My Senate Armed Services Testimony: A Bottom-Up Approach to Extremist De-Radicalization

[ Wed. Mar. 10. 2010 ]

When you look at young people like the ones who grew up to blow up trains in Madrid in 2004, carried out the slaughter on the London underground in 2005, hoped to blast airliners out of the sky en route to the United States in 2006 and 2009, and journeyed far to die killing infidels in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia; when you look at whom they idolize, how they organize, what bonds them and what drives them; then you see that what inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Koran or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world that they will never live to enjoy.

Our data show that most young people who join the jihad had a moderate and mostly secular education to begin with, rather than a radical religious one. And where in modern society do you find young people who hang on the words of older educators and "moderates"? Youth generally favors actions, not words, and challenge, not calm. That's a big reason so many who are bored, underemployed, overqualified, and underwhelmed by hopes for the future turn on to jihad with their friends. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer (at least for boys, but girls are web-surfing into the act): fraternal, fast-breaking, thrilling, glorious, and cool. Anyone is welcome to try his hand at slicing off the head of Goliath with a paper cutter.

If we can discredit their vicious idols (show how these bring murder and mayhem to their own people) and give these youth new heroes who speak to their hopes rather than just to ours, then we've got a much better shot at slowing the spread of jihad to the next generation than we do just with bullets and bombs. And if we can de-sensationalize terrorist actions, like suicide bombings, and reduce their fame (don't help advertise them or broadcast our hysterical response, for publicity is the oxygen of terrorism), the thrill will die down. As Saudi Arabia's General Khaled Alhumaidan said to me in Riyadh: "The front is in our neighborhoods but the battle is the silver screen. If it doesn't make it to the 6'oclock news, then Al Qaeda is not interested." Thus, the terrorist agenda could well extinguish itself altogether, doused by its own cold raw truth: it has no life to offer. This path to glory leads only to ashes and rot.

In the long run, perhaps the most important anti-terrorism measure of all is to provide alternative heroes and hopes that are more enticing and empowering than any moral lessons or material offerings. Jobs that relieve the terrible boredom and inactivity of immigrant youth in Europe, and with underemployed throughout much of the Muslim world, cannot alone offset the alluring stimulation of playing at war in contexts of continued cultural and political alienation and little sense of shared aspirations and destiny. It is also important to provide alternate local networks and chat rooms that speak to the inherent idealism, sense of risk and adventure, and need for peer approval that young people everywhere tend towards. It even could be a 21st-century version of what the Boy Scouts and high school football teams did for immigrants and potentially troublesome youth as America urbanized a century ago. Ask any cop on the beat: those things work. But it has to be done with the input and insight of local communities or it won't work: de-radicalization, like radicalization itself, best engages from the bottom up, not from the top down.

In sum, there are many millions of people who express sympathy with Al Qaeda or other forms of violent political expression that support terrorism. They are stimulated by a massive, media-driven global political awakening which, for the first time in human history, can "instantly" connect anyone, anywhere to a common cause -- provided the message that drives that cause is simple enough not to require much cultural context to understand it: for example, the West is everywhere assaulting Muslims, and Jihad is the only the way to permanently resolve glaring problems caused by this global injustice.

Consider the parable told by the substitute Imam at the Al Quds Mosque in Hamburg, where the 9/11 bomber pilots hung out, when Marc Sageman and I asked him "Why did they do it?"

"There were two rams, one with horns and one without. The one with horns butted his head against the defenseless one. In the next world, Allah switched the horns from one ram to the other, so justice could prevail."

"Justice" ('adl in Arabic) is the watchword of Jihad. Thunderously simple. When justice and Jihad and are joined to "change" -- the elemental soundbite of our age -- and oxygenated by the publicity given to spectacular acts of violence, then the mix becomes heady and potent.

Young people constantly see and discuss among themselves images of war and injustice against "our people," become morally outraged (especially if injustice resonates personally, which is more of a problem abroad than at home), and dream of a war for justice that gives their friendship cause. But of the millions who sympathize with the jihadi cause, only some thousands show willingness to actually commit violence. They almost invariably go on to violence in small groups of volunteers consisting mostly of friends and some kin within specific "scenes": neighborhoods, schools (classes, dorms), workplaces, common leisure activities (soccer, study group, barbershop, café) and, increasingly, online chat-rooms.