Preventing Violent Extremism through Cultural Security

This post originally appeared on the Cultural Security Blog.

Protection of cultural heritage holds relevance for initiatives of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) and Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE). In particular, initiatives intended to preempt radicalization of vulnerable communities reference fundamental social, educational, political, economic, or security drivers.(a) The drivers intersect with destruction of historic monuments and looting of archaeological sites. Specifically, terrorist groups can, and do, exploit neglect of cultural heritage by targeting the resulting vulnerabilities in local communities. Here are a few examples followed by recommendations for cultural security policy.blog_image-20161201

Political risk of cultural disenfranchisement

When the leaders of a local government do not preserve historic monuments and protect archaeological sites from looting, they do not respect the cultural heritage of the local population and thereby risk alienating the local population. The same leaders compound the political risk when government forces inadvertently damage or deliberately destroy monuments. Disenfranchised locals with a loss of a sense of cultural heritage, consequently, may be vulnerable to the ideologies of terrorist groups.

Economic risk of compromising cultural tourism

Erosion and destruction of historic monuments puts the local economy at risk by reducing the potential for revenues from tourists who are drawn to the cultural heritage of the nation. In the extreme, acts of political violence at cultural heritage sites frighten tourists from visiting the nation. A weakened economy leads to financial hardship for locals, who in turn become vulnerable to exploitation by terrorist groups.

Security risk of antiquities looting as a gateway crime

Antiquities trafficking creates a security risk for a nation by engaging otherwise law-abiding citizens in illicit activities. If a government does not prevent dealers from enticing locals to loot cultural artifacts, then those locals are drawn into criminal activity by violating national cultural heritage laws. Perceived as relatively benign criminals, antiquities dealers give organized crime and terrorist groups an access point to financially needy locals. Consequently, terrorist groups can exploit locals who have been desensitized to unethical behavior and connected to criminal networks.

Some, if not many, communities that are vulnerable to radicalization by terrorist groups have monuments and antiquities that are at risk. Lack of protection of cultural heritage by local governments may contribute to one or more of the above political drivers. Cultural security policy that protects monuments and counters antiquities trafficking could mitigate the drivers and thereby play a role in an integrated approach for PVE.

(a) “From a counterterrorism perspective, the keys are (1) prioritizing the most vulnerable communities, (2) identifying the particular social, educational, political, economic, or security drivers of radicalization at the local level, and (3) addressing the key drivers in an integrated way, including changing government actions that may exacerbate radicalization to violence.” In remarks of “The Struggle Against Terrorism: Lessons Learned & Next Steps,” by Sarah Sewall , Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Center for International Studies, Cambridge, MA, November 22, 2016.

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