Challenging Militant Jihadi Terrorist Ideologies

Paintball Speckhard

Abu Musab Al-Suri, one of the main Al-Qa'ida ideologues, has championed a massive societal indoctrination campaign to promote the tenets of the militant jihad among Muslims worldwide.[1] This ideology seems to have made deep inroads around the world: self-described jihadis rely heavily upon and promote 'martyrdom' (suicide) operations, claiming that the rewards referred to in Islamic scriptures will be accorded to those who carry out such acts. Suicide terrorists are seen not as cold-blooded killers but as 'martyrs' and heroes in the eyes of many.[2] This shift in values occurred slowly: suicide terrorism first found acceptance in Palestine; over time, it was increasingly utilised for fighting 'occupation' in Chechnya, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Chillingly, there is also a minority Muslim endorsement for suicide terrorism inside the UK. Likewise female involvement in terrorism has become increasingly more commonplace and the debate amongst terrorism's perpetrators has even extended to whether biological and radiological weapons are justifiable in fighting the militant jihad. Al-Qa'ida and its affiliates are expert at taking advantage of local conflicts and grievances and adapting their ideology to local circumstances. To fight terrorism we must therefore understand the pervasiveness of so-called Islamist ideological strands and attempt to reverse radicalisation in the mainstream Islamic discourse.

Counter-Radicalisation Strategies

As we increasingly begin to understand the processes of, and threats from, violent radicalisation, governments have begun to appreciate that it is necessary to mount a comprehensive fight against it. This comprehensive strategy prioritises four interlinked approaches:[3]

  • Prevention: particularly among vulnerable populations
  • Protection: inoculating society again violent ideologies
  • Identification: recognising and disengaging (by arrest, amnesty programmes or simple intimidation) those who are on the brink of perpetrating violent acts on behalf of militant groups
  • De-radicalisation: rehabilitating and converting those who have already committed such acts.

Counter-radicalisation efforts must tackle the spread of militant jihadi ideology in the critical recruiting environments of the Internet, within communities and inside prisons.

The Virtual University of Militant Jihad

The Internet has become the new training ground for Al-Qa'ida Global, the place where militant jihadis propagate their ideology and debate about new recruits. Militant jihadi internet penetration is worldwide and militant jihadi materials are translated into many languages. Some have dubbed the Internet the 'virtual university of militant jihad'. In a Muslim district of Brussels the author found pop-up screen invitations on computers in internet cafés asking in various languages 'Would you like to join the worldwide Jihad?'. Likewise former extremists in Europe have told the author that they were recruited by extremists who introduced themselves in internet cafés and used highly emotive downloads to convince their vulnerable new recruits to join in extremists activities. In Birmingham and Leeds second-generation Pakistani immigrants spoke to the author about their peers downloading militant jihadi videos and watching them clandestinely in groups in which the young men goaded each other to leave for Afghanistan or Pakistan to join the militant jihad.

The ideological debate rages on the Internet with very few answers able to compete with the narratives and violent solutions offered by militant jihadis for real and perceived grievances. Clearly we need to empower experts to 'deconstruct' the claims and emotional manipulation that occurs on militant jihadi sites. Many of the arguments made are emotionally loaded and packed with appeals to the senses: videos and photos bring the conflict zones where militants are active into non-conflict zones (the home, the street, the school), cleverly making use of secondary traumatisation techniques to motivate and encourage new recruits. We need to enter the ideological debate and become as creative as the militant jihadis to effectively counter their messages. From a psychological standpoint this requires offering an scholarly alternative debate that comes to non-violent conclusions but that provides emotionally compelling and sensory-laden multimedia to obtain the same level of cognitive interest, attitudinal shift and behavioural change. One way to do this is to make use of militant jihadi internet clips and deconstruct them in order to reveal the emotional manipulation inherent in their claims. The energy and anger stirred up by their videos and photos can then be rechanneled into effective political, rather than violent, actions.

Street and Community Models of Prevention, De-radicalisation and Disengagement

Militant jihadi radicalisation and recruitment is taking place in many of our communities: in schools, mosques, universities, internet cafés - literally on the street and other areas where vulnerable people congregate. We must develop community-based models of intervention to prevent recruitment and rescue those about to fall prey - and those who already have - to militant jihadis. Surveillance and the use of informers has been the traditional method of 'catching' terrorists but we need to intervene well before terrorists cells and plots are formed. We must become as creative as the recruiters. While travelling through the UK the author has found it possible to speak with young UK Muslims who have been indoctrinated into the militant jihad, taken to training camps outside the UK and involved in small arms and explosives training and fought militant jihad outside the UK; some who want to die as 'martyrs' and others who have been heavily under the influence of the militant jihad. If it is possible for a white, Christian, American female researcher to find and interview such people, it is certainly possible for social workers, psychologists and trained imams to do the same and to do much more once they are found: to actively intervene to turn them back from extremist views.

One way to do this is to identify, empower and send out trained imams and psychologists who are themselves from those areas where radicals are actively proliferating. These individuals can be active on the streets, intervene in recruitment, and work with those at risk. We have already seen in the UK how extremists have used camping, paintball, and other outdoor challenge activities to augment militant jihadi indoctrination and militant training. Youth centres and alternative activities that keep youth away from what extremists are offering are also ways to reach vulnerable young people, to protect them and bring them back from the brink of serious radicalisation. Downloaded militant jihadi materials can also be deconstructed for young people in youth centres, groups, and individual mentoring so those who have been enamoured with the militant jihadi narratives to bring social justice through violence can begin to see where their logic is wrong and that their religiously based claims are unfounded.

We should also utilise help lines and online information services to provide avenues for concerned family members and friends to call for and receive help (even anonymously) if they fear someone's involvement in militant activities. Often family members and friends have an idea well before a terror act is committed that their loved one has become an extremist but they have no one but the police to turn to and most would not consider that a viable method of obtaining help. Hotlines that are staffed by concerned psychologists and imams, preferably from within the Muslim communities they are offering help to, can give advice over the phone, the Internet or face to face (in a safe and anonymous setting) to the concerned friend or family member to help draw the friend or family member back from extremism. Community policing is also of paramount importance to win the hearts of the community and gather anecdotal and grassroots information to prevent the planning or prosecution of terrorists plots.

Recruitment in Prisons

Many countries throughout the world are today facing a prison population of individuals convicted of terrorist-related charges. These include ideologues who promote militant jihadi ideas, operatives who plotted to or actually carried out terrorist threats, and financial, ideological or operational supporters of such activities. The most infamous case of radicalisation inside prison is the now-deceased Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi who made his transition from street thug to militant jihadi while incarcerated. There are unfortunately many more like him. Prison authorities are struggling with how best to address militant jihadi prisoners and those vulnerable to their aggressive recruitment tactics. UK prisons are awash with the sermons of Abdullah Faisal and others. The Dutch authorities faced a human rights outcry when they segregated the 'Hofstad Group' in order to prevent the spread of extremism in their prisons. In Iraq the prison population of over 20,000 inmates is rife with militant jihadis who are taking full advantage of their captive audience to spread militant propaganda and increase their influence.

Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Jordan, the United States, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Netherlands, the UK and many other countries have all begun to address the need for prison rehabilitation and prevention programmes to stymie the spread of militant jihadi activities within prisons. The author designed and pilot tested one of these efforts in Iraq for the 20,000 detainees held there by US forces. This programme relied on a multi-pronged approach, including using imams to engage with prisoners, challenging them on the claim that Islamic scriptures support the militant jihadi ideology and attempting to make them reassess this belief. Likewise psychologists worked with the prisoners to address the reasons why they ascribed to the 'psychological first aid' inherent in the militant jihadi ideology. The US military also offered literacy and skills training and amnesty to successful graduates of the programme. Europeans are beginning to design similar initiatives: the UK, for instance, is using imams to talk with those who are converting to extremist versions of Islam, challenging them about why they find the militant jihadi ideology attractive and teaching prisoners to evaluate for themselves whether militant claims adhere to sound Islamic thinking. The common elements of most prison programmes addressing militant jihadis incorporate a religious challenge to their militant jihadi beliefs. The most comprehensive also include psychological treatment, economic incentives, skills training and after-release mentoring.

Militant jihadi terrorism is a serious threat that calls for strong efforts to prevent, inoculate, disengage and de-radicalise militant jihadis and their recruits on the street, over the Internet, in prisons, in the military and wherever else they may be active in order to try to turn them back from terrorism and political violence. We must have the courage and creativity to do so.

Anne Speckhard
Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry
Georgetown University Medical Center

[1] The author uses term 'militant jihad' as a reference to terrorist groups (who are often also militants) who claim that they are carrying out a 'jihad' and acting in the name of Islam by attacking both civilian and military targets. When referring to militant jihad, the author is fully aware and respectful of the religious and completely non-terrorist related references to the greater jihad in the Qu'ran, which refers to the constant and ever vigilant need for an inner struggle to master oneself and attain a moral lifestyle, and assures her readers that in writing about those who believe in a call to militant jihadi terrorism she has tried to find the best term that describes both their ideology and actions and by doing so means no disrespect to the Islamic faith nor to the majority of Muslims that follow Islam peacefully. For more on the writings of Al-Suri, see Reuven Paz, Reading their Lips: The Credibility of Militant Jihadi Websites as 'Soft Power' in the War of the Minds, The Project for the Research of Islamist Movements (PRISM) Occasional Papers (Vol. 5, No. 5, 2007); and Brynjar Lia, 'Al-Qaida's Appeal: Understanding its Unique Selling Points', Perspectives on Terrorism (Vol. 2, No. 8, 2007).
[2] The author has spent the last five years interviewing over 350 terrorists, extremists, their supporters, hostages, family members and their close associates in Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Iraq, Russia, Belarus, North Ossetia, Morocco, Belgium, the UK, the Netherlands and France.
[3] The UK has instituted its own strategy named CONTEST which has four components: Pursue - stopping terrorist attacks; Prevent - stopping people from becoming terrorists or supporting violent extremism; Protect - strengthening our protection against attack; and Prepare - mitigating the impact of events.

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