad in Syria.

Then we met the father, whose attitude demonstrated the complexity of the dynamics in the family. The mother had been sympathetic to Salafism until she realized how the ideology was affecting her son. Still she has been able to maintain a good relationship with her son.

The father has pursued a different strategy; he informed the border patrol of his son’s intentions in order to prevent the son from leaving the country, but now their relations are strained.

We were surprised that within a few days after meeting his mother, the son joined a meeting with us when he had heard that a psychological team was involved. We don’t know what the son expected, but it was clear that he was emotionally ambiguous enough to be willing to take this first step to talk to strangers about his ideas.

This clearly shows that the young troubled people send out signals for help without even being aware.

The mother was participating in our Mothers School program designed to develop self-confidence to recognize early warning signs and take them seriously to break the barrier of silence. The mother ultimately gained enough self-assurance to give a public address to students at the local university. It was clear from the faces of the students that they were impressed and thoughtful

Similar domestic scenes are undoubtedly repeated in many countries across the globe. And the families affected are on their own; they seldom have competent support and are left only with a feeling of humiliation, disillusionment and isolation. The responsible strategists on all levels of government and law enforcement have no comprehensive strategies.

Indonesia has endured numerous terrorist attacks and frequently experiences phases of religious strife and intolerance. An encounter with a victim of the assault on the Marriott Hotel in 2003 raises interesting issues. “I lost my hand and suffered severest burns. Yes, I am a terror victim, but today I know that many terrorists are also victims. They are so often needled and provoked by their peers that they eventually succumb and join in.”

This person now visits terrorists in prisons, convinced that those who openly regret their actions can have a positive effect on radicalized youth.

We also had occasion to speak to a bomber from West Java. He set off a bomb in a church and after he served his prison is now a free man. He wanted to exact revenge on Christians because he had heard that they murder Muslims. He is a Sunnite himself and therefore rejects Shiites “as a matter of course”. He resolutely refused to answer the question of whether he ever thought about his victims and instead picked an argument with the exasperated translator who repeated the question several times using the simplest possible language.

He explains to us the hierarchy of the attack planning: in addition to the masterminds there are those like him who are valuable because of their knowledge of the local terrain. Clearly there exists no reliable terrorist profile, but this man acts as a typical ‘pawn’: compliant personality, thinking in terms of black and white and is easily manipulated.

In Jakarta we met an impressive lone fighter against violent extremism. This young man shared a room in a Muslim boarding school with two Bali bombers. He has remained in contact with the friends from his youth, who became terrorists, and has opened a restaurant that has become a hangout for radicalized youth and ‘formers’ who meet around meals and often speak about alternatives to murder and suicide. Some of them have become permanent members of the staff, cooking or serving food.

Even if USA and their allies have declared war on IS there is an additional tactic in dealing with the problem that has been overlooked: the mobilization of a carefully planned and generously supported social response as the first line of defense. Victories on the battlefield may bring temporary relief, but a sustained and efficient campaign against terrorism has to include civil society.

This is not a pacifist’s plea, rather a warning that military action alone will not solve the problem. Every possible effort must be made to reach families and youths easily susceptible to violent influences, before they become entangled in a highly emotional clash of ideas and ideologies and lose their grip on reality.

The campaign against the delusions and seductive attractiveness of IS must be conducted with all means available; include rule of law, psychology and religious tolerance. The world might be reluctant to march into another war, what about investing in families over boots on the ground?

By Edit Schlaffer, founder and chairwoman of SAVE (Sisters Against Violent Extremism) and Women without Borders, and Ulrich Kropiunigg, Professor at the Medical University of Vienna

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