An Islamic militant walks into a bar and hires a stripper. One week later, he blows himself up. Does his act count as terrorism? According to a West Point Combating Terrorism Center study, over 85 percent of the “Islamic” militants in their dataset had no formal religious education. And according to a United Nations Counter-Terrorism Centre study, only 16 percent even believed in the idea of establishing an Islamic State or caliphate in the Levant. Moreover, if we look to the data on how terrorist groups end, the Global Terrorism Index, an analysis of 586 terrorist groups that operated between 1970 and 2007, found that repressive counterterrorism measures enforced by military and security agents achieved the least success with “religious” terrorist organizations—contributing to the demise of only 12 percent.

How can humanizing counterterrorism transform the conditions that lead to violent extremism and enable greater peacefulness? What urban policies have made the Belgian city of Mechelen resilient to radicalization—despite having the largest Muslim population in Belgium? Why does Morocco rank among the countries suffering “no impact from terrorism,” while Moroccan immigrants in Europe are among those most susceptible to violent radicalization? How did love demobilize the ruthless terrorist group Black September? These are some of the questions Compassionate Counterterrorism: The Power of Inclusion in Fighting Fundamentalism answers in a sober yet optimistic analysis of how we can transition to a post-fundamentalist future. 

The following edited excerpt from Chapter 12: Show Me The Money, highlights examples of development-based interventions that have successfully deterred terrorist recruitment, and the endemic challenge impeding the scale and impact needed for preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE). — Leena Al Olaimy


WHEN MUHAMMAD YUNUS, the father of microfinance and founder of Grameen Bank, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, it validated the proposition that peace is inextricably linked to poverty and that poverty is a threat to peace. I am uncertain as to whether many people would have consciously made that link without hearing his acceptance speech. In it, Yunus applauded the world’s moral audacity for adopting a historic millennium development goal in the year 2000—to halve poverty by 2015. However, one year after the turn of the century came September 11, followed by the invasion of Iraq— effectively derailing the world from the pursuit of this dream.1

At the time of Yunus’s speech, the US alone had spent over US$530 billion on the war in Iraq. To put this number in perspective, today, Iraq is seeking less than 20 percent of that amount—US$88 billion—for post-war reconstruction. To date, it has been allocated only US$30 billion.2 In his speech, Yunus continued by saying, “I believe terrorism cannot be won over by military action. . . . We must address the root causes of terrorism to end it for all time to come. I believe that putting resources into improving the lives of the poor people is a better strategy than spending it on guns. . . . The frustrations, hostility and anger generated by abject poverty cannot sustain peace in any society. For building stable peace we must find ways to provide opportunities for people to live decent lives.”3

Although poverty doesn’t cause terrorism, as Chapter 5 illustrates, we should recognize that a vacuum of hope and dignity among young people makes them considerably more vulnerable to terrorist recruitment—especially when ignited by flagrant injustice.

Terrorism Accelerator

To borrow from the entrepreneurship space, if we were to map Daesh’s (ISIS) business model on the ubiquitous Business Model Canvas (Figure 1), our Customer Segments would be Syrians and Iraqis—for obvious geographic reasons—and foreign fighters, who are predominantly youth traveling to join the militant group from other countries and children who are often recruited against their will.

To win its differently motivated Customer Segments, Daesh deceptively promises community and belonging, meaningful purpose, religious purification, and adventure and status, along with financial incentives. Although its talent retention is poor, pervasive grievances massively boost its talent attraction and recruitment efforts. Comparatively, traditional counterterrorism interventions—which may cut off terrorist financing and revenue streams—don’t satiate the needs of recruits whatsoever. More ominously, these tactics reinforce Daesh’s polarization strategy and mirror the group’s terrorization of civilian populations.

Read the rest of Leena Al Olaimy’s article at Stanford Social Innovation Review