Speaking at a memorial event 10 years on from 9/11, then President of the United States, Barack Obama, said that the past decade told the story of America’s resilience. The faith, the belief, and the will of Americans had been tested, but not broken. Losses were mourned, and legacies commemorated, but the American experience endured, and, President Obama observed, ‘where the World Trade Center once stood, the sun glistens off a new tower that reaches towards the sky’.[i]
The events of 9/11 showed the world the strength of the American people, but it also brought another focus on resilience. With concerns over ‘home-grown terrorists’ and the mounting threat of future attacks, Western governments adopted more pre-emptive strategies, turning to resilience as a strategy to counter violent extremist beliefs.[ii] Policies started focusing on building societal and individual abilities to resist radicalisation and withstand the impact of terrorist attacks. The aim was to enhance personal strengths and mental robustness to prevent extremist ideologies from spreading among communities.[iii]
How does resilience work?
The term ‘resilience’ actually originates from physics, where it was used to explain the ability of metals to absorb energy and return to their normal state when the energy had been released. Over the years, it has come to be used in a variety of disciplines.[iv] In ecology, resilience represents an ecosystem’s ability to alter in response to unanticipated external disruptions without losing its basic identity or capabilities.[v] In medicine, it denotes patients’ recovery from physical injuries. In psychological and social studies, resilience refers to an individual’s ability to rebound from adversity, or to tolerate major chronic and severe stressors without developing mental health problems.[vi]
When it applies to terrorism and violent extremism, resilience takes on a larger meaning. It relates to societies’ and individuals’ abilities to reject extremist beliefs, to avoid radicalisation and terrorist threats, and to recover from their repercussions.[vii] As a result of its broad applicability, resilience has become a buzzword in the field of countering violent extremism (CVE), receiving substantial interest from both scholars and policymakers.[viii]
The underlying premise of resilience to violent extremism is that terrorism is fuelled by social, economic, and political inequities, and that those who are disadvantaged or isolated are particularly susceptible to radicalisation.[ix] Resilience-focused strategies therefore aim to prevent terrorism by developing strong, connected, and adaptable individuals with mental strength, who can reject extremist beliefs and recover from attacks.
The Flaws in Resilience
Governments have focused on assisting individuals in building cognitive abilities such as critical thinking, encouraging certain personal characteristics like empathy, and promoting ideals such as tolerance and openness to discussion of contentious subjects.[x] A more critical evaluation of the notion of resilience, however, exposes its limitations and potential pitfalls.
Resilient Until Not
One of the fundamental flaws of the concept of resilience to violent extremism is that there is no such thing like inherent and absolute resilience to political violence. The Turkish community in Belgium, for example, is often considered resilient to jihadism compared to the Moroccan community, but is this because they are inherently resistant to political violence, or because of their commitment to other strong political movements, such as support for Erdogan or Kurdish separatists?[xi] This presents an important question: is there a general resilience that makes an individual unlikely to engage in violence, regardless of the political cause?[xii] Another hypothetical example can be observed in populations living in Western democratic countries, who are usually defined as highly resilient to violent extremism and ideologies. If Western citizens were to become willing to fight and die for liberal democracy, would they start being labelled as non-resilient?
Dominant Norms Dictate Resiliency
Narrowly defining resilience as resistance to violent extremism presents an even more complex challenge. What is not considered violent extremism today may become so under different circumstances. The strong values and identity of the Turkish community in Belgium may have buffered them from involvement in jihadist-linked radicalisation, but this doesn’t mean they would be deterred from engaging in violence in support of other causes.[xiii] If the dominant norms that dictate what constitutes a healthy reaction to threats (or, in this case, to violent extremism) were to change, a community, or an entire population, may quickly become non-resilient.[xiv]
Shifting Responsibilities to Local Actors
Additionally, by prioritising the building of resilient communities, there is the risk of shifting responsibilities from the government to local actors.[xv] The emphasis on the person should not eclipse the need to address the social, economic, and political issues that fuel radicalisation.[xvi] Take poverty – it is as if, in the context of worldwide disparity in wealth distribution, rather than addressing the root causes of poverty, initiatives focused on making disadvantaged communities more resilient to the consequences of poverty. This should not happen in the context of violent extremism. If vulnerability to radicalisation is often caused by external causes like discrimination or abuse, governments should focus on creating social changes to tackle these causes, and not just on making the individual stronger in the face of difficulties.
Imposition of Western Perspective
It is also important to recognise that resilience frameworks constructed from a Western perspective might fail to account for the cultural and contextual factors that drive extremism in non-Western or tribal countries. Syria and Iraq, for example, have endured long-lasting wars, and their populations live in hostile circumstances that necessitate high degrees of resilience. Substantial financial difficulties, political instability, restricted access to healthcare, and massive social unrest are all characteristics that can foster an environment highly vulnerable to extremism. Approaches to CVE in such areas necessitate tailored solutions that address these specific issues. Consequently, the efficacy of resilience-based interventions varies greatly among cultural contexts, and a generic approach would likely fail to tackle the unique issues encountered by marginalised or conflict-affected populations.
In conclusion, while the idea of resilience has received significant attention in the fight against violent extremism, a closer examination reveals its ambiguities and limitations. It is important to question what we mean when we say a community or group is resilient. As policies and interventions to promote resilience are developed, it is also critical to recognise the potential biases inherent in dominant norms and to investigate alternate perspectives. Societies can build stronger and more successful counter-radicalisation tactics, as well as foster a more inclusive and peaceful society, by acknowledging these critical perspectives and taking a balanced approach.
[i] The White House. (2011). Remarks by the President at “A Concert for Hope”. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2011/09/11/remarks-president-concert-hope
[ii] Jore. (2020). Is resilience a favourable concept in terrorism research? The multifaceted discourses of resilience in the academic literature. Critical Studies on Terrorism, 13(2), 337–357. https://doi.org/10.1080/17539153.2020.1733788
[iii] Christodoulou, E., 2020. Boosting resilience’ and ’safeguarding youngsters at risk’: critically examining the European Commission’s educational responses to radicalization and violent extremism. Lond. Rev. Educ. 18 (1), 18–34. https://doi.org/10.18546/LRE.18.1.02;
Home Office. (2021). Building a Stronger Britain Together.
[iv] Davidson, Jacobson, C., Lyth, A., Dedekorkut-Howes, A., Baldwin, C. L., Ellison, J. C., Holbrook, N. J., Howes, M. J., Serrao-Neumann, S., Singh-Peterson, L., & Smith, T. F. (2016). Interrogating resilience: toward a typology to improve its operationalization. Ecology and Society, 21(2), 27–. https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-08450-210227; MacKinnon, D., and K. D. Derickson. (2013). From Resilience to Resourcefulness: A Critique of Resilience Policy and Activism. Progress in Human Geography, 37(2): 253–270. doi:10.1177/ 0309132512454775.
[v] Jore, 2020.
[vi] Bourbeau, P. (2018). A Genealogy of Resilience. International Political Sociology, 12(1): 19–35. doi:10.1093/ips/olx026.
[vii] Jore, 2020.
[viii] Wimelius, M.E., Eriksson, M., Kinsman, J., Strandh, V., Ghazinour, M. (2018). What is local resilience against radicalization and how can it be promoted? A multidisciplinary literature review. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 1(18). https://doi.org/10.1080/1057610X.2018.1531532.
[ix] Ellis, & Abdi, S. (2017). Building Community Resilience to Violent Extremism Through Genuine Partnerships. The American Psychologist, 72(3), 289–300. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000065
[x] Stewart, S. (2018). Building Resilience to Violent Extremism. A cultural relations approach. British Council.
[xi] Hamid, N. 2018. The Road to the Paris November 2015 and Brussels March 2016 attacks. Artis International.
[xii] Stephens, & Sieckelinck, S. (2021). Resiliences to radicalization: Four key perspectives. International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice, 66, 100486–. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijlcj.2021.100486
[xiii] Hamid, 2018.
[xiv] Anholt, R., 2017. Governing Humanitarian Emergencies, Protracted Crises, and (In)Security through Resilience. Retrieved from Amsterdam. https://research.vu.nl/ ws/portalfiles/portal/12946141/ISR_Governing_Insecurity_Through_Resilience_Research_Report_2017.pdf
[xv] Anholt, 2017; Christodoulou, 2020.
[xvi] Evans, B., Reid, J. (2013). Dangerously exposed: the life and death of the resilient subject. Resilience, 1(2), 83–98.
I’m Dr Inna Rudolf, a Research Fellow on the XCEPT project, as well as a Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Divided Societies at King’s College London (KCL). On the XCEPT project, I mainly cover topics such as identity politics, mobilisation, and post-conflict reconstruction – with a particular focus on social healing and post-conflict recovery.
My current work for XCEPT focuses on Iraq. Along with my colleagues, I’ve been examining an array of issues in the country, including looking at grievances that are currently affecting populations in some of the liberated provinces – with most of our recent research focusing on the province of Nineveh. Our main goal is to understand people’s attitudes towards peacebuilding and recovery, as well as their attitudes towards rebuilding their urban spaces in the post-conflict context.
My colleague, Dr Craig Larkin, and I have been researching the role of competing memory narratives in post-conflict reconstruction in Iraq. This has been an extremely interesting adventure – intellectually, academically, but also socially, as the province is so diverse.
I had the opportunity to conduct interviews with representatives of different Christian denominations, with Shabaks, Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs, Kurds, Yezidis, and Turkmen. We spoke to people about what life was like under the Ba’ath party regime, after the regime fell following the US invasion, and under the Islamic State (IS), as well as following the liberation of Mosul. We are getting a better understanding of the province because of these different perspectives which are, at times, conflicting and contradictory.
It is clear from our research that doubts and prejudices have come to shape people’s perspectives in Iraq. Perceptions of the ethnic or sectarian ‘other’, or of the international community and the role of the federal government, have really helped us understand why certain narratives surrounding peacebuilding and belonging resonate with the local population and others don’t.
In keeping with these doubts surrounding the federal government, we learned that a lot of people perceived the post-2003 Iraqi state as a construct, captured by different self-serving elites who they accuse of corruption and negligence. We learned that feelings of resentment have been building up towards various formal and informal security forces who are perceived as being politicised by ruling elites.
Yes, a lot of our research has been centred specifically on Mosul. One of the important topics we looked at was the issue of rebuilding the city and how this ties into feelings of belonging. The city fell to IS in 2014, and was liberated in 2017, so it’s going through a complex rebuilding and reconstruction process. Our research showed that even before 2014, there were different priorities in terms of what should be rebuilt, how, and when. It also showed us that if you want to “build back better”, you have to first understand what was systematically going wrong before IS captured the city in 2014.
Our research in Mosul also touched on the psychology of spaces and how certain urban sites – even historical, cultural, and religious landmarks – are being reimagined and what kind of reaction this triggers from local populations. For example, some of the initial designs that came from the UNESCO-sponsored architectural competition for designing and rebuilding the famous al-Nuri Mosque triggered backlash because they were seen as too alien and removed from the well-known pre-war designs.
One of the ideas discussed for the mosque was a courtyard designed specifically for people from different communities to sit together and “engage in coexistence”. However, if you were a native Moslawi, you would argue that you don’t need a space artificially designed to encourage you to practice coexistence because, historically speaking, Moslawis are the “Godfathers of coexistence”. What people said was that they wanted instead to see the rebuilding of their mosque in the same way that was familiar to them – as it used to be before all the violence.
This corresponds to the character of society in Mosul – a conservative one, but in a cultural sense, with strong commitment to traditions. Something that needs to be acknowledged is that when people push for rebuilding or reimagining pre-existing structures, different segments of society have to be consulted and engaged in the process. Acknowledging this interaction between separate social groups within Iraq as a necessity, we’ve been focusing our research on understanding the different ways in which both competing and overlapping narratives of the traumatic past impact attitudes towards the reconstruction process.
When speaking about life under IS, interviewees often spoke about what being confined to the city felt like. We heard stories of women who were not able to escape, or who decided to stay because they had elderly family members they needed to care for, so for them it wasn’t really an option to flee.
Many who remained boycotted IS’ ideology in their own ways but feel that they are still being labelled as IS supporters – just because they ended up staying in the city – and this is causing feelings of disillusionment and anger. These are just some of the aspects of our research findings which I think very much contribute to our more granular understanding of Iraqi society, as it’s extremely important to trace both what happened with IS but also the challenges that are still present in the face of rebuilding.
What I really love about the XCEPT approach is the fact that we’re not just looking at violent behavioural patterns and we’re not just looking at the ‘popular heroes’ or practitioners that are driving peacebuilding efforts. We are also looking at the grey mass – the people that did not engage in violence, but that were also not necessarily involved in peacebuilding efforts.
If the overall aim of our research is to understand how trauma can affect the character of a city, hearing how the local population lived and resisted during those years of IS’ capture of Mosul is very important. We learned about underground initiatives that were taking place to preserve Moslawi culture, history, and identity, and the mechanisms that were developed in order to counter IS’ propaganda machinery. This helps us, as researchers, to better understand the context of the city as it is today and tells us about the experiences of those now either engaging in, or indirectly shaping, the trajectory of the rebuilding process.
I also love that within XCEPT we can identify a lot of under-researched, understudied grey areas, and we can conduct field work that allows us to communicate the perspectives of local actors. In one of our latest publications on the controversies of peacebuilding, we covered a lot of criticism by local peacebuilding practitioners in and around Mosul. They were, of course, grateful for any support they were receiving from international donor organisations, but they also shared with us their frustration because of the lack of strategic, forward-looking planning in the way funding is being provided.
What we also heard a lot from local participants is the idea that you can’t expect people to come and discuss very emotionally and psychologically traumatic experiences of violence when they’re not able to provide for their kids. Peacebuilding initiatives need to foster reconciliation and tackle past injustices, but they should also aim to provide broader socio-economic support to improve the livelihoods of Iraqis.
One of the things I sincerely hope that the XCEPT project can contribute is to really understand feelings of longing and belonging in Iraq, but also feelings of alienation and disillusionment towards the state. I think one of the most important tasks of the international community, but also of Iraq’s international partners, is not just to engage in piecemeal projects that help certain local communities, but also to find a more sustainable mode of engagement with ruling elites, like with Iraqi government officials. This could allow them to exert more influence through conditional financial support, thereby improving the management oversight of how funds are being distributed and how donations are being used to actually achieve real good.
International actors should also learn when it makes more sense to step back while pushing the Iraqi national authorities into the driver’s seat. When you provide funding in a way that creates incentives for national authorities to do it right, it can grant you more leverage to hold them to account in terms of how funds are being spent.
Read Dr Rudolf’s policy briefing on post-IS reconciliation in Iraq
This Q&A was originally published on the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) website.
Between May 2021 and January 2022, the Iraqi government repatriated nearly five hundred Iraqi families from al-Hol camp in northeast Syria via the Jeddah 1 rehabilitation centre in Iraq. Some 86% of these returnees were under the age of 18. Thus began the admirable government-led efforts to start returning home some of the approximately thirty thousand Iraqis who comprise roughly half the residents of al-Hol camp – the camp infamous for housing many of the local and international Islamic State (IS)-affiliated families and supporters who were detained by the SDF and held after the territorial defeat of the group in 2019.
For Iraqis, the task ahead is complex for several reasons. First, this group of Iraqis largely comprises women and children, meaning age and gender must be taken into account at every step of the return process, longer-term rehabilitation and reintegration. For the purposes of this piece, I will focus on the needs of children, though those of the women detained deserve greater attention as well. Second, the communities these Iraqis are returning to were heavily impacted by IS governance and violence. Consequently, the Iraqi government must balance local needs and grievances with reintegration imperatives. Third, as IS focused on establishing a governance project, children became involved and impacted in various ways. For many years, the children under IS rule lived at the centre of a major international conflict – from 2014, local forces on the ground were supported by the US-led coalition, eventually defeating IS in early 2017 in Iraq, and next door in Baghouz, Syria in 2019. Those whose families were affiliated with IS risk being viewed as collectively guilty for the sins of their fathers, especially in the case of male children. Others who were born in IS territory and issued IS documentation such as birth certificates are currently prevented from attending schools in Iraq due to a ‘lack of documentation’, as IS documents are not recognised by the Iraqi government. As such, depending on their age and experiences under the caliphate, these children present a diverse and complex range of needs and profiles.
This article will briefly discuss the experience of Iraqi children who lived under IS. It will then consider their additional experiences in al-Hol camp and highlight several considerations that will be important for their successful return and integration eight years after IS first took control of an area the size of Britain across Iraq and Syria.
Children and life under IS
During the years IS controlled territory throughout Iraq and Syria, children were impacted in diverse ways. It is claimed that tens of thousands attended IS-led schools (if they were even able to attend school), where instead of normal subjects, they were exposed to an IS curriculum and indoctrination. In many cases, as the conflict progressed, many children simply could not receive any education at all and today face significant gaps in educational attainment, literacy and, in the case of older youth, vocational skills. In some cases, military training or becoming child soldiers was the route for young boys, causing significant psychosocial impacts and implications. In the case of young girls, many became child brides and married IS fighters or supporters. Others were imbued with the gendered ideology of the group and faced uniquely gendered experiences.
Children were exposed to IS violence and life in a conflict zone more broadly, as regional forces supported by an international coalition pushed back IS. For the thousands of children born between 2014 in this period, many may have not yet experienced ‘normal’ life and face additional challenges related to personal documentation (for example, birth certificates, as noted above), which further impact their prospects and access to government support and successful reintegration.
Children in al-Hol camp
While some aspects of life improved for children when many of these families were moved to al-Hol camp in 2019 after the defeat of IS in Baghouz, the general instability and violence present in the camp produced new challenges and added to existing ones. Furthermore, children have lacked the long-term support required to deal with the concerns raised from their time under IS, including psychosocial, educational and other types of support.
In al-Hol camp, children have continued to be exposed to violence, including murders and assaults. Almost 500 children died in the camp in 2019 alone; in 2021, two children every week on average were dying. Al-Hol camp also lacks sufficient tailored, child-focused services and long-term plans to support their growth and development. At least 850 boys are also being held in detention settings, impacted by events such as the attack in al-Hasakah prison that saw several boys killed and others taken hostage.
Considerations upon return to Iraq
Clearly, it is imperative for the governments and other actors legally responsible for these children to assess and address the situations they face. The Iraqi government has already taken the first steps by starting to return these persons through the Jeddah 1 rehabilitation centre, at which children can access some services, such as mental health and psychosocial support in the centre. By focusing on the risks, stigmas, and resilience factors related to children of IS-affiliated families, researchers can better identify what may negatively impact these children’s normal lives and development. Such an identification allows for the better targeting of efforts that can reduce the challenges faced by these children on the complex paths ahead.
Beyond the experience of life under IS and the continued concerns around conditions in al-Hol camp, many of these children now face complex psychosocial problems, educational limitations and societal stigmas. Research in other fields that has focused on child soldiers, refugee children, children exposed to war, and children in gangs or cults, among others, can help to inform this work and support rehabilitation and reintegration programming. This could include, for example, specific training and support for those, such as health care workers and educators, caring for and working with these children, or helping children to build social bonds and self confidence through art therapy or sports programmes. As highlighted by the EU-funded PREPARE project, and recent work by ICCT which I am involved in, it is important to identify and reduce the risks and stigmas children may face when their families are affiliated with terrorist networks, and to also build their resilience factors. Appropriately supported as they grow up, they will be better able to rehabilitate (as necessary) and reintegrate successfully and may be less likely to develop grievances or other challenges associated with these aspects of their life. Some of the potential inter-related implications, whether anti-social behaviour, trauma-related impacts and implications, or increased susceptibility to violent extremist narratives and recruitment, can also be more directly addressed. In turn, this can help to prevent or reduce tensions, and contribute to societal cohesion in communities receiving these families. This could prove to be one of the most fundamental aspects of recovery from conflict in the region. Supporting the rehabilitation and reintegration of children affiliated with IS must be the focus not only of governmental actors but also the research community, which can support this work.