by Eric Martin
Johann Hari has a fascinating piece in The Independentthat recounts his interviews with several British nationals that have made the journey from active participantsin jihadi/terrorist causes and back. Hari's quest to find out how and why certain people join terrorist groups, or espouse and propagate radical Islamist ideology, had been frustrated by the reticence and dissembling of persons active in those circles. His entreaties were met more with propaganda than introspection or insight.
More recently, a group of increasingly vocal disillusioned ex-jihadis (the subjects of the story) have provided Hari with a more unguarded glimpse into the thought processes and evolution of radical. Unsurprisingly, the profile that emerges tracks with the findings of Marc Sageman:
1. Those that join these causes tend not to be very religious in their younger years. In fact, their ignorance of Islam leads them to uncritically accept certain radical Wahhabist teachings as gospel. Unfortunately, due to the fact that the Saudi Arabian government spends lavishly to spread Wahhabism to all corners of the globe through the state-funded proliferation of literature, teachers, madrasas and mosques, the Wahhabist presence is so ubiquitous and domineering that young Muslims looking to learn more about their religion frequently stumble upon this pernicious brand for lack of visible alternatives. And, likewise, one of the most effective means of rehabilitating terrorists/jihadists is Koranic study.
2. The enlistees are not poor or uneducated - quite the opposite. Most have quality educations and come from middle class backgrounds.
3. There is a common element of alienation: they tend to be first or second generation immigrants caught between worlds, without feeling at home or comfortable in any particular identity. This is one of the reasons that many go looking for deeper meaning in their religious roots, and one of the alluring aspects of joining jihadist groups: they create a gang-like sense of group identity, belonging and a powerful bonding mechanism.
...This is the identity I hear shouted by young Islamists throughout the East End: I might sound like you, but I am nothing like you. I am Other. I belong elsewhere – in a place that does not yet exist, but that I will create, with my fists and my fury.
Jimas told their members they were part of a persecuted billion, being blown up and locked down across the world. "It was a bit like a gang," he says. "And we had a strong sense of being under siege. It was all a conspiracy against Islam, and we were the guardians of Islam. That's how we saw ourselves ... A lot of my friends would wear the army boots, and carry knives." I realise now that for a nebbish intellectual boy, it must have felt intoxicating to be told he was part of a military movement that would inevitably conquer history.
In some instances, this sense of alienation is exacerbated by a traumatic incident of racism - Hari's interviewees came of age during the rise of the skinhead movement in Britain, and many were physically attacked and otherwise menaced.
Given these factors, it would be overstating the case to argue that these recruits took up the radical cause in reaction to US/Western foreign policy. However, it would also be myopic to suggest that such policies have no effect at all on the overall problem. Rather than give in to the self-serving claim that "the terrorists will hate us no matter what we do" (partially true as there will always be some number of sadistic, desperate, disturbed people), it is better to look at ways that we can craft our policies to disrupt their operations, thwart recruiting efforts and reduce the numbers of actual terrorists and quality of support they receive (which should be the focus of proper counterterrorism). Take for example, Maajid Nawaz's attempts to recruit new militants in Egypt:
He started to recruit other students, as he had done so many times before. But it was harder. "Everyone hated the [unelected] government [of Hosni Mubarak], and the US for backing it," he says. But there was an inhibiting sympathy for the victims of 9/11 – until the Bush administration began to respond with Guantanamo Bay and bombs. "That made it much easier. After that, I could persuade people a lot faster."
Every one of them said the Bush administration's response to 9/11 – from Guantanamo to Iraq – made jihadism seem more like an accurate description of the world. Hadiya Masieh, a tiny female former [Hizb ut-Tahrir ]HT organiser, tells me: "You'd see Bush on the television building torture camps and bombing Muslims and you think – anything is justified to stop this. What are we meant to do, just stand still and let him cut our throats?"
On the other hand, instances of commitment to liberal, democratic ideals helped to puncture the spell of jihadi propaganda:
But the converse was – they stressed – also true. When they saw ordinary Westerners trying to uphold human rights, their jihadism began to stutter. Almost all of them said that they doubted their Islamism when they saw a million non-Muslims march in London to oppose the Iraq War: "How could we demonise people who obviously opposed aggression against Muslims?" asks Hadiya.
And for Maajid Nawaz:
In Mazratora Prison, Maajid was held in solitary confinement for thee months. It was a bare cell with no bed, no light, and no toilet: just a concrete box. Then he was taken out suddenly and told his trial for "propagation by speech and writing for any banned organisation" was beginning in the Supreme State Emergency Court. But Maajid's Islamist convictions were about to be challenged from two unexpected directions – the men who murdered Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Amnesty International.
HT abandoned Maajid as a "fallen soldier" and barely spoke of him or his case. But when his family were finally allowed to see him, they told him he had a new defender. Although they abhorred his political views, Amnesty International said he had a right to free speech and to peacefully express his views, and publicised his case.
"I was just amazed," Maajid says. "We'd always seen Amnesty as the soft power tools of colonialism. So, when Amnesty, despite knowing that we hated them, adopted us, I felt – maybe these democratic values aren't always hypocritical. Maybe some people take them seriously ... it was the beginning of my serious doubts."
The dynamic flows something like this: when the United States and other Western powers/groups appear to act hypocritically - treating democracy and freedom by double standards - it has a radicalizing effect on a population that perceives itself to be at the sharp end of that hypocrisy.
On the other hand, where those same Western elements act in accordance with their ideals - especially when doing so, on principle, is against their immediate, narrow interests - the example set can begin to loosen the hold of radical Islamist propaganda.
Consider that phenomenon against the backdrop of the commotion surrounding the decision by the Obama administration to try Khalid Skeikh Mohammed in a civilian court. According to many voices on the right like Senators Jeff Sessions and Lindsey Graham, there is something we lose by granting due process rights to accused terrorists:
[Graham] said Holder was jeopardizing national security by determining that wartime combatants, potentially even Osama bin Laden, could be given constitutional legal protections usually provided only to U.S. citizens and foreigners convicted of regular crimes, not acts of war.
But, in reality, there is very little jeopardy involved. Our courts have an exemplary track record in terms of providing fair trials to terrorists, almost always resulting in guilty convictions for the guilty. Further, and in some ways more importantly, it is vital that the United States matches its deeds with its rhetoric, and sets an example that subverts jihadist propaganda. Whether it be torture, black sites or indefinite detention without due process rights, the costs are much higher than any illusory benefit derived.
The other fear expressed by leading conservative voices is that the trial will somehow redound to the benefit of KSM and his cause by giving him a platform from which to proselytize, or that there is something lost by treating KSM like a common criminal rather than something more profound. However, most leading counterterrorism experts view criminal justice proceedings differently - it is often more humiliating and myth-puncturing than it is aggrandizing. Consider, for example, the way Hizb ut-Tahrir abandoned Maajid Nawaz when he was imprisoned, and only renounced contact upon his release. Further, the point is to try to bring KSM down to size, not build up his reputation. As Marc Sageman noted:
There has been talk of an al-Qaeda resurgence, but the truth is that most of the hard core members of the first and second waves have been killed or captured. The survival of the social movement they inspired relies on the continued inflow of new members. But this movement is vulnerable to whatever may diminish its appeal among young people. Its allure thrives only at the abstract fantasy level. [...]
Terrorist acts must be stripped of glory and reduced to common criminality. Most aspiring terrorists want nothing more than to be elevated to the status of an FBI Most Wanted poster. “[I am] one of the most wanted terrorists on the Internet,” Younis Tsouli boasted online a few months before his arrest in 2005. “I have the Feds and the CIA, both would love to catch me. I have MI6 on my back.” His ego fed off the respect such bragging brought him in the eyes of other chat room participants. Any policy or recognition that puts such people on a pedestal only makes them heroes in each other’s eyes — and encourages more people to follow the same path.
It is equally crucial not to place terrorists who are arrested or killed in the limelight. The temptation to hold press conferences to publicize another “major victory” in the war on terror must be resisted, for it only transforms terrorist criminals into jihadist heroes.The United States underestimates the value of prosecutions, which often can be enormously demoralizing to radical groups. There is no glory in being taken to prison in handcuffs. No jihadi Web site publishes such pictures. Arrested terrorists fade into oblivion. Only martyrs live on in popular memory.
In this instance, doing the right thing ethically is also the right thing to do strategically. A no-brainer once you can get past the emotionalism and fear surrounding the fraught subject matter. At its root, America's best defense is being America again.