By Alex Tiersky,
Global Security and Political-Military Affairs Advisor
Several hundred officials, academics, journalists, NGO representatives and youth ambassadors gathered in Vienna on May 23-24, 2017 for the OSCE’s annual counterterrorism conference. The event was convened around the subject of “Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism and Radicalization that Lead to Terrorism.”
The subject matter could hardly have been more pressing, with the conference taking place in the immediate wake of the tragic terrorist attack in Manchester, England. That attack – and those suffered by so many OSCE participating States in recent months and years – served to heighten the sense of urgency towards finding ways to address all aspects of the problem, from effectively preventing radicalization that leads to violence, to ensuring societies are resilient in the face of future attacks.
OSCE participating States were particularly concerned about the continued threat posed by so-called “foreign terrorist fighters” – citizens of their countries who traveled abroad to fight, in particular to Iraq and Syria, who could return with the intent to inflict attacks on their home countries. Experts at the meeting voiced concern that many countries are unprepared for the challenge of mitigating any threat posed by these individuals – including children who may have been radicalized as a result of travel as part of families – upon their return.
Youth are particularly vulnerable to radicalization and a key element of any sustainable and effective strategy to counter it, according to the OSCE Chair-in-Office, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz. He stated that recent OSCE youth workshops had called for greater inclusion of young people in anti-radicalization discussions and strategies; efforts to eliminate propaganda from social media; and broader dissemination of narratives describing the negative results of radicalization.
Conference participants differed somewhat on whether best practices in countering extremism developed in one country were universally applicable, or whether local (or even family-level) actors, who may be best placed to identify early warning signs of radicalization and counter it, should be emphasized.
Still, most participants underlined that counterterrorism approaches that failed to emphasize the rule of law, fundamental freedoms, and support to civil society, or that singled out religious or ethnic communities, would ultimately prove counterproductive.
The OSCE itself served as a useful platform on this issue, according to head of the U.S. Delegation Irfan Saeed (the Director of the Department of State’s Office of Countering Violent Extremism), who commended ongoing OSCE programs such as the capacity-building work of OSCE Field Missions and the #UnitedCVE social media campaign. Among the many recommendations offered by various conference participants for heightened national or international efforts were the following:
- Supporting capacity building efforts by OSCE field missions in the Balkans and Central Asia.
- Strengthening border controls.
- Improving governmental interoperability of information systems and access to encrypted information, as well as the ability to process large amounts of data rapidly.
- Increasing the sharing of biometric data collection to improve effectiveness of policing and border controls.
- Greater sharing of financial information to detect terrorist networks and their financing.
- Ensuring cooperation between local communities and law enforcement.
- Fighting online radicalization and propaganda, in collaboration with the private sector.
- Addressing the particular vulnerabilities of women and girls and empowering their contributions to countering extremism.
- Strengthening legal systems to prevent impunity.
- Using data-driven approaches to assess the effectiveness of programs.
- Developing and promoting a positive, inclusive vision for Western societies to serve as an alternative to the hate-filled narrative of violent groups.
- Combatting the challenge of radicalization in prisons.
Despite a number of areas of agreement, there were some differences of opinion among the conference participants, including how prominently values should feature in any counterterrorism approach; the characterization of specific groups as “terrorist;” or the use of censorship to address potentially extremist speech on line.
One consistently outlying view was expressed by Russian delegates, including Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov, who claimed that (unnamed) partners often committed only rhetorically to countering terrorism rather than acting as part of a global anti-terrorist front, and chastised Western partners who, he said, put their own “geopolitical ambitions” above the need to counter terrorism. Other Russian interventions included accusations that Western states tolerated or even supported terrorist groups and suggestions that excessive liberalism allowed for terrorists to go unchecked in Western societies. The interventions served as a reminder of the obstacles that remain to fully maximizing the utility of international cooperation to address this common challenge.
Alex Tiersky attended the conference as a member of the U.S. delegation, which was led by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism.