Billions spent on counterterrorism overseas would be better spent involving former terrorists


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(THE CONVERSATION) For decades, the US government sent aid to countries plagued by terrorism, believing the money could help other nations fight extremism. Money matters, but it alone is not enough to prevent terrorism.

An explosion at a mosque in northern Afghanistan killed more than 30 people on April 22, 2022, just days after explosions at schools in Kabul killed six.

These are the latest in a long series of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan. Islamic State has carried out 365 terrorist attacks in Afghanistan that have claimed 2,210 lives in 2021 alone.

The United States, meanwhile, has spent about US$91.4 billion in foreign aid to Afghanistan since 2001, while other countries have given billions more. Most of this money went to the Afghan army.

The United States spent more than $1.1 billion on Afghanistan in fiscal year 2021 and $1 billion on assistance in fiscal year 2020.

As a PhD student researching how to get activists to adopt more moderate stances and stop committing violence, I spoke with 23 former Indonesian terrorist detainees since October 2020 to explore their experiences. These individuals planned, facilitated or otherwise participated in bombings and attacks on civilians.

My research shows that international aid does not prevent terrorists from committing acts of violence, as most counter-terrorism projects do not directly involve or attract detained and released terrorists.

Talking with terrorists

I have found that listening to ex-terrorists is the best approach to understanding how and why they walk away from terrorism.

When I spoke with former Indonesian terrorists through video meetings and calls, they all told me that they once only cared about exterminating America and its allies. This is because they thought these countries were trying to suppress Muslims all over the world.

They also justified their violent jihad as a way to impose a caliphate, a term that refers to an all-encompassing Muslim state.

Less than half of the 23 former terrorists I spoke with participated in de-radicalization programs, designed to steer people away from extremism, while in prison. But all were part of such programs, sponsored by non-profit organizations and the Indonesian government, after their release.

All ex-terrorists have also undergone vocational training, and some have also received money from the Indonesian government and non-profit organizations to start small businesses.

Others received psychological counseling or participated in lectures on religion. Some have taken part in outdoor retreats organized by the Indonesian police, with hiking and other recreational activities.

A few of the ex-terrorists I spoke with acknowledged that the government had helped them pay school fees for their children.

These people began to change their minds and move away from extremism after developing a strong sense of community support and respect for government and law enforcement authorities.

“I started to change when the police treated me well and my community accepted me for who I am,” said a former terrorist who was a “wife” – a term used to describe a suicide bomber. Police captured her just before she could carry out an attack in Bali in 2016.

Financing of terrorism

Parts of Indonesia, a Southeast Asian country with the world’s largest Muslim population, are considered a haven for terrorism – although the number of terror attacks there has recently declined. It remains a transit and destination hub for Islamic militants.

Indonesia received nearly $5 million in 2020 from the United States Agency for International Development alone to contain violent extremism. It received the third largest sum of money from the United States for this type of programming after Somalia and Bangladesh.

The United States spent about $2.8 trillion on counterterrorism from fiscal year 2002 to 2017, according to the Stimson Center, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C.

But even significant international aid is not a sure way to end terrorism.

Afghanistan and Iraq are two examples of countries that receive large donations each year from the United States and other countries, but still struggle against violent radicalism.

Most of this money and work goes to helping governments and local organizations implement counter-extremism programs. These could include workshops for government officials focused on counter-terrorism and training sessions for women on how to start small businesses.

However, these programs generally do not directly involve former terrorist detainees and their families. This is important because it mattered to the people I spoke with when they were included in counter-terrorism projects. This is one of the main reasons they changed their ways, they told me.

Aid is not reaching former terrorists

Major donor countries like the United States have increasingly recognized the role of foreign aid in countering extremism. Many countries, including the United States, see that extremism can be politically destabilizing and pose international security challenges.

But at the same time, the incidence of terrorism in countries that receive significant international funding, including Afghanistan, Indonesia, Pakistan and Mali, shows that international aid is an insufficient counter-terrorism measure.

In Indonesia, for example, USAID gave $24 million from 2018 to 2023 for an anti-extremism project called Harmoni.

This project organizes workshops for state officials on prison management and the treatment of terrorist detainees, among other programs.

But Harmoni does not include a key audience – detained or released terrorists and their families – in his work.

This type of strategy makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to reform the extremists.

This pattern, according to my research, is common in counter-extremism projects funded by international aid.

Involve terrorists

Donor countries, governments, and partner organizations working to prevent extremism can engage released terrorists and their families in a variety of ways, including providing professional, financial, psychological, religious, educational, and even recreational programs.

Many countries still need international assistance to fight terrorism, but this will only work more effectively if it also takes care of former terrorist convicts and their families.

Without targeted and inclusive interventions against extremism, I believe the world will continue to see more aid wasted in the fight against terrorism.

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