A leader on fighting terrorism
The Miami Herald
25 November 2008
Byline: JAMES K. GLASSMAN
Colombia has as much experience with terrorism as any country in the world. Since 1964, armed groups of both the left and right have been brutalizing farmers and union leaders, kidnapping and executing officials, setting off bombs in urban areas, shelling towns and trafficking in cocaine.
But today, Colombia is succeeding against terrorism, and, against all odds, it has become an international model. Since Alvaro Uribe became president in 2002, homicides have dropped 40 percent; kidnappings, 83 percent; and terrorist attacks, 76 percent.
Part of this success is owed to the nation's military, which has driven terrorists of the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, out of strongholds like Vista Hermosa, a farming town I recently visited about 100 miles from Bogota.
But the big story is that Colombia is relying not just on bullets and defoliants, but also on ideas. Colombia has developed an anti-terror model in our own hemisphere that has powerful applications in North Africa, South Asia and the Middle East.
Consider a shy teenager named Flor. She says that she left her rural home at age 12 to join the FARC because it would be ''an adventure.''
But she quickly found it was a terrible mistake -- a life of brutality and isolation in the jungles of central Colombia. Once you're in the FARC, she says, you're in for life: ``They told us that if we tried to leave, they would kill us.''
But, today, after seven years, Flor is out and alive. She is among 10,000 fighters who have escaped the FARC in a vast ''demobilization and reintregration'' program that ensures their safety and seeks to make them productive citizens. Since 2005, about 48,000 members of armed groups of both left and right have been demobilized, many through the encouragement of sophisticated strategic communications programs that include text-messaging and MTV-style videos aimed at young FARC fighters.
While extremists around the world justify their violence with a variety of ideologies, what the groups have in common is that they hijack impressionable youth to carry out their crimes. These young people are exceptionally vulnerable. A terrorist leader fills the opportunity gap with what kids like Flor see as the most alluring game in town, linking ''adventure'' with a doctrine of hatred, fantasy, greed and hysteria.
Colombia shows that this phenomenon is not exclusive to Muslim societies. An effective anti-terrorist strategy must both undermine the ideology of a violent extremist group and disrupt its flow of recruits by offering productive alternatives for young people. These simultaneous approaches are what we have been attempting lately in America's war of ideas abroad, as are countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Britain.
The strategy is beginning to work. Public support for al Qaeda's ideology, which justifies the slaughter of fellow Muslims, has been weakening in nearly all Muslim nations. But, while the movement of foreign fighters into Iraq has slowed significantly, the flow of recruits globally has not stopped. Our strategy to stanch it is called ''diversion'' -- the channeling of young people away from violence with the attractions of technology, sports, culture, education and entrepreneurship.
Colombians have shown that they can rescue even young people who have been caught up for years in a violent extremist group. Often, a former FARC fighter can find a new constructive identity that combines idealism with maturity and restraint, just as a former Mideast terrorist can build an identity on the positive values of Islam.
The struggle against terrorism also requires a change in the surrounding environment. If the public is too scared to stand up against violence or, worse, condones it, then extremists will fight on.
The environment in Colombia changed significantly this year after a young unemployed technician named Oscar Morales started an anti-FARC movement using the organizing power of Facebook.com. Soon, 12 million were marching against the FARC in Bogota and 190 cities around the world.
The U.S. State Department has joined a public-private group, including tech firms like Facebook, Howcast and Google, that will bring Colombia's anti-FARC organizers together with about 15 other global anti-violence groups in New York in a few weeks to discuss best online practices.
Perhaps we'll soon see masses of young people mobilizing against the mindless violence of al Qaeda, the Taliban and other terrorists in places like Kabul, Islamabad, London, Bali, New Delhi and Mexico City.
There's no more important cause, and Colombia is leading the way.
James K. Glassman is the under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs at the Department of State.