05/30/2014 06:19 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Extremists Are Evolving -- So Should We


This piece was previously published on Compare Afrique.

Counterterrorism is not working. Retaliatory military actions, condemnation by world leaders and by the general public on social media and censorship of terrorist organizations have all proven futile.

It's time to try something new.

It's been almost two months since over 230 high school girls were abducted from Chibok, Nigeria; Nigerians -- along with the global community -- are demanding and praying for their release, frustrated with the slow response of the Nigerian government. And in recent days, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has declared that he will wage a "total war" against the group responsible -- Boko Haram. The media is flooded with analysis about the Jihadist and terrorist group, Boko Haram or "Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad," in Arabic: "People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad," which abducted the girls. Since then, they have gone on to kill over hundreds more, and some local civilians have organized counter-militias in an attempt to defend their villages.

The group's evolution into a militant and extremist organization was in part driven out of a frustration with a lack of socioeconomic mobility and desire for a shari'a state. This was compounded with deep rooted mistrust towards the Nigerian government and Westerners. These factors coupled with violent clashes in 2009 set the stage for the radicalization of Boko Haram. Since 2010, Boko Haram has broken into prisons to release their detained members, set off improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and launched numerous suicide attacks, harming countless civilians. They've targeted Christian communities, Muslim opponents, the United Nations, government officials, and local establishments. In videos released by the group, they reaffirm their radical views, bolster their ideologies with violent props, and continue to vocalize threats.

Following in the footsteps of another "tech savvy" extremist, Osama Bin Laden, Boko Haram has used videos to send messages to the world. Their latest act of oppression, kidnapping schoolgirls, showcased in yet another video has received almost half a million hits on one YouTube channel alone. These footages, replayed over and over serve as evidence that their terror knows no limits.

In response, international governments, including Great Britain, France, and the United States, have offered assistance to President Goodluck Jonathan and the Nigerian government to bring the girls home and end Boko Haram's reign of terror.

A group that was not taken seriously by the Nigerian government years ago now has global attention. As their violence continues, Jonathan has implemented actions against the group and maintains the May 2013 declared state of emergency in the states in which they operate. His overall response to Boko Haram matches the current framework of global counterterrorism efforts, which features a reliance on ideas that do not address root causes of conflicts, have not succeeded at substantive dialogue, and instead over-utilize military actions, censorship, statements of condemnation by the international community, and social media campaigns. His declaration of war today, that he will "drive away the thugs," foreshadows more violence for the indefinite future, feeds into the violent cycle with which Boko Haram is fully comfortable engaging, and could put the kidnapped girls at more risk.

These responses are limited, and fallen short of any meaningful change.

For one, censorship is limited in scope -- take a Boko Haram video down, it pops back up on another platform or another one will soon replace it. Further, statements of condemnation may appear as quotes in Western media and on social media, but what are the chances that they'll reach the extremist audience intended? Or that they will not merely increase divisions? Violent extremist groups continue to build strong networks of loyal supporters, recruit and brainwash youth, and control not only entire regions of countries, but operate increasingly transnationally.

Ultimately, military actions against these groups also have limited outcomes. For example, the U.S. has offered a $7 million bounty for the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau. In dealing with other extremist groups in places such as Yemen and Pakistan, governments have utilized similar tactics and gone as far as targeted assassinations. Emblematic of how unsuccessful this century old tactic has been, is a recent video statement by Shekau:

"Do not think I am indispensable, I am not. Anybody can kill me. Even the smallest of creature can kill me. But when you kill me, somebody more deadly will rise, and you will cry that you will rather have me than him, just as you now say that Yusuf Mohamed is more lenient than me."

Effectively, we remain one step behind the ever-evolving acts of extremists, and are instead actively perpetuating the cycle of violence and indirectly dismissing the lack of opportunity for dialogue and a peaceful resolution.

Which begs the question, are there other approaches to get at the root issues within the landscape of violent extremism that serves as a deterrent to another generation of extremists?

In discussing what this innovative approach may look like, it is imperative to assess the way by which we interact with extremists -- or more accurately the way they interact with us. As opposed to other forms of online communications (i.e: forums, blogs, websites), the videos disseminated by Boko Haram are a tool that have a limited interface: one-way communication. There is an endless appeal in the openness, interactivity and speed at which they can reach both sympathizers and disseminate information to the masses. It has become a communication strategy for extremists evolving with modern times.

We propose to rethink the way we use this tool and turn it into a two-way (or multi-way) conversation -- responding back in the same vein -- through video messages addressing specific videos from extremist groups. The purpose of the videos would be to launch a non-combative, non-condemning, counter-narrative to their ideological arguments and identification with their social arguments.

If a video response effort is started, multiple options exist for the responding voice(s). A local Nigerian organization or revered leader could be the convener and driver behind the videos, and possibly involve international and local imams and Islamic scholars -- to the extent that it is safe and feasible. It would be important to be strategic and measured, and to speak from a place of understanding about Islamic principles -- something on which to relate to the ideological underpinnings of the group and deconstruct statements with which many Muslims would take issue. The responder(s) should be neutral enough, and a voice that could be actually heard by the followers, and sympathizers of Boko Haram -- accounting for factors that could cause dismissal of the voice as "Western" or "infidel."

This would be a start to a new conversation on a platform that matches that of extremist groups, aiming to challenge their rhetoric and their followers to reevaluate their position. A campaign of minds that serves to elevate the conversation of the root causes that fuel these groups.

We anticipate skepticism and we too have our own doubts about the feasibility of this idea -- the feasibility of creating a new platform on which to engage very threatening groups. But, we are taking a risk that we hope will produce a larger discussion that leads to innovation in counterterrorism because to focus solely on military approaches to groups like Boko Haram only perpetuates the cycle of conflict, a cycle that has already caused the death of thousands of people, destruction of infrastructure, and blocked efforts to achieve basic human needs for the population.

It's time to gather and evaluate ideas that move beyond the normal, ideas that have proven ineffective, and above all we aspire to move beyond the perpetual cycle of violence.