In her recently released book, Compassionate Counterterrorism: The Power of Inclusion in Fighting Fundamentalism, Leena Al Olaimy, a Bahraini, Muslim, Dalai Lama Fellow, Fulbright scholar, Wall Street Journal “Woman of Note,” and serial social entrepreneur explores how humanizing counterterrorism can 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 Olaimy answers in a sober yet optimistic analysis of how we can transition to a post-fundamentalist future. 

The following excerpt adapted from Chapter 13, invites us to consider the importance of collaborative, synchronized efforts between unlikely bedfellows—peace-builders, militaries and businesses—in preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE).

One of my favorite quotes, which is attributed to the polymath American inventor and futurist, Buckminster Fuller, has profoundly impacted the way I think about my own work and theories of social change. He said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” In terms of the ultimate outcome, I would venture to say that we are more or less aligned: eradicate violent extremism to save lives and enhance the quality of life. Where we diverge is on the approach—fighting the old, versus building the new.

To me, fighting the old means maintaining peace through a threat of coercion; a state known as negative peace. Building the new, on the other hand, means remodeling our societies to become more resilient to violent extremism. It is cultivating the attitudes, institutions, and structures that create and sustain peacefulness, such as inclusive economies and communities. This ambitious and more desirable aspiration is known as positive peace.

If we consider that the prerequisites of successful collaboration—such as trust, transparency, and equality—are also the very foundations of peaceful societies, we may consider widening our purview of what it means to collaborate for peace. Namely, how might we reconfigure largely siloed multi-sector stakeholders, and leverage the tools of capitalism, the technological innovation and resources of the military, and the convening clout of the social sector, to prevent and counter violent extremism (P/CVE)?

In Sri Lanka for instance, public and private sectors were unable to address violence in communities that had been physically displaced to make way for private property developments and luxury hotels. Given that terrorist attacks are the nails in the coffin of a burgeoning tourism industry and have a direct correlation with decreasing tourism’s contribution to a country’s GDP, addressing these grass-root concerns is critical to ensuring that the island state’s peace and profits don’t plummet into an abyss. However, government and business institutions lacked the social capital to engage the disenfranchised, and sometimes disruptive, youth.

A peace building nonprofit, on the other hand, proved to be a far more effective convener—having built trust through years of community engagement. Its conflict transformation approach has been essential to facilitating the process of aligning multi-stakeholder interests (business, government, communities, and youth), and to ensuring that economic development models are inclusive and do not exacerbate simmering ethnic tensions.

Although poverty does not cause terrorism, economic exclusion is one of several drivers of violent extremism. In Nigeria, Kola Masha —whose agricultural social enterprise, Babban Gona, won the distinguished 2017 Skoll Award—asks rhetorically “Why has it become so easy for disgruntled individuals to raise a mini-army? Because young people have limited economic opportunities.” According to Masha, youth in Nigeria face a staggering 50 percent unemployment rate—which means one in two young people are unemployed. One might wonder, however, when Boko Haram is offering cash and a motorcycle, how does Masha get at-risk youth to ditch their symbols of status for tractors and farming?

It turns out youth are much more practical. Most would prefer to stay in their hometowns, he tells me. They only leave in pursuit of economic opportunities, which are largely absent in rural areas. So, to dissuade the youth from leaving to join insurgencies—which is typically their last resort—Masha arms the young men and women with the ability to increase their net income by three and a half times. And he is able to do this through collaborating with a large corporation.

Nestle is Babban Gona’s biggest client, purchasing agricultural inputs from the farmers for its range of nutritional products. It is unclear whether or not Nestle intentionally invests in peace and security, and considers the cost benefits of averting operational risks and business disruptions caused by violence and volatility. Either way, the business case for corporations investing in peace is clear, and they should view such collaborations with social enterprises and civil society as worthwhile economic endeavors in conflict zones.

Another unconventional alliance in Nigeria—this time between security forces and the international nonprofit Search for Common Ground (a Nobel Peace prize nominee)—led to greater stability and enhanced intelligence gathering. Mistrust and fear of security forces overwhelmingly impedes open communication channels between civilians, whose role in thwarting terrorist attacks, violence, and crime is critical. Therefore, measurable improvements in levels of collaboration, trust, and communication between communities and security forces over the course of a three-year multi-stakeholder project designed by Search, was literally a “life-saver”. And an ‘Early Warning System’, which used technologies typically unavailable to rural communities, was vital to project success.

If for no other reason than the fact that historically, military interventions have led to the demise of only 7 percent of terrorist organizations since 1968—with the least amount of success in defeating religious groups—we should seriously reexamine our current counterterrorism approaches. Adopting a collaborative model that falls somewhere between warfare and welfare, could potentially serve as a powerhouse for peace.


Compassionate Counterterrorism: The Power of Inclusion in Fighting Fundamentalism, 2019, is being published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers.