There’s a “Countering Violent Extremism” summit in Sydney today and tomorrow, hosted by Attorney-General George Brandis.

The purpose is for “participants to collaborate to highlight the lies of extremist groups, develop counter narratives and turn vulnerable individuals away from violent extremism”. For the last point, perhaps Brandis can draw on his own experience and explain why it’s not a good idea to simply ignore a letter from a convicted extremist asking if it’s OK to communicate with one of the world’s worst terrorist groups.

In case you think this is a “summit” involving community discussion of the problem of radicalisation, in fact it’s primarily “experts”, officials and politicians (thought none from the world’s largest Muslim country, Indonesia, which is ignoring it) talking about why Muslims get radicalised, rather than anything approaching an actual dialogue with a community that appears underrepresented at the talkfest. Prime Minister Tony Abbott opened the summit by giving a talk about the “tentacles” of the “death cult” reaching out to Australians. Yes, tentacles.

The last CVE summit, hosted by the Americans, is aptly summed up by this picture of Secretary of State John Kerry shaking the hand of the Egyptian Foreign Minister.

Source: US Department of State

The Egyptian government is engaged in systematic human rights abuses involving the murder, torture and imprisonment of thousands of political opponents, mostly of the Muslim Brotherhood, now once again banned. So bad is the situation in Egypt that even the Obama administration sent a critical report to Congress about it, but still insisted on handing its government yet more military aid. The Egyptian government also plans to execute Mohamed Morsi, the former, democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood president ousted by the current regime. So the lesson from the last CVE summit, presumably, is to counter extremism by supporting regimes engaged in industrial-scale attacks on the basic rights of Muslims.

And how are we actually doing on terrorism recruitment? A report in Foreign Policy this week indicated that, at best, the allied bombing campaign is only killing enough Islamic State militants to offset new recruitment stimulated by the Western attacks on IS and its battlefield successes. Indeed, bombing casualties may be “exceeded by the number of fighters the Islamic State is recruiting”. And the primary source of that recruitment continues to be foreign fighters. Indeed, according to a senior US military figure speaking in May, “recent months have seen an incredible eruption in terms of foreign fighter flow into the Middle East in support of ISIL and its affiliates”.

Of course, Turkey could do much to stop that “eruption” of foreign fighters if it wished to. But despite being our fearless ally in the War on Terror, Turkey doesn’t wish to, for its own geopolitical reasons. Given Islamic State is now recruiting younger and younger males from the areas it controls within Syria and Iraq, cutting off the flow of foreign fighters would go a long way to curbing its manpower, despite its recent successes.

But the “eruption” of recruitment for IS in recent months once again confirms what CIA head John Brennan has now repeatedly said, that Western actions “stimulate” recruitment for terrorist groups. Brennan has said he is confident that the West is killing more terrorists than it creates, but the evidence from Syria/Iraq appears to be that at best we’re merely holding steady, and might be going backwards.

As Crikey explained recently, the specific causes or risk factors for radicalisation of young Western men (usually but not always Muslim) are poorly understood even by experts in the field, who contradict each other and significantly alter their theses about radicalisation over time. But one consistent factor that emerges in just about every study is that military actions (whether by the West, or by the Assad regime) that kill Muslims are an important factor in inciting among Western Muslims extremism and a willingness to consider violence as a response. Not the only factor, and maybe not sufficient as a factor either, but when it’s hard to even pin down whether the internet plays a critical or merely complementary role to radicalisation, it stands out as an undeniably crucial cause. As one of the world’s foremost experts on radicalisation, former CIA officer Marc Sageman, has said, “at what point are you going to start listening to the perpetrators who tell you why they’re doing this?”

So will this CVE talkfest in Sydney at any point over the next two days actually discuss the one factor that is widely accepted as driving extremism? Will anyone have the sense to say that if we want to stop radicalisation, we might as a first step end our habit of invading and bombing Muslim countries?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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