Violent Extremism and Crisis Management
Violent Extremism and Crisis Management
A Pivotal Moment for EU Foreign Policy
A Pivotal Moment for EU Foreign Policy
Speech / Global 17 minutes

Violent Extremism and Crisis Management

Speech by Richard Atwood, International Crisis Group’s Director of Multilateral Affairs & Head of New York Office, to the UN’s Group of Friends on Counter-Terrorism Meeting.

Thank you very much Ambassador. It’s an honour to be invited to speak on this critical topic and as part of such an important initiative.

I work for the International Crisis Group, an organisation that works to help prevent or end conflicts. We have experts in 40 or so countries, many of those suffering violent extremism. We try to talk to all sides in a crisis. We try to be a balanced source of analysis and policy advice to policymakers in and outside the countries affected. It’s the expertise of our analysts across the world that I’ll draw on in our discussion.

Crisis Group has been around for twenty years. This is probably the most difficult era we’ve worked in. There are more wars, they’re more difficult to end, and they’ve changed. One change has been in the nature of some of the groups fighting – particularly groups the UN now calls “violent extremists”.

These groups often combine radical ideology and terrorist attacks with insurgency or even conventional warfare. They may draw support from communities with legitimate political or economic grievances while getting funding through criminal activities. Some control and govern territory while claiming to want to overturn the state system. They are, I think, as much a symptom of instability in today’s world as its cause. A main question for our session is whether the UN and its members have the tools and can unite to counter this type of threat.

So let me look, first, at the nature of these groups and the threat they pose in some of today’s gravest crises; second, at some of the UN’s responses so far; and, third, at some of the policy dilemmas they raise.


Four years ago things looked quite different. The revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen seemed to herald a change in Arab politics. It looked like the al-Qaeda insurgency in Iraq, the precursor to the Islamic State, had been at least weakened. Osama Bin Laden was killed. In Somalia, Al-Shabaab was strong but radical ideology didn’t – or didn’t appear to – play much of a role in other African crises. Overall violent extremist groups appeared less dangerous than at any time since the September 11th attacks a decade earlier.

Now, of course, the picture has changed.

The Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh – an alliance of former regime and army officials, a new generation of extremists and tens of thousands of foreign fighters – controls a large part of Iraq and Syria.

Its violence, its sectarianism, its rule of territory, its proclaimed goal of establishing a caliphate that sweeps away existing borders – many of these we’ve seen before. But what’s new are the scale, the size of the area it controls, its funding, its military prowess, the speed with which foreign fighters have arrived, the range of countries they come from. It uses asymmetric tactics but it’s a conventional army as much as an insurgent or terrorist group. It can fight on at least two fronts. At the moment it seems almost invincible, particularly because an alternative that disaffected Sunnis can get behind instead of IS looks unlikely to emerge any time soon.

In Syria, other extremist groups profit from the conflict’s radicalisation and its regionalisation. An al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, is the strongest force in the opposition, while others, like Ahrar al-Sham, also appear to have transnational ties, though for the moment both are focused on fighting in Syria and are composed mostly of Syrians. The bombing campaign in Yemen has strengthened Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which now controls towns and has new alliances in the south and east. Many of the weapons being pumped in to groups fighting the Huthis are likely to end up in extremists’ hands – in Yemen and in the Horn of Africa.

In Somalia – where, again, many of these weapons may end up – African Union forces have pushed Al-Shabaab out of major towns. But it is clearly not defeated. It has thousands of fighters in the Juba Valley. It has an increasing presence in Puntland, around Bosaso port in the north, which could allow it to exploit Yemen’s instability and its long-established ties to the al-Qaeda affiliate there. Nor is Al-Shabaab contained in Somalia. It poses an increasing threat to neighbours, especially Kenya.

Other crises in Africa are also affected. In Libya, Ansar al-Sharia and IS-affiliated militias control pockets of towns, often those with histories of radicalism. IS has expanded its control around Sirte over the past two weeks. We estimate that its fighters across the country now number between one and two thousand, including some foreigners and some with experience abroad, particularly in the Levant. The two main military coalitions are far more numerous and powerful but without a political agreement between Tobruk and Tripoli they are mostly fighting each other not extremists.

If Yemen’s crisis threatens the Horn, Libya’s has destabilised the Sahel. French and African Union forces pushed out of main population centres the extremist groups that captured northern Mali – and its smuggling routes – in 2012. But many simply dispersed into communities or across borders. Without a comprehensive peace deal, some of the predominantly Tuareg nationalist movements may be pushed into rekindling already fluid ties to extremists. Boko Haram, the latest in a series of extremist groups that have blighted northern Nigeria, has morphed from isolated sect into regional threat, not least because of an initially inept and brutal response. Despite what now appear to be more effective – though still much too heavy-handed – operations by Nigerian and Chadian forces, Boko Haram still terrorises a large area around Lake Chad.

And in South Asia, Afghanistan is suffering its worst fighting season for years. The Taliban’s increasingly sophisticated offensives threaten major towns, perhaps even in the north. A deal with its leaders appears some way off and, even if feasible, could lead more violent splinter groups to proclaim allegiance to IS. In Pakistan, despite military operations, extremists still operate in the tribal areas, the Punjab and cities like Karachi

So overall it’s a gloomy picture, certainly compared with a few years ago. Violent extremism is part of many, if not most, of the crises on the Security Council’s agenda. Extremist groups no longer act on the peripheries. They’re not a few guys making bombs in basements or caves. Some have advanced weaponry, often captured from their opponents. Some are among the most formidable fighting forces in crises engulfing whole regions. They pose a strategic threat.


That said, it’s difficult to generalise about what are very different groups. In fact, perhaps the one characteristic they share is their roots in local conditions. Their goals, their tactics, their capability, their levels of violence, their sectarianism, sometimes even their implementation of Sharia – these tend to reflect the places they’re fighting in, even if they have transnational ties, even if they attract foreign fighters.

The wars they fight in – some are old, some newer. But most are multi-layered. Our analysts in many places report how violent extremism plays into local competition for power, land, other resources. It can map onto struggles for national power.

So when our expert in Afghanistan talks to villagers in the south, many see violence there not as a battle between the Kabul government and its international allies on one hand and transnational extremists on the other. They’ll see it as the latest phase in a more-than-three-decades long civil war, often involving local grievances and rivalries. Although Boko Haram claims allegiance to IS, it is very much rooted in the political economy and underdevelopment of northern Nigeria. We can’t understand the rise of IS without looking at the way Sunnis have been treated in Iraq and Syria – the lack of alternative forms of protection or representation, the extreme violence they have suffered, often at least matching that of IS (and although we’re talking here mostly about Sunni extremism, clearly in much of the Middle East that is interlinked with, and mirrored by, escalating violence and radicalisation on the side of Shia-dominated governments and allied militias).

To miss this element – to frame these crises only as struggles between fanatics on the one hand and moderate allies on the other, rather than as multi-layered, complex conflicts, with almost all sides guilty of horrific violence – is misleading. In fact grave violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, by extremists and by their state and non-state rivals, have been a common element to many of these crises.

It’s also misleading to define these groups as just terrorists.

They combine terrorist tactics with conventional or insurgent warfare. IS’s recent capture of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province, saw massive suicide vehicle-borne IEDs break defences and then assaults by ground forces. Al-Shabaab and the Taliban use terrorist attacks to destabilise areas they don’t control, while they tax and provide basic services in areas they do. Most of these groups play pragmatic tribal or clan politics, co-opting some, threatening others. They appear extremely resilient, adapting tactics depending on how much territory they control. They clearly learn from each other.

But it’s a mistake too to see all violent extremists as united. The fight between al-Nusra and IS in Syria reflects a wider split between al-Qaeda and IS, a split that’s personal, between leaders, but also reflects genuine disagreement over tactics and strategy. Similar tensions exist within movements, between indigenous and foreign fighters, for example, or between local and transnational goals. The rise of IS may mean that groups splinter, with some pledging allegiance to IS and others remaining nominally affiliated – though rarely in any direct operational way – to al-Qaeda.


Responses to these groups have also tended to be different in different places, which makes sense. Each group, each crisis is different. Each needs a tailored response. For the UN, particularly the Security Council and Secretariat, a few models may be emerging.

Sometimes, of course, the UN is not involved. Countries try to deal with the problem themselves: Egypt in the Sinai, for example; Algeria in its south; or Pakistan, generally fighting its own campaign against some – though not all – groups in the tribal areas, alongside U.S. drone strikes.

Or they might work together without the UN, like the Lake Chad Basin countries and Benin are doing with the Multinational Joint Task Force to fight Boko Haram. Basically these states are saying: we’re not weak states, we just have a problem that crosses borders and we need each other’s help. Maybe we’ll get support from the African Union. Maybe we’ll get a Security Council resolution – though for the Joint Task Force that now appears unlikely. But we’ll do most of the fighting and outreach, if there is any, ourselves.

A third option is UN peacekeepers, like in Mali. The Security Council deployed a mission, after the French Serval and African Union operations but alongside Barkhane, to help the state return to the north, protect civilians, stabilise population centres and steer a political process that can maybe pull those groups that can be reconciled away from those that can’t.

Mali has, however, been a difficult experience for the UN: prickly relations with Bamako; at times one step removed from the mediation, which Algeria ended up leading; a muddled mandate, mostly because Council members were motivated by counter-terrorism as much as stabilisation or genuine reconciliation between north and south or within the north. It’s also been difficult, though, because of the tragic number of casualties. Of all the groups we’re talking about those in Mali are certainly not the most potent. But their tactics, especially IEDs, have proven challenging for peacekeepers. It’s not clear that, as currently configured, UN peace operations work in these contexts, even if peacekeepers don’t fight extremists themselves.

A fourth model is a UN special political mission alongside national and international – but non-UN – forces.

In Somalia, an African Union mission, AMISOM, is fighting Al-Shabaab, taking high casualties, and in Kenya’s case serious blowback, alongside UN political and support missions. In Afghanistan and Iraq, up to the U.S. withdrawal, UN political missions were deployed alongside NATO or U.S. and Afghan or Iraqi forces. They were trying – though I think it’s fair to say without much success and maybe not always that much influence – to help build an inclusive political system that people can support instead of extremism.

It’s easy to see how this model – a UN political mission alongside non-UN forces – might be used again, especially given the difficulties in Mali. But it clearly has challenges. It’s difficult for the UN to stay neutral (though this is a wider challenge in crises involving extremists). Separating the coercive from the political side of an intervention can undermine both. Involving neighbours, who obviously have the strongest incentives to get involved but also the strongest national interests, can regionalise wars.

And military intervention in itself poses challenges: the presence of foreign troops was a driver of all three insurgencies – in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq; but in all three, once insurgencies gathered force, it becomes difficult to pull them out. AMISOM has been in Somalia more than eight years, but if it withdrew, Al-Shabaab would probably take back Mogadishu. The U.S.’s presence and policies in Iraq was a major factor behind the rise of what is now IS; but with hindsight it is not clear that pulling out was wise either. Nor is it clear how well the Afghan security forces would fare without international support.

Libya is a fifth model. No foreign military, though a UN envoy trying to strike a deal between the two main coalitions so that a unity government can then take on extremists. But he faces strong pressure from some regional powers for more explicit military backing to Tobruk; and from Europeans who are starting to view the crisis predominantly through the lens of migration.

And last we have Iraq since the U.S. withdrawal, Syria and Yemen. All are more difficult to define because of the fierce regional and international politics.

Overall the strategy against IS appears aimed more at its containment than its defeat. In Iraq, I don’t want to simplify, but basically there’s support to the Iraqi army and non-state militias; airstrikes, though not so many, against IS; efforts to curtail its funding and to stop foreigners travelling to join up; and some half-hearted attempts to give Sunnis more power, though Prime Minister Abadi has done more than his predecessor. But it’s mostly force, the UN plays no central role, and, again, the chance of an alternative to IS emerging that Sunnis will support appears slim.

In Syria, airstrikes target IS and al-Nusra; the U.S. is training vetted forces, though tiny numbers; and regional powers have now ramped-up support to rebels. But major disagreements on the Security Council and in the region over the role the Assad government should play have made the work of successive UN envoys impossible. And then in Yemen, at the moment the focus is on primarily the Huthis and less the dangerous branch of al-Qaeda.

Laid on top of all this there are cross-cutting policies: sanctions; other efforts to curtail extremists’ smuggling of oil or other resources; measures to stem the flows of foreign fighters both to and from wars; and much new work to counter violent extremism. All are important, of course, but in the war zones I talked about their impact is, while not peripheral, also not immediate.


These very different forms of crisis response often face a set of similar policy dilemmas. I mentioned already some related to peacekeepers and occupation. Let me look at four more.

An overarching one is how to strike the right balance between policies rooted in counter-terrorism and those rooted in conflict management. Is the main goal to kill or contain terrorists, through drone strikes and other targeted killings, arming militias, bombing campaigns, cutting off financing? Or is it to help forge reasonably inclusive political settlements, strengthen state institutions and win over populations?

In each place, responses have usually involved a combination – maybe they have to. But it’s not clear the balance has been right or even, in places, what the end goal is.

Partly this is because the presence of extremist groups tends to push policy toward counter-terrorism. While extremists may enjoy support from communities with legitimate grievances, their ideology and demands can be hard to accommodate in a political process. Particularly across the Middle East and parts of Africa, they profit from states’ loss of legitimacy, crumbling state institutions, weak morale in regular army ranks. But reversing those trends, even if possible, could take decades and in some places, like Iraq, those best equipped to fight extremists are other non-state militias, whose empowerment further weakens central state institutions even as they try – for the moment at least – to preserve the ruling order. Plus, the 1373 committee’s recent report on foreign fighters argued there appeared to be “no short-term possibility of ending certain conflicts” and even if IS could be defeated, its demise might scatter foreign terrorist fighters across the world.

So a focus on counter-terrorism – on managing symptoms of crises rather than trying to end them – is understandable.

But from what we see across the different places our experts cover, it’s unlikely to work. It’s probably not possible to defeat or even contain these groups unless the conflicts they feed off are brought under control. The longer wars continue, the stronger, the more entrenched, extremist groups will get and the graver threat they’ll pose even far beyond that theatre.

A related challenge relates to engagement.

There’s usually a line drawn between groups or individuals that are seen as reconcilable and those seen as irreconcilable, between those that can be dealt with, can be part of a political process, and those that can’t. Of course in each crisis different governments, different parts of the UN, may draw this line in different places. But how do they do this? Are lines static? How helpful are they?

It’s difficult to see some of the current crop of leaders – Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi in Iraq, Abubakar Shekau of Boko Haram, Abu Ubaidah in Somalia, Ayman al-Zawahiri, for example – being brought in. But in some places the line is in the wrong place. Casting all political Islamists as violent extremists seems a mistake, for example. In Afghanistan, in Palestine, maybe in Mali, probably during the time of the Islamic Courts in Somalia, some groups that perhaps could have been engaged weren’t.

The third, again related, challenge relates to the divisions within and between groups I mentioned earlier. Ideally, a strategy to contain these groups would look to exploit these divisions. But even if that’s difficult – and of course trying to play the internal politics of groups is risky – at least avoid policies that do the opposite, that unite them or that drive communities into supporting them. It’s easy to find examples of indiscriminate military operations, arrests, repression of communities, lumping different currents together that have done that.

And a last challenge – perhaps in this forum the most sensitive but one we should be honest about – is how to get states to take the threat seriously. That may sound strange. Of course all leaders agree on the danger of violent extremism.

But in fact many disagree over how to tackle individual groups and how high a priority doing so is. At the moment, some appear more eager to contain rivals than genuinely tackle extremism. Even worse, a common thread running through the history of these groups is attempts by states or leaders to use them against their opponents, only to see them, inevitably, slip their control. I don’t need to mention here who’s guilty. But it’s a long list, stretching back at least to the radicalisation of the mujahidin in Afghanistan more than a quarter-century ago.


A look back at violent extremism over past couple of decades suggests a number of phases (again I realise I’m simplifying here):

One was when fighters mobilised for the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan returned to join uprisings or shelter in places like Algeria, Chechnya, Libya and Sudan. For the most part crushed in or ejected from those countries, toward the end of the nineties some retreated back to camps in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. After the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban’s defeat in Afghanistan scattered many again, though others remained in the Pakistani tribal areas

Then the U.S. invaded Iraq, adopted its de-Baathification policy, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda insurgency escalated. Its extreme violence alienated communities, and the awakening, which saw Sunni tribes’ partner with U.S. troops, beat it back. The Arab Spring at first seemed to mark another defeat for violent extremists, particularly as it initially benefitted Islamists who were prepared to contest elections and might have ended up as an alternative to extremism. But then the Syria conflict radicalised; Prime Minister Maliki’s government again cracked down on Sunnis, including those that had risen up before against al-Qaeda; the Iraqi insurgency re-emerged as IS; extremism gained a more prominent role in more African crises; and now Libya and Yemen are escalating.

So the last few years have seen peaks and troughs – but with each peak getting higher. Are we now on the tip of another peak or will the spread and influence of violent extremist groups keep expanding?

What’s clear is that the main factor that has determined these groups’ strength is not their ideology, however deeply held it is by some, however it helps recruitment, particularly of foreign fighters, and however much well-funded proselytising of less tolerant forms of religion has created fertile ground.

What determines their strength is the combination of wider geopolitical currents and opportunities presented by local conflicts. Perhaps the main cause of the most recent resurgence of violent extremism is the instability, the fierce geopolitics, in the Middle East. So the counter-terrorism measures, sanctions, CVE – all these are, as I said, important. But as long as brutal, sectarian wars engulf the Middle East, these groups will probably get stronger. And sadly parts of Africa are likely to suffer the harsh consequences of wars further north.

Last, although this session is on crisis management, let me say a word about conflict prevention, which at the UN we all talk about but still proves challenging. Violent extremist groups bring a new urgency to prevention. Few of these conflicts were initially about violent extremism. That element comes later, as movements radicalise and attract foreign fighters. But once it’s there, crises are much more difficult to resolve.

Many of the deadliest crises on the Security Council’s agenda affect a belt running across from West Africa to South Asia. Its northern tip runs through the Sahel to North Africa and the Levant and its southern side the Great Lakes to the Horn and Yemen. I’m not saying this is a contiguous war zone or arc of instability – not at all. But quite a number of states, or parts of states, in this belt face crises. And most – not all, but most – of these crises have a violent extremist element.

Other states in this belt appear fragile. They confront stresses similar to those that are already suffering crises. Others are stronger, of course, but some of these stronger states are competing with each other, often using weaker states as a venue for that competition. And even some stronger states have their own problems ahead – succession challenges, leaders relying on a narrowing support base, youth bulges

So a second strategic challenge, one that will also determine how much violent extremism spreads, is stopping other states in that belt from succumbing. We can see how some – in the Lake Chad Basin, the Sahel, North Africa, the Horn, certainly Central Asia, perhaps even the Gulf – might be vulnerable.

Thank you again very much for the opportunity to speak to the group today.

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