Last week, the White House played host to a summit on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), held as a response to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) across parts of the Middle East. Speakers at the summit voiced concern at the growing spread of Islamist extremism and rise of foreigners traveling to Syria and Iraq in an effort to join ISIS. When creating strategies to combat this phenomenon, the United States and its allies must be careful not to alienate hundreds of thousands of Muslims while leaving the few extremist outliers unaffected. Law enforcement-heavy approaches to CVE typically do exactly that. This heavy-handed approach must be supplemented with a wider, more holistic approach that focuses on countering the appeal of violent extremism and the ability of extremists to recruit new members. Germany, the United Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia have developed programs that build on local communities and non-governmental actors. As the United States looks to fine-tune its radicalization prevention efforts, it should look to these foreign programs for inspiration.
Constructing a viable solution to countering or interrupting the radicalization process requires a better understanding of at-risk individuals. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) uses the Facebook and Twitter accounts of European fighters to paint a picture of their background and motivations. The ICSR found that these fighters can be classified into three groups. First, there are those who believe the fight in Syria is a defensive struggle by Sunni Muslims against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s corrupt regime and his oppression of civilians. They believe that the West has failed to respond adequately and have decided to take matters in their own hands. The second group consists of adventure seekers, or “gangsters,” often former petty criminals attracted by the guns and the glamor of jihad. This group has grown with ISIS’ success on the battlefield. Finally, there are the committed radicals who have a long history and deep roots in radical thought. Individuals belonging to this group will be extremely difficult to work with and will likely require an entirely different approach than the first two.
The first two groups are relatively new and can be attributed almost entirely to ISIS’ effective multimedia information campaign. They also make up the majority of foreign fighters. Several thousand of these fighters have made their way into Syria and Iraq over the past two years. The scale of this mass mobilization of jihadi fighters is the largest in recent history, dwarfing even the recruiting efforts of the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s. This radicalization is far from a purely male phenomenon. Young women and girls aged between 16 and 24 currently make up about 10 percent of those joining jihadi groups in Iraq and Syria. In France, officials believe that females make up 25 percent of jihadi recruits. According to Harvard professor Jessica Stern, “The reasons those [in the first two groups] choose to become terrorists are as varied as the reasons other people choose their professions: market conditions, social networks, contact with recruiters, education, and individual preferences.” A survey of over 500 Guantánamo detainees conducted by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center revealed that the inmates’ were more likely to associate with another member of Al-Qaeda than they were with the idea of jihad.
President Barack Obama stated in his address before the National Defense University, “The best way to prevent violent extremism inspired by violent jihadists is to work with the Muslim community […] to identify signs of radicalization and partner with law enforcement when an individual is drifting towards violence.” While such a plan sounds great in theory, in practice the current law-enforcement tactics have all too often alienated American Muslims from a government that publicly fights for their trust and support, while at the same time secretly infiltrating their mosques and community centers with informants. U.S. government efforts should avoid treating the majority of Muslims and the tiny jihadist cult as if they were one group. Politicians must observe that distinction in every decision they make. If a policy appears aimed at Muslims in general rather than at the handful of jihadist fanatics, it is the wrong policy. To avoid these pitfalls, the United States should emulate other countries that have developed programs led by civil society actors rather than law enforcement authorities.
Hayat (Arabic for ‘life’) is a German program based on a similar program to combat neo-Nazis. It works with families who are worried that a family member might be prone to radicalization. Hayat builds on the fact that family members are much more likely than government authorities to detect important warning signs of radicalization. The program works with families to assess the driving factors of radicalization, identifies possible de-radicalization solutions, provides alternative options for vulnerable individuals, and fosters societal reintegration. The program has been so successful that it has received federal funding and has been exported to other countries.
Channel, a British program, uses a multi-agency approach to protect at-risk persons from radicalization. It takes advantage of the existing collaboration between government services among the education, health and social sector, and combines them with the local community in an effort to detect individuals at risk of being drawn into terrorism. It then creates a support package tailored to the individual’s needs, an element drawn from similar anti-drug and anti-crime programs aimed at at-risk populations. Most notably, the 30 page guide does not once use the terms “Islam” or “Muslim.” With about 10% of the program’s cases involving far-right extremism, Channel promotes the idea that an effective program does not need to be overtly tailored to Islamic radicalization, but should be designed to counter extremism of all forms.
One of the most effective CVE programs is based in Saudi Arabia. The Care Rehabilitation Center (CRC) in Riyadh offers ideological re-education and provides extensive formal religious schooling in Islamic thought. The former holiday resort, which includes several swimming pools and other recreational facilities, aims to engage and eventually deconstruct extremist interpretations of Islam in a very comfortable environment. Said Bishi, who directs the CRC, explains that the center’s clerics try to “correct the thoughts of [extremists], and bring equilibrium to their thinking.” After graduation from the program, individuals are offered assistance in finding housing and employment. The Saudi Interior Ministry claims a 90 percent success rate, arguing that the program is especially effective on individuals who possess little to no formal religious education.
Finally, as ISIS continues their brutal offensive in Syria and Iraq, many throughout the Islamic world have begun parodying the terror group on TV and social media. These parodies seem to be doing more damage to the group than U.S. airstrikes. Mockery frightens ISIS far more than bombs, for ridicule undermines its credibility and its appeal to new recruits. ISIS relies on the internet to project the image they have created of themselves: that of the fearless jihadi warriors. Its high-quality propaganda and social media outreach campaigns are at least part of the reason why ISIS is able to attract a constant stream of new recruits.
Perhaps the best way to deter the second group—the gangsters and adventure seekers—from joining ISIS is to ridicule the group on all the public platforms it uses for recruiting. In certain circles, this is already being done. Kurdish TV currently broadcasts a musical parody mocking ISIS in “Saturday Night Live fashion.” An Iraqi TV channel has spent over half a million dollars to produce a new show called “Dawlat al-Khurafa” (State of Myths), which aims to discredit ISIS through “slapstick and puns.” In one episode, ISIS takes over a fictional village in Iraq and puts the town drunk in charge of the alcohol ban.
Social media has also been home to dozens of campaigns to ridicule the extremist group. Under the hashtag, #ISISMovies, twitter users alter the titles of popular movies in a way that mocks ISIS. Examples include: “Girls just want to have fundamentalism” and “Kill Bill, Kill Everyone.” After the extremist group started using the hashtag #We_Are_Coming_O_Rome to announce their imminent advance on the city that is home to the Vatican, Romans were quick to exploit the hashtag by offering travel advice regarding Rome’s perpetually late trains, terrible traffic and the Vatican’s tendency to get touchy with young boys (mocking the adolescence of ISIS fighters). There are also several popular YouTube videos reenacting outtakes from ISIS beheading videos or compiling footage of jihadis accidentally blowing themselves up. Material of this sort should be shared and promoted as much as possible to counter the overbearing and very professional multimedia machinery of ISIS.
The most important aspect of any CVE strategy is that it avoids alienating the majority of Muslims in an effort to combat the tiny jihadist cult. While some extent of law enforcement is obviously necessary to bring to justice those that have committed acts of terrorism, CVE efforts should ensure that this is complimented by a community-oriented approach similar to the programs used by Germany, the United Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia. In the long run, any government’s efforts to counter the ideology of violent extremism at home will be as important as its capacity to identify and imprison those that have committed acts of terrorism.
Christofer Dehn is currently completing a dual-master’s degree in Conflict Studies and International Economics at the London School of Economics and the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. Previously, Mr. Dehn was a commissioned officer in the German Army and served as a paratrooper in the Special Operations Division from 2007-2009.
State Department photo is in the public domain. Image cropped.