The Only Way to Defeat Terrorism in the Long Term
I do not need to remind anyone of the ten explosions which ripped through trains in central Madrid in March 2004, killing nearly two hundred people and wounding nearly two thousand.
But even now, it remains important to ask some questions about the attack. For example: what makes a 16-year old kid help to traffic explosives designed to kill innocent people? What makes a Spaniard like Jose Emilio Surez Trashorras help to supply terrorists with those bombs? What makes someone go to the trouble of learning how to reconfigure a mobile phone as a bomb, attach it to a copper detonator, and even add metal fragments so that the bomb injures those it doesn’t kill?
And these questions are in turn useful in order to help us answer the most important question: how can we prevent this kind of thing happening again?
As important as it is to condemn both terrorism and the radicals’ distorted worldview, that is not enough. Nor are traditional law-enforcement methods enough. Certainly, they can sometimes stop radicals before they strike. But they cannot stop young people from radicalising in the first place. They address the attacks – the symptoms – without addressing the disease – the radicalisation.
We need to actually reduce the incentive to radicalise.
Luckily, we now know a lot more about how to do that. Two insights in particular stand out.
The first comes from Marc Sageman, a former CIA operations officer who conducted the largest survey of radical Muslims to date in order to locate the causes for radicalization. He analysed over 500 profiles and concluded that this phenomenon normally occurs in four distinct stages: (1) It is sparked when the individual reacts with moral outrage to stories of Muslims suffering around the world; (2) for some, that spark is inflamed by an interpretation that explains such suffering in the context of a wider war between Islam and the West; (3) the ensuing resentment is fuelled by negative personal experiences in western countries (e.g., discrimination, inequality, or just an inability to get on despite good qualifications); and (4) the individual joins a terrorist network that becomes like a second family, albeit one closed to the outside world. This situation stokes the radical worldview and prepares the initiate for action and, in some cases, martyrdom.
The crucial stage is reached when a young Muslim begins to believe that Islam justifies violence and closes his/her mind to other viewpoints. To prevent such a situation, this radical ideology must be cut off at the roots by challenging radical misinterpretations of Islam, such as those that explain Muslim suffering in terms of a Manichaean war between Islam and the West or teach that Islam condones violence. If this is to be done successfully, young Muslims must be engaged directly and be exposed to other viewpoints.
The second insight comes from writer and academic Reza Aslan. As he has shown, when you research how radicalisation actually works, one striking fact sticks out: almost all Islamist terrorists actually have no authentic education in Islam. Very few of them have actually learned anything about what Islam really teaches.
None of the 9/11 attackers had any formal religious training, neither did any of the 7/7 bombers. Almost 90% of violent jihadists have actually not had any kind of religious education at all. Even the leadership of al Qaeda itself lacks credibility. Osama Bin Laden had no formal religious training and never attended a religious seminary. Most of the al Qaeda leadership lack any religious training whatsoever, but have backgrounds in medicine, engineering, or business.
This should not come as a surprise to anybody: if radical Islamists had spent any time at all studying authentic Islam, they would know that their methods contravene Islamic ethics. Real Islamic scholarship delegitimises the bloody methods of Islamic extremists. For radical Islamists, authentic Islamic scholarship and ethics are a very real threat. Perhaps the biggest threat.
These two insights provide us with the best answer to the question of what we can do to prevent radicalisation. Muslim communities worldwide must educate our young people in genuine, authentic Islamic teachings. Then, if they encounter radical narratives, dubious theology, or ignorant preaching, they will be able to see them in context, for the perversions of the religion that they really are. The fact that the vast majority of extremists have not undergone this process reinforces the point.
In the past few years, my friends and I have set up a new Islamic educational organisation, the SOLAS Foundation, to fulfil this purpose. It provides Islamic education and scholarship which is both authentic and authoritative. It teaches young people about Islam by putting them in their proper modern context. It will not be an organisation devoted to counterterrorism, or to deprogramming those who have been brainwashed – there are other organisations who already do that. It will not, in other words, be devoted to the cure.
Rather, it will be devoted to prevention, the quiet changing of minds which cuts off the attraction of radical discourses at the root. It will foster an understanding of Islamic teachings in their proper context.
It is run by teachers who are credible to young people. Both of our leading scholars have been born and educated in the country where the programme is based – Scotland – and have also travelled and studied widely in the Muslim world with some of the leading Islamic theologians. This combination of width of both scholarship and personal experience makes them uniquely qualified to relate to young people, teach Islamic scholarship authoritatively, and explain how it fits into a modern Scottish context.
Ultimately, our Foundation will be a success if young people no longer interpret the news they see on TV with reference to extreme and narrow perversions of the rich traditions of Islam.I am pleased to say that our initial efforts have been well-received. Top figures in the Police have praised the project as one of the most important of its kind in the UK. Across the Atlantic, the US Secretary of Homeland Security has enthusiastically endorsed the project, and the Assistant Deputy Secretary of Defence at the Pentagon has invited me to discuss how the USA might incorporate the lessons this centre has learned into future policymaking.I regard this as a strong endorsement of the fantastic teachers at the project. It is also an endorsement of the principle which underlies it: that in the long term, the challenge is not to stop radicals from striking. It is to stop kids from radicalising in the first place.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a former Research Fellow at Harvard University’s International Security Program and a former Fellow at the Yale World Fellows Program.
This article was originally published in Revista Diplomacia.
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