On Community Building and Countering Violent Extremism

Posted by John Kerry
August 24, 2016
Secretary Kerry Walks With U.S. Embassy Abuja Deputy Chief of Mission David Young After Arriving at Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja. [State Department Photo]

Recently I had the pleasure of visiting Sokoto, Nigeria -- a place with an extraordinary history of faith, tolerance, and scholarship in all of its forms. It’s special region of West Africa, where the teachings of religion and ethics are prioritized right alongside the virtues of reading, writing, math, and science.

It is also a region where the battle against violent extremism is particularly important -- and fought every day. The terrorist group Boko Haram has killed more than 20,000 people, displaced more than two million, and flung some seven million Nigerians into hunger, thirst, and desperate need. Just days ago, Boko Haram descended into a small village near Chibok in the middle of the night, looting every home that they saw, after which they took food and livestock before burning those huts to the ground. They killed ten people that night and abducted 13 others -- women and children -- adding to the thousands of other victims, including the hundreds of Chibok girls who were abducted more than two years ago.

These horrific actions are commonplace for Boko Haram, a group that boasts no agenda other than to murder teachers, burn books, kidnap students, rape women and girls, and slaughter innocent people -- most of whom are Muslims. It has a complete and total disrespect for life, the opposite of every religion. It fears knowledge. It fears education. It fears tolerance.

A man poses with a sign in front of police officers in riot gear during a demonstration calling on the government to rescue the kidnapped girls of the government secondary school in Chibok, in Abuja, Nigeria, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014.  [AP Photo]

Certainly northeastern Nigeria is not the only region that is plagued by violent extremism, and, sadly, Boko Haram is far from the only terrorist group that we face in the world today. Earlier this year, an Islamist militant group linked to al-Qaida killed 30 people when they bombed a hotel in Burkina Faso. Over the first six months of 2016, the Lord’s Resistance Army abducted more than 500 people, mostly in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. And just a few days ago, al-Shabaab militants killed 15 people and injured more than 80 when they detonated an attack near an open market in Galkaayo in Somalia. In addition, terrorists from or inspired by Daesh have carried out vicious attacks in Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, and the United States.

“Make no mistake: We do not have to be the prisoners of this violent extremism. It can be eliminated.”

No one anywhere should have to live among the evil of violent extremism. But the reality is that this scourge isn’t going to disappear on its own. It takes work and it takes leadership. And it will require sustained effort from all of us -- from regional, national, and sub-national leaders, the United Nations and other multinational institutions, law enforcement and civil society. The United States is deeply committed to this effort and to helping our partners build their counterterrorism capacity. That is why the State Department introduced a countering violent extremism strategy earlier this year, and it is why we are working so hard to implement it.

There is no question that important progress has been made, particularly in Nigeria. Over the last six months, the Nigerian Army has rescued thousands of civilian hostages. Hundreds of Boko Haram fighters surrendered to Nigerian forces. In July, Nigerian troops captured 16 of the group’s leaders who admitted that they were running out of food. Just last week, the Nigerian army thwarted an attack in the northeast and took out more than a dozen militants in the process. Through the Multinational Joint Task Force -- with help from the United States, France, and the United Kingdom as well as Nigeria and its neighbors are steadily degrading Boko Haram’s capabilities.

Striking at the Root of Violent Extremism

Beating Boko Haram on the battlefield is only the beginning of what we need to do. As the American writer Henry David Thoreau wrote: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil, to only one who is striking at the root.” Ultimately, we have to strike at the root causes of violent extremism.

To win the struggle for the future, nations need to do more than just denounce bankrupt, dead-end ideologies that the terrorists support. They also have to offer their citizens an alternative that is better, offers hope, and actually delivers on its promises.

Far too many who join the ranks of violent extremist organizations do so because they have trouble finding meaning or opportunity in their daily lives, because they are deeply frustrated and alienated -- and because they hope groups, like Boko Haram, will somehow give them a sense of identity, or purpose, or power.

A rocket propelled launcher hangs on the mirror of a camouflaged pickup truck in the Nigerian city of Damasak, Nigeria, which was flushed of Boko Haram militants. [AP Photo]

No one knows that better than the violent extremist groups, which regularly use humiliation, marginalization, inequality, poverty, and corruption as recruitment tools. To effectively counter violent extremism, we have to ensure military action is coupled with a reinforced commitment to our core values — integrity, good governance, education, compassion, security, and respect for human rights. These are values the terrorist don’t just ignore, but desecrate at every turn.

Rebuilding Trust in Government

It is essential to build and rebuild trust in government, the military, law enforcement, and wherever trust has been diminished.

“The fight against corruption has to be a global security priority of the first order.”

Corruption costs the global economy an estimated $2.6 trillion a year. That is $2.6 trillion that could be going towards infrastructure, health care, education, food security, and other initiatives and investments to give young people a sense of future.

Corruption is not just a disgrace and a crime, it is also dangerous. There is nothing more demoralizing, destructive, and disempowering to a citizen than the belief that the system is designed to fail them, and that people in positions of power are embezzling the future of their own people.

Building public trust in government also requires cooperation from law enforcement and the military. It is understandable that in the wake of terrorist activity, some people are tempted to crack down on everyone and anyone who could theoretically pose some sort of a threat. I caution against that; extremism cannot be defeated through repression or just creating fear. Fear instilled through repression invites not confidence; it invites contempt. It creates terrorists -- trust creates citizens.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry greets participants in the Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program after delivering a speech about countering violent extremism and promoting good governance following a meeting with government officials and religious leaders at the Sultan’s Palace in Sokoto, Nigeria. [State Department Photo]

Any government’s most basic duty is to meet the needs of its people -- and good governance is important, but it’s only the beginning. In Nigeria, more than 60 percent of the population is under the age of 25 years old. And it matters to all of us whether or not they are able to gain access to education and jobs that will enable them to contribute to their communities in beneficial ways. That is why the United States is partnering with the Nigerian Government and international donors to open temporary schools and other non-formal learning centers to empower youth in the region to learn and enable them to be full citizens.

At the center of this effort is giving women and girls an equal chance to compete in the classroom and in the workplace.

“When women are educated and empowered, societies are more productive, more democratic, more inclusive, and far more prosperous. And that is a fact, undeniable in country after country.”

Improving governance and providing opportunities for all people are two important pieces of the puzzle, but the final piece is the importance of building bridges through tolerance and acceptance.

Equality and tolerance; justice and mercy; compassion and humility -- these are values that transcend religions, ethnicities, and moral codes. These values are certainly in keeping with the teachings of Islam that have enriched the world for centuries. And those who would tear our communities apart -- pitting one religion or one sect against another -- they can only be defeated by citizens’ unyielding commitment to unity and mutual understanding. Breaking the cycle of violence requires treating those who escape or defect from the grasp of violent extremists, particularly those who were abducted against their will, with sensitivity as they return to their communities. Welcoming these individuals -- especially women and girls -- back into society, safely, without the threat of continued violence or discrimination -- and ensuring that they receive the humanitarian and government support they desperately need -- is the only way to move a community forward, beyond the turbulence of these times. That is something that the United States is working very hard to support, and we will continue to work with our partners as they engage in this extremely important work.

Investing in all of these things -- fighting corruption, promoting good governance, promoting opportunity for men and women alike, as well as showing compassion and understanding for fellow citizens -- will do an enormous amount to reduce the threat that is posed by violent extremism and to prevent it from re-emerging in the future. But they are also worthy efforts in their own right. It is amazing what can be accomplished when people are empowered to succeed, when they have a stake in their community, and when they are able to have confidence in their future: A citizenry that is inspired, engaged, and empowered to take on whatever challenges society confronts. That is how we will build strong, resilient communities. That is how we will pull up terrorism by its roots. That is how we bring about the future that Nigerians and people everywhere deserve.

About the Author: John Kerry serves as the 68th Secretary of State of the United States. 

Editor's Note: The above was adapted from a speech delivered in Sokoto, Nigeria on August 23, 2016. You can read the full transcript hereThis entry originally appeared on Medium.com. 

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