Counterterrorism Education

It has been over a week since the UK Manchester bombings where twenty-two people were killed, many of those children. It happened as the UK entered the final weeks of election campaigning – the polls opening on the 8th of June – so campaigning was put on hold for four days.

There is now a standard, almost predictable response to terrorism. There is the immediate vague news report. Then, as a Buzzfeed article highlights, the ‘fake news’ begins and is rapidly spread by the click of a button. There were reports for example that there was a ‘gunman’ outside Oldham hospital. It is not only ordinary people creating and sharing these fake news stories, as newspapers such as The Daily Express and The Daily Mail also took these claims to be truth which in turn led people to believe they were actually true.

During the hours and days after a terrorist attack, there is usually discussion around the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the attack. There are two aspects to this discussion. There is the mechanical side, which falls mostly under the jurisdiction of the police as they attempt to piece together the timeline of the attack as well as the mechanics of how (in the case of Manchester) the bomber was able to acquire a bomb.

The other aspect is more controversial. It is about the more psychological question of ‘why’ the attack took place. This took a controversial turn on the 26th when Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn resumed campaigning with a speech which linked the attack to British foreign policy:

we must be brave enough to admit the war on terror is simply not working. We need a smarter way to reduce the threat from countries that nurture terrorists and generate terrorism. That’s why I set out Labour’s approach to foreign policy earlier this month. It is focused on strengthening our national security in an increasingly dangerous world.

Further on, he argued for the need to ensure that “our foreign policy reduces rather than increases the threat to this country…”

Politicians can be easily accused of exploiting terrorist attacks to win votes. In this way Corbyn’s speech was risky because no matter if he is right (and I think he is) or not, politicians like the British Prime Minister Theresa May can twist each others words. She accused him of making ‘excuses’ for terrorism when in fact he also cautioned that the “causes” of terrorism “cannot be reduced to foreign policy decisions alone” and affirmed that “the blame is with the terrorists”.

Corbyn’s speech in this regard was audacious and daring. Considering the (supposed) anger, you might think someone (or some people) behind the scenes might have advised him to keep it at that. But no, Corbyn repeated his claims days after. There are many who would agree with him, even from unlikely circles. Borris Johnson, the UK Foreign secretary called Corbyn ‘monstrous’ for his comments, yet Johnson himself argued in a 2005 article that the Iraq War “has unquestionably sharpened the resentments” for pre-existing terrorist cells. The former Conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron also wrote in 2006 that due to the Iraq War “the threat to this country is actually greater than it was before it began.”

Every ‘explanation’ for terrorist attacks always implicitly implies an answer for combating or defeating terrorism. For Corbyn, the answer lies in foreign policy, but in my opinion that is one small part of a broader answer. What we need is a new approach to the very idea of ‘counterterrorism’. The usual approach is to equip the military and police with the powers and resources to find suspect terrorists, but we must look beyond the mechanical hide and seek approach toward an approach that educates all people of all ages about the causes of all extremism.

A new approach to ‘counterterrorism’ should be based on Malala Yousafzai’s argument that “With guns you can kill terrorists. With education, you can kill terrorism.” The ‘ism’ in ‘Terrorism’ refers to the idea that terrorism usually committed with political ends and is justified in the mind of the individual terrorist in ideological terms. What we need is not only a well-resourced police force, but a counterterrorism education which has two forms. The first form is the education of those who are verging on the path to extremism or who could potentially choose that path. In the case of extremist Islamist groups such as the Islamic State, a very rigid interpretation of Islam forms one part a broad range of indoctrinatory practices which education can counter. Dr Abdullah Salin, a reader in Islamic Education at the University of Warwick argues that there is a

need to provide young Muslims with Islamic literacy that integrates reflective thinking       skills    and intercultural understanding to help them engage intelligently and confidently with their faith heritage and wider society.

This is only a small part of what I am talking about here and there is the very real danger that a focus only on young Muslim people can entrench cultural stigmatisation which in fact only fuels hostility. The other form of counterterrorism education which I am referring to involves the teaching of civics and citizenship education along with social, political and media literacy across all school to all students. Although participation in the democratic process has been declining, there is still a symbiosis between the public and the political class. Politicians are responsive to the public to a degree and at this moment in time the public are simply not equipped with the critical thinking skills to participate meaningfully and effectively in our democracies today, meaning that politicians are afraid to meaningfully debate terrorism without fear of public backlash.

This is a crucial point. No matter the failings and flaws of the American electoral process, Trump was democratically elected. His rhetoric and proposed policies was supported not by many Americans (63 out of 250 million eligible voters voted for him), but too many. If Trump and the general public in the US and across Europe really want to ‘counter’ terrorism, then the exclusionary rhetoric against Muslims must stop. For example, Ben Carson referred to Syrian refuges as ‘rabid dogs’. Trump on the other hand, referred to Muslim immigrants as potential ‘Trojan horses’. This is dehumanizing language. More specifically it is what psychologists call ‘animalistic dehumanization’. In a study which investigated the effects of dehumanization on minority groups, Nour Kteily and Emile Bruneau found that participants

who dehumanized Muslims to a greater extent, were more likely to cast them in threatening terms and endorse policies such as increasing surveillance of Muslims, restricting their entry into the United States, and restricting their religious freedom.

On the other side, “feeling dehumanized by non-Muslim American was associated with feeling less integrated into the United States, more emotional hostility,” and “greater support for violent over non-violent forms of collective action…” What these findings show is that dehumanization can set off a vicious cycle. If there is repeated dehumanizing rhetoric towards Muslims and minority groups, then the backlash from these minority groups may incite further hatred and deep animosity.

Of course part of the problem with resentment, prejudice, dehumanizing rhetoric and animosity toward the Muslim community is ignorance: ignorance toward the Islamic faith; ignorance of middle eastern culture, and ignorance of the history of the Iraq War and US and Western foreign policy. In regard to the Iraq War, there seems to be little knowledge of what actually happened. Those old enough to remember watching the 9/11 terror attacks unfold on their TV screens will always remember it. But who remembers the Iraq War? If there was any defining TV moment, it was the toppling of Saddam’s statue. But that operation was proven to be a set up by a US ‘psychological operations’ team. Even if it was all real and genuine, it was nowhere near as memorable at 9/11. The answer is that it is difficult to remember the Iraq War. It is not etched into our memories as much as it probably should have but it is precisely this amnesia which produces a total lack of understanding as to factors which have contributed to the rise of ISIS.

As part of examining the historical context to these terror attacks, a counterterrorism education should explicitly ask students to think about the legacy and consequences of American and Western intervention in the middle east. Even the CIA admits foreign policy decisions can have consequences, coining the term ‘blowback’ to describe the unintended consequences to interventions such as the Iraq War.

‘Blowback’ from the Iraq War in the form of terrorism was predicted by many. The CIA predicted it and so too did Jeremy Corbyn in 2003 at a ‘Stop the War’ protest:

Thousands more deaths in Iraq will not make things right. It will set off a spiral of conflict, of hate, or misery, of desperation, that will fuel the wars, the conflict, the terrorism, the depression and the misery of future generations.

If Jeremy Corbyn is wrong about anything, it was his claim that there would be “Thousands more deaths in Iraq”. The figure is close to one million.

It is surely correct to argue that teachers have a vital part to pay in education about terrorism. To be clear, I am not talking the teaching the teachers about how to recognise the warning signs of extremism. I am talking about teaching children, young people and also adults (for those in the adult education sector) social, political and media literacy. There needs to be social literacy education about the dangers of social exclusion, of discrimination against the Muslim community, about how the dehumanization, exclusion, prejudice, marginalisation and discrimination against Muslims can inflame and fuel extremism. It means teaching students about the dangers of an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ attitude which has the effect of cutting off lines of communication between ‘them’ which in turn forgoes any hope of understanding the grievances of those who are marginalised and on the verge of extremism. As Professor Fathali Moghaddam of Georgetown University argues, “Such categorization only endorses the views of fundamentalists and increases the probability that more individuals will climb the staircase to commit terrorist acts.” There also needs to be media literacy education which teaches how to recognise ‘fake news’, how to recognise dehumanizing imagery and language and one which examines the role of the media in perpetuating false and dangerously misleading stereotypes.

This type of education is already taking place, but it needs to be considerably broadened as part of a fully-fledged civics and citizenship education curriculum. The Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab (CELL) in the US for example offers educators lesson plans to help foster critical thinking about terrorism. But these lessons are not mandatory and is dependent on the enthusiasm an initiative of individual teachers.

Counterterrorism education should not also be about knowledge of psychological, sociological and historical dynamics such as the ones I have briefly touched upon above. What is also needed is an atmosphere of healthy discussion and open debate. Discussion on the impact on foreign policy is one small example of this. With every terrorist attack, there now seems to be a small palate of ‘acceptable’ responses, revolving around things such as changing your Facebook profile picture, proclaiming that hate will not win and that your ‘thoughts and prayers’ are with the victims. Jeremy Corbyn’s response was something a little different. It’s a response that asks us to think critically about why Islamist extremists are intent on disrupting the flow of ordinary life. It is a response that asks us to ask questions, to demand explanations and to seek out the difficult answers. Our response to terrorism is becoming scarily routine and predictable and it is very possible that debate will become tiresome, meaning the mistakes of the past could very well be repeated. We need to give all people of all ages the education that enables them to meaningfully debate the causes of terrorism and the tools which can help confront the hate and prejudice which gives rise to all extremism.