Interview with extremism researcher Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck

"Being part of a ʹcommunityʹ transcends everything"

Attending this yearʹs Vienna International Christian University, Algerian extremism researcher Dr. Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, talked to Zahra Nedjabat about the role of women in jihadism, the roots of violent radicalisation and possible antidotes

Dr. Yazbeck, this year you taught for the second time at the Vienna International Christian Islamic Summer University (VICISU) in Altenburg, Austria, which aims to bring together students and professors from around the world to study intercultural topics from a range of different academic perspectives. What is the value of such a programme and do you think it can have an impact on the prevention of radicalisation?

Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck: I do believe that a programme such as the Vienna International Christian-Islamic Summer University (VICISU), which is both a cultural and an artistic programme, can contribute to preventing violent radicalisation and defusing conflict. Meeting and interacting with people from different countries, cultures and religions undoubtedly opens minds, thus having a positive influence on the perceptions that students have of "others". The "othering" process is central to violent extremism because we create an "other" we believe is deeply different and highly dangerous to the "us". Cultural initiatives such as the VICISU can have a decisive influence on fostering common interests and mutual understanding.

At this year's VICISU you are teaching participants from countries such as Afghanistan, Morocco, Egypt, Saudi-Arabia, Lebanon, India, Uganda, Indonesia, Turkey and Pakistan about the role of women in jihadism. Why this topic?

Female supporters of IS (photo: dpa/picture-alliance/
A lesson that still needs to be learned: "a military response is never enough, never satisfactory on its own. Jihadism is above all a social phenomenon. No one is born a terrorist. Consequently, a failure to engage with it on a social level may mean it rears its ugly head again," says Ghanem-Yazbeck

Ghanem-Yazbeck: Too much attention has been given to men joining jihadist organisations and not enough to their female counterparts. Whatʹs more, the involvement of women has been subject to many cliches – think of the "Jihadi bride". In my class, I deconstruct these assumptions. The news of Western and Arab women joining Daesh made headlines, as if violence by women was new and unprecedented. Violence by women is not a new phenomenon; women have been active in logistical missions, not to mention in combat roles and suicide bombing attacks, in numerous conflicts.

Women were active during the conflict in Southern Lebanon against the eighteen years of Israeli occupation. They were active in Iraq with al-Qaida and are likely still active in the Palestinian territories. Chechen women, called the ‘black widows’, have carried out several attacks against Russian government forces; the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) also used women to attack the central Turkish government. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka used females to carry out attacks. The course asks what is it that leads women to join a jihadist group like Daesh – what entices women into jihadist violence and how can we understand the phenomenon to counter it better.

During the programme, you talked about the possibility of jihadist de-radicalisation for those returning from war zones. What method of re-integration into society do you believe has the best chance of success and how realistic do you think is the idea of countries adopting a case-by-case method to assess returning jihadists?

Ghanem-Yazbeck: I actually talked about rehabilitation and not de-radicalisation. I believe that rehabilitation and empowerment through entrepreneurial and professional training might be successful. Avoiding dealing with returnees by confiscating their citizenship or by throwing them into jail for lack of an alternative is risky. Where possible, I would favour a case-by-case approach.

Government policies need to be more flexible with returnees and offer them rehabilitation procedures to reintegrate them into society and their communities. The latter is very important as we should remember that many women and men left because of their desire to be part of a "community" that transcends everything, even blood ties. Social enterprises, industries, private companies need to help in their rehabilitation. Work will give them a purpose in life and a sense of pride and citizenship. In Indonesia, initiatives like these have proved successful. Former extremist detainees were rehabilitated and have been offered jobs in fish farms, restaurants or literary cafes.

The first graduates, from the Chechen community, of the Austrian Mothersʹ School at the award ceremony on 8 March 2016 in Vienna (photo: Women Without Borders)
How to fight radicalisation: at the forefront of prevention the Mothers School concept, established by Edit Schlaffer in 2013, works to strengthen emotional bonds within the immediate family. Having opened Mothers Schools in a number of countries affected by crises, including Pakistan, Indonesia and Tajikistan, Schlaffer launched Europeʹs first anti-radicalisation programme in Austria in 2016

Keeping in mind how tense politics concerning Islam and jihadism are in the West, do you think the rehabilitation model of a country like Algeria, is a realistic suggestion for the western world?

Ghanem-Yazbeck: There is no single perfect programme for the demobilisation and rehabilitation of jihadists. Despite its shortcomings, the Algerian approach did help to end the country’s conflict and reintegrate some 15,000 former fighters into society. Then again, the Algerian experience may not be a realistic suggestion – every country has its specificities and challenges. Focussing on the Algerian experience could however prove a valuable starting point for developing disengagement initiatives elsewhere, be it in the west or in the MENA. If one lesson needs to be learned from the Algerian experience, it is that a military response is never enough, never satisfactory on its own. Jihadism is above all a social phenomenon. No one is born a terrorist. Consequently, a failure to engage with it on a social level may mean it rears its ugly head again.

Will women continue to pose a threat?

Ghanem-Yazbeck: I believe so. On the one hand, women will continue to participate in spreading jihadist propaganda via social media, attempting to indoctrinate and recruit at-risk individuals. On the other, some of these women (and men) may return to their respective countries and perpetrate terrorist attacks there, because they are still convinced by the ideology. It is crucial that we develop a better understanding of their roles and their motivations in order to draft effective policies that will prove a successful deterrent. We will only prevent at-risk individuals from joining IS by countering their ideology and presenting them with a better alternative.

What can we do at the social media level?

Ghanem-Yazbeck: Offline and online alternative narratives to jihadist ideology need to be developed, thus providing young women and men better tools with which to challenge extremist propaganda. These should include social media campaigns, educational campaigns for young people in schools, places of worship, cultural and civil associations. Religious and community leaders, activists, academics, social workers must work together to define a cohesive strategy to combat extremism in their communities. It is crucial to scale-up the alternative-narrative as they must be qualitatively and quantitatively coherent to match and exceed the capabilities of IS (among others) in disseminating propaganda. As revealed in a report, the IS organisation disseminates "an average of 38.2 unique propaganda events a day from all corners of the Islamic State ʹCaliphateʹ". The alternative narrative needs to be scaled up in scope and inclusiveness; it must be a constant, 24/7 stream of positive information and media, varying in content and approach – after all, not everyone is attracted to the same message.

The U.S. State Department's campaign "Think Again, Turn Away" (U.S State Department)
How not to fight radicalisation: the U.S. State Department’s "Think Again Turn Away" campaign has been anything but valiant, particularly on Twitter. Not only ineffective – why would an at-risk individual listen to State Department counter-narrative – it has also provided jihadists with a stage to voice their arguments, regularly engaging in petty disputes with fighters and supporters of groups like IS, al-Qaida and al-Shabab

In your class, you talked about giving returnees and formers a voice, can you explain?

Ghanem-Yazbeck: This approach was followed successfully in both Algeria and Indonesia. The counter/alternative narrative must be delivered by an appropriate and "legitimate" source. The U.S. campaign "Think Again Turn Away" was unsuccessful because it was created by the State Department. Why would an at-risk individual who thinks that the State Department is the ʹenemy to be destroyedʹ listen to its counter-narrative and its campaign? This is where former extremists, defectors, returnees and "repentant" incarcerated extremists can play a role. Formers should be given a chance to discuss their experience and tell their stories in public because they have an authenticity that allows them to gain the trust of the returnees or at-risk individuals. As a former Indonesian jihadist of the Jemaah Islamiyah who benefitted from a de-radicalisation initiative and is now the head of a local non-governmental organisation, explained: "I used to be like them before. I used to be in their world, so I know how to talk to them in their language." Using this approach, the Indonesian government succeeded in persuading 680 extremist militants to lay down their weapons and be rehabilitated. Some former jihadists can also be a real asset in helping to raise awareness, as shown by the former Malaysian extremist Nasir Abbas, who became a writer and turned his experience of jihadism into a comic book. His book was handed out in schools and libraries as an educational tool to raise awareness and help change the mind-set of people toward jihad.

Interview conducted by Zahra Nedjabat

© 2018

Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck is a resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, where her work examines political and extremist violence, radicalisation, Islamism and jihadism, with an emphasis on Algeria.

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Comments for this article: "Being part of a ʹcommunityʹ transcends everything"

Again, another narrow definition of "extremism" and temporary "remedies" instead of dealing with deep root causes. The author does not include wars waged by states, occupation, imposed economic policies, debt, inequality, marginalisation, poverty, support of dictatorships and repression as "extremist" features of regimes. Thus, the marginalised, the minority, are depicted as the main perpetrators and not as both victims and perpetrators of violence. The remedies propsed as suggestive of the ideological deficiency the author adopts: entrepreneurial solutions have been propagated for decades and with minimal solutions because it does not affect the power structure or the the roots of marginalisation, unemployment, humiliation, grievances, etc and ignores the accumulation of the causes of violence within the individual, the famility, the neighbourhood, etc. Managing violence is not dealing with the roots causes of state and non-state violence, but it is justifying the socio-economic conditions on different ideological basis.

Nadeem19.09.2018 | 13:04 Uhr