What the war on terror has taught me | Dr Edwina Thompson | TEDxClapham

Translator: Robert Smith
Reviewer: Ivana Krivokuća You might have seen one of these before,
it’s what a lot of Afghan women wear. This was a gift from one of the families that I stayed with during my
PhD research in Afghanistan. I’m not here to enter into a debate
about the burka, I just needed to demonstrate
in the short time we have together what the war on terror has taught me. So who am I? Well, in relation to the war on terror,
someone who can claim to have spent more time than anyone from the West
with the class of money-men accused of channelling funds for Al-Qaeda,
the funds that made 9/11 possible. Random?
Yeah, that’s what my parents think. (Laughter) Ten years ago
I ran for my life in a burka. It was from a house in Jalalabad,
Eastern Afghanistan. I’d been hiding from a rioting mob seeking revenge on westerners
because of a Newsweek story alleging that the Quran
had been desecrated by being flushed down a toilet
thousands of miles away in Guantanamo Bay. Earlier in the day, I had escaped narrowly over the back wall of a building
that was being ambushed, looted and burnt. I had lost my headscarf
somewhere on the way between being shot at
and scaling the wall. Unfortunately,
my situation remained hostile because of the growing number of young men
that was congregating in the house to debate my ransom value. So I knew I had to get out. But it wasn’t until hours later
that I managed to communicate through a child with some local friends
who smuggled a burka to me. With this as my new outlook,
I then escaped the compound, ran through the riot
and reached one of my friend’s cars and from there we took
a terrifying journey to the airport. I ran across the tarmac and begged my way
onto the last remaining Afghan military helicopter
about to depart. Now the irony is that I’d only gone
to Jalalabad for a change of scene from what was a pretty stressful period
in Kabul. Instead, I experienced gripping fear,
but I also had the opportunity to see the world through a very different lens. And what suddenly was brought home to me as a non-Muslim wearing the burka
is how everyone sees life through the filter of their own
very personal set of experiences. Of course, these are what make each of us
uniquely special individuals, but on the flip-side, they can also act
as a kind of cage or a set of bars that limit our view of the world
and cause us to be blinded to other peoples’ perspectives. And because we’re all captive
to some degree, it’s extremely difficult to see things
through somebody else’s filtration system. And this is especially the case when fear rather than hope
is the dominant emotion in a situation. 9/11 was not only
the most shocking of attacks, but it generated a culture of fear
that was only deepened by what evolved into the ‘War of a Thousand Cuts’,
anticipated and named by Osama Bin Laden himself. This is fragmented, low-level warfare
where Al-Qaeda fights on multiple fronts, and its affiliates, wannabes
and those who are inspired by their cause create their own violent attacks. So recent events in Sydney and Paris
are chilling reminders of this. Now, in such environments
we readily demonize the things we don’t understand, and yet understanding
is what we need most. The War on Terror has taught me
that two key drivers for change will be the way
the West goes about building trust, and how it discerns who to listen to,
and when to intervene in a world that is not all black, not all white,
and not even fifty shades of grey. (Laughter) Both require nuanced understanding
and I’m going to use a few examples now from terrorism finance
to show you what I mean. In 2001, President Bush quickly linked
the attacks on American soil to an ancient money system, demonizing it and connecting it
inextricably to Islam. Militarily, the strategy in Iraq
and Afghanistan was to get rid of it. It was referred to
by an Arabic name, ‘hawala’, simply meaning ‘transfer’
but sounding very alien to Western ears. Essentially, it’s a self-regulated system made up of networks of money-dealers
across the world, who facilitate real-time
international and domestic payments through some pretty complex accounting, and who deliver funds
to some of the remotest parts of the world where banks don’t have a presence. Now you might be wondering
what on Earth inspired me to go to Afghanistan
and find out more about this system. Well, part of my inspiration
came from this dramatic poster published by the US government’s
Rewards for Justice campaign. It offered 5 million dollars
– and still does – for information that would help dismantle
the financial support to terrorists. I wasn’t there for any rewards
in Afghanistan, I was simply there to understand
how this blood money was flowing and whether it really was blood money. I took great pains to avoid recording
people’s names and taking pictures so that I could build the trust
that seemed so important to gaining the access and therefore
understanding of this very alien world. And I also wanted to reduce
the chances of getting killed. You can probably imagine
that looking into a delicate subject like terrorism finance
in war-torn Afghanistan presents its challenges,
especially for a single, white female with no formal affiliation
other than to a bunch of professors at a far-away university. And from the locals’ perspective,
initial perceptions of me were that I must be a spy or a journalist or a business person
or – most dreaded of all – a tax-collector
looking for incriminating evidence. The money-dealers clearly thought
that my impression of them was that they must be
a bunch of terrorists, so many actually offered
tongue-in-cheek confessions of being one at the start of an interview, which was a great ice-breaker
but also a little unnerving at times. (Laughter) So, the turning point
with the issue of their stereotyping of me and the perception that I might present
some kind of threat to them was when I narrowly escaped Jalalabad. But we don’t always have
the benefit of such dramatic events to shift the way we think, instead,
it takes an enormous amount of effort which we often can’t afford
with our limited time, so our tendency is to retreat to our cage
and keep things as black and white. As a result of lacking nuance
we risk making poor judgements, and some difficult and sometimes awkward
realities also get in the way. So if I take the example
again of terrorism finance, we have issues
with how we regulate money-flows. Of course, intrinsically,
money is neither good nor bad, black nor white, we just label it as such
according to its source and its use. But herein lies the problem, every dollar
in the pipeline looks the same, and the same applies
to a lot of commodities like jewelry and gold, particularly that
traded in the souks of the Middle-East. Politics also presents a problem. Terrorism finance investigations
have the habit of revealing politically uncomfortable truths
about the nature and the depth of the global Jihadist movement, the listing and de-listing of individuals and entities designated
by the US State Department as terrorists is an interesting one to watch. Yet another problem
is in how NATO countries have really struggled to build trust
in the counter-insurgency and stabilization campaigns
of Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s extremely difficult
to get money-dealers on side when at the same time
you’re smashing down their doors, making arrests and seizing their records which you don’t even
necessarily understand. Lastly, good information is at a premium, so with all the armchair critics
and commentators out there, where do we even start
in separating the wheat from the chaff? Who really understands the income sources
of the different Jihadist groups and how money is raised, moved and stored? Is it the media? Or perhaps the companies
whose products are being traded on the black-market of groups
like Islamic State or ISIS, ranked as today’s best-funded
terrorist organisation. So what would you need to know
if you were the UN in Afghanistan, faced with the decision
about whether to use the hawala system? Well here’s 4 points to consider:
1. Customer base. Its customers range
from – yes – militants, traffickers and corrupt politicians, but also to legal traders,
families and aid organisations. 2. Achievements. It’s achieved some incredible things that have actually gone
relatively unnoticed to most of us, like implementing an entire currency
changeover within two months of 2002, involving 800 million new notes weighing
500 tonnes and filling several planeloads. 3. Secrets. The business practices of hawala dealers
remain secret to most people and so it’s exceptionally difficult
to access their accounts. 4. Trust. Its high, if not impeccable
consumer rating stands in stark comparison to the record-lows of Western public trust
in highly regulated banks. So with this new information
as the UN in Afghanistan, what would you do if you were faced
with the responsibility of administering 3 billion dollars worth of salary payments to the Afghan National Police since 2003,
but the challenge of not having an immediate or even near-term method
for delivering those funds other than using the hawala system? Well, the decision was made not to use it. Instead, the UN experienced
technical issues in moving the money, and as a consequence, local policemen
across the country have gone without pay in some places for up to 5 years
at any one time. And like any security force
anywhere in the world, no pay has a direct negative correlation
with the motivation to protect civilians and in this case,
also the interests of NATO. If there was more time,
I would like to pose similar questions about NATO’s poppy strategy
which was also to get rid of it. This has cost Western tax-payers
8 billion dollars since 2002 and produced these results: cultivation is at an all-time high
and supplies the Taliban with double the amount of income
than in 2005, when a feasibility study was presented on legalising the crop for the production of the world’s most important pain-killers
like morphine. The point is that authentic engagement
with key influencers within the local business community
on both of these challenges was an inconceivable prospect when looking
through a black and white filter. Decision-makers in the West could only see
the locally accepted method for moving money and the source of income
from opium as bad. So again, when we fear things,
we demonize what we don’t understand, fall into stereotyping and risk
making poor judgements. Looking back to 2001,
it wasn’t obvious at the time that international and American banks handled much of the money
that allowed 9/11 to happen. This is in an addition
to chains of fundraisers and recruiters of volunteer Jihadists who acted
as cash couriers and still do today. So what’s the wisdom? Well, the Bush Administration’s
immediate fighting response to do what it takes whatever the cost
is completely understandable. The problem is, Bin Laden
was much more strategic and he predicted that the US would be baited and provoked
to fight unwinnable wars in foreign lands. In 2004 he clarified in a video
released on the eve of the US Presidential Elections
that the plan behind 9/11 was for the US
to “bleed until bankruptcy”. And the message was directed
to the American people whom he warned would be
the ultimate losers. And he’s right,
we’ve been bleeding billions while the blood money
still finds a way to flow. A part of the reason for this
is that we’ve been chasing hawala dealers down the alleys of Afghanistan rather than tracking the fundraisers
in the Gulf States and negotiating head-on
with those governments and businesses able to influence the situation. There is some good news,
key actors are showing signs of becoming more strategic
about the funding of terrorism. We are waking up and we are beginning
to see things differently, particularly in the area
of law-enforcement. Looking ahead, the focus should be
on how to build mutual trust and discern who to listen to. From my experience,
I know that trust can be built, and the process can be relatively quick. However, it can also be destroyed
in mere seconds. So the first step
is unveiling your preconceptions by putting yourself
in somebody else’s shoes, but importantly, not losing your own unique perspective
in the process. This means not going completely native. I’d like to suggest that one way
to achieve this is by standing beside that person and sharing
between you what each of you sees, this would build a much richer picture
than if you were to sit on your own and work out answers
to exceptionally difficult problems like how to stop acts of terrorism. Now, when it comes to the economy,
policy-makers must be more discerning when considering who
we should be standing beside and one thing to think about is that we’ve had almost everyone
but business people and theologians involved
in what is in large part a financial and theological challenge
in the War on Terror. To break the vicious circle
of playing catch-up with the protagonists, we must improve our ability
to anticipate their next moves, which in turn requires us
in some cases to reconcile the way we see things
with the way they see them. Decision-makers will then be
much better placed to discern when to intervene
and when to step back. Now, as for the rest of us,
whatever we’re looking at, whether it be terrorism,
an epidemic, poverty, your mother-in-law, race or religion, we must think about what kind of filter
we’re using, and then think about what kind of agenda
that sets for the decisions that we make, whether subconsciously or deliberately. Thanks for walking
in my shoes for a while. I hope that I’ve encouraged you
to keep challenging the way you and others view the War on Terror.

27 thoughts on “What the war on terror has taught me | Dr Edwina Thompson | TEDxClapham

  • Your story and the work you are doing has left a massive mark on us. It's rare to find a strong female role model, especially one who is making a difference to wider world issues, so thank you for being the inspiration we've been looking for. 

  • This is an extremely thought provoking talk whether the war on terror is currently on your radar or not.

    "…everyone sees life through the filter of their own very personal set of experiences. Of course, these are what make each of us uniquely special individuals. But on the flipside, they can act as a cage or set of bars that limit our view of the world, and cause us to be blinded to other people's perspectives…."

    – This point, as well as many others, is extremely important to remember when it comes to this situation, but I also feel can be applied to many aspects of life in general. Excellent.

  • Edwina. I am so proud of you. We must all listen and learn. Such a complex subject which you have made us THINK about in a different way. Heaps of love Annie and Dave xxxx

  • Inspiring to see a young woman, outside of the political field, taking up this enormous challenge. Better still it's reassuring to know its someone as capable as Edwina Thompson.

    Edwina is DOING exactly what she is RIGHTLY ASKING of the business and theologian community 

    ‘we’ve had almost everyone but business people and theologians involved in what is in large part a financial and theological challenge in the War on Terror.’

    Well done and thank you

  • There was a lot of new information to take in, in just 17 mins 
    > Were your audience allowed to ask questions?  I have one.  Do you have
    > any thoughts or insights into ISIS and how the west can creatively
    > interrupt their money supply. J

  • The war on Terror is aimed at preventing future deaths. There are many other preventable ways of dying which do not get the same level of press. Are there statistics on cost per terror death say vs cost per preventable deaths such as smoking, diabetes etc?

  • One of the most impressive things about Edwina's dead-on insights is that she gained them from personal experience. How many TV pundits who prattle on about the WoT can say that? This should be required viewing for anyone in the US counter-terrorism industry.

  • Excellent talk Edwina, great insight on the Hawala system.  I missed you live because I was busy getting microphoned-up back stage!

  • LOL! Edwina doesnt understand that Hawala doesnt always mean religious or Islamic banking only. Criticizing or trying to regulat it does nt mean its against religion etc. Basic and common mistake by foreigners! She needs to read more and not look at things as one religion or other. She seems to have very superficial understanding, almost patronizing, but i guess it works for her audience and business. Yes, amusing to listen to (I giggled too), but more melodrama than substance.

  • An outstanding insight by someone who has been there and experienced life in Kabul and Jalalabad and not just read about it in a book.  I was particularly interested in your points on poppy eradication.  I recall meeting with a company in 2004 in Kabul: they wanted to know my thoughts on the security arrangements while destroying the poppy fields.  My response was, 'don't.'  
    Great stuff Dr Thompson – you're a brave person with wonderful life experiences.

  • More deluded westerners thinking they can tell the perspective of native peoples. How about you stop invading and stealing from them after killing your own people on 9/11 ? Thankfully the numbers of "academics" who believe that hijackers who are still alive flew planes into buildings.

  • I can see this woman being a "Nightly News Caster"…she actually has something to say and to teach….very intelligent.

  • Pretty sad that even after a PhD, the filter remains. Fortunately for average humans like me, it hardly takes a PhD to comprehend that occupation and invasion for selfish geopolitical and recklessly selfish economic advantage, will most certainly yield resistance/terrorism/blowback from at least a fragment of the native populations. These details about the money, trade, hawala system are a usual distraction to help propel personal career goals.

  • Hawala is no big deal. It's just like Western Union. Focusing on it yields nothing. If people are wasting their time on Hawala then their budgets need to be cut back. This whole mess is over funded in many areas and it's generating nothing. If you wanna find out who the sources are then look to the places where they reside like the Penninsula where the Sheiks and other weirdos live. It's the Sunni Salifists on the Penninsula who are the well known sources, and you just need to do a little work to pin down who specifically they are. They are weirdos for sure.

  • General Wesley Clark explains that prior to 9/11 plans were in place to invade 7 Middle Eastern Countries.Therefore,9/11 was the fabricated pretext propelling the USA to invade.View and listen to the video on youtube if not removed and listen for yourself what the General states.

  • anyone who purports to speak on or in relation to 91 that does not mention that they were domestic crimes, is already in a laughable position. Address the facts: ajl.smugmug . com/911 or just google "ajl north tower" – then comment.

  • The war on terror presupposes that the USA did not attack its own citizens on 9/11. I see little evidence for that assumption, widespread as it may still be. Extreme naivety here!

  • Bring culture of any kind to others though the barrel of a gun or dropping bombs is a poor way of doing it. Talking about trust after an invasion is not effective. Non engagement would be much better, and let the Afghanistan do what they think is best. When to intervene? Never!

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