How to Beat Salafi-Jihadi Terrorism

In my recent book Anatomy of Terror (Norton, 2017), I argue that one of our most potent weapons against terrorism is empathy; not in the colloquial sense of sharing another person’s perspective, but in the psychological sense of being able to see the world through another person’s eyes, whether or not you agree. To defeat the terrorists, I maintain we must first grasp, in detail, their worldview, their motivations, and their ideology.

Such an understanding has become critical in light of al-Qaeda’s evolution since 2001. On 9/11, the organization existed as a close-knit hierarchy of around 400 extremists based mostly in Afghanistan. Today it has mutated into a string of terrorist franchises spread like a rash across the Muslim world. Collectively, these franchises boast tens of thousands of members. There is evidence that al-Qaeda’s wayward progeny, the Islamic State, may be heading down a similar path. Even as it suffers crushing defeats in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has been building up a network of so-called “provinces” around the world; already, Islamic State fighters from the Middle East have begun showing up in conflicts as far afield as the Philippines.

What binds the members of such groups together is no longer their shared experiences in bin Laden’s training camps, but something more intangible: a common commitment to the jihadi ideas. That commitment is a renewable resource, allowing for the recruitment of potentially limitless ranks of new members. Such diaphanous and self-replicating networks cannot simply be bombed into submission. Alongside intelligence gathering, Special Forces raids, drone strikes, and the training of local security services—all of them valuable tools in their own way—we must focus on degrading the terrorists’ most valuable asset: their extremist ideology.

Of course, that is easier said than done, for bin Laden, his successors, his imitators, and their followers are masters at the darkest forms of propaganda. Over the course of more than two generations, al-Qaeda and its offspring have successfully peddled the view that the West is engaged in a “war against Islam” in which it enjoys the active connivance of client rulers across the Muslim world. This opinion is by no means confined to a handful of extremists. On the contrary, millions of Muslims have come to believe that the United States is deliberately suppressing their religion and stifling political change in order to keep repressive secular governments in power.

Unfortunately, we are doing almost nothing to correct this misperception. Indeed, the United States has too often fueled the narrative, for example by invading Iraq (and thus apparently fulfilling long-standing Salafi-jihadi prophesies of an apocalyptic battle for Mesopotamia), by imprisoning hundreds without charge at Guantánamo Bay, by mocking Islamic taboos in order to humiliate prisoners at Abu Ghraib, by failing to avoid civilian casualties from air strikes, by doing little to end repressive sectarianism in Syria and Iraq, by trumpeting U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, by restricting travel to the United States from Muslim countries, and in myriad other ways.

Even more insidiously, terrorists exploit a widespread sense of grievance among young Muslim men. Again, this comes down to psychology. Fundamentally, people need to feel that they are in control of their destinies, that they are part of a broader whole, and that their lives mean something. What is on offer in the depressed cities and neighborhoods from which the Islamic State draws most of its recruits—be they in the Muslim world or the West—is just the opposite: a life of mediocrity, isolation, and tedium. So it is no surprise that, in its propaganda videos, the Islamic State goes out of its way to depict its recruits as enjoying lives of action, excitement, and comradeship—while downplaying strictly theological messages. Having enticed their novices in with the blandishments of history-making adventure, these groups proceed to imprison them in ideological echo chambers in which every new piece of information is interpreted as evidence supporting Salafi-jihadi messages. If the Islamic State suffers a defeat, it must be because of the heretics or Shia treachery; on the other hand, if the Islamic State wins a victory, that is evidence of God’s favor. In such an environment, the truth has little purchase.

How can we push vulnerable young people off the treadmill of radicalization before it carries them into the jihadi echo chamber? We can start by exposing the basic hypocrisy of a movement that lays claim to true Islamic piety even as it routinely bombs mosques—including, in 2016, the world’s second-holiest, the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. While we are laying bare these lies, we must craft a true story to drown out the false one terrorists tell. It is not a question of trying to match Salafi-jihadi claims tit for tat with bare denials, but of creating an entirely new narrative—ideally one with even greater appeal, because it is based not on lies and despair but on truth and hope. Mere boilerplate messages about how “killing is un-Islamic” or “the West is not at war with Islam” are too vague and too easily dismissed. The new narrative will only take hold if it is tailored, not just from country to country, but down to the level of individual communities. The reasons people join groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State vary widely from place to place. Security officials in the United States found users of extremist websites in that country especially drawn to the idea of taking up arms to “protect” fellow Muslims. In some African nations, there is evidence that economic reasons factor highly, alongside ethnic and familial motives. Elsewhere, the touchstone might be sectarianism, ethnic chauvinism, or tribal rivalries. Terrorists have understood this for years, and have adjusted their messages accordingly. Our counter-strategies need to be similarly focused.

The identity of the messenger is equally critical. People are likely to dismiss messages they see as coming from the West or from a local government with a reputation for mendacity. Where terrorists recruit using religious ideology, for example, clerics or Islamic scholars may be the ones best placed to deliver a counter-narrative. For example, scholars working with Singapore’s Religious Rehabilitation Group preach the importance of moderation in Islamic practice. By contrast, when extremists target would-be recruits through local or tribal grievances, community elders should head up the moderate response.

With the current iteration of the Islamic State well on its way to disintegration in Syria and Iraq, thousands of foreign fighters are seeking to return home. Several hundred have already returned to Europe and North America. As outlined in a recent paper from The Soufan Center entitled Beyond the Caliphate, not all of these returnees pose the same level of risk; while some certainly plan to bring the fight home with them, others have been left disillusioned or traumatized by what they have seen. For some, we should hold open the possibility of eventual rehabilitation, after an appropriate period of punishment. Rehabilitation programs have been shown to work; over the last decade, Germany, Singapore, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and others have each realized some measure of success. To be clear, rehabilitating terrorists is not a question of altruism; repentant “formers” have the credibility to debunk the idea that terrorism is an honorable or exciting lifestyle, as they have done to great effect as part of the UK’s strategy in Northern Ireland.

Prevention is better than cure, however. If we seek to inoculate populations more permanently against the virus that is extremism, the international community should work to treat the underlying factors that make its propaganda so appealing to so many.

First, we should come together to end regional conflicts in the Middle East and beyond. Such conflicts have always been central to bin Laden’s ideology, providing opportunities for what the Salafi-jihadi literature calls “the Management of Savagery”—the process of exploiting governmental collapse to create chaos, then turning that chaos to one’s own advantage in order to seize power. Groups like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Nusra have used this method to carve out sizeable territories for themselves in Yemen and Syria respectively—territories that may soon become launch-pads for a renewed campaign of violence against the West. Meanwhile, as a result of these same conflicts, millions of Muslim children are growing up as refugees, in circumstances that make them acutely vulnerable to recruitment by terrorist groups. Shutting down these power vacuums and restoring order would go a long way toward cutting off terrorist recruitment.

Second, we should confront countries in the region whose actions help fuel the extremist narrative, directly or indirectly. Repression, corruption, and sheer governmental incompetence have long been endemic across the Muslim world; the West should help governments to improve their records on each of these counts—and withhold favors from those that do not. Increasingly, intolerance and sectarianism are also rife. One U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, uses its oil wealth to spread an intolerant version of Islam via fundamentalist mosques and madrassas; tellingly, schools run by the Islamic State tend to use Saudi textbooks—often printed directly from Saudi government websites. Meanwhile, the Kingdom’s hardline policies against Iran are fueling Sunni-Shia animosity, most acutely in the intractable proxy war in Yemen. While developing a comprehensive strategy to counter Iran’s growing reach in the Arab world, the United States should confront the Saudi government and demand an end to both fundamentalist teaching and sectarian foreign policy.

Third, and perhaps most fundamentally, we should give people in the Muslim world the tools of critical thinking to resist false narratives and identify true ones. Generations of substandard education have made too many Muslim countries fertile ground for extremist groups whose leaders distort religion, twist the truth into a conspiracy theory, and demand blind obedience to their orders. It is no coincidence that Salafi-jihadi terrorists frequently target institutions of learning; the very nickname of the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram (officially the Islamic State in West Africa) literally means “Western education is forbidden.” Salafi-jihadis routinely target schools and universities, as well as campaigners like the Pakistani educational advocate Malala Yousafzai. They do this because they know that, for backward extremists like themselves, modern education is kryptonite. If we want to lay the ghost of bin Ladenism for good, therefore, we could do worse than to bankroll the building of schools and the training of teachers.

Two governmental resources will be critical to the strategy I have advocated here: one is diplomacy and the other is the intelligent use of overseas assistance. So it is distressing to see the present administration denigrating the role of the State Department and proposing to slash funding for foreign aid. These are short-sighted policies that should be reversed. In contrast to America’s highly militarized approach to terrorism over the past twenty years, the methods put forward in this essay amount to a gradual chipping away of extremist ideology over a period of years or even decades. To be sure, such methods are unlikely to generate eye-catching headlines. Adopting them will require a great deal more patience on the part of the Western public. But when one is dealing with a problem as fanatically stubborn as terrorism, patience is the only way.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Ali Soufan recommends dismantling the ideological appeal of groups like al Qaeda and ISIS. He argues for several measures he believes will help, including defusing regional conflict; pressuring the governments of Muslim allies, notably Saudi Arabia, to abandon extremist proselytizing; and replacing pro-terror messages in Islamic education with nonviolent ones that stress particularly those messages that local communities will find appealing. He laments that U.S. actions have done little to further these goals.

Response Essays

  • Seth G. Jones agrees that understanding terrorists’ recruiting tactics is important, as is the need to understand their worldview and motivations. He recommends several steps beyond Ali Soufan suggestions, including taking a much harder line against online jihadist content, which he recommends aggressively removing from social media.

  • Christopher Preble agrees that current U.S. antiterrorism strategy has failed. Yet he despairs of using better education to counter terrorist narratives: Not only does the United States commonly lack the credibility and nuance needed to deliver better messages, but many Americans also share all too much of the jihadists’ own beliefs: that Islam is violent, and that the West is correct to fight against all of it.