Thinking Beyond Terrorism

I have experienced more terrorism than the average person. In 1988, I lost my brother in the terrorist bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Merely 18 years old at the time, my life was changed forever as the words “war on terror” became firmly embedded into my consciousness. On September 11, 2001, I was at a conference of the National Governor’s Association at the Watergate Hotel when the Pentagon was hit by a plane and minutes later the city of Washington DC went into lockdown. Then on May 1, 2010 I had tickets to a Broadway show on the very street where a terrorist had placed a bomb in a van outside of the theater that I was scheduled to be at. I stood at the barricade watching with unbelief and thankfulness, that they found the bomb before it exploded. As I allowed myself to appreciate the reality that but for the discovery of the bomb, a couple hours later I would have been walking out of the theater at the very moment the bomb was set to explode. After briefly being triggered with the all to familiar sense of trauma, I had felt twice before, my mind went in another direction. “The war on terror has been a failure,” I said to myself.

If anyone is justified in being fuming mad and advocating retaliation it’s me. This is the preconditioned response in conflict. Most people live in a retaliatory cycle, whether they act on it, or not. Sadly we have already begun to see retaliatory acts against Muslim’s in the Boston terrorist attack. Thankfully in my journey I realized that if I respond in revenge, I am no better than the terrorist. Instead, I set my sights on preventing terrorism. I realized at the age of 18 that I could not bring my brother back, but if I could find a way to prevent terrorism it would make my brother’s death not be in vain. So at the age of 20 I did my senior thesis on Islamic terrorism, hoping that it would give me answers. I learned the in’s and out’s of terrorism. By definition terrorism is defined as violence targeted toward innocent people in order to create fear and communicate a political or ideological message. However, ideology alone is rarely enough to motivate a person to kill innocents. They are also motivated by hate. So, I realized that if at the heart of terrorism is hate and fear; the only way to fight this battle is to walk in the opposite spirit. Rather than shrinking back in fear, I went on the offensive with the weapon of love.

I have been working in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia since losing my brother in the Lockerbie bombing. My approach was to focus on reconciliation and overcoming evil with good. My first trip to Libya was in 2004 and it was on that trip that I was shocked to encounter people who thought that, as an American, I hated them. Time and again I would encounter this kind of misinformation. How could I hate them, when I didn’t even know them? We often overlook the impact that history fueled by misinformation can have on cross-cultural relations. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard Muslim’s talk about the Crusades, which happened nine hundred years ago, as a reason for strife in the world. We can never under estimate the impact that history can have in causing mistrust and misunderstanding. As wars, cultural and religious differences are heightened; the divide can become even bigger. We must build a very big and sturdy bridge. It is only by face-to-face interaction through people-to-people diplomacy that the divide can be effectively bridged.

I was one of the first Americans and the first Lockerbie relative to go to Libya after the US and UN sanctions were lifted. It meant a lot to the people I met that I wanted to go to Libya, meet them and find out what their lives were like. That simple message probably did more to combat terrorism than million’s of dollars in military aid ever has. I also realized that although I couldn’t bring my brother back I could help others who were still suffering at the hands of the man who murdered my brother. In 2005, the Peace and Prosperity Alliance was birthed. I have been doing humanitarian, education and conflict resolution in countries like Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan ever since.

During the Libyan revolution, I went to Benghazi to provide medical relief supplies. While I was there, I was asked to share my story and offer a word of encouragement to the Libya people when I spoke to a crowd of approximately 100,000 in Freedom Square in Benghazi on the day the International Court issued the arrest warrant for Gaddafi. My most recent trip to Benghazi to teach conflict resolution happened in December, just months after the assassination of the US Ambassador. You can read more here http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-20808338

My concern is neither the conservatives nor liberals have the right approach on the terrorism issue. The conservatives want to make it out like all Muslims believe in terrorism. While the Liberals don’t do service to this issue either because they justify these bad acts on the grounds that they are no different than what the US does. President Obama tries to minimize the religious connection or even deny it was terrorism. Why is it in Libya, a Muslim country, I hear Muslims labeling the terrorist acts as extremist Muslims, but in America we can’t bring ourselves to say those words. In Libya the Salafist are bombing Christian churches and Sufi Mosques. They are indiscriminate. They hate anyone who doesn’t agree with them. It is terrorism when it is motivated by religious extremism. So we need to call a spade a spade. See more here http://www.irinnews.org/fr/Report/97653/Security-of-Christian-communities-precarious-in-Libya-archbishop

In my experience, none of our governmental leaders have even scratched the surface on dealing terrorism, because we alienate by labeling them all as terrorist, or try to act like it isn’t really terrorism. The truth is it is terrorism motivated by hate. The only way to impact the hate rhetoric is through citizens coming face-to-face with citizens and talking. This is the only way to break down false beliefs we have for the other and build bridges of understanding. I have friends in Libya who have asked me to bring Americans and put them on the news in Libya to share about the good we are doing there. The purpose is to counter the lies they are hearing in some of the mosques in the poorer communities alleging that America hates them and wants to take over.

Let’s face it. We are no closer to peace and security in Afghanistan, Iraq or other parts of the Middle East after spending millions of defense dollars there. Perhaps it is time to take a different approach. Training, dialogues and capacity building programs are essential to stabilizing and development. The problem is most of these programs are not relationship based. They are strickly focused on training, but not on long-term bridge building and people-to-people diplomacy.

I run a small nonprofit that facilitated a leadership training institute in Benghazi in January of 2012 and we trained 300 leaders in conflict resolution, leadership, ethics, intercultural intelligence, Five habits of healthy teams, and strategic planning. The course was overwhelmingly received and they have asked for more. I went back over Christmas 2012 and trained another 100 leaders in conflict resolution with small groups of different leaders each day. It was overwhelmingly received. The curriculum is being translated into Arabic and we plan to roll this training program out on a larger scale. Yet I am scraping to find the funds to continue this project because our country isn’t very open to funding small projects or small NGO’s. The bottom line is that relationships change and erode wrong patterns of thought that contribute to extremism. It may be quicker to just drop a bomb. Bur, the long term transformational impact of training and grassroots dialogues will have a lasting impact that war never can. Rather than burying our heads in the sand or just responding with military might let’s begin to focus our efforts on fighting terrorism with programs that actually work. For more information how you can help with grassroots peacemaking efforts in North Africa and the Middle East go here http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/libya-conflict-resolution-training/x/2654998

Lisa Gibson is an attorney, global conflict consultant and Executive Director of the Peace and Prosperity Alliance. She made the headlines when she met Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, one of the world’s most notorious terrorist and man responsible for her brother’s death. She’s been featured on CNN, MSNBC, NBC, ABC, CBS, Libyan Television, BBC and in Wall Street Journal, USA Today, New York Times, Washington Post, London Times and countless other publications. Her book is “Life In Death: A Journey From Terrorism To Triumph” is an award winning best-seller. www.peaceandprosperityalliance.org

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