How to prevent Westerners from fighting for the Islamic State and al Qaeda
One of the most troubling aspects of the slaying of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff is that a well-spoken man with a British accent appears to have been the killer. The fact that an educated Westerner slaughtered other educated Westerners and then put their murder tapes on the Web was enough to dominate the news cycle.
But this violent Westerner in black is not alone. Some 500 British citizens have joined the fight in the Syria, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, alongside thousands of other foreigners. Some 250 have since returned to the UK. Most have joined hardcore jihadist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (now renamed the ‘Islamic State’) and al Qaeda-proxy, Jabhat al-Nusra. Many have killed and have been killed; it was only earlier this summer that an American attacker, Florida native Moner Mohammad Abusalha, struck a restaurant with an explosive-laden truck—and with him at the wheel.
Other Americans suspected of fighting for the Islamic State have been killed even more recently.
A simple narrative motivates many to make the trip: President Assad/Hezbollah/Iran is oppressing Sunni Muslims, your home country does not care, and only we — the Islamic State or other jihadist group — will defend these innocents from the wolves. Will you join the cause?
The storyline is seductive since it touches both the head and the heart: it strikes a chord in many people’s sense of religious identity and injustice, it exploits a sense of adventure, and it offers a tangible “call to action.” This narrative is then amplified in multiple languages across social media as well as the mainstream press. It also has the blessing of well-known, conservative clerics like Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who said last year, “Every Muslim trained to fight and capable of doing that [must] make himself available” to fight in Syria.
There is only one way to defeat this narrative: craft a better counter-narrative. The West played the long-game war of ideas very well against the Soviet Union. It must marshal these efforts again for today’s ideological conflicts.
Yet nation-states are often ill-suited to push this narrative onto jihadist-wannabes—after all, the messenger is the message. For example, the U.S. State Department operates a somewhat ham-handed twitter account, @ThinkAgain_DOS, that tries to argue with jihadists in the twitterverse, to somewhat limited success.
It usually takes someone much more intimately related to the potential recruit to break the extremist narrative than a government bureaucrat or an official mouthpiece. At the moment, the side that wants to keep its sons and daughters away from Syria is rhetorically outgunned and outmaneuvered by jihadist forces — and they need help.
What, then, should a person—a family member, a teacher, a friend — say if he or she suspects someone is thinking of fighting in Syria? Simple “sticky” lines are the best. Here are a few suggestions:
Only fools go to Syria
This cuts right to the idea that fighting in Syria will give these fellows the respect they crave. Acting like tough-guy holy warriors is what many want — as their Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts suggest.
It’s understandable why people want to be a part of this larger jihadist force, for it imbues their otherwise humdrum lives with meaning. As clinical psychologist Samantha Rodman said, “‘To belong’ is a basic human need, and people will often take great risks to be part of an accepting, close-knit group.”
But is identifying with this group worth the effort? Let’s be honest — there is no end to the parade of young men and women who end up fighting for questionable causes or worse. Like the guys who beheaded a fighter in front of cameras then had to apologize when it turned out they killed a fellow jihadist. Or the trainer in neighboring of Iraq who blew up 21 aspiring suicide bombers because he accidentally detonated his own explosives. Or the guy who wasn’t a “social outcast,” just a “regular person.” Or the person whose parents had him kidnapped to keep him away from the jihad. The list goes on and on.
You’ll kill fellow Sunnis — not defend them
This goes hand-in-hand with the first line because it further undermines why they want to go to Syria in the first place. Since the beginning of the year, Islamic State has been fighting a war of all-against-all, including against its fellow jihadists and “moderate” rebel groups. Foreigners keep getting caught fighting a battle that does little to actually liberate Sunnis.
Islamic State has an especially terrible track record for killing its fellow Sunnis. The group has killed many of their fellow rebels, including the head of the jihadist group Ahrar al-Sham, as well as al Qaeda’s emissary to Syria, Abu Khalid al Suri. What kind of jihadist group slaughters — via suicide bombing, no less — prominent, impeccably-credentialed extremists?
And it’s not like the other groups are saints, either. Jabhat al-Nusra blew up a former German rapper-turned-fighter because he threw his lot in with the Islamic State. Considering these groups have a reputation for executing whole families and crucifying their rebel colleagues, they are doing anything but defending innocent, defenseless Sunnis.
You’re walking around with a bulls-eye on your back
The locals already despise outsiders because foreigners are the most violent fighters around. The other groups already hate you because you work for the Islamic State. And IS commanders already view you as cannon fodder who can be used for suicide attacks—and will execute you if try to flee. And these are just the Sunnis! It’s a no-win situation for every foreigner—which inexorably leads back to the first point: Only fools go to Syria.
Of course, these “talking points” aren’t by themselves enough to stem the wave of people going to fight. This particular war against jihadists — this war of ideas — will not be fought by drones or special operations forces, but by parents, teachers, friends, and community leaders. The battlefields will be on the Internet and in the media, but also around dinner tables, in coffee shops, within prison yards and around schoolyards.
This war of ideas will be a long and drawn-out one. The least we must do is to start providing the side of civilization some useful rhetorical weapons in the fight against the extremists.
PHOTO: Muslims hold placards as they march towards the U.S. embassy in London May 6, 2011. Britain has tried to implement programs to prevent its citizens from signing up to fight in Syria, Iraq and other places around the Muslim world. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett