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Manchester, Trump in Saudi Arabia, and Fighting Terrorism in an Online Age

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The horrors of terrorism are again vividly seared on our consciousness, after the recent vicious bombing at a concert in Manchester, UK. Meanwhile, President Trump has rightly put combatting terrorism at the top of his policy agenda. His recent trip overseas demonstrated some of what that means.

In mid-May, I participated in the closing session at Techonomy NYC on countering terrorism in social media. Immediately afterwards President Trump made his debut foreign policy trip. His first stop was in Saudi Arabia. The trip saw the signing of $380 Billion+ in deals and a commitment by both our President and Saudi King Salman to fight terrorism, focus on resource and power development and cement commercial deals aimed at reigning in Irani influence.

President Trump’s first major foreign policy speech focused on engaging the Middle East and Africa, to help it develop its own sovereign destiny:

“The nations of the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their country and frankly for their families, for their children. It’s a choice between two futures, and it is a choice America cannot make for you. A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and drive out the extremists.”

The distinction between terrorists and extremists relates to an idea that came up in our conversation at Techonomy NYC – terrorist organizations have followed the post Al-Qaeda mantra of moving away from religion. This includes ISIS, ISIS-K in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Jammat Islamiyah (JI) in Southeast Asia and Boko Haram in the Southern Sahara and Northeastern Nigeria. As I wrote in Fighting ISIS in the Cyber Age,  the terrorists know little about Islam and are more like cults  in their recruitment methods. Extremists on the other hand cover a range from groups like Hamas (liberation movement/part extremist) to Hezbollah (political party and destabilization agents) and Salafi Extremists (varying degrees of religious and political extremists).

The President’s steps are a major leap forward in geo-political engagement, and were well received by some heads of state, though others across the Muslim Diaspora were critical. The UAE’s Foreign Minister was enthusiastic, for example, while NY-based American Muslim Journalist Nida Khan was more dismissive.

This split in perspective in the Muslim diaspora is emblematic not only of the complexity of Muslim relations across races and nationalities – but of how states like Saudi Arabia are perceived in the post-9/11 era. For American Muslims, the country is often criticized for it’s monarchy and cultural rules that are so restrictive of women’s rights. Within Eastern and Asian Muslim circles it’s often criticized for Salafi and Wahabbi preachers (imams) who have spread fundamentalist attitudes and teachings throughout the Muslim world.

The launch of a Counterterrorism Center, the TFTC and the Riyadh Declaration

Beyond the speech’s impact, a number of initiatives, declarations and funding deals punctuated the weekend. President  Trump joined King Salman in the inauguration of a Counterterrorism center in Riyadh – one that has a focus on regional engagement and counterterror collaboration. This coincided with the Riyadh Declaration on Terrorism signed by members of 55 Muslim nations and pledging 34,000 troops to fight ISIS. It declared a new “close partnership between the leaders of Arab and Islamic countries and the US leader to confront extremism, terrorism, achieving peace, stability and development, on regional as well as international stages.”

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia also launched a new Terrorist Financing Targeting Center. It aims to identify, track, and share information about terrorist financial networks, coordinate joint disruptive actions, and to assist other countries in building capacity to track and disrupt terrorist finances.

What it all means

Trump’s first foreign policy foray abroad has left a mix of smiling faces and shaking heads among Muslim leaders worldwide. The initiatives focus on developing solutions that tackle terrorism problems across the region. However, Gulf States, Arab nations and Asian Muslim nations still face an ongoing challenge in combating online and social recruitment from ISIS, Boko Haram and JI – as well as regional challenges from dozens of less well-known but very dangerous terrorist organizations. Western social media disruption of the type we discussed at Techonomy NYC needs to be introduced and coordinated with these new counterterrorism centers. That will help us develop, over time, effective remediation.

It’s important to remember that in part, joining ISIS is like getting a job for many of these young men. (A session at Techonomy 2016 entitled Why Starting Companies is Great Foreign Policy addressed this challenge.) So creating jobs and startups needs to become part of the Gulf States DNA. Trump’s announcements in Saudi Arabia about investments to promote regional entrepreneurship are very important. Without economic growth, no matter how much money we spend, it won’t affect terrorism long-term, because the gulf’s armies of unemployed youth will remain vulnerable to ISIS recruitment.

Extremism will remain an ongoing challenge. Among other challenges, groups like Hezbollah and state actors like Iran need to be engaged, before peace and economic stability can begin to take hold.

This will take time, patience and collaboration between the US and majority Muslim countries. But more importantly, it will take a new approach to terrorism that fights it online, on the ground and through its financing. Longer term, the US and the Riyadh Declaration States need to start a process of greater information sharing and Social Media Counterterrorism advocacy – as the battle moves from the ground and online to the cyberwarfare and ransomware future.  It’s almost as if we’re trying to turn a group of nation states into the most well-funded startup in history, with the business goal of tackling the terrorism problem. It is a goal, as Manchester makes clear, that could not be more urgent.

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