The Global Trust Gap Driving Radicalization and Recruitment

07/01/2014 04:36 pm 16:36:35 | Updated Aug 31, 2014

A new acronym is haunting the media: ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Levant). And to be honest I would not have been able to decipher it myself some weeks ago. The acronym comes straight into our inbox with a hash-tag, advertising tectonic shifts in the make-up of our world order.

Security strategies look pale in the face of the polished media attack which is certainly not operating from caves in distant Waziristan but rather implemented with slick communications tech and savvy. How could our editors and publishers in Western media collaborate with jihadists, giving them prime media space and international attention? We do their work, announcing their caliphate, providing a tangible alternative to paradise, underscoring a probability of such an insane construct.

How does the West respond to this new radical uprising? Disturbingly, with more of the same: warfare based on the old school approach of military hardware and forces - which has already failed us.

Over the last years, I embarked on my own interesting journey exploring the concerns of mothers with young boys and men at risk of violent extremism. I conducted a survey, Mothers for Change!, in volatile communities in Pakistan, Israel, Palestine, Nigeria and Northern Ireland. This survey covered over 1,000 mothers whose children have already been targeted or are likely to be seduced by recruiters' messages, and it reveals thought-provoking insights. For example, there is obviously an alarming trust gap between people and their institutions, with only 29% of mothers across the board trusting in their government to respond to the threat of radicalization.

The lack of trust in the state is a critical finding since exactly the state is expected to provide the citizens with institutions that guarantee the rule of law and a framework for productive lives. This trust gap which mothers identified is not limited to these particular countries; it is a reality for many of us. This is definitely a wake-up call for security policy makers. Indeed, quite shockingly, we witnessed that whole army battalions in Iraq dropped their weapons and attitude and refused to defend their country in the face of ISIS.

The Western communities don't speak with a strong convincing voice because we also feel this huge trust gap between the people and their governments in our part of the world. Hundreds and thousands took to the streets in Europe to protest the invasion of Iraq, but nobody listened. How can they and we trust that the governments will make the right decision now? ISIS is recruiting on a daily basis and what an irony that the young actually listen to them and move directly from their computer war games into real war zones. And nobody suspected anything? At least it is so if we believe the testimonials of their families, religious and community leaders. I doubt it; they probably felt already uncomfortable about certain signs but would not know how to respond properly or might have been ambivalent themselves about their own loyalties.

By now we should know better and apply the lessons learned before it is too late. We have a lot of material available, both historical evidence and real life experience, analyzing how young people turn into perpetrators. We have just commemorated the 100 year anniversary of the First World War where a 19-year old Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, who had a passion for poems, decided to drop his pen and took up the pistol with which he assassinated Arch Duke Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in the streets of Sarajevo. This sparked the chain of events that pushed the world into a bloody war.

In a conversation with Christopher Clark, the prize winning historian, we talked about the historic parallels between the martyrs of 9/11 and Gavrio Princip and his group around him - the Black Hands. I wonder why we are still struggling with the proper profile of a terrorist, for there is certainly something beyond religion that definitely drives young men to these groups. Those Bosnian Serb men were all very young, but serious minded and well behaved: no drinking, no girls and no violence. Christopher Clark describes them as "focused, rich in ideals but very poor in experience. This I think is typical for the kind of young men that terrorists recruit." Furthermore, Clark adds that the men all had trouble with male authority figures " ...they were groomed by the networks, and found older men who really respected them and were willing to give them something quite close to love, a sort of honor and respect. So it is a revelation, something to be taken seriously," he says, "...suddenly their lives have weight and meaning."

We don't need to look back a century to learn that we have to acknowledge the psychosocial dimension of Jihad. Talking to witnesses and analysts after the Mumbai attacks I learned a lot about the group who put Mumbai under siege. This was again a small group of young men who drove two countries, India and Pakistan, to the verge of war. Ajmal Kasab, the only one of the terrorists caught alive, shared that his recruiter was masterful in analyzing each boy in the group and customized the messaging to his particular needs. The recruiter was with them steadfastly, installing a childlike obedience in all of them.

Nevertheless out of a group of 32 who signed up on this fateful mission, less than half were left and not all utterly convinced that they wanted to become martyrs either. In fact when Kasab traveled home to say his last farewell to a warm reception, his mother preparing a feast for him as if he were a groom, he was very emotional, withdrawn and wished he could stay back.

We even have contemporary examples where so-called Syrian fighters are traced by their parents who bravely face the dangers of the war to find and bring back their sons. A young Belgian boy, Pero agreed to come across the border to meet his mother and his aunt in Turkey. It was to be a chance to kiss his family members goodbye and get their blessing before he headed out to fight. His father, Mitko surprised him and he reached out, stroked his son's arm and started to cry. Pero agreed to come home with them.

All of these examples show that these youngsters are not necessarily evil but misled and misused in their quest for justice and meaning. Louise Richardson, terrorism expert and Principal of the University of St. Andrews reminds us: "Terrorists are people like you or me and what we need to do is to understand them." This might sound strange, but any effective diplomacy is based on the effort that you understand your enemy and create a bridge for negotiations. Our culture still favors a militaristic mindset over more innovative and refined strategies for sustainable solutions.

Perhaps these military and religious frameworks provide youngsters with the adventure and belonging that they miss otherwise in their lives. A French mother who tragically lost two of her sons to the war in Syria highlights that they had not found a foothold in their communities and culture. The boys converted to Islam, but at the mosque they met militant recruiters. Their behavior changed, they rejected alcohol and going out at night in the process of radicalization. Both traveled to Syria where they died fighting. The mother is now driven to create an association to support parents who are going through the same horror and to exert pressure on the authorities to do more to stop other young people from falling into similar trap.

This mother is representative of the 1,000 voices we have collected in our Mothers for Change! survey, who are all eager to play constructive roles as new security stakeholders. This time the security community and politicians need to listen.

Edit Schlaffer is a social scientist and the founder of Women without Borders and Sisters Against Violent Extremism (SAVE), the world's first female counterterrorism platform. www.women-without-borders.org