GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, Germany — When Adm. James Stavridis flashed on a big screen the image of the Norwegian extremist who killed 77 people last year, Air Commodore Naeem Ur Rehman of Pakistan gave an approving nod as the U.S. European Command chief explained not all terrorists hail from Muslim nations.
“Terrorists are not always the mental picture we have,” Stavridis told a multinational crowd of officers and senior enlisted troops as he spoke of Anders Behring Breivik.
“This is extremism at the dark edge,” Stavridis said. “We see that in parts of Europe.”
It was the third day of a nine-day seminar at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies on countering violent extremism, and Rehman had listened to a lot of talk about its Islamic face. For Rehman, the admiral’s mention of the blonde-haired killer from Norway was an important reminder that terrorism has different guises.
“Yes, there are people wrongly interpreting the Koran to do terror, but when you keep constantly saying Islam, you are irritating other people,” Rehman said. “And with these irritants, people will not be receptive. Terrorism is not permissible in any religion. We need to address the root causes of the issue.”
On Thursday, military officials from dozens of countries, along with academics and investigators, will conclude nearly two weeks of discussions that focused on the nature of violent extremism and explored potential methods for curbing its spread.
The Senior Executive Seminar, which began Sept. 5, offers a chance for senior policymakers to engage in frank discussions on complex security issues, according to Marshall Center officials.
Experts covered a host of issues, ranging from the threat of the extremist Boko Haram group in Nigeria to right-wing extremism in Europe and intervention programs in Europe that seek to identify terrorist sympathizers early. A notable theme was the need for more emphasis on non-military dimensions in the counterterrorism fight, including more sharing of information between nations and collaboration between various arms of government.
“It’s not fair to the military to say you are in charge of making us safe,” said Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who served as a lead interrogator of captured al-Qaida members in the aftermath of9/11. “Every region is different. The strategies need to be different. We need regional alliances.”
While most of al-Qaida’s core pre-9/11 leadership has been captured or killed, “the threat is not dead because the narrative is not dead,” Soufan said.
Soufan, who now heads his own consulting firm, said strategies to counter terrorism need to focus on “local incubatory factors” that are driving extremism, rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach. From the Middle East to North Africa, Nigeria and the Horn of Africa, extremist groups continue to proliferate, and they all have their own agendas, he said.
“It’s going to be an era where non-state actors are powerful players,” Soufan said.
Peter Clarke, former head of the counterterrorism command for the London Metropolitan Police, also emphasized the need for better international cooperation. However, while much is made of ungoverned spaces abroad, where terrorists can flourish, countries often are blind to their own soft spots, he said.
“Universities, prisons and some mosques” all represent “internal, ungoverned space,” Clarke said. “There’s a lack of will to engage in the domestic context.”
In Libya, extremist groups continue to be a concern as the new government seeks to establish order, according to Brig. Gen. Masaud Adwaib, who represents Libya at the conference.
“We have big challenges, but as we look at our future, we believe we will be better (off),” Adwaib said. “We’ll need to work together.”
But while Libya needs international support, Adwaib said the international community shouldn’t think of terrorism as a problem only in Muslim countries.
Rehman, the Pakistani officer, said he hoped the meetings in Garmisch would generate more interest in soft-power approaches to violent extremism.
“Drones accomplish short-term objectives, but not long-term ones,” said Rehman, referring to the U.S. drone campaign over Pakistan. “You can get rid of the bad guys, but you have to do something to address the root causes.”
Stavridis, during a Friday videoconference from his NATO headquarters in Belgium, told an audience of about 300 that to deal with 21st century threats, ranging from cybercrime and illicit trafficking to terrorism, new alliances and partnerships will be needed.
Stavridis called on officers to forge new alliances during the Marshall Center meetings.
“No one of us is as smart as all of us thinking together,” Stavridis said.