Extremism, environment, and new security dynamics: Strife in conversation with RUSI Director, Dr. Karin von Hippel

Interviewed by: Harris Kuemmerle

Yazidi refugees in Northern Syria. Source: Wikimedia

Harris Kuemmerle – Where do you see climate change fitting within the wider European security dynamic moving forward? Do you feel that European policy makers adequately appreciate the security risks of climate change? Or is it still seen as somewhat of a secondary security issue?

Karin von Hippel – I think we all need to focus much more on the longer term security impacts of climate change. For example, many scientists have argued that the drought in Syria, which began in 2006, contributed to the civil war as it forced many people (notably farmers) to move to urban areas. We need to prepare for similar challenges in the future, especially in parts of the Middle East and Africa, where scarce resources will cause more people to compete, which in turn, will lead to more conflict.

I cannot say for certain if the Europeans appreciate this more or less than others. While it is common to discuss the threat posed by climate change, I’m not sure we are all doing as much as we can today to prepare for different scenarios tomorrow. That really is the crux of the issue. At RUSI, we are establishing a Futures Programme, looking at issues such as migration, robotics, space, climate change, conflict, etc and where and how they may intersect over the next 15 to 20 years, and what this will mean for our common security. Governments, multilateral institutions, academia and the private sector need new tools to anticipate and plan for such uncertainty.

HK – Is it fair to say then that environmental issues haven’t quite internalised themselves within the primary security paradigms and agendas?

KvH – That’s an interesting question. In the United States the military and intelligence communities are very forward leaning in this space. By contrast, the rest of the U.S. government may be lagging, primarily because so many officials end up being consumed by the crises of the moment and have very little spare time to focus on future threats

HK – The integration of coal markets was one of the founding elements of the European project. With that being said, do you feel that increased energy interdependence among member states has the potential to again be a key driver of European integration moving forward? Or could energy instead serve as a driver of disintegration?

KvH – I think that energy issues in Europe have indeed led to some challenges. For example, some countries have a closer relationship with Moscow, and need to rely on Russian oil; and that has made it very difficult within Europe to have unity over issues such as the Ukraine crisis. Honestly, I don’t see energy interdependence operating as an integrating factor within Europe in the near future. Indeed, energy may be more likely to lead to fracturing because of the reliance of some countries on Russian oil supplies.

HK – How would you define the term radicalisation with regards to people joining terrorist or other extremist groups?

KvH – That’s a good question, and it’s similar with the term “fundamentalist”. The way we [at RUSI], and researchers like myself look at it is by asking whether or not such extreme views lead to violence. You could be radical and fundamental in your beliefs, but if you are not going to channel your radical beliefs into violence (especially violence against civilians) then it’s not a security issue. If you are going to use violence as a tool to try to impose your belief system, then radicalism or fundamentalism is a problem.

Ultimately (provided such groups are not violent) people have a right to their beliefs. We may not agree but freedom of expression is a fundamental tenet of any democracy. This doesn’t mean we should be ignoring extremist, non-violent groups – and in fact – we should be thinking of ways of keeping communication channels open with such groups as they may have individuals who decide to leave precisely because such groups are not violent. Hence communication could help security and other officials identify potential terrorists-in-the-making. The challenge is that these relationships are hard to establish because many extremist groups (on the left or right) often do not trust the authorities or outsiders.

HK – What would you suggest have been the greatest strengths and weakness of current US policy with regards to counter terrorism and counter extremism? Why?

KvH – I think everyone is struggling with understanding what radicalises people, especially with ISIL, which is very different from previous terrorist groups. The numbers of people joining ISIL are much higher than those joining groups like al-Qaeda or al-Shabaab. In the past few years, between 1,500 and 2,000 people a month have travelled to join ISIL. In recent months, these numbers have been reduced significantly, to around 200 a month; though that is still way higher than those joining al-Qaeda or al-Shabaab. There is definitely something else going on with ISIL, be it the so-called Caliphate or the extreme violence they employ – we don’t really understand the appeal of ISIL as well as we should. As a result we are making too many untested assumptions, and throwing a whole lot of money on those assumptions. I’m afraid we still need to do more research to understand this issue better.

Ultimately radicalisation is very location-specific, each recruit will have a very specific set of reasons to join, based on local grievances. Recruits from Iraq, Minneapolis, or Birmingham will all have distinct motivations. So you really need to understand what is happening in these particular areas, in addition to understanding the global appeal of these organisations.

HK – Are there other cases of past or present radicalisation that we can draw upon to help tackle groups like ISIS? For example, the case of gang membership in urban areas?

KvH – Yes, these issues are definitely comparable. I was recently at a conference speaking with Gary Slutkin, the founder of Cure Violence, an organisation that has done some great work in reducing gang violence all over the world (it was launched in Chicago, but has since spread globally because their methodology works). They employ interruptors and former gang members to play a role in preventing violence. They borrow a methodology used by health workers to stop the spread of pandemics. So there are definitely successes out there, and techniques which one can borrow from adjacent fields, provided you are able to tweak it to make it work for your purposes.

HK – Given the importance of an enabling environment in facilitating radicalisation, in your opinion, what would be the best way to prevent such an enabling environment in Syria or other such parts of the world?

KvH –ISIL emerged from the civil war in Syria, I think a more robust U.S. approach to Syria would have helped prevent the country deteriorating as much as it has. I understand why President Obama did not want to do more than he was doing, as he was worried about the unintended consequences, as we saw in Libya. On the other hand, I think the U.S. government by 2014 knew many more Syrians than it did Libyans, and it had lots of relationships with people on the ground, through training programmes and other non-lethal support to opposition activists. Had the US bombed around the time the red lines were crossed, I think it would have made a big difference and ISIL would not have been able to capitalise on the space as they did. Though this is of course all conjecture and impossible to prove, it’s just my personal belief.

ISIL has been able to thrive in Syria primarily because they are experts at filling power vacuums and taking advantage of chaotic situations. ISIL’s territorial holdings have changed frequently since 2014 and they have been in sporadic conflict with a range of militias, including opposition fighters, the Kurds, aL-Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Syrian regime, and recently the Russians. Unfortunately, the longer Western powers essentially watch from the sidelines, with minimal assistance, the worse it’s going to get.

HK – In your experience, do you think gender is a concept that is understood and engaged enough in counterterrorism policy and practice? Can you offer an example to highlight this?

KvH – Women play a role in preventing family members from being radicalised. They also can play a negative role and contribute to radicalisation of friends and family members. The interesting thing about ISIL is that more women are joining ISIL than have joined other groups in the past, and we are doing research to try to understand this issue and ultimately understand the way women perceive the phenomenon.

HK – Finally, in your calculations, would a British exit from the EU have a net positive or negative impact on British and European Security?

KvH – We have been looking at the security implications of Brexit at RUSI, and from this perspective, it makes more sense for Britain to remain (e.g., to enhance/build on the common arrest warrant, sharing of intelligence, etc), but at RUSI we do not take a corporate position on Brexit.



Dr Karin von Hippel became Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) on 30 November 2015. Karin von Hippel joined RUSI after recently serving as Chief of Staff to General John Allen, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter-ISIL. Karin has also worked as a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations and as a Senior Adviser in the Bureau of Counterterrorism at the US Department of State. Prior to that, she worked at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC and at the Centre for Defence Studies at King’s College London. She has also worked for the United Nations and the European Union in Somalia and Kosovo.

Harris Kuemmerle is a doctoral researcher in the Department of War Studies and the Department of Geography at King’s College London. His research focuses on the intra and inter-state hydropolitics of the Indus River. Twitter: @HarrisKuemmerle

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