This article was originally published on the 11th of September 2021 in SCMP
Twenty years ago today, we awoke to a very different world than the one we knew before. The tragic attack on New York’s iconic twin towers by operatives of al-Qaeda has forever etched September 11 as another date that will live in infamy, when the world witnessed a terrorist attack unprecedented in scale and lethality.
But two decades on, the memory of the attack continues to serve as a painful reminder that we still have a long way to go in building bridges.
There still exist wide rifts that separate communities of different faiths, cultures, and even civilizations. This divide is being abused and exploited by terrorist and violent extremist groups that seek to forcibly impose their way of thinking upon the masses.
The most troubling development has been the ability of some of these groups to inspire those not directly related to or affiliated with them to carry out violent attacks on their behalf. Some of these individuals have been known to self-radicalize exclusively through reading and viewing terrorist material online.
By showing how to use everyday things such as knives and trucks, the modus operandi of this new breed of terrorists makes them even harder to detect and prevent via traditional means.
This is why it has become crucial for us to find ways to prevent and counter the spread of the influence and propaganda of terrorist groups, particularly on the internet and social media, before it translates into action.
In recent times, one of the groups best known for the ability to inspire unconventional actors to fight for their cause has been Daesh, or Islamic State (Isis).
Despite having lost the territories under their so-called “Caliphate”, their loyal followers consider these losses to be a temporary setback.
Experts also believe that they have used their supposed decline as an opportunity to turn stories of their defeat into powerful narratives that can attract a new generation of young and able followers into their ranks.
Terrorism and violent extremism are complex problems that have no easy answers. The deaths of Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi did not lead to the disappearance of al-Qaeda or Daesh.
Their militant capabilities remain strong, as we saw with the attack by Isis-K on Kabul International Airport as recently as last month. Such events galvanize their supporters and encourage others, especially the youth, to follow their path. The war cry of Daesh, baqiya wa tatamaddad, meaning ‘expanding and remaining’, is a powerful embodiment of this narrative.
But in confronting and overcoming the scourge of terrorism, we must be wary of those who may seek to take advantage of our outrage against such senseless violence. It is far too easy for some to use the threat of terrorism to suppress legitimate dissent and opposition.
Sometimes, in exchange for a false sense of security against terrorism, we not only witness injustices but turn a blind eye when it occurs. However, we must remember that such injustices could only trigger grievances that feed and grow the next generation of terrorists.
Fawaz Gerges, in his seminal work A History of Isis, observed that the defeat of a group like Daesh would require political and social strategies that can deny it the “oxygen” to survive.
Criticizing political authoritarianism, the breakdown of state institutions, and the rise of sectarianism as factors that have benefited the radical movements supporting Daesh, he argues that what is needed is a genuine political reconciliation among the ethnic and religious communities in conflict and the reconstruction of fragile state institutions.
Focusing on the Middle East, Gerges points out that the suppression of mainstream religious movements has led to a vacuum of ideas, giving more radical elements a “market” to offer their more selective and harsher alternative interpretations of religious scripture.
A solution offered by Gerges is that membership in a nation-state should be based on citizenship and rule of law, rather than religious, ethnic, and tribal affiliation and that the religious and educational curricula should be founded on tolerance.
This is why it is now more important than ever for us to develop our understanding of terrorism and violent extremism, and identify solutions within our contexts. We need to better understand the changing dynamics of terrorism and how they have an impact on our communities.
For Malaysia, we need to take a deeper look at the many qualities that make up our diverse communities, and how that diversity can be a powerful source of strength and resilience.
It is no longer enough that we tolerate differences, but learn to celebrate and treat them with genuine curiosity and meaningful respect. It is time to work and strengthen our efforts towards a better understanding and application of peaceful coexistence.
In that regard, the Southeast Asia Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism (SEARCCT), under the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is exploring these possibilities and new approaches in its scope of work.
Embarking on several multi-stakeholder efforts that are guided by a whole-of-society approach, the center is reaching out to a wide and diverse range of actors to prevent and counter violent extremism (P/CVE).
Alongside other agencies in Malaysia and across Southeast Asia, SEARCCT seeks to better understand the current and evolving challenges posed by violent extremism, mainly by engaging and collaborating with community leaders, young people, religious influencers, and civil society.
Two decades after the September 11 tragedy, it is time we built on the foundations of peaceful coexistence to foster new bridges that connect and strengthen our diverse communities, altogether making us more resilient against the threat of terrorism and violent extremism.
Saifuddin Abdullah is Malaysia’s Foreign Minister
Disclaimer: The viewpoints and opinions expressed within the content of this article are solely that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of New Malaysia Times or its affiliates.