Terrorist “Diversion”

James K. Glassman has a thought-provoking piece on the success of Colombia’s anti-terrorism strategy, and its potential applicability in the fight against Islamic terrorism. He writes, “Since 2005, about 48,000 members of armed groups of both left and right have been demobilized, many through the encouragement of sophisticated strategic communications programs that include text-messaging and MTV-style videos aimed at young FARC fighters.” Here’s an example:

Consider a shy teenager named Flor. She says that she left her rural home at age 12 to join the FARC because it would be ”an adventure.” But she quickly found it was a terrible mistake — a life of brutality and isolation in the jungles of central Colombia. Once you’re in the FARC, she says, you’re in for life: “They told us that if we tried to leave, they would kill us.”

And there’s the rub. What do productive citizens of, say, Yemen or Afghanistan do? Especially the females? Supposing they don’t want to be “married” off to a septuagenarian uncle. What is there to “reintegrate” them into? I’m all for working with former enemies, à la Sunni Iraq, but if the only lifestyle options for repentant terrorists are matrimonial slavery for women and clerical servitude for men, they’re going to start to wonder why they went straight in the first place.

As Glassman puts it: “An effective anti-terrorist strategy must both undermine the ideology of a violent extremist group and disrupt its flow of recruits by offering productive alternatives for young people.” This is why the political dimension of the War on Terror is more than a neoconservative pipedream or a fanciful “democracy crusade.” With enough ingenuity, time, and firepower, U.S. forces can crush an endless succession of Salafist and Mahdi groups, but the victories won’t stick without the national institutions that make people “productive citizens.” The fact that these institutions are now popping up in Iraq makes it puzzling that anyone hoping to decisively win the War on Terror would be in a rush to pull out U.S. troops.

The strategy at work in Colombia “is called ‘diversion’ — the channeling of young people away from violence with the attractions of technology, sports, culture, education and entrepreneurship.” All of which are on the rise in Iraq. From their winning soccer team to the opportunities provided by international investment, there’s ample evidence of the work of citizenship underway. There is, after all, another word for the collective attractions Glassman mentions, and for the system that enables free people to enjoy them: Democracy.