In the early 1980s, mention of HIV/Aids sent shivers down the spine of even the bravest of people. Then, the disease was associated with no cure, imminent death and stigma reminiscent of the plague.
But it was also around this time that the first notable government-sponsored national Aids campaigns were launched in Western countries with aggressive slogans such as “Aids: Don’t die of ignorance”.
The campaigns, initially seen as controversial, would be credited with a positive impact on behavioural change and uptake of prevention measures, testing and treatment of the disease and reduction in stigma.
Many Kenyans will remember seeing then-President Mwai Kibaki at a 2003 Pamoja Campaign event, standing in solidarity with other Kenyans committed to the HIV/Aids fight. He would even set up a related Cabinet committee, which he chaired. So, why aren’t we doing the same thing, or even more, to counter radicalisation and violent extremism?
One only needs to ask the average Kenyan to define extremism or radicalisation and see the ignorance. Let us start with the basics, just as the HIV/Aids campaigners did by differentiating HIV and Aids.
A national campaign on countering radicalisation is long overdue as a strategy in the war on terrorism. We have powerful weapons at our disposal — the media and social media platforms — but how do we line them up as knights in the war?
Countering radicalisation and violent extremism will involve a multi-sectoral effort to delegitimise the related ideologies and discourage recruitment. Security agents are tasked with the “protect and pursue” aspect, but there is need for public sector effort against this near-invisible enemy — malicious ideology.
Ideologies are usually based on misinterpreted scriptures, which feed off individuals who feel isolated and abandoned and deceive them that they can provide a sense of belonging and community. These vulnerable individuals become susceptible to recruitment.
Alternative narratives are communication activities that challenge extremist propaganda. They must cater for varied views and ideologies and deconstruct negative perceptions.
Initiated conversations need to counter the enemy’s message in being calculated, widespread and creative. We need to hear stories and messages from parents, religious leaders and friends, more so from our sons and daughters, who have been de-radicalised and reintegrated in the society.
Social isolation is a common story for recruitment targets and messages that speak to them on inclusivity can reduce susceptibility. It could be the way to reach and stop someone on the verge of indoctrination.
The conveyor of a message is as significant as the message, which is complemented by the messenger for the intended audience. The audiences will connect with narratives that are emotive, honest and, in some cases, even humorous.
Conversations on the surge of radicalisation should be national and not confined to areas deemed to be vulnerable. Counties ought to introduce directorates on countering violent extremism and de-radicalisation, map out key stakeholders and develop and implement county-specific action plans.
We have seen billboards calling on the population to report anything suspicious and be vigilant of ‘thy’ neighbour. However, there is need for joint efforts in countering radicalisation messaging.
Broad policies can include an iron-fist zero tolerance to strategy, softer velvet glove approach of directly challenging radical narratives and messages and an intelligence-heavy monitoring strategy aimed at investigation and arrest.
In Nigeria, the Campaign against Violent Extremism (Cave) in 2017 saw six cinema screenings of counter-radicalisation films on TV to over 56 countries worldwide as well as a social media campaign that reached over 1.3 million people through Arabic and French translations of the Evils of Boko Haram documentary.
It is time we reviewed our war on terrorism strategy and not hide behind the veil of assuming that the fight is too complicated. As Fredrik Backman said, “Everything is complicated if no one explains it to you”.
Ms Moseti specialises in counter-terrorism and prevention of violent extremism. [email protected]