Threats Unseen: Why violent extremism must not be forgotten in the New Agenda for Peace

About the author(s):

Erica Harper

Erica Harper is a practitioner-academic specializing in international criminal law, human rights law and post-conflict governance. As Head of Research and Policy Studies, she leads the Geneva Academy’s work on non-state actors, transitional justice, digital technologies and sustainable development. She also works closely with various United Nations Special Rapporteur, as an Advisory Board member at Terre des hommes, and is a fellow at the Leiden University’s Van Vollenhoven Institute.

In March 2023, ISIS (also known at ISIL and daesh) was listed as the world’s most deadly terror group for an eighth consecutive year. This is something we all should be concerned about; but equally worrying — and perhaps even the larger threat — is how quickly and completely the group has fallen off the policy radar.

Indeed, for the best part of a decade, ISIS’ threat was almost inescapable. The group broke ground in online recruitment and propaganda, forced comprehensive changes in domestic security arrangements, and challenged norms around how children are used in military operations.

This was all until, on 9 December 2017, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that its military had liberated the last ISIS-controlled areas along the Syrian border. Just over a year later, on 23 March 2019, the Syrian Defense Forces announced a similar victory, marking the group’s ‘official’ military defeat.

In the months that followed, emphasis shifted to accountability. Iraq started to prosecute detainees under Anti-Terror Law No.14 (2005), and UN mechanisms such as the IIIM started to feed investigation findings to States looking to exercise universal jurisdiction. All the while, European states dodged questions on repatriation, many upgrading or passing new legislation to enable returning foreign fighters to be detained, tried or stripped of their citizenship.

But mostly removed from our news feeds, the ISIS threat was quickly dwarfed by new emergencies, first the Covid-19 pandemic, then the fall of the Afghan government and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. These events’ novelty and potency make it easy to forget how critical a policy issue ISIS was, something even a stagnant UN Security Council could come together on.

While ISIS may be out of sight, it should not fall out of mind. Terrorism experts largely agree that the group is not gone. Instead, it had been pushed underground, and it will likely return — as ISIS or rebranded — stronger and more resilient. The recent findings of two projects run by the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights support this conclusion. Moreover, that this threat concerns States in both the global south and global north, underscoring why policymakers should refocus their attention on the threat of violent extremism.

The war the West forgot: A burgeoning crisis in social cohesion

Since the formation of ISIS in 2013, understanding around what drives extremist engagement has shifted markedly. Early scholarship drew a clear line of causation between religious ideology and extremist goals. It was believed that recruiters worked through online fora and mosques, using religious propaganda to target young, male Muslims, who were either financially impoverished or had little scope for upwards social mobility. Over time, this relationship came to be viewed as more complicated and variable, with religion acting as a proxy or pathway enabler in a majority of cases. Today, experts posit that for many, perhaps even a majority, joining an extremist movement was a reaction, to chronic marginalization, disempowerment, and unmet needs such as group belonging and life purpose.

This reckoning has important implications for the ‘if and when’ of an ISIS revival. Principally, to the extent that joining an extremist group is an act of agency, then eliminating the group is not a complete or permanent solution. Instead, the answer lies in more inclusive and equal societies, with broad access to opportunity and responsive political systems free from nepotism and corruption.

Such changes have arguably not taken place, leaving the principal drivers of extremist engagement still in play. In the Middle East and North Africa, where most ISIS recruits hailed from, perhaps this is not surprising. Youth unemployment, rentierism and authoritarian governance are complicated challenges that have sat at the top of the development agenda for decades. What is more surprising is the situation in the global north, where social cohesion — far from being bolstered — appears to be deteriorating. Europe is a case in point. Here, joining ISIS has been linked to deeply rooted ethnic and religious discrimination, and (as a consequence) education, employment and political systems that rewarded the ‘haves’ and excluded the ‘have nots’. Fast forward to today and indicators of a worsening situation are not difficult to find — immigration is a polarizing issue, the civil society space is shrinking and the election of far-right governments is on the rise.

A new project run by the Geneva Academy on frontier technologies signals that these fissures may be set to widen. It highlights how digital innovation, especially the advent of artificial intelligence (AI), will come with broad reaching externalities. Many of these will be positive, such as productivity gains, new treatments for neurological and mental health disorders, and perhaps even solutions to global challenges such as food insecurity. On the flipside, AI will transform modern economies, by displacing not only blue-collar workers but also educated professionals such as radiographers, teachers, and paralegals. And unlike previous technological waves, where new jobs outweighed lost ones, in the ‘machine intelligence economy’ there will be fewer jobs overall. The WEF’s 2023 Future of Jobs report forecasts this in the order of 14 million net jobs lost in the coming five years.

Such shifts will not only deepen inequality between and within countries, but also change its composition. As power, wealth and resources become concentrated in an ever-smaller group of elite, a large group of disenfranchised may emerge, setting in place the conditions for conflict spillovers and ‘extremity shift’. This hollowing out of the middle class is likely to happen very fast, and will coincide with other challenges to social cohesion such as a redefining of social purpose and a world with reduced human contact. It is precisely these contexts that violent extremist groups seek to exploit; moreover they will be equipped with a new range of AI-enabled tools by which to connect, spread propaganda and coerce. As policy makers work to create a regulatory framework for digital governance, these risks need to be factored into discussions. Specifically, a plan for dealing with unemployment, diminutions in social cohesion and to prevent group polarization needs to prioritized.

From retribution to reintegration

A second reason that policy-makers need to refocus on violent extremism concerns the reintegration of ex-combatants.

In the aftermath of the 2019-2020 offensives that toppled ISIS, captured fighters, supporters and their families were transferred to makeshift camps in Syria and Iraq. At that time these camps held around 240,000 in Iraq and 70,000 in Syria, around half of which were children. Expectations were ripe that trials would expose perpetrators and bring them to justice. As in most cases of protracted mass violence, however, investigations were marred by evidentiary deficits, political bottlenecks and resource constraints. In addition, worsening humanitarian conditions piqued concern that camps were becoming a ‘petri dish’ for extremist reengagement, culminating in pressure for both governments to release and repatriate those not facing legal charge.

In Iraq, where the most information is available, this process has been difficult. There is a strong reticence to return to areas heavily damaged during the fighting and with limited livelihoods prospects. Families with a perceived ISIS affiliation are in the worst position; many are unable to obtain the security clearance needed to access civil documentation, while others are unwilling to undertake tabriya — a prerequisite legal process which involves opening a criminal complaint through which they denounce association with any ISIS-connected relative.

Even then, whether and under what terms an individual will be permitted to re-enter their community is a matter for tribal customary law ¾ a set of powerful, clearly defined norms that operate alongside, and somewhat interlaced with, the secular system. The scale and complexity of the conflict has reduced the efficacy of these mechanisms, in some cases rendering them not fit for purpose. As a result, the success of reintegration varies. Some feel accepted, but most families face stigmatization. A number have been prevented from returning to their houses or their children from attending school. So-called ‘red line’ families ¾ the relatives of individuals believed to have committed murder but who cannot been convicted or are sheltering in another jurisdiction ¾ are at significant risk of revenge violence.

Crafting programming responses to assist reintegrating families has been fraught with difficulty. While leaders may have permitted returns, this should not imply community consensus. Efforts to assist returnees or promote reconciliation would likely aggravate tensions, fueling the perception that the government has failed to deliver justice. The actors that would usually deliver and/or fund reintegration support are also in a difficult position. Rightly or wrongly, reintegration is being negotiated through a lens of tribal law, the norms of which do not consistently reflect human rights-based rule of law standards, for example collective responsibility and the payment of blood money. Supporting customary solutions or turning a blind eye to them — even though this is probably the most efficacious way forward — is not something most donors are willing to entertain. These tensions are diverting attention away from what is arguably the larger problem, namely how the current situation might drive a resurgence of Salafist extremism.

A new publication by the Geneva Academy suggests that these dynamics may extend beyond Iraq and Syria. This work draws on interviews with 120 youth ex-combatants in South Sudan, Colombia, Yemen and Somalia who have, or are in the process of, returning to their communities. For these young adults, concerns focused less on community rejection, discrimination and stigmatization, but instead access to livelihoods, mental health care and protection from revenge attacks. Even more interesting was community leaders’ perspectives on addressing these needs. They spoke of dual challenges. First, a general reticence on the part of government, community-based organizations and international agencies to support individuals who had previously been engaged in violent extremism or non-state armed groups. Second, that even if support was forthcoming, activities targeting returnees would likely attract attention from security forces, leaving the community vulnerable to unwanted oversight and increasing the potential of clashes between state and non-state groups. In short, most leaders felt it better for returnees to lie low and hope for the best.

These insights reveal a bright line between the situation we are trying to avoid and the steps being taken to avoid it. Between academic studies and programming experience, quite a sophisticated understanding exists on the dynamics that drive criminal recidivism and group reattachment. There is strong evidence, for example, that even small disadvantages in education, mental health and cognitive-behavioural skills can have profound consequences for an ex-combatant’s ability to form relationships, navigate life challenges and enter the job market. Extremist groups are likely to capitalise on this by targeting the aggrieved, stigmatized, and those with few attractive life options to (re-)join their ranks.

Simply put, while successful reintegration is in everyone’s best interests, communities are not receiving the support they need to get there. This situation is explainable — investing resources to ‘make life easier’ for individuals who entered into violent extremism lacks any kind of intuitive appeal — but it lacks logic. The reality is that this group’s risk of recidivism is more dangerous relative to others, and this danger spills over onto communities and beyond, amplifying the terror threat globally.

Concluding remarks

Weaving these stories together, we are left with a stark conclusion. State authorities, communities and the international community must come together and forge practical, evidence-based solutions before an extremism resurgence becomes too strong to contain. These solutions need to address both the situation of returnees and their communities, and governance deficits such as youth marginalization, discrimination and exclusion from opportunity. These are precisely the type of interlinked challenges the UN Secretary-General called out in the New Agenda for Peace, and with the Summit of the Future now 12 months away, there is no time to lose.

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