Terrorist Radicalization and the Targeting Issue

Photo Credit: PBS.org

By Nate Subramanian, Columnist

Who are we talking to? And what are we saying?

Given the reactionary response of many political figures in the United States and Europe to the recent terror attacks in Belgium, it is perhaps best to consider not how a counter-radicalization narrative could succeed, but rather how it has failed in the United States and in Europe. Clearly, jihadist ideology remains appealing to certain segments of the Muslim population, even as reactionary responses target Muslim communities for government surveillance. The West’s ‘targeting problem’ has proved an enduring aspect of its counter-radicalization efforts, and one that, absent greater Muslim involvement in crafting the counter-narrative, will continue to remain an issue.

Who are we targeting? A failing counter-radicalization strategy will confuse piety, religious, or cultural orthodoxy with support for violence.

On the HBO talk show Real Time with Bill Maher, atheist Sam Harris famously characterized jihadist radicalization as a process of ‘concentric circles.’ In the tiniest circle, he posits, lay violent jihadists; surrounding those jihadists are political Islamists, and in a larger circle still, conservative Muslims. This conceptual lens draws a straight line between conservative political attitudes among Muslims and support for jihadism – the only difference, it claims, is one of religious fervor.[i] In doing so, it obscures the distinctions between a Muslim who believes, for example, that adulterers should be stoned to death, and one who believes that Western governments are tools of evil that should be destroyed. Neither attitude is desirable in a liberal democratic society or conducive to integration or assimilation; only one of these attitudes, however, constitutes support for terrorism.

Fareed Zakaria recently made the point that the new generation of Islamic terrorists carrying out the bombings in Europe are “not religious extremists who became radicals but rather radicals who became religious extremists.”[ii] Muslims who leave Europe to join the Islamic State do not, by and large, exhibit extreme religious piety or conservative political attitudes. Rather, Rik Coolsaet finds that this “fourth wave of jihadi terrorism” is characterized by an “age-related set of personal motives.” The fighters tend to be young men, in their teens or early twenties, who are part of one of two groups: either they are members of an inner-city criminal or gang scene, or they are individuals who feel a distinct disconnect with Western society and despair about their future. In both cases, ‘radicalized’ individuals actually have stark material or psychological reasons for their detachment and divestment from Western society. They are not devout Muslims who choose violent jihad as a natural progression of their beliefs; rather, in the words of a French judge, they “are looking for a fight, or for adventure, or revenge, because they do not fit in society.”[iii]

A recent study by Georgetown South Asia scholar Christine Fair and colleagues dealing with Islamist violence in Pakistan provides further reason to disaggregate Muslim piety or orthodoxy from support for violence. Fair notes that the majority of analytic studies show little evidence of a link between Islamic piety and political violence; she also notes that while support for Islamist politics may in theory be used as a proxy for support of militancy, academic studies on the correlation are often biased in the questions they use to measure Islamism, offering no generalizable relationship. Using regression analysis with survey data, Fair shows that, in Pakistan, knowledge of Islam is actually negatively correlated with support for the Afghan Taliban and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (a group involved in sectarian violence).[iv] Not only is Islamic piety not the problem, but knowledge of the faith may dissuade individuals from radicalizing at the ground level.

The elision of the fundamental differences between conservative/orthodox Muslim attitudes and support for political violence is evidenced not only in the popular dialogue surrounding ‘radicalization’ but also in counterterrorism policies. Richard LeBaron, the first director of the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, noted that the Bush Administration counter-messaging operations that depicted patriotic and happy Muslim-Americans had only succeeded in convincing Muslims that “the United States perceived them as a problem.” He went on to describe the counter-radicalization fight as taking place in “a very, very narrow trench,” one that did not involve the vast majority of Muslim-Americans.[v] Such targeting issues are also evidenced in counter-radicalization efforts in Europe. In January 2016, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s linkage of English education programs with counter-extremism was met with widespread criticism that it contributed to further alienation of the Muslim population.[vi] In the wake of the most recent terror attacks in Brussels, reactionary voices resumed calls to take overt action against Muslim immigrants, refugees, and communities. Nigel Farage, leader of the conservative UK Independence Party, seized upon the attacks to claim that “mass immigration and multicultural division” was a failure, German politicians advocated tighter border controls, and Donald Trump, frontrunner for the Republican nomination, renewed his calls for the United States to restrict immigration or face dire consequences. Ted Cruz one-upped Trump by calling for law enforcement to “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods.”

It has become something of a cliché in terrorism literature to note that one main objective of terrorist activity is to promote a repressive, reactionary response from the state. In its latest attacks, the Islamic State seems to be succeeding: not only have they slaughtered innocents, they have planted the seed of reactionary policies that discourage Western societies from disaggregating ‘Muslim’ and ‘terrorist.’ Diffuse and untargeted messaging has been a historic and enduring problem with Western counter-radicalization efforts. As long as counterterrorism and counter-radicalization policies conflate conservative Muslim political or religious attitudes with support for terrorism, these efforts will be based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the dynamic between religion and terror.

What are we changing about ourselves? A failing counter-radicalization strategy will ignore the role of a pluralistic state identity in countering radicalization.

A recent study by terrorism scholars William McCants and Christopher Meserole points to another aspect of Western society that may have an outsized, if underappreciated, impact on counter-radicalization efforts: a state’s political culture. McCants and Meserole show that the single strongest predictor for a country’s contribution of foreign fighters (as a percentage of its Muslim population) is whether the country is a Francophone country. While this seems like a strange coincidence, McCants and Meserole hypothesize that the Francophone variable actually serves as a proxy for a specific aspect of French political culture – its aggressive state secularism, or laïcité.[vii] While religious piety in and of itself does not determine support for political violence, it seems to make sense that a state identity that sequesters the expression of faith to private life in the name of public secularism would drive a wedge between pious members of a religious group and the state.

When political actors are proscribed from full and equal participation in the political and social discourse of a country due to conceptions of state identity, it stands to reason that they will seek to break with that state’s identity and norms regarding political activity. Conversely, when political actors in a Western society are taught that their religious, ethnic, and other identities are vital parts of the national fabric, it may be that individuals are less motivated to break with the society and become ‘radicalized’ towards violent jihadist groups. America’s pluralistic conception of itself as a ‘melting pot’ of different ethnicities, religions, and values may therefore play a role in explaining the relative irrelevancy of the foreign fighter or homegrown terror problem in the United States compared to Europe.

Terrorism is violence aimed at achieving or effecting some political end; if we seek to prevent the violent expression of these ends, we must recognize that: a) not all members of a group hold the same loyalty to its stated political aims, and ground-level operatives may be mostly motivated by their personal relationship to the state; b) it is in that state’s best interest to integrate the communities from which this discontent arises and thereby delegitimize the animating grievances of these groups. Reactionary policies that target Muslims at home for expanded surveillance and state pressure run the risk of putting a wedge between Muslims and the state, increasing the chances of success for future radicalization efforts by violent extremist groups.

[i] Doug Muder, “Sam Harris and the Orientalization of Islam,” The Weekly Sift, October 13, 2014, http://weeklysift.com/2014/10/13/sam-harris-and-the-orientalization-of-islam/.

[ii] Fareed Zakaria, “Today’s New Terrorists Were Radical Before They Were Religious,” The Washington Post, March 31, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/todays-new-terrorists-were-radical-before-they-were-religious/2016/03/31/9cb8e916-f762-11e5-9804-537defcc3cf6_story.html.

[iii] Rik Coolsaet, “Facing the Fourth Foreign Fighters Wave: What Drives Europeans to Syria and to Islamic State?” The Egmont Institute, March 2016, http://www.egmontinstitute.be/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/egmont.papers.81_online-versie.pdf.

[iv] Christine Fair, et. al., “Can Knowledge of Islam Explain Lack of Support for Terrorism?” Georgetown University, April 2, 2016, https://www.academia.edu/23954174/Research_Note_Can_Knowledge_of_Islam_Explain_Lack_of_Support_for_Terrorism_Evidence_from_Pakistan.

[v] Greg Miller and Scott Higham, “In A Propaganda War Against ISIS, the US Tried to Play By the Enemy’s Rules,” The Washington Post, May 8, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/in-a-propaganda-war-us-tried-to-play-by-the-enemys-rules/2015/05/08/6eb6b732-e52f-11e4-81ea-0649268f729e_story.html.

[vi] Rowena Mason and Harriet Sherwood, “Cameron Stigmatizing Muslim Women with English Language Policy,” The Guardian, January 18, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jan/18/david-cameron-stigmatising-muslim-women-learn-english-language-policy.

[vii] William McCants and Christopher Meserole, “The French Connection: Explaining Sunni Militancy Around the World,” Foreign Affairs, March 24, 2016, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2016-03-24/french-connection.

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