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Reversing Islamic Radicalization

The following chapter is excerpted from the State of the Struggle: Report on the Battle against Global Terrorism, edited by Justine A. Rosenthal. (Brookings Institution Press, Washington, D.C., February 2007.) The book takes the form of a report card and examines the challenges facing the West in creating a viable counterterrorism strategy.

Grade: D-

“When people talk about the global war on terrorism they often focus on the most tangible aspects, such as fighting wars, hunting terrorists, gathering intelligence, and protecting our borders," said Lee Hamilton. "At its core, this conflict is fundamentally a war of ideas, however, and I don't think we're winning that war. ”

Despite everything accomplished over the past five years in the U.S.-led global "war on terror," the Council believes that we are losing ground in the campaign to contain violent Islamic extremism. The reason for that collective judgment is failure in the essential task of stemming the tide of radicalization in the Islamic world. That tide is fed by strong currents of humiliation, anger, and despair among Muslims, and it both replenishes terrorist ranks directly and serves as a wellspring of sympathy and support in which the terrorists operate freely.

"When people talk about the global war on terrorism they often focus on the most tangible aspects, such as fighting wars, hunting terrorists, gathering intelligence, and protecting our borders," said Lee Hamilton. "At its core, this conflict is fundamentally a war of ideas, however, and I don't think we're winning that war. I find that very frustrating, because American ideas and ideals are powerful and compelling, and they should work to our advantage. Unfortunately, we have not conveyed our ideas or shaped our ideals into policies in ways that have improved our relationship with the world's 1.3 billion Muslims."

Evidence of a growing radicalization in the Islamic world is substantive and quantifiable. Data points include the recent deadly riots by Muslims infuriated over cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammad published in a Danish newspaper, and extended rioting and vandalism in France by disaffected Muslim youth. In Europe, intelligence officials report a significant rise in radicalized Muslims joining terrorist networks by the hundreds, and perhaps thousands, in order to wage jihad against the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. In the most recent Pew global attitudes polls, approximately 15 percent of Muslims surveyed in Britain, France, and Spain believed suicide bombings and other forms of violence were at least sometimes justified in the defense of Islam.

The U.S. State Department also reported a sharp rise in terrorist attacks last year, passing the 10,000 mark for the first time. Those terrorist attacks were responsible for 14,500 fatalities worldwide, with 25,000 additional people wounded and maimed. The unusually high casualty rate was due in part to the ongoing conflict in Iraq, and to a dramatic increase of terrorists willing to "martyr" themselves in suicide attacks. In 2005 there were a record 360 suicide bombings, many in places where such radical tactics had rarely, if ever, been seen before, including Afghanistan and London.

Of equal concern is the growing number of self-starter cells of Islamist terrorists with no connection to al-Qaeda or other formal terrorist groups, other than a shared embrace of a radical ideology and a willingness to kill innocent civilians in pursuit of those beliefs. Such groups of homegrown terrorists played major roles in the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in November 2004 and the foiled July 2005 bombing plot in London, and recently were the target of police crackdowns in Canada, Australia, and Miami, Florida.

Council member Xavier Raufer noted the exalted status that Osama bin Laden has achieved among the Islamic diaspora of Europe. "In terms of French Muslims, the most radicalizing idea we confront is this mythology that has built up around bin Laden as a sort of Islamic Robin Hood," he said. "At a time of significant agitation and frustration in the Islamic community, bin Laden gives them a sense of empowerment. By urging Muslims everywhere to strike a blow against the West, he offers them a catharsis. This emergence of bin Laden as an iconic Islamic hero is very troubling."

The escape of top al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri from Afghanistan in 2001, and their success in eluding capture or death ever since, have elevated them as symbolic firebrands for radical Islam. Though U.S. and coalition efforts to target al-Qaeda's leadership and deny it sanctuary in Afghanistan are positives, both top al-Qaeda leaders—through periodic releases of video- or audiotaped statements—remain chief propagandists for the radical cause and catalysts to terrorism.

"The communications from bin Laden and Zawahiri have become both more frequent and more sophisticated, and they are benefiting from this narrative that the top al-Qaeda leaders have survived the infidel's mightiest blows," said Brian Jenkins. In the past year, he noted, bin Laden has released five communications, and al-Zawahiri nine, and their messages are increasingly tailored for specific audiences. "We have to remember that this conflict is essentially a missionary enterprise for bin Laden and Zawahiri, and there is ample evidence that their flock is growing. There's no question that bin Laden's extremist ideology is more discussed today than at the time of the 9/11 attacks."

The backdrop for all that increased radicalization, and the growing pool of sympathizers, is a yawning gap in perception between the West and Muslim worlds. Bin Laden has skillfully exploited that break, and the very different views it represents, to further his fevered dreams of a "clash of civilizations."

"Years ago, when they actually had free elections in Pakistan, the extremists rarely ever garnered more than 5 percent of the vote," said Xavier Raufer. "Contrast that with today: From Pakistan to Algeria, we're seeing radical Salafist ideology steadily making inroads into the general Muslim population. You can see the gains even in the length of men's beards or the way women dress. That doesn't mean all of those people are terrorists, but they embrace the same puritanical brand of Islam. That ideology is the fertile earth in which Islamic terrorism is now growing."

Remarkably, in the same Pew poll mentioned earlier, majorities in countries considered key U.S. allies in the Muslim world (Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, and Indonesia) said that they did not even believe that groups of Arabs carried out the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Sources of Radicalization

To understand why more and more Muslims are becoming radicalized, one can look to the original currents that fed into the violent Islamic extremism of the 1980s and '90s, culminating on September 11, 2001. Along with a majority of the 9/11 hijackers, Osama bin Laden is a Saudi who embraces the fundamentalist Wahhabi version of Islam, puritanical in its strictures and extremely intolerant of nonbelievers.

The relationship between the Saudi royal family and Wahhabism is complex, and it touches on that nation's long religious traditions, need for domestic stability, status as the protector of Islam's most holy places, and competition with Shiite Iran in the realm of Islamic theology. The results of that complex relationship, however, are unambiguous. For many years, the Sunni rulers of Saudi Arabia allowed the country's vast oil wealth to be used in part to promote and export Wahhabism through the establishment of fundamentalist mosques and religious academies and schools called madrassas.

Nowhere did the export of fundamentalist and intolerant Wahhabi ideology find more welcome than in Pakistan. A poor country with a weak central government unable to provide adequate education to its own youth, Pakistan allowed the Wahhabi-inspired madrassas to fill its educational void. The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency also had a thirty-year history of supporting Islamic militants as a way to wield influence in neighboring Afghanistan and operate in Kashmir (a disputed province where Pakistan and India have fought three wars and countless skirmishes).

After the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States colluded with the Saudis and the Pakistanis in helping a worldwide network of radical mosques funnel Islamic militants to Pakistan in order to wage holy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Following the defeat and eventual withdrawal of Soviet forces, Pakistan's ISI threw its support behind the fundamentalist Taliban as a way to stabilize a fractious Afghanistan.

From this combustible witches' brew of extremist Islamic ideology and violent conflict emerged Osama bin Laden and the Afghan mujihadeen that formed the core of al-Qaeda. Bin Laden recognized that the same worldwide network that funneled Islamic militants into Afghanistan to defeat the Soviet Union could be reversed to wage global jihad against Saudi Arabia. When bin Laden failed to gain any real traction in his battle against the Saudi Royal Family, al-Zawahiri likewise found little purchase in his attempts to overthrow the Mubarak regime in Egypt, and al-Qaeda made few advances in Yemen, the campaign against the "near enemy" needed to be rethought. With a collapse of the movement imminent, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri stepped back and strategized anew. This led to a shift in focus to the "far enemy," and the United States as a particular target. This new mission got results. All the while, the ebbs and flows in purpose and rhetoric were held together by a puritanical, uncompromising worldview.

Unresolved Causes of Extremism

That history remains relevant today. For all its accomplishments, the U.S.-led counterterrorism campaign has failed to adequately combat the underlying causes of Islamic extremism manifested in the 9/11 attacks. While Saudi Arabian security forces have energetically joined the fight against al-Qaeda after a series of terrorist attacks on the kingdom in 2003, there is insufficient evidence that the Saudi government has staunched the spread of virulent Wahhabi ideology.

“Freedom House found that the official Saudi textbooks: command Muslims to "hate" Christians and Jews, as well as non-Wahhabi Muslims; teach that "Jews and Christians are enemies of the [Muslim] believers" and that the clash between the two realms is perpetual; and assert that the spread of Islam through jihad is a religious duty. ”

Just this year, Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom examined Saudi Ministry of Education textbooks used in schools and madrassas within the kingdom and around the world, including Saudi-run academies in nineteen world capitals. Despite proclamations to the contrary by Saudi officials, the report, titled "Saudi Arabia's Curriculum of Intolerance," found that Saudi textbooks continue to promote an ideology of hatred toward anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim, who does not subscribe to the Wahhabi sect of Islam.

Specifically, Freedom House found that the official Saudi textbooks: command Muslims to "hate" Christians and Jews, as well as non-Wahhabi Muslims; teach that "Jews and Christians are enemies of the [Muslim] believers" and that the clash between the two realms is perpetual; and assert that the spread of Islam through jihad is a religious duty.

Likewise, while Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has become a critical and trusted counterterrorism ally, and has survived two al-Qaeda-directed assassination attempts, the Council on Global Terrorism sees little evidence that the Pakistani government has successfully implemented promised educational and religious reforms in the country's many madrassas.

"I was recently in Pakistan, where nearly half of the children are out of school and a significant number of those children who are in school still attend jihadist madrassas," said Fernando Reinares. "In Saudi Arabia, the political elite have certainly been made aware of the problem of extremist ideology, but their textbooks continue to glorify death and martyrdom."

Those original sources of the current wave of Islamic radicalization, he points out, continue to spread to other nations and regions. "I was also recently in Mauritania and Mali in Africa, a region of the world where Salafist or Wahhabi ideology was largely alien just a few years ago," said Reinares. "Today those countries are seeing a large number of madrassas spring up that are outside the government's control and funded by Saudi and Pakistani capital. So while we continue to focus on police and intelligence work to target today's terrorists, the next generation is already being indoctrinated."

This indoctrination comes not only from the madrassa system that functions with such vibrancy throughout much of the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, but also through radical imams both in these regions and in the West. While most continue to preach from the pulpits of established mosques, many of these radicalizing imams create jerry-rigged prayer meetings to indoctrinate new recruits. This leaves them both unaccountable and better able to avoid capture.

In the case of two homegrown terrorist cells that were recently exposed in Australia, for instance, the common thread between them was a radical preacher who exerted influence over both groups and inspired them to radicalize quite quickly. Because such radical imams know that authorities are likely to monitor large mosques, they are increasingly operating out of prayer halls, social clubs, and private homes.

Though there is evidence of significant success in identifying and tracking the actions of some radical imams, many who served as primary facilitators in recruiting and indoctrinating Islamists to al-Qaeda and the jihadist cause in the 1980s and '90s, the problem of itinerant radical preachers persists. Partly this is a reflection of the understandable sensitivity in Western nations toward religious freedom. Yet it also speaks to the difficulty of monitoring radical behavior in a religion that has no formal clergy. In many, if not most, cases of homegrown terrorist cells, however, intelligence and law-enforcement experts say the presence of a radical imam was still the common trigger to radicalization and action. As the sermons are being moved from traditional venues into the kitchens of the believers, the problem becomes all the more difficult to counter as proselytizers leave conventional mosques to evade authorities.

New Triggers to Radicalism

A related unintended consequence of the struggle against violent Islamic extremism has been the increased use of prisons by al-Qaeda and other captured Islamists as focal points for recruitment and indoctrination. With their large populations of idle, violence-prone, and impressionable men, prisons have been targeted by al-Qaeda as potential hotbeds of radicalization. Council members note precedents in this trend: the ultraviolent Islamic terrorist organization GIA began in Algerian jails; José Padilla, an American suspected of planning to set off a dirty bomb on U.S. soil and currently facing terrorism charges, grew up in Chicago and was converted to Islam in prison.

“For many years, the Sunni rulers of Saudi Arabia allowed the country's vast oil wealth to be used in part to promote and export Wahhabism through the establishment of fundamentalist mosques and religious academies and schools called madrassas. ”

"In France, the conversion of thousands of prisoners to radical Islam is in many ways worse than the problem we faced with radical mosques in the 1990s, because Islamic radicals literally have a captive audience of young, dangerous men already predisposed to illegal behavior," said Xavier Raufer. "We're now seeing the Islamic equivalent of prison gangs."

This dangerous mixture, so particular to the prison environment, creates a multipronged problem. Many prisons are heavily populated by inmates with backgrounds in drug smuggling and document forgery, capabilities authorities must worry about terrorists acquiring. A skilled document forger who was radicalized could open the doors for the freer movement of terrorists. The cycle of common criminals turning into radicals while imprisoned is spotlighted by recent research undertaken by Fernando Reinares, who showed that of around 200 people arrested on terrorism-related charges in Spain since 9/11, at least 20 percent were previously imprisoned for entirely unrelated offenses. The conversion of prisoners to radical Islam also threatens to hasten and facilitate potential marriages of convenience between criminal networks and terrorist organizations. In the case of the Madrid bombings of 2004, for instance, the Islamic terrorist cell acquired the actual plastic explosives from the brother of a small-time Spanish crook that one of the cell members met while incarcerated. Council members also note the danger posed by a large prison escape by jihadis held in Mauritania, as well as the release of thousands of former Islamic terrorists from Algerian prisons as part of a reconciliation process in that country.

"While the United States has successfully degraded the operational capabilities of 'al-Qaeda Central,' we've failed to recognize `jihadism' as a cycle that begins with communication and escalates through radicalization, recruitment, training, and then operations unto death," said Brian Jenkins. "Until we break the cycle at radicalization and recruitment, we will not be successful in this conflict. We can turn some of the people we have in custody around so they actively denounce jihadist recruitment in the same way the reformed gang member or ex-convict goes out to schools and neighborhoods to tell others that it's not the way to go. We can legitimately do that in our society—nothing prevents us from being more active in the areas of rehabilitation and reeducation."

A final trigger to radicalization and violence of growing concern is the Islamic jihadi Web site. After al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups lost their sanctuary in Afghanistan, counterterrorism experts began seeing a proliferation of such Web sites on the Internet. From just a handful at the turn of the century, intelligence experts are now tracking more than 5,000 Web sites today, and that number continues to climb. The radical Islamists are now so adept at using the Internet to recruit, indoctrinate, and communicate that intelligence experts talk about the emergence of a terrorist "sanctuary in cyberspace."

"The United States has focused its public diplomacy outreach on Arabic-language television and radio stations, which are important in terms of keeping Muslim moderates who get their news from traditional sources from becoming radicals," said Bruce Hoffman. "But increasingly the Internet is connecting young Islamists with violent inclinations to one another and giving them a sense of empowerment. Countering these jihadist Web sites in a way that keeps these Islamic radicals from actually reaching the tipping point to violence is critical. The truth is, if we don't reverse the tide of Islamic radicalization we won't have enough bullets to kill all the potential terrorists who might take up arms against us."

 

 

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