Rethinking Security to Reframe and Advance Impactful Peacemaking
I want to tell you about an incident that changed my outlook on security programs forever. And, I hope it does the same to you.
After spending four years in the tech world working as a software engineer, I set out on a journey to become a peacebuilder some eight years ago. I was grateful to have found a way into the field I was always passionate about. However, I lacked professional experience or theoretical knowledge to back up that enthusiasm. I went through tons of educational material on countering terrorism to compensate for that gap. I devoured several theories on why individuals get radicalized. I learned about religious, socio-economic, financial, and many other broad reasons.
At that period, I was presented with an opportunity to speak to some of the prisoners in a country whose name I cannot tell you. But it was a prison where prisoners from different countries were brought in for its de-radicalization / disengagement program. The opportunity to speak with the prisoners came with a non-disclosure agreement covering the prison name and the country in public records.
At 10:30 am, I arrived at the prison on a cloudy and incredibly humid day, which did not help me control my already heavy perspiration fuelled by the adrenaline. I was given only 30 minutes to speak with them, of which the first ten minutes were a talk with the religious cleric who was in charge of de-radicalization and the next 20 minutes for the assigned prisoners. Being both excited and nervous about the opportunity, I prepared my questions in advance. Determined not to waste any time, I had a full-proof plan to jump right into tough questions.
The first ten minutes with the religious cleric helped me calm my nerves. The cleric was a good-humored old imam who visited the prison two times a week to teach Quran verses to the inmates. He told me that clerics of other faiths also visited the prison and offer teachings to inmates per their choice of religion.
After the priest, I met a young Afghan man named Ahmed (named changed for respect and security). He must not have been more than 25 years of age. He was in jail for launching a grenade attack on a local police station in Afghanistan.
He was calm and composed. I offered a brief hello and jumped into questions. He said he had been in prison for two years, and his trial is still incomplete. I asked him about his crime, to which he confirmed attacking a police station with a grenade launcher, an attack that killed two police officers and injured five. I inquired who asked him to carry out the attack. He said it was his own decision. I asked if he was religious, and he said yes. I asked if he was inspired to commit the attack based on religious framed terrorist propaganda. He answered a simple no. Even though he hadn’t met them, I asked if he felt any sense of belonging with his brothers after the attack, a reason most quoted in academia as the primary reason given for youth traveling far and joining terrorist organizations. To this question, the expression on his face showed that he had no idea what I was referring to. I asked if he belonged to a group and whether he received any money for his actions. He said that he didn’t know any terrorist groups, never spoken to any members, and never received any money. And now that he is in jail, there’s no one to earn an income at home, and his parents and siblings live a hard life.
This experience was over eight years ago, and I had barely started in the field. If given another chance today, I would ask better questions. Anyway, I was getting nothing out of it, and the time was running out. I closed my notebook, looked at him, and asked- so why did you do it? He told me a story in response, most of which I am paraphrasing here for brevity.
Ahmed and his family – mother, father, two brothers (elder and younger) and one sister lived in rural Afghanistan province. His family owned a small piece of land in the village, which his father had to mortgage to a local police officer one summer after a draught. Despite how much the family tried to pay off the debt, they could not pay for the land over the following three years. The local police officer then, using his power, influence, and intimidation, did not just take over the mortgaged piece of land, but also some other attached land owned by the family. The family begged the police for help, but they received more threats and insults instead of receiving any support. They would speak very aggressively with his parents, and some officers even passed remarks on his sister. It inflamed him, yet he decided to remain silent.
This kept happening to many families. But a few years later, when he heard this was happening to the family of a girl he intended to marry, his threshold was reached. Through his friends, he managed to arrange a grenade launcher and attacked the police station, which housed these corrupt police officers. And now, he has been labeled a terrorist for the entirety of his life.
I did not know what to say after this, but my outlook toward de-radicalization changed from that day forward. I am not condoning Ahmed’s action, what he did was wrong, but his reason did not fit into any of the widely quoted narratives. When we set out on the complex but ambitious mission of peacebuilding, we sometimes fall into the trap of bucketing the reasons why someone conducts a violent crime. I firmly believe that our efforts would be more fruitful if we take a step back and try to listen to individual stories, understand them, and then set out a plan. Small but significant change matters more than enormous efforts with no results.
Neha Vijay – India
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 32