In the wake of recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Berlin, and California, the UK and US are again ratcheting up military attacks against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. As the UK prepared to enter the air war in Syria, President Obama told the US public in a speech from the Oval Office that the threat from terror has entered a new phase, vowing the US counterterrorism strategy would continue. “We will destroy ISIL, and any other group that tries to harm us.”
Some critics, meanwhile, are pressing for even more intense war operations against ISIS, pointing to recent attacks as evidence that the current approaches are not working. “It is time for a dramatic shift in both foreign and national security policy,” Texas Senator Ted Cruz declared. “The recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have further confirmed that radical Islamic terrorists are at war with the West.”
In fact, these recent attacks do demonstrate the failures of the US and UK’s current approaches to the problem of terrorism. Terrorism is a strategy of the weak aimed at provoking the more powerful to respond in ways that further legitimize their cause and empower their actions. Responding to horrific attacks against civilians such as those experienced in San Bernardino and Paris, by escalating a war against Islamic State, is precisely what extremist groups want. As the US and UK launch more drones and drop more bombs, ISIS’s cause becomes glorified in the eyes of its followers – including the many young people it aims to recruit to expand its capacities and reach.
Senator Cruz is right that we need a dramatic shift in our foreign policy, but the direction should be away from war not toward it. As the recent Global Terrorism Index illustrates, terrorist attacks have risen nine-fold since 2001, with the large majority of attacks taking place not in Western countries but concentrated heavily where the US and others have launched military operations – Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Nigeria. War doesn’t stop terrorism, it fuels it.
To prevent further expansion of what has already become the longest war in US history, and reduce the threat of more attacks against innocent civilians (whether in the UK, US, Europe, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, or elsewhere), our leaders need to pivot towards peace – by abandoning the failing policies of war and investing seriously in strengthening the infrastructures of peace. They can begin by supporting local peacebuilders, who are helping to prevent radicalization and confront extremism at its source.
President Obama is right when he says that overcoming terrorist threats will ‘not depend on tough talk or abandoning our values or giving in to fear. Instead, we will prevail by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless.’ These are, in fact, some of the characteristics we see again and again in local peacebuilders, many of whom face up to violent extremism in their own communities and have important lessons to teach us, as we grapple to understand and respond appropriately to attacks now touching our own countries.
For example, our partner Aware Girls in Pakistan has developed effective peer-to-peer anti-radicalization programs, and built a peace network of over 500 youths who reject violence and engage others to do so as well, in one of the most dangerous areas of the world. They do this work with communities that face the threat of both terrorist recruitment and Western drone strikes, and that want to be free of both. Their experience affirms that breaking cycles of terrorism and war is possible.
For communities in Paris, California, Berlin, and so many other places that experience attacks against civilians every day, there is always a temptation to respond in fear to the horrors of terrorism, to fight violence with further violence. The strong, smart, resilient, and relentless way to respond, however, is through a renewed commitment to our values of tolerance, inclusion, rule of law, and human dignity for all.