Rarely do so many distinguished members of the foreign policy community gather in a single room. But this was the Great Hall of the United States Institute of Peace: a Washington "institution established and funded by Congress to increase the nation's capacity to manage international conflict without violence."
The occasion was PeaceGame 2104: a "scenario-based, multi-media" approach to developing "new ideas for coping and defusing extremism worldwide" organized last Friday by Foreign Policy magazine in partnership with the USIP and funded by the United Arab Emirates.
David Rothkopf, Foreign Policy's CEO and editor, facilitated the daylong session, asking probing questions, offering incisive comments and injecting humor. The topic: "Peacemaking in an era of violent extremism" with a focus on Nigeria where the war being waged by Boko Haram has claimed more than 10,000 lives over the past 12 months alone.
The participants — I among them — were given roles to play. Suppose you're a senior government official, a diplomat, a business executive, a journalist — even a terrorist. Now suppose X happens. What do you do in response? Then what?
Everyone was smart, educated and cosmopolitan. Almost everyone said sensible things. But almost no one questioned the conventional wisdom, the prevailing and "politically correct" memes, the foundations upon which America's foreign policies are being constructed. So let me do a little questioning now.
Yes, Boko Haram is a "violent extremist" group. But no, the fact that its fighters proclaim they are waging a "jihad" against "infidels" is not insignificant. It means Boko Haram is a part of a larger movement — one that also includes, for starters, al-Shabab in Somalia, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
PeaceGame participants were reluctant to connect those dots. Instead, Nigeria was compared to Northern Ireland and other places where violent extremism has, over time, been successfully treated with diplomacy and "peace strategies."
Back in the late 1970s, I spent some time reporting on Northern Ireland's sectarian strife. Both Catholics and Protestants had compelling stories to tell and forceful arguments to make. By contrast, Boko Haram's campaign to force Nigerian Christians and moderate Muslims to submit to its authority — a campaign that has included kidnapping and enslaving hundreds of Christian schoolgirls — is beyond the pale. Far beyond.
Also: In Ireland, there were always Protestants and Catholics eager to end the strife and willing to make concessions to achieve that goal. Does anyone think there is a single member of Boko Haram, al-Shabab, AQIM or the Islamic State about whom the same can be said?
A few years later, I was a New York Times correspondent in Africa. I encountered no violent extremists among the Muslims of Nigeria — or anywhere else in West Africa. Have Saudi and Iranian policies been responsible for radicalizing the region over recent decades? This, too, was a topic that most of my colleagues preferred to avoid.
Instead, we discussed such "drivers of violent extremism" as poverty, unemployment, social injustice, corruption and paucity of government services. Left unmentioned was the fact that those same drivers have produced no terrorist groups akin to Boko Haram in Nigeria's mostly Christian and animist south.
Nor is it conceivable that such "drivers" are motivating young Muslims from Sweden, France and Minnesota to join al-Shabab and the Islamic State. Evidence suggests these volunteers believe they are embarking on a noble mission: the founding of a 21st century caliphate that will restore to Muslims the power and glory they enjoyed in antiquity. That these would-be empire builders may be provided with slave women and money, license to cut the throats of unbelievers, and a promise of heavenly rewards should they be "martyred" in battle may be contributing factors as well.
Discussing such matters is not comfortable. Those who do so risk being denounced as Islamophobic. But as Dubai-based analyst Taufiq Rahim pointed out, anyone living in the Middle East is well acquainted with such concepts as "Islamism" and "jihadism" — and they know where these ideologies lead.
The PeaceGame demonstrated — at least to me — that even the most distinguished members of the foreign policy community have yet to formulate coherent responses to the 21st century's most threatening expressions of violent extremism. The strategies suggested — e.g. more economic development projects, more education projects, more civil society projects, more attempts to battle corruption — are not likely to cut the mustard.
A few participants did grasp this and say it out loud. Mohammad Barkindo, a native of northern Nigeria and a visiting scholar at George Mason University, said: "Boko Haram has to be crushed first" — before any progress can be made in his country. Mr. Rothkopf observed: "You can't build an economic house on a security sinkhole."
But achieving security is no mean feat either. True, French troops took back Mali last year after jihadists overran Timbuktu, destroying the mosques and shrines of moderate African Muslims. True as well: French troops remain in Mali and will need to stay for a long time. Mali's military is not yet ready to handle the situation.
Nor are Nigeria's armed forces making headway against Boko Haram. Who expects the U.K., the United States or NATO to provide more than token assistance?
According to former Defense Intelligence Agency chief Michael Flynn, there are now 41 "Islamic terrorist groups spread out in 24 countries." Formulating a plan to neutralize them will require, as Mr. Rahim pointed out, not just strengthening immune systems but also accurately diagnosing the disease.
And that, I would argue, will require less "political correctness" and more conceptual precision and candor; a recognition that conventional wisdom is often very conventional but not at all wise.