10/15/2014 05:35 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2014

From Bali to Baghdad: Victims, Survivors, and Other Collateral Damage

by Edit Schlaffer and Ulrich Kropiunigg

Leading think tanks, international political strategists, commentators from CNN to Al Jazeera never stop debating the same question: how can IS be so successful in their rapid territorial gains? Both the Arab world and the West agree that while the airstrikes can slow this process, they clearly cannot stop it. Could it be that the population of Iraq and Syria, traumatized by despots and years of civil and religious warfare, are actually sympathetic to the promises of IS?

In an atmosphere of mushrooming lawlessness the literal interpretation and application of the Sharia might be welcome, at least as a concrete step towards improving the catastrophic state of security. The IS campaign of fire and sword accompanied by a PR machine seems to give a region descending into chaos a new perspective.

In Iraq and Syria, 35 to 40 percent of the population is under the age of 15 and only three to four percent over 64. In between there is a growing group of enraged young men armed with an ideology of absolute truth and driven by fantasies of supremacy and omnipotence. Their disorientation and lack of economic opportunity -- a toxic recipe for an explosive identity crisis -- are shrewdly exploited by IS ideologues which provide them with a sense of solidarity, esteem and eschatological promises. The IS strategy and strength lies in its fearlessness for death.

It is a battle of ideologies, but also a battle for the trust of the people. Neither of these aspects of the conflict is well taken into account in western security strategies. The success stories and the enticing calls to arms of the jihadists spread with tremendous speed both on a local and global level. The counter strategies of international organizations and NGO activists, under the rubric of counter-narrative, come way too late and are lagging behind. Why so? Because the human factor in these anti-terror strategies is seen as irrelevant.

Here is an example: this month marked the 12th anniversary of the terrorist attack with 202 deaths in Bali. It was Indonesia's 9/11. The memorial celebrations were little noted internationally, just as the victims of Bali were quickly forgotten. This should raise concerns because precisely the survivors of terrorist attacks and their families are witnesses of history. Their voices provide credibility and historical substance in the ongoing struggle to win the emotions of the youth when these survivors speak out in schools and anti-terror platforms.

Even in the West, victims of terror, coming as refugees and asylum seekers from worn torn lands, are sequestered in tent cities and make-shift homes, are ignored. We overlook their potential as living witnesses of the insanity of global terror. History seems to be repeating itself. In post-Nazi Europe victims were also shunned; they didn't fit into the prevailing spirit of denial and forward thinking.

Our conversations with a group of women in Bali who lost their husbands to the terror attacks give shattering insights into the reality of terror and its long-term aftereffects in the minds of families. Eka Laksmi's husband was a taxi chauffeur when the car bomb went off. Eka, herself a member of the Muslim minority, was immediately confronted with the oft repeated question: "Why does my religion teach the killing of other human beings?" And she was forced to realize that many young people were obsessed with revenge. Her little son suffered for years from the effects of the attack. In kindergarten he didn't speak or play, he bit and punched his mother because he held her responsible that his beloved father never returned home. Now, as a teenager, he, with many others, wants to exact revenge -- but on the "good" side: "I want to be a policeman who arrests terrorists and then shoots them to death," he said.

What all female victims of terror seem to have in common is that they live with children on little income. They particularly lack psychological support. A small group of female Bali victims has started a local cooperative. They tell us that the modest income is welcome, but the most important aspect of the cooperative is to have found a common platform in which they can share their trauma, their anxieties, especially in relation to their children, and to know that there are other people concerned about their fate.

But nevertheless it is indefensible that there is no sustainable funding available to adequately support this group of around 40 affected women. Many of them would be willing to visit schools as living witnesses, speaking out against terror, in order to combat the brain washing of the young generation through social media and recruiting efforts. They are certainly ready to do so and moreover it would contribute substantially to their healing. This would be an effective long term approach to fighting extremism. We need to remember that continuity is key to sustainable security strategies.

International organizations have recognized the importance of working with victims and survivors as an inroad into the local civil society. The problem, however, begins already with semantics. At expert meetings the question is often repeated: how can we effectively mobilize victims in the struggle against terror? The examples from Bali make it clear that we must first care for them victims and involve them before we can win them over as change makers in anti-terror campaigns. It is tempting to take shortcuts but the risk of losing such potential allies is too great.

The stories of the victims of terror are accessible to us; we need only to realize their value. They are an authentic resource in the war of emotions spreading like wildfire through social media, mosques and schools. There is a never ending flow of tales of heroes from the jihadi side with scarcely any counter narrative. We must change that now.

Attempting to find the definitive interpretation of the Koran, makes little sense for the people in the endangered areas for whom it is a question of daily survival. We must realize that we are in direct competition with IS. The first stage of any dialogue in a conflict is to take the victims, survivors and their families seriously as a sign of solidarity that will resonate in their local society. In their communities they are the most credible voices in the fight against terror.

Dr. Edit Schlaffer is the founder of Frauen ohne Grenzen / SAVE (Women without Borders / Sisters Against Violent Extremism).

Dr. Ulrich Kropiunigg is professor at the University of Vienna School of Medicine and director of research for Frauen ohne Grenzen (Women without Borders).