I’m quoted in this excellent Radio Four documentary on the use of social media by violent extremist groups, such as ISIS.

For too long, the big technology companies have thrown tiny bits of money at the problem as a cover for inactivity and apathy. Experience shows that when they are faced with deep pockets (copyright infringement) or public anger (indecent child images) they manage to get things done.

I’ve written about this at length in this report, too, co-authored by Tanya Silverman.

Less talk, more action. Our young people deserve better from us.

I have just finished reading an important book by Gabrielle Rifkind and Giandomenico Picco called The Fog of Peace: The human face of conflict resolution. It is of course a riff on Robert McNamara’s documentary: The Fog of War: Eleven lessons from the Life of Robert S McNamara, in which he talks about how the US failed in Vietnam because they did not understand the culture and history of the Vietnamese people. 

The book seeks to demonstrate how foggy and complex the art of making peace can be; without empathy each side cannot understand the other and therefore falls back on stereotypes and feelings of superiority that stand in the way of relationships developing that can end conflict and build peace. 

This quote from the introduction chimes so closely with my own view of foreign policy, formed after working in and around issues of foreign and security policy since the late 1990s. What I have seen is a game of chess played by clever men in capital cities around the world, based on their own logic which is highly partial and limited, and with little real appreciation for the lived realities of the impacts of their decisions and therefore an often careless and smug approach to understand the interests of the different parties around the table. Having been through the trauma of having a family member kidnapped – and now spending my days supporting other families through that – you get an altogether different and more realistic understanding of what conflict is. It looks and feels different when it is in your own living room. 

So here is the quote:

“Politics and international conflict are usually examined through the lens of realpolitik, which is primarily about power involving ‘the rational evalution and realistic assessment of the options available to one’s own group and to an opposing one’. The chess games of power relationships are dominated by the desires of elite groups to shape the world according to their own best interests, which operate in the world of economic and military calculations, strategic options and political alliances and alignments. But it is the belief of the authors that conflict is most likely to be resolved when you also place the geopolitical complexity in a bed of human relationships. Suffering humiliation and powerlessness are the conditions in which groups are more likely to resort to violence. Respect, treating people with dignity and inclusive politics that give groups and communities access to resources and influence over their lives are more likely to induce behaviour that is not destructive. We are most likely to understand more about the smell of politics and human behaviour if we start at the kitchen table.”

They go onto quote Hans Blix who says that peaceful relations between states ‘can and must be practiced both at the conference table and the kitchen table’.

They argue that human motivation and psychology need to be part of strategic decision making because it is man who both makes wars and makes peace, so you must understand what drives him to make one decision or the other. It is just as likely to be emotional as ‘rationale’. 

There are some lovely quotes about the importance of putting yourself into the shoes of the ‘other’:

“If we had been born where they had been born, and taught what they were taught, we would believe what they believe” Abraham Lincoln

“We must put ourselves inside their skin and look at ourselves through their eyes, just to understand the thoughts that lie behind their decisions and their actions” Robert McNamara

And finally, an important quote that somehow seems to offer the backdrop to my professional career, which has been dominated by the war on terror:

“The shadow of the ‘enemy’ seemed to be omnipresent, as if humankind could not exist without it. I then realized it is not humankind that cannot exist without it but only leaders who cannot lead without and enemy.”

I cannot recommend this book highl enough. 

I’m quoted in this week’s Economist talking about the need to enhance resources for disengagement and de-radicalisation programmes for those returning from Syria. The contrast with other European countries, such as Germany, Denmark and Sweden, is stark – and we need to catch up quick.

I’ve written about this at more length for HuffPo.

I was quoted in a piece for Canadian media outlet CBC on 3 November, talking about the need for structured and well financed de-radicalisation, disengagement and exit programmes. Those who want to leave violent extremist groups are ‘low hanging fruit’ – they want out, we need to help them out to ensure they don’t end up back in the hands of a fresh set of recruiters. We can either help them, or have them remain a threat to our safety.

Here is a link to the article by Andre Mayer.

There are growing reports that British jihadis fighting in Syria want to come home; it has been claimed that dozens are trapped in Syria unable to leave, and up to 100 are stranded in Turkey having made it out of Syria, but worried or unable to come back to the UK.

This should be no surprise.

Many will be scared for their safety; British jihadis are now being killed at a rate of one every three weeks. The latest fatality was reported this weekend; Muhammad Mehdi Hassan from Portsmouth was just 19 years old and had travelled to Syria with a group of friends. Of the six that went, four are now dead, one remains in Syria and one is in prison in the UK.

Others will be disillusioned. The actions of ISIS – including the horrific murder of four western hostages – paint a picture of a group of blood thirsty, evil barbarians. This is undoubtedly true of many, for whom legal redress feels like a wholly inadequate way of achieving justice for their victims.

There will also be a sizeable minority fighting with ISIS who did not sign up for this kind of terror. Some will have gone there originally on humanitarian grounds and been radicalized along the way. Others will have joined the struggle against Assad, but now find themselves fighting fellow Muslims and murdering innocent people, including women and children.

There will even be those who went explicitly to join ISIS but are appalled by the depths of depravity to which the organization sinks.

Given the truly heinous actions of ISIS, it is not surprising that the UK government’s response to the rise of British foreign fighters has been so firm and resolute, looking to ban them from returning to the UK, prosecute those who do come back, and even considering the use of treason laws for the most extreme cases.

While those guilty of crimes must be held accountable, this blanket response misses important opportunities that could strengthen -not weaken – national security.

First, those that return are likely to offer intelligence and insight to improve our understanding of ISIS, a group that has so far out-paced security experts at every turn.

Second, refusing re-entry to scared and disillusioned ISIS members is likely to make enemies of them for life. The testimonies of former violent extremists point to the uncomfortable truth that for many, unexpected acts of kindness from government officials created a chink of doubt that was part of their de-radicalisation process. We should be competing for their loyalty, not leaving them to fall into the hands of yet another set of violent extremist recruiters.

Third, what is more effective in countering ISIS propaganda than a returned foreign fighter who has seen the error of their ways and can speak to the horrors of what ISIS is doing? As the former head of counter-terrorism at MI6 said, “Many of the people who have been most successful in undermining the terrorist narrative are themselves ex-extremists,” adding that they can “explain why going abroad to fight is a very bad idea”. The success of networks such as Against Violent Extremism (AVE) underlines this point.

The UK government needs to add two new elements to its policy to tackle foreign fighters and the rise of ISIS.

First, it should establish a clearing house near the Syrian border in Turkey to process and return home scared and disillusioned British jihadis. Most will be trapped, having had their passports, mobile phones and credit cards confiscated by ISIS.

In support of this effort, it should run an information campaign within Syria to inform British ISIS members of their return options. This does not mean letting criminals off the hook; those guilty of crimes must be prosecuted on their return. But balanced messaging might just convince some to return home to face justice, rather than opt for a life on the run with a terrorist organization.

Second, the government should set up a national EXIT programme, similar to those operating in Denmark, Sweden and Germany. The Channel Programme targets individuals in the pre-criminal space, but needs to be complemented by a national programme aimed at those who have been radicalized and recruited and want to leave terrorist or violent extremist movement.

Such a scheme should offer a wider range of services than Channel, such as support for post-traumatic stress disorder, medical treatment for physical injuries sustained on the battlefield, de-radicalisation sessions, as well as help reintegrating into the family and wider community and access to education, employment and training.

It should also offer advice and guidance to the parents of foreign fighters, many of whom remain in contact with their children via phone, email or social media channels. In these exchanges, they become de-facto negotiators, desperately trying to keep lines of communication open and hoping to convince their son or daughter to come home. There is already evidence pointing to the effectiveness of these programmes.

The situation in Syria is heartbreaking on every level; innocent lives lost, tortured or brutalized; the destruction of a once thriving middle income country; the corruption of a faith; young people drawn to ISIS’s perverse ideology; and the knock-on impact of instability across the wider region. And as events last week in Canada remind us, there is also the risk of the threat coming home to the UK.

The government is right to take a firm stand against ISIS and those who fight in its ranks or support from the sidelines. But we need to face facts: we cannot stop British jihadis returning home; we cannot arrest our way out of the problem; and we do not have the resources to mount surveillance operations against all returning foreign fighters.

Instead, we need a more nuanced approach to deal with the different levels of threat. Arrest and prosecute those who have committed a crime and set an example of those guilty of the most heinous offences. Work proactively to bring back those who are scared and disillusioned, so they come back with us and on our terms. Turn the stories of returned foreign fighters into ammunition against ISIS. And offer those capable of reintegration the support they and their families need to get back on their feet and become productive members of society.

Tough measures are reassuring in the face of a threat such as ISIS. But they usually obscure the most promising opportunities to enhance our national security in the long-term.

This article was originally posted on Huffington Post on 27 October 2014.

Events over the past week have offered a sobering reminder of the risks to journalists around the world. They started with the murder of James Foley in Syria, the video of which closed with a threat to the life of fellow journalist and hostage, Steven Sotloff. Our spirits were raised somewhat yesterday with the news that Theo Curtis, held since 2012 by Al Nusra, had been freed. But scores of other journalists remain captives around the world; in the last year alone, there has been a 129 per cent increase in the number of journalists kidnapped worldwide.

Security risks for journalists

The latest figures from Reporters Without Borders show the whole picture of violence and security risks facing journalists. This is what 2013 looked like globally:

  • 71 journalists were killed
  • 826 journalists were arrested
  • 2160 journalists were threatened or physically attacked
  • 87 journalists were kidnapped
  • 77 journalists fled their country
  • 6 media assistants were killed
  • 39 netizens and citizen-journalists were killed
  • 127 bloggers and netizens were arrested
  • 178 journalists are held in prison

The regions with the most number of journalists killed in connection with their work were Asia (24) and the Middle East and North Africa (23). 39 per cent of these deaths occurred in conflict zones – Syria, Somalia, Mali, the Indian province of Chhattisgah, the Pakistani province of Balochistan and the Russian republic of Dagestan.

The five deadliest countries for the media were Syria, Somalia, Pakistan, India and the Philippines.

The overwhelming majority of victims were men (96%) and there was an even spread between print, radio and TV journalists.

Security risks for aid workers

Journalists are not alone in facing a sharp rise in security risks around the world. Last week, Humanitarian Outcomes published its annual Aid Worker Security Report. It made for sobering reading; 2013 set a new record for violence against civilian aid workers, with 251 separate attacks affecting 460 aid workers.  This is what 2013 looked like for the humanitarian community:

  • 155 aid workers were killed
  • 171 aid workers were seriously wounded
  • 134 aid workers were kidnapped

Like journalists, the threat to aid workers is increasing at an alarming rate; in the decade since 2003, the number of aid workers killed has increased by 78 per cent, injured by 249 per cent, and the number kidnapped has grown by a staggering 1814 per cent from 7 to 134 last year.

Violence against aid workers occurred in 30 countries, but three quarters of all attacks took place in just five settings: Afghanistan, Syria, South Sudan, Pakistan, and Sudan. Somalia finds itself outside the top five for the first time in many years, but the reduction of incidents in the country is a result not of growing stability, but because the situation has become so bad. 2013 saw the wholesale withdrawal of Medicins Sans Frontieres from Somalia after 22 years of operating there.

Most victims (87 per cent) were local staffers, but international personnel who account for approximately 8 per cent of humanitarian staff in the field were overrepresented as 13 per cent of victims.

The security challenge for media and aid organisations

It is obvious that journalists and aid workers – who for many years enjoyed safe passage through conflict zones – no longer enjoy these privileges in some places. The people of countries, such as Syria, Pakistan and South Sudan need their help more than ever, but they are less able to perform their vital roles.

It is imperative that organisations sending local or international staff and freelancers to such places enact the necessary security measures needed to keep their people as safe as possible. Reporters Without Borders is lobbying the UN to amend Article 8 of the International Criminal Court’s statute amended so that “deliberate attacks on journalists, media workers and associated personnel” are defined as war crimes. And when – inevitably – things do go wrong, it is vital that victims and their families and colleagues get the practical and psychological support they need to respond to what has happened.

 

 

It doesn’t matter what side of the political divide you are on, how you judge history, or whether you are for a two-state solution or not. The effects of conflict on the children of Gaza are heart breaking.

In an excellent article for the Guardian yesterday, Harriet Sherwood gives us the statistics: in less than a month, at least 447 children killed and 2744 injured, according to the UN. And in a tiny area the size of the Isle of Wight with a population of 1.7 million where 43.5% are aged 0-14 years and two-thirds are below 25 years, there are literally hundreds of thousands of babies and young children terrified on a daily basis by the conflict and destruction unfolding around them on a daily basis.

Any child above six years old in Gaza has now been exposed to three wars: Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012 and the current Operation Protective Edge.

After the first of these wars, a study by the Gaza community health programme found that three-quarters of children over the age of six were suffering from one or more symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with almost ten per cent exhibiting every symptom. This included sleep disturbances, nightmares, night terror, regressive behaviour, bed wetting, becoming more restless and hyperactive, refusal to sleep alone, overwhelmed by fears, and heightened aggression. A study by the UN following Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012 found that 82 per cent of children were either continuously or usually in fear of imminent death, 82 per cent felt angry, and 97 per cent felt insecure.

We all know that the conflict in Israel/Palestine is long, complicated and fraught with difficulties. Both sides blame one another for the death and terror facing children in Gaza. And Israelis call for understanding about the terror they face, too. So, what does that mean? Where does that leave us?

I don’t care for complex political arguments when babies and children are dying and being terrorised, whatever the reason, whoever is to blame. ‘Complicated’, in my experience, usually means inertia, inaction, and the continuation of ‘business/conflict as usual’.

In the short term there are some glimmers of hope – the current ceasefire seems to be holding up, allowing desperately needed humanitarian assistance to be delivered. Talks between both sides have at least not yet broken down.  The UN is stepping up to the mark, offering international leadership. While all this is to be welcomed, we simply can’t return to the same old stalemate.

It’s time to abandon ‘complicated’ for a simple political analysis of the situation – enough is enough.

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