Today is the tenth anniversary of the London bombings, a moment which many will remember with deep anguish and sadness for those 52 people who lost their lives. On Sunday night, the BBC broadcast ‘A song for Jenny’, a harrowing account of how one mother grappled with the loss of her daughter who died in the bombing at Edgware Road tube station that day. It was deeply distressing viewing, reminding us of the people and relationships that were torn apart as a result of the bombs that were detonated by extremists across London on 7 July 2005.
In the ten years that have passed since the London bombings, the world has changed immeasurably. The Arab spring and its promise of democracy; the fall of some regimes, the fight-back from others; power vacuums, the emergence of ISIS, the rise of Boko Haram, the continued attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan and a war on Europe’s borders. Ten years ago few people would have believed that Al Qaida or the Taliban would be overshadowed by an extremist group even more ruthless and successful in their territorial conquests. Military solutions have so far not proved successful in ending the violence in these countries, yet appear to be the only options on the table. This is even more puzzling when there is ample evidence to show that military strikes often fuel the underlying resentments that many extremist movements are built upon, increasing recruitment and feeding an increasingly global cycle of violence.
So what can local people do in these places plagued by such violence? Can they really make a difference? What we know from our experience of working with local peacebuilding groups around the world is that people are influenced by other people: their peers, friends and family. So one way of tackling this kind of violence is through intensive peer-to-peer work, which takes time, effort and is extremely labour intensive. But it works – and there’s the alchemy. Local people training their peers to reach other people is about as complex as it gets.
We’ve seen this working in Pakistan and in the border region with Afghanistan; places where the Taliban are deeply embedded. It’s also remarkably cost-effective. Our local partner, Aware Girls, tackles the Taliban influence in local communities head on, through a network of more than 500 trained young people who engage directly with those attracted by the Taliban’s extremist narratives. An anthropologist who recently spoke at the UN Security Council on the topic of youth extremism pointed out that ‘any serious engagement must be attuned to individuals and their networks, not to mass marketing of repetititive messages. Young people empathise with each other; they don’t lecture at one another.’ Citing Aware Girls as one such example of an effective, locally led violence prevention organisation, he went on to say that ‘local initiatives, begun with small scale involvement, are better than large scale national programmes in reducing violence.’
So, today, while we remember those who lost their lives ten years ago in the London bombings, let’s also remember those actively working for peace – and doing so under the most difficult of situations and great personal risk.