Compassionate Counterterrorism: Q&A with author Leena Al Olaimy

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Article by: Sophie Poulsen
Compassionate Counterterrorism: Q&A with author Leena Al Olaimy

Leena Al Olaimy, THNK Class 4, is the Co-Founder of 3BL Associates, an award-winning social enterprise working on issues such as peace, climate change, and inclusive economic growth. She is a Fulbright scholar, a Dalai Lama Fellow, a Salzburg Global Fellow, a Soliya Fellow, and a Wall Street Journal “Woman of Note” and is listed among Bahrain’s Most Influential Women by Business in the Gulf. Her work has been published by the World Economic Forum, openDemocracy, Stanford Social Innovation Review, and the Huffington Post.


She’s also the author of Compassionate Counterterrorism: The Power of Inclusion in Fighting Fundamentalism, a poignant counterargument to how we combat violent extremism non-violently.


We sat down with Leena to find out how entrepreneurship can play a role in peacebuilding how you can help as a business leader, and of course, where you can get the book!

1. What made you decide to write Compassionate Counterterrorism? And why now?

I wanted to make this oppressive topic more accessible to a mainstream audience and to provide an optimistic outlook on how we can change the underlying conditions that lead to violent extremism. The book is heavily grounded in data interwoven with stories and narratives.

Another catalyst was when I was recently working on a project with Lena Slachmuijlder (Class 5), who is the Vice President of one of the world’s oldest and most notable peacebuilding organizations, Search for Common Ground. Through our engagement, I realized the astounding disparity between how much we invest in peace; one year of the US Department of Defense’s budget would keep Search alive for 15,000 years! And even within the social sector, peace received just US$350 million in grants. Clearly, there is an urgent case to be made for greater investments in peace.

2. How did your personal journey lead to this book?

My interest in what drives people to such extreme violence and destruction in the name of my religion – or any religion for that matter – began when I was studying in New York during 9/11. When I moved back to Bahrain in 2005, a group of US Navy SEALs I was friends with lost half of their platoon during an ambush in Afghanistan. You can imagine the heated and emotionally charged conversations that ensued. Only one managed to escape and his story was turned into a Hollywood blockbuster, Lone Survivor.

The question of “why” possessed me, and I partially had the chance to explore this during a Fulbright scholarship at Dartmouth. But academia tends to be more theoretical and I didn’t only want to research “why.” I wanted to propose what we could do instead. When I did my research 10 years ago, Bin Laden was still alive, Daesh (ISIS) didn’t exist, and nonviolent approaches to counterterrorism were sparse – or at least harder to uncover. Military interventions have, in many ways, killed terrorists but not terrorism. While I don’t argue for an absence of a hard security approach in my book, I do show how many instances of force prove to be directly counterproductive to long-term efforts to counter terrorism.

3. How is entrepreneurship a solution to terrorism?

Proposing it as a solution would be over-simplifying something that is extremely complex. But even though the “poverty causes terrorism” argument is invalid, economic exclusion – and exclusion more broadly – plays a role. In Nigeria for instance, where youth face a staggering unemployment rate of 50 percent, one social entrepreneur, Kola Masha, provides youth with the opportunity to choose farming over fundamentalism and to triple their incomes. The mere presence of USAID programs in Nigeria correlates with more confidence in the government and less support for extremist groups.

One might wonder how someone like Masha gets at-risk youth to ditch status symbols for tractors when Boko Haram is offering cash and a motorcycle? It turns out youth are very practical. They predominantly join extremist groups in pursuit of economic opportunities, which are largely absent in rural areas. Masha’s business model is designed to dramatically increase farmer income through crop yield optimization, microcredit, and economies of scale and he is targeting one million farmers at the cost of US$ 1 billion.

Unfortunately, current meager allocations of foreign aid are disproportionately focused on supporting micro and small enterprises, rather than larger companies with the wherewithal to employ thousands or for-profit social enterprises that stabilize economies and markets and reinforce long-term incentives for maintaining peace. It’s a bit of a catch-22 because, as Masha rightly notes, who would invest in a North-Eastern Nigerian venture fund? Or, for that matter, a Syrian or Iraqi high-impact entrepreneurship accelerator?

4. What role can social entrepreneurs and business leaders play in peace and security?

Businesses don’t appear to fully appreciate the mutually beneficial roles they can play in maintaining peace. Nestlé, for instance, is Masha’s biggest client. In creating shared value – that is, driving profits through serving societal or environmental needs – Nestlé helps Masha’s farmers increase their incomes by enhancing their crop yield and quality, which are important agricultural inputs for the Nestle supply chain of nutritional products. I cannot help but wonder, however, why they are not measuring the impact these efforts have on maintaining peace and security and the averted cost of business disruptions caused by violence and volatility.

Social finance is another sector with the potential to close the peace-building investment gap. Social impact bonds (SIBs), for instance, are already being used to address social problems like recidivism and affordable housing. Although there are evident challenges in proving causality with violent extremism, peace innovation in the finance sector could have profound implications for providing the rigor required to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of interventions preventing violent extremism and to calculate the consequent social and economic by-products of those interventions. Not to overlook the fact that literal investments in peace – whereby institutional investors receive both a financial and social return on their investments – also unlock the type of finance needed for capital-intensive solutions that are large-scale rather than micro.

5. How is this book related to your own work?

Promoting inclusion and more inclusive models is a thread that runs through all of my work. With my strategy consultancy, 3BL Associates, we design more inclusive and collaborative business models for economic growth, social equity, and environmental regeneration. One of our other social ventures, Diversity On Board, promotes the inclusion of under-represented groups–including women but also millennials, the disabled, and others–on boards in the Arab world. And another venture, Public-Planet Partnerships, is a methodology and set of tools and values that enable the human world to be more environmentally inclusive and to see the natural world as a partner and collaborator–beyond something to simply protect (or exploit!). So this book has been a natural extension of this theme.

6. The THNK Community is a diverse group of social entrepreneurs, artists, corporate leaders, creatives, and more. Above all, they are leaders who want to make a positive impact. What can they learn from this book?

I think this book will definitely challenge preconceived notions on what counterterrorism solutions can and should look like – and most importantly, who can and should be involved in promoting greater peacefulness. Including you!

While it may seem intuitive for us as changemakers and agents of social transformation, it’s not conventional thinking that we could disarm people using mindfulness training – which has been proven in neuroscientific studies. Or that urban policies of integration could make a city with the highest Muslim population in Belgium resilient to terrorist recruitment. Or even using love and matchmaking to demobilize a terrorist group!

Core to the refreshed approach to counterterrorism I propose is the importance of collaborative, synchronized efforts between unlikely bedfellows – which leverages the social capital and human expertise of the peace-building community and pairs it with the military’s resources and aptitude for innovation and the strategic and financial muscle of mission-driven business approaches.

Compassionate Counterterrorism will be released on February 26, 2019. Pre-order it on Amazon today. The more pre-orders, the higher this must-read book will rank!

The book is also available via Penguin Random House, Barnes & Noble, Indie Bound, and Book Depository. All the links are on Leena’s website, where you can also download a free sample chapter.

Leena is one of many inspiring leaders who participated in the THNK Executive Leadership Program.

To unlock your own creative leadership potential, join the THNK Executive Leadership Program.