Thinking Aloud: “The Evolving Risks of Fragile States and International Terrorism,” Part III

Oct. 4,  2014 by Darius 

[Earlier this week, I attended a very interesting panel discussion about “The Evolving Risks of Fragile States and International Terrorism.”  Two days ago, I shared some of the insights of Jean-Marie Guéhenno, who is currently the head of the NGO International Crisis Group and was in the French Foreign Ministry and a UN Undersecretary General for Peacekeeping from 2000 to 2008.  Yesterday, I continued with more of his remarks.  Today, I’ll share comments by panelist Sarah Cliffe and some observations from the Q&A.]

Sarah Cliffe is a former assistant secretary-general of the UN and now works with the World Bank.  Her comments mainly focused on societal factors of terrorism and how the international community can combat ungoverned spaces.

According to Cliffe, there is not a direct connection between poverty and terrorism.  Terrorism doesn’t specifically rise within the poorest countries, and terrorist recruits are not from the poorest sectors of any one country.  There is, though, an important connection between terrorism and feelings of exclusion – social, economic, or otherwise.  Cliffe also noted that there is also a strong relationship between terrorism and weak and corrupt government institutions.

Cliffe made a few points about countering terrorism and ungoverned spaces.  First, the government involved must establish basic trust and services for its citizens.  These basics mainly consist of providing security and establishing the rule of law.  Second, it is important to avoid the type of governance that causes terrorism; namely, corruption and human rights abuses.  Third, it is important to acknowledge that the process of countering ungoverned spaces takes time.  Even the fastest countries took 15 to 20 years to travel from instability to strong institutions.

Cliffe also highlighted a few of the international community’s weaknesses when it comes to dealing with ungoverned spaces.  The international community is not good at maintaining focus for the necessary period of time on a specific issue or challenge.  According to Cliffe, the international community is also very bad at dealing with setbacks.  It is wholly unrealistic to expect consistent month-over-month progress from instability, corruption, and weak institutions to a functioning state with strong institutions.  Instead of realizing this, though, the international community swings from great hope to great despair very quickly – just look at how the international community viewed South Sudan and the Arab Spring.

Cliffe and later Guéhenno also spoke in greater detail about the Arab Spring and the Syrian conflict.  According to Cliffe, the international community flubbed its reaction to the Arab Spring because the international community’s assistance was geared to helping countries rebuild after a civil war.  The Arab Spring, though, was a group of countries trying to transition from an authoritarian to a post-authoritarian system.  The international community just couldn’t respond well.

According to Cliffe, there are about 12,000 foreign fighters in Syria (about one-third the number of the conflict that attracted the most foreign fighters in history, the Spanish Civil War).  Most of the foreign fighters in Syria come from middle-income or even wealthy countries.  Cliffe posed an interesting question: are the people who went to fight in Syria two or three years ago part of the same groups and motivated by the same reasons as people who went to Syria two or three months ago?

According to Guéhenno, ISIS holds an attraction for foreigners because it gives failed lives meaning, or at least seems to.  The people traveling to Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS are by and large people who would under normal circumstances join a local gang and rob a local bank, people who might be out of a job without much of a future and suddenly find themselves part of a fight that is much bigger than they are and their lives acquire new meaning.  That, Guéhenno noted, “is a powerful mix” that their home countries need to address.

Guéhenno closed his remarks by claiming that there really is no such thing as the “international community” right now.  There is a collection of many nations, but these nations don’t make up a community.  Instead, while nations agree that there should be rules for international engagement, they don’t actually follow these rules.  Guéhenno felt that that would be a useful start.

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