I know why the ‘War on Terror’ isn’t working
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“You’re making it worse!” If only I had the most powerful governments as my captive audience. They’re using tactics that only fuel more violence and push youth into becoming terrorists for groups like Boko Haram and ISIS. The suicide bomb in Baghdad that killed over 200 was the most recent out of seven attacks that have killed between thirty and a hundred civilians in Iraq in the last six months.  If the world’s leaders don’t change their military-centric tactics, I fear things will only get worse.

There is a better, holistic approach to countering violent extremism. It includes providing alternative opportunities, empowering positive role models, and engaging with the marginalized. And it is more effective in preventing recruitment and de-radicalizing extremists than an adversarial approach. I know it doesn’t sound as flashy as parachuting in with guns blazing, but it will transform youth engaged in violent groups. How do I know? I used to be in one.

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I was born in Fiango Kumba, the most dangerous neighborhood in Cameroon. Violence wasn’t a choice back then; it was a lifestyle. At age 13, I joined a violent gang. If I hadn’t, I would have been seen as weak and vulnerable to attack. The gang gave me protection, security, belonging, income, and the hope of a better life. At first, I just had to show up when we retaliated against another gang. Then things started to escalate. I was involved in street fights and gun fights. I watched my friends and peers killed in front of me, one of them burned alive.

Everything changed when my parents were able to send me away to college.  I was 17, and it was the first time I’d met people whose first response was not violence. I was exposed to civil society. I learned how to express myself through the arts and found my voice. For the first time, I saw an alternative future for myself. I was happy. I became a leader. I had always wanted to be strong and hero, and I found my influence through peace instead of violence.

When I returned home, my friends did not understand.  They turned on me, threatening harm. But I knew there was hope for them and the thousands of other street children; they just couldn’t see it yet.

The environment also changed. Gangs of the Extreme North of Cameroon once involved in violence and crime morphed into Boko Haram and other violent extremist groups. They saw they could easily recruit street children with the offer of money, power, and purpose. Adding religion and ideology made the problem more complex, but not impossible. No terrorist was born in a day. To solve the reasons they join, we must trace it back to the root causes. 

I became the National Coordinator for Youth Corner Cameroon and amplified our work with street children, recruits, youth in detention centers and other gang members one-on-one. We’ve touched over 20,000 youth, using a holistic approach to expose them to new opportunities, positive role models, and give a voice to the marginalized.

Youth see no other option but violence. Poverty and unemployment drive youth to violent groups who offer cash, housing, and weapons. To present a positive alternative, you must convince them that such a life is possible. My own story became one of my most powerful tools. We expose them to different activities, possibilities for income, and role models. We openned up a new world of entrepreneurship and production of basic commodities like paper bags, beads,  jewellery, soap, poultry farming, information technology and photography. In one event, we brought together 200 street children with over 40 civil society activist and government officials to discuss violence and possible recruitment by Boko Haram. It changed their perspective and gave them hope. Extremists use resources and religion to entice people. So we use religious leaders, young entrepreneurs, and leaders to counter the narrative, showing how to create your own income and influence.

Finally, if we treat people like enemies, we are training them to be enemies. We’re driving marginalized and isolated youth right into the arms of waiting extremist recruiters. “You belong with us,” they tell them. “And we’ll make all of those that ridicule you pay.” We must give the marginalized a voice and include them in society. Within U.S. boundaries, Muslim minorities are being targeted and ostracized.  We’re supplying extremists like ISIS with their greatest weapon -- malleable youth.

Outside the U.S. by deploying adversarial tactics, governments are playing right into the hand of the terrorists. They want war. And they’re getting it. Every aggressive strike confirms their narrative. “See, they are evil and out to destroy us.”  Violence begets violence. Extremists want it to continue. Violence strengthens their rhetoric and motivates their fighters.

We need a non-adversarial strategy. I’m not the only one finding success in this holistic approach. International NGOs like Search for Common Ground also counter violent extremism by focusing on push and pull factors that drive people to terrorism. They have found upward of 84% attitude shift among prisoners convicted of terrorism in Indonesia after participating in de-radicalization programs. In Kyrgyzstan they use religious leaders and quiz show competitions about the Quran to debunk falsities extremists try to use. In Northeastern Nigeria, Search has set up early warning systems with villagers to save lives from potential Boko Haram attacks.

Unfortunately, programs like mine and those of Search for Common Ground are not getting the support or resources they need because they’re considered ‘soft’.  Those with the power and money are convinced that a hard-driving, military approach to ‘wipe out’ extremists is the only way.  Billions are being used on an approach that doesn’t work. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different result. We can’t afford to be insane about terrorism any more. Try something new. Try something that works.


Achaleke is a Youth,  Peace, Security, Counter Violent Extremism and Development Activist. He was awarded the 2016 Commonwealth Young Person of the Year. He was also: Africa Region Winner, Commonwealth Youth Award of Excellence in Development 2016, Cameroon Youth Ambassador to the Commonwealth, National Coordinator of Local Youth Corner Cameroon, Africa and Global Winner for the Commonwealth Youth Award of Excellence, and Member of UNOY Global Youth Advocacy Team on Youth Peace and Security.