Time to de-radicalise the tribal regions

A counter-narrative is needed to neutralise the radical ideology of violent extremists.

Naveed Hussain July 27, 2014

The radicalisation model of Peter Neumann, the director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London, is perhaps the most-cited work in the academic literature on radicalisation, de-radicalisation or counter-radicalisation processes in the context of counter-terrorism. This model lists ‘grievance’, ‘ideology’ and ‘mobilisation’ as the building blocks of a radical mindset. The process of radicalisation begins with ‘grievance’, either perceived or real. A communal or ethnic group believes it is unfairly treated or discriminated against by the numerically superior or powerful community or group. The subsequent alienation develops a ‘quest for significance’ in the community or group and creates a ‘cognitive opening’. This is where the community or group becomes receptive to a new ideology, the one that is compatible with their worldview, or the one that reflects their anger and frustration.

A systematic de-radicalisation process entails countering, reversing or preventing the radicalisation process. It’s a comprehensive process, though not necessarily a linear one. Its objective is not to convince a few individuals to give up their radical ideology, demobilise or disengage from violence. It has to undo the radicalisation process brick by brick. It should ‘address’ the grievances of the marginalised community or group, ‘fill’ the cognitive opening created by their grievances, posit a counter-narrative to neutralise their ‘radical ideology’, and disengage or demobilise the violent radicals. All but one step involves political processes.

In Pakistan, we’ve been fighting a Taliban insurgency for over a decade now. Regrettably, however, our policymakers have been fixated on the last stage of the de-radicalisation process: demobilisation. A series of military operations have been conducted in all tribal regions and parts of the settled districts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Malakand Division in particular. Militarily, these operations have been successful as the militants were defeated on the battlefield. But like a half-inflated balloon, when we suppressed militancy at one point, it bulged out at another. And the result is a vicious cycle of violence that we have been caught in. Little attention has been paid to other elements of the de-radicalisation process, while counter-radicalisation has been ignored altogether.

The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), the epicentre of extremism in Pakistan, has been the most impoverished and the least developed region of the country, with 60 per cent of the population living below the national poverty line. Since independence in 1947 or even before that, the region has been literally caught up in a time warp, with virtually no economy, high unemployment and scant infrastructure. Governed by a 19th Century set of draconian laws, nearly three and a half million tribesmen [according to the 1998 census data] living in Fata don’t have the legal, political and economic rights enjoyed by their fellow Pakistanis elsewhere in the country [in 2011 then president Asif Zardari introduced a reforms package for Fata]. The tribal people were disillusioned and alienated. Their grievances created a quest for significance and a subsequent cognitive opening, which was readily filled by the radical ideology of local and foreign violent extremists or jihadists fighting in neighbouring Afghanistan and a steady inflow of money from drugs and arms trade.

Military actions alone would only help in a military defeat of violent extremists or their disengagement and demobilisation. To counter or to reverse the radicalisation of Fata requires a multi-pronged process. It must involve redressal of the rampant grievances of the tribal people by bringing the impoverished region into the national mainstream, and by giving tribesmen their long-denied political, legal and economic rights. This will mitigate the sense of deprivation among the tribesfolk and fill the cognitive opening created by their grievances. At the same time, a counter-narrative is needed to neutralise the radical ideology of violent extremists. And lastly, comprehensive programmes should be launched to make reconcilable elements to give up their radical views or at least to disengage and become part of the national mainstream.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 28th, 2014.

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