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U.K. and U.S. Approaches to Countering Radicalization: Intelligence, Communities and the Internet--Closing Remarks

Speaker: Steven Simon, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider: James M. Lindsay, Director of Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
April 1, 2011, Washington, D.C.
Council on Foreign Relations

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This session was part of the symposium, UK and U.S. Approaches in Countering Radicalization: Intelligence, Communities, and the Internet, which was cosponsored with Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies and King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation. This event was made possible by Georgetown University's George T. Kalaris Intelligence Studies Fund and the generous support of longtime CFR member Rita E. Hauser. Additionally, this event was organized in cooperation with the CFR’s Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative.

STEVEN SIMON:  My main job in closing the conference is, first, that somebody needs to close the conference, and -- (chuckles) -- so I am he.  The second is to thank our sponsors once again because the conference was so incredibly rich and timely; the George T. Kalaris Intelligence Studies Fund and Rita Hauser, who was a long-time friend of the council and a very generous contributor.  So thank you to both of those funding sources for this event.

I think, you know, what struck me about the conference was how it shows that, at least in the domain, counter-radicalization, terrorism and so forth, the U.S. and U.K. are not two great nations separated by a common language, as Winston Churchill once described them.  Indeed, I saw a lot of agreement between our two great countries.

In some instances, I was a little -- I was left a little bit unsatisfied, I have to say.  So, for example, there was a good deal of agreement on the need for integration and the focus of integration as a counter-radicalization tool.  And I think that's certainly true to some extent except we know that some attacks are carried out by people whom, by almost every index we could imagine are, in fact, integrated.  So what is going on there?  I think that will need to be unpacked a bit.

The other point of agreement that I found so striking and worthwhile was this search in both countries for a mechanism actually to implement counter-radicalization programs.  Who does it?  You know, in America, we would say, well, whose belly button do you press to make this happen, to make somebody do something.  The U.K. seems to be more successful in this regard.  Maybe that should be a provisional judgment.  But after a good deal of trial and error, I think they're on the way to finding a mechanism.

In the U.S., I think it was clear from much of the discussion we're still searching for a way to organize government to implement counter-radicalization programs.  And, of course, when you think about it, there isn't a logical address in the U.S. government or a belly button to press around an interagency table to do these sorts of -- these sorts of things.

The other thing that I was struck by was the consensus, I think, on both sides of the Atlantic that, at the end of the day, the solution -- both the problem and the solution emerge from communities.  And that's where we're going to have to look.  And, of course, this is, in turn, one of the reasons why it's so difficult at least on the U.S. side for the federal government to organize to do this sort of thing -- to do counter-radicalization, to pull together law enforcement, educational institutions and agencies and social services to, for example, identify kids at a relatively early stage in their development as vulnerable to radicalization, which is, of course, what the British do in their Channel program.

There are a few other things that I would flag as having been interesting, to me, anyway, during the course of this conference.  And the one is something that was in Dame Pauline Neville-Jones' remarks where she got to the question of who do we talk to.  Who is it legitimate -- who is it wise, prudent and legitimate to talk to on the other side?  And, you know, the one line in her remarks tended to conceal what has been a very serious debate in British law enforcement, particularly about how close to the line of violence can government get -- how close to the line of violent groups can government get in talking to radicals?

And, you know, the two sides of this argument, you know, were made, you know, pretty vigorously and passionately.  On the one hand, there were those who said, look, if you really want to talk to people who are the most credible and who can give you the best information about those in the community that you need to be concerned about, you need to be talking to those who are right up to the line.  As the British would say -- or did say in that debate, closest to the fire.

Well, Dame Pauline certainly came out on the other side in her remarks, and perhaps that's wise.  The future will tell.  The merits of the case, you know, I think are closely matched because, as she said, one doesn't want to empower those who provide a justification for violence even if they don't actually prescribe it.

The other thing that struck me as particularly useful for an American audience was Sir John Scarlett's caution not to politicize the issue.  I think that's really key.  I think, in fact, it's profound at least in an American context to say something like that.

And also, I think that panel's overall judgment that overreaction was not a really good idea.  And overreaction, in fact, can be a particularly bad idea.  In the research on radicalization, there's been particularly interesting case studies done of Egypt, Algeria and Turkey which tended to show that when the government response was indiscriminate, particularly on the policing side of things, people who were on the fence or perhaps were radicalized but not yet violent would make the rational choice to pick up a gun.

I also liked the points made about the Internet which tended not to overdramatize the issue.  After all, pamphleting was a major factor in radical sentiment in the success of the French Revolution, just as audio cassettes were a factor in the Islamic Revolution.  So, you know, so far, all this internet stuff hasn't created a bin Laden revolution.

The last on this list, I think, is it would have been interesting to hear more just about the culture of cool and the role that the culture of cool, especially in the age cohort we're talking about, is instrumental or a powerful factor in drawing youth to radical culture.  And in this context, Norman Mailer's famous essay, "White Negro," is probably just as good a guide to the radicalization of suburban American youth as anything else.

I'll just, you know, close by saying that I think, you know, the study of radicalization is especially important as a discipline, as it were, unto itself because, you know, the fact is that radicalization will continue to be a factor in the political life of both the United States and the United Kingdom long after Muslims have finally been fully integrated and are not the issue themselves.

We will have other radicalized groups or populations to contend with in order to preserve the integrity of our societies and our social fabric.  And the more we know about radicalization as a phenomenon, the better off we will be for many years into the future.

Thank you all for coming to this conference, and thanks to our participants and panelists.  (Applause.)

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