Countering Violent Extremism

By: Annette Brinckerhoff

A recent headline read that 10,000 ISIS fighters had been killed, but all had been replaced causing little impact on Daesh’s strength. The extremist group’s ability to recruit fighters from the Arab and Western worlds is a driving factor in its strategy. Vital to the global strategy then, should be stemming the flow of young, fighting aged men and women traveling to the Islamic Caliphate or planning lone-wolf attacks.

At the United States Institute for Peace, PeaceGames conference, the panel sought out to answer the question of how to combat violent extremism. In the introductory debate the importance of incorporating counter recruitment tactics as part of the broader strategy was brought up many times. Speakers brought up many insightful comments on the importance of a holistic approach, and a few solutions were introduced, though no course of action was agreed upon. Overall, the discussion wasn’t entirely innovative and important questions were left unanswered. What was clear however was that the target population being requited by Daesh are Muslim millennial’s going through an identity crisis and the way to combat the threat is by challenging the Caliphate’s narrative.

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed has ideas on how to do this. As a leading Islamic academic, Ambassador Ahmed has been researching contemporary Islam for decades. In an interview, he described the importance of providing an alternative narrative that accurately represents historical fact and dispels myths that have become assumptions. What Ambassador Ahmed’s long career has shown him is that in a climate of violence, lacking social institutions and strong leaders, young millennial’s are left with no prospects for the future, and no one to turn to for answers. Instead, they turn to the internet where an Iraqi or Syrian jihadi who is eager to answer their questions is easily found. And so, this young girl or boy’s identity becomes defined by what a stranger halfway across the world is telling them.

The problem is that the Islamic Caliphate is making these malleable millennials a priority in their strategy, and showing this by funneling resources into a demographic that is desperate to feel included and supported, while the rest of the world is not. On the other side, many of these young Muslims are living in pockets of societies where they are marginalized by their governments, stereotyped and ostracized by peers, and pictured as a problem by the media. The twisted truths recruiters spin often resonate with deep feelings of resentment and alienation. So, when these forces are acting on the most impressionable and there are no authority figures to counteract this message, it becomes very easy for ISIS to attract thousands of Muslims to Syria and Iraq.

To counter this, Ambassador Ahmed argues that we must focus on the youngest generations. Those who are being educated in madrasas across the world must be presented with a curriculum that is true to history. It must highlight the voices of muslim philosophers such as Ibn Rushd and Averroës, emphasize successful integration of Islam into western society in Andalusia, Spain, and feature examples of cooperation between mulism, judeo, christian, and secular beliefs. This sets the foundation to ensure the cycle of radicalization isn’t passed down to future generations. Without it we will always remain a step behind ISIS.

The single most important strategic move is to ensure a future where the threat of extremist groups is challenged. To do this a long-term plan must be in effect where an alternative, moderate narrative is presented to the youngest generations, making it the mainstream as they grow up. If we had input such programs in 2001, right after 9/11, 14 years later we may not have had thousands of 16-35 year olds indoctrinated with a message of violence and revenge. But, I do not want to give the impression that there is nothing to be done that targets current problems in real time. Efforts to reach Muslim millennials reaching out to the internet are also essential, as well as expanding economic prospects, reducing intolerance and prejudice within western societies, and developing stronger support networks. Efforts like Affinis Labs, a incubator for tech startups working to counter the social media allure of ISIS by providing an alternative for teens searching for answers and belonging. By creating virtual communities where young muslims can find a legitimate and moderate voice is essential to preventing their radicalization. The company also hosts “hackathons” across the world, where participants are given three to four days to come up with tech solutions on how to make a contemporary islamic message relevant to a young generation. Or Iran’s ISIS cartoon contest, where cartoon artists from around the world were asked to “reveal the true nature of the Islamic State”.

Innovative solutions like this is the only way the west’s mighty governments and military can compete with the Islamic Caliphate. At the PeaceGames, where many senior figures in the fight against violent extremism were in attendance, and they were all stuck. The solution, will not come from bureaucrats talking in circles, and falling into the same patterns of thought that brought us to this position in the first place. The solution must come from people who understand why the Islamic Caliphate is so alluring, and can find solutions which target a younger demographic. Resources must be available for pursuing the use of tools like Facebook and Twitter to make the messages of moderate Imams and disillusioned ex-ISIS fighters accessible to the average teenager.

During our interview Ambassador Ahmed said, “extremism is like a forest fire, are you going to control it or let it burn?” Solving the problem of violent extremism will take a lot of resources and time, but if we don’t make the commitment Daesh will, and because they have spent the effort to reach out and frame the narrative and identity of younger generations, our future will be one filled with increasingly violent extremist groups.

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