Lessons for David Cameron on countering extremism

Published under Creative Commons

David Cameron has announced measures to combat extremism at home and abroad in his government’s most comprehensive anti-terror strategy to date. It comes just two weeks after the tenth anniversary of the 2005 London bombings, and barely a month after 30 Britons were slaughtered by an extremist in Tunisia.


Cameron’s plans will focus on young people, who are often targeted for radicalisation by extremists. The government will ‘incentivise’ integration in schools and universities by establishing engagement forums. Students and staff at universities will be urged to challenge the views of extremist speakers.

These measures remind us of a startling and brutal fact: the young are at the heart of extremist activity and radicalisation, as with conflict, is a process that needs to be interrupted early. Responses to conflict breakouts, while necessary in itself, acknowledge the failure of violence anticipation and disruption. Similarly, when cadres of impressionable youth wreak unspeakable suffering on the lives of others we must, in its wake, attempt to face up to this devastating loss of innocence and act on its root causes.

“No-one becomes a terrorist from a standing start”, said Cameron in his speech. Peacebuilding organisations such as Aware Girls, based in north-western Pakistan, recognise this fact. They are finding great success with streamlined, locally-tailored efforts, tackling the root causes of extremism. More than 50,000 people have died in terrorist attacks in Pakistan in the last decade. In the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region, where Aware Girls work, 31 people have been killed and 63 injured in suicide attacks in 2015 alone. Pakistani forces have struggled to maintain control in the region, international intervention efforts remain politically difficult and are often met with hostility by extremists on the ground.

Gulalai Ismail, founder of Aware Girls

The organisation believes that young people are best equipped to respond to their own struggles. They contest the vacuum left in society by a lack of a credible representation for young people, by teaching volunteers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA the value of positive social engagement. They understand the central role women should play in filling this void. They see a deeper integration of young women in society as an essential tool for unlocking improved inter-ethnic dialogue, and unpacking growing insecurity.

Gulalai was absorbingly candid when, during her appearance on the BBC World Service earlier this year, she laid out the blueprint of her work. “The Taliban are promoting militancy among young people”, she said, “we are promoting non-violence. They are promoting hatred, we are promoting harmony by bringing people of different cultures together.”

The precious value of this work is never more apparent than when reading the personal accounts of those affected by her work in Pakistan. Peace Direct readers will be able to hear first-hand from former Islamist combatants in Pakistan in our upcoming Peace Action newsletter. If you are not already signed up to our mailing list, you can do so now by clicking this link.

We look forward to sharing their story with you.

This article was originally published, revised, on July 22, 2015 over at Peace Direct