Can Nigeria teach us how to build resilience against terrorism?

A woman stands in front of a burnt building in Michika town, after the Nigerian military recaptured it from Boko Haram, in Adamawa state May 10, 2015.

A woman stands in front of a burnt building in Michika town, after the Nigerian military recaptured it from Boko Haram, in Adamawa state May 10, 2015. Image: REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

Robyn Scott
Co-founder, Mothers for All
Lisa Witter
Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder, Apolitical
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Perhaps most striking about the developed world’s war on terror is the numerical mismatch with its opponents. The world-changing attacks on September 11, 2001 were committed by 19 hijackers; the bombs in London on July 7, 2005, were carried by four men; the co-ordinated strikes on Paris in November 2015 appear to have been perpetrated by less than a dozen people.

Even if you include domestic terrorists and generously add in accomplices, sympathisers, and those who were caught before their plots came to fruition, we are talking about numbers that vanish beside the size of our societies.

The most frightening extremists like ISIS can never defeat these countries by force of arms. The attackers on Paris mustered some explosives and a handful of Kalashnikovs; the French Army has tanks, aircraft, nuclear weapons. It is hard to imagine ISIS tanks one day rumbling down the Champs-Elysées.

From this perspective, terrorism doesn’t look like a war; it looks like a particular kind of crime. That matters because it defines the scale of the resilience we need to build if we are to mobilise our vast resources to crush it: resilience not to react to terrorism blow-by-blow — this we already have — but rather to minimise, contain or prevent the damage it can do.

We think one of the most important places to start is to identify and support powerful responses from the weakened states in which terrorism flourishes.

One striking example comes from Nigeria, where the threat is so great that it has led to real fighting. Here, a realisation that a final defeat of Boko Haram will come not militarily has spurred the development of a pioneering and thorough de-radicalisation programme.

Its two essential components are prevention and rehabilitation. For the latter, those militants already in prison are given copies of the Koran; many have never seen one before. They also receive literacy classes and a broader education, and discuss the words and deeds of the Prophet with imams.

Dr Fatima Akilu, who designed the programme, told Apolitical (co-founded by the authors to share and support what’s working in the public service globally) ‘We had a lot of crying in class. At first there was some defiance and especially of the imams, because they felt they had more knowledge than the imams, but as time went on, as they began to really understand what the Koran was saying, there were a lot of tears. People would say things like, “I wasted my life”.

‘You know, all of a sudden you’re confronted with what you’ve done. You’ve committed atrocities in the name of this religion when now you understand that religion actually preaches the exact opposite. How can you now justify why you raped somebody or killed a child or placed a bomb, so it’s tough, it’s a rocky road, it’s going to take them a long time.’

The militants are also given trauma counselling and anger management classes. The point is to educate and rehabilitate so they can one day be released from prison and back into society.

This programme is not run by a specialist agency, but by the prison service itself. The idea is to embed de-radicalisation in the daily functioning of one of society’s existing institutions. The scheme is being scaled up from a few prisons and ‘within two or three years’ intends to be ready for the estimated 10–15,000 active members of Boko Haram that might lay down their arms in a negotiated settlement.

This principle of embedding also runs through prevention work. Everything has a parent agency with a view to institutionalising the approach. One example is within schools, where a ‘creative curriculum’ that challenges dogmatic thinking and studies Islam alongside philosophy and science is being implemented. ‘So that when someone comes and says, “Islam tells me you should not go to school,” you can say, “Well, hang on a minute, the father of algebra was a Muslim”.’

A network of imams, teachers, mothers, policemen, NGO workers, traditional rulers, local government and public servants is being trained to spot signs of radicalisation and alert the authorities via phone, text, Twitter, Facebook or even Instagram. Incomers to the Public Service Institute, Nigeria’s training college, are being taught to counter Boko Haram’s narrative from whichever department they end up.

Similar principles can be seen right on ISIS’s front door in the ‘free areas’ of Syria, controlled by neither the caliphate nor the Assad regime.

Alongside the fighting, elected local councils are providing public services that, just by existing, undermine the caliphate. One councillor told us proudly: ‘We are second on ISIS’s hate list behind the US coalition.’

This hatred exists because every Syrian faction, including ISIS, is trying to assert its legitimacy as a stable place to live. As a councillor from Deraa, in the south of the country, explained: ‘Anyone who will give you a safe shelter, you will go there.’ He is one of 40 officials representing more than 800,000 people. Despite the danger and the extreme difficulty of rebuilding the decimated infrastructure, he persists, explaining, ‘We are hoping to make a government system. Maybe there will not be the success that we hope, but we are trying to make the first steps. It is better than living with no rules at all, no authority at all. Now, if there is an issue, some problem, there is a place the people can go, sit together, discuss together and find a solution.’

The media, when not focusing on the relatively small numbers of terrorists, tends to focus on the weakness of the states where terrorism thrives. It is to our disadvantage that we thus tend to neglect the pockets of remarkable strength amidst the weakness. We can only effect change at the scale required to make our societies truly resilient by mobilising, connecting and supporting the state institutions and civil society bodies — and the dedicated public servants behind them — that already exist. As Fatima Akilu told us, ‘We didn’t invent anything; we just joined it up.’

This is one of four finalists in the Young Global Leaders' Resilient World essay competition.

Author: Robyn Scott and Lisa Witter are co-founders of Apolitical. Robyn is one of the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders.

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