New Book Examines Jihad’s Nightmarish Narrative

A new book analyzes regarding particularly Muslim terrorists “what engenders that incredible will—what prompts young Muslims and others to abandon current life pursuits, drop everything, and embark on a journey from which there may be no return.” The Three Pillars of Radicalization: Needs, Narratives, and Networks provides critically important insight on terrorism for a world wracked by the global jihadist scourge.

A research project at the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), the book examines the “3Ns of violent extremism.”

The first pertains to the individual’s motivation—the need to feel that one is significant and that one matters. The second N pertains to the ideological narrative that enshrines violence as the means best suited for the attainment of significance. Finally, the third N pertains to the social network—the group or category of people whose acceptance and appreciation one seeks and whose validation of the ideological narrative is essential to its believability for the individual.

“Significance loss can happen due to a personal failure or humiliation or as an affront to one’s social identity,” the book’s authors write, while examining a variety of individual and collective factors. Palestinian female jihadists “volunteered for suicide missions after they had suffered some kind of stigma in their lives caused by, for example, infertility, divorce, accidental disfiguration, an extramarital affair.” Such individual motives interact with group traumas as asserted in a globally broadcast Al Qaeda video concerning Muslims under Algerian military rule. For Muslims the video “alleges their humiliation by oppressive deeds committed toward other members of their religion in a faraway land.”

Opportunity for significance gain” therefore arises out of a “violence-justifying ideology” that celebrates fighting against a group’s perceived suffering. This pursuit creates “megalomaniacal hyper terrorists” like Osama Bin Laden. Meanwhile, “‘breeding in the bone’ of suicide bombers in kindergartens and summer camps” of groups such as Hamas teaches children to “become shahids and thus earn vast glory.”

“Substantial and enduring significance gain through violence requires societal license and authorization,” yet the START researchers clearly differentiate that “not all ideologies promote violence.” Like Christianity, “some are emphatically humane and prosocial. They affirm that significance is earned by kindness, tolerance, and empathy toward others.” Similarly, a “person may exhibit a high ambition, a craving to be respected, famous, and recognized yet channel it in various constructive, nonviolent directions (e.g. as a scientist, physician, inventor, or athlete).”

The book’s illuminating analysis of why jihadists and others “engage in untold acts of callous cruelty” decisively refutes the common misperception that societal disadvantage is decisive in producing terrorism. Socioeconomic “[f]rustration could lead to withdrawal, depression, escape, or aggression against the self rather than outwardly.” Empirically, “countless people who experience poverty, oppression, and/or social stress do not turn to violent extremism.” By contrast, jihadists exemplify the fact that ideologically “devoted actors are vehemently opposed to trading off their sacred values for material incentives.”

Specifically, “research on the Salafi jihad movement uncovered that its leadership and its largest membership cluster had come mostly from the upper and middle classes.” Thus the “root cause notion seems to have garnered little empirical support or conceptual grounding.” In general,

thousands of individuals who end up as violent extremists seem to have preciously little in common. They come from different cultures, are of different genders, vary in educational level, and differ in how happy or satisfying their personal life has been.

The authors qualify that, although “economic development policies do not eradicate terrorism, they do weaken local support for terrorist activities.” For example, jihadists in Iraq conducted attacks against American forces for payments as low as $100. Accordingly, “those who join radical organizations may not do so exclusively for ideological reasons but for material incentives as well.”

Egypt’s Islamic Group (IG) also exhibited the interrelationship between material concerns and jihadist ideology when the IG waged a terrorism campaign against Egyptian tourism in the 1990s. Yet the “Egyptian population, which sees tourism as a main source of revenue on which many Egyptians depend for livelihood, strongly disapproved.” Therefore Egyptians “turned against the extremists, who soon found themselves in prison, their weapons’ caches confiscated, and their safe houses compromised.” In response, IG leaders abandoned their jihad “and instead preached tolerance toward others, even if they were nonbelievers.”

Among the various elements needed to vanquish terrorists, the authors note that “defeating extremists on the ground is important in reducing the attraction of their enterprise.” For example, Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers suffered “conclusive defeat by the Sri Lankan military” in 2009. Thus “violence and fighting could hardly qualify as a means to significance and, in fact, could be perceived as a road to a vast humiliation” with the result that Sri Lankan terrorist rehabilitation programs have no recidivism.

Such terrorist rehabilitation programs are part of a “battle for hearts and minds” among jihadists that so far has had questionable results. Such a “soft approach seeks to convince supporters of violent extremism through argumentation and social influence to abandon their aggression-justifying beliefs and/or relinquish their engagement in violence.” The authors conclude that “given the correct approach, violent extremists are capable of reforming and relinquishing terrorism.”

However, the book itself examines the problems of jihadist deradicalization programs. During the Iraq war the “US military made a concerted effort to rehabilitate tens of thousands of suspected militants in Iraq.” Ultimately “numerous former detainees…proceeded to join IS [the Islamic State] and lent it considerable military expertise,” an indication of these programs recurring failingsin places like Denmark, France, Indonesia, and the United States.

The authors particularly note that the “Saudi deradicalization program initiated in early 2004 is the best endowed and most sophisticated enterprise of its kind” and has “served as a model to other nations.” Nonetheless, many have wondered whether this program’s ideological content, based upon Saudi Arabia’s official Wahhabi understanding of Islam, can “deradicalize the detainees in any fundamental sense.” The authors explain that

Wahabism justifies violence and aggression against nonbelievers if they are seen to occupy a Muslim land, like in Iraq or Afghanistan, for example. Because the ideological distance between the detainees’ beliefs and that of the program officials isn’t considerable, the task of converting them to the state version of the religion is relatively easier.

Accordingly, although often overlooked, “when graduates of the Saudi programs rejoin the fight outside of the country’s borders, this does not unequivocally qualify as recidivism, because the program’s essential narrative permits it.” Correspondingly, American experts have claimed that the program’s recidivism rate is much higher than the official 20 percent. One Department of Homeland Security consultant who inspected the Saudi program in 2009 starkly stated that its detainees “are not being de-radicalized,” but simply “are being encouraged to disassociate from terrorism.” One program detainee who returned to Al Qaeda after his release dismissed the program as a way to “drive us away from Islam.”

In contrast to this jihadist, the authors in their assessment of deradicalization programs optimistically proclaim with little evidence Islam’s fundamentally benign nature. “Theological dialogues and discussions about the true nature of Islam and its rejection of wanton violence represent the narrative element of deradicalization,” the authors write. They hereby highlight Singapore’s Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), “one of the most comprehensive and carefully administered programs of this kind.”

Disturbingly, one of RRG’s featured speakers, Egypt’s former grand mufti, Ali Gomaa, a man who has denied the existence of female heart surgeons, casts dark shadows upon RRG’s reputation for moderation. This viciously anti-Semiticcleric and slanderer of Israel supported Hezbollah in its 2006 war with Israel and has condemned Christians as infidels in his paranoia. He also gave theological incitement to Egyptian security forces in their August 14, 2013, massacre at Cairo’s Rabaa Square, termed by one observer a “Gomaa-sanctioned jihad.”

Gomaa’s haphazard opposition to jihadist violence exemplifies the authors’ qualification that “radicalization isn’t an all-or-nothing phenomenon. It is a matter of degree.” An “individual who delimits engagement in violence to a certain place and time, or to a certain type of targets…is less radicalized than one who supports violence more broadly, such as against Westerners in general.” Likewise, “more radicalized individuals may be ready to commit acts of violence, while the less radicalized ones may believe that violence is justified and desirable though they themselves may not be prepared to perpetrate it.”

Unsurprisingly, the deradicalization programs examined in the book often emphasize verification of released detainees’ good behavior rather than any trust in changed hearts. The “graduates of the Saudi deradicalization program are explicitly told they will be monitored in the community,” the authors note. Analogously,

one of the reasons for Singapore’s perfect scorecard on recidivism is their effective monitoring system: a massive network of hundreds of surveillance cameras, on closed-circuit television (CCTV), mounted across the city and recording every whereabouts of its citizens.

While the book’s authors provide a refreshing, invaluable analysis of the ideological factors that contribute to jihadist violence and thereby dispense with shopworn myths, the authors’ search for antidotes to jihadism is unfortunately less conclusive. If only this mayhem had materialist “root causes” such as poverty or ethnic conflict; then practical solutions could bring peace, but jihadists follow theological visions. Muslims and non-Muslims alike face a daunting challenge to end this fanatical nightmare turned reality.

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