Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Countering ISIL’s Ideology: Keep It Limited, Focused, and in Tune with Lessons Learned

Countering ISIL’s Ideology: Keep It Limited, Focused, and in Tune with Lessons Learned

The rise of ISIL from the ashes of al Qaeda has also resulted in renewed calls to counter the ideology of violent extremism – a popular mantra chanted in the years after 9/11 that has gone through ebbs and flows based on the pace and magnitude of jihadist terror attacks. But any true examination of the past decade’s countering violent extremism programs should conclude that combating al Qaeda and now ISIL’s ideology would for the most part be a waste of time. By almost all accounts the world faces more jihadist extremism today than it did the day after the September 11, 2001 attacks. All of this despite the millions of dollars spent in countering violent extremism (CVE) programs to win the “Hearts and Minds” of vulnerable populations from Morocco to the Philippines. Sure, CVE advocates will always trumpet the anecdotal Hallmark card story of a young man on the path to al Qaeda, who after hearing a positive commercial promoting peace and prosperity, suddenly switched directions and returned to join a representative, egalitarian democracy. These stories represent anecdotes and not trends.

Across North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and now large parts of Europe, young men have joined ISIL in droves willing to fight and die in Syria and Iraq in the name of Islam. This jihadist wave has occurred despite truckloads of funding spent by more than a dozen Western countries to positively engage young Muslim men. The cynic might argue that CVE programs, when correlated to the magnitude of today’s radicalization and recruitment, actually accelerated extremism. The cynics are likely wrong, but at best we can say the majority of CVE efforts have had a negligible or no effect on extremism. There are some silver linings in the past decade’s CVE history that may provide limited methods for eroding the appeal of ISIL’s extremism. But before visiting those instructive points, let’s examine why past CVE efforts have been ineffective so as to avoid repeating efforts of limited consequence.

Since 9/11, programs to counter jihadi ideology have suffered many ills and most of these programs, if pursued against ISIL, will result in the same fate – investment without a return. A core CVE effort has been the employment of credible, so called “Moderate Voices”, to counter the narrative of extremism. These programs generally fail for three reasons. First, young militants seek out extremism because moderate theology did not suit them. Its illogical to believe that most will reject the appeal of an extreme ideology by being presented with a tamer version of Islam by cleric they do not know nor respect. Second, recent deradicalization programs in the Middle East have shown that moderate voices rarely get through to young men committed to violence in the name of terrorist causes. The throngs of ISIL recruits today and the recidivism of al Qaeda members supposedly deradicalized post incarceration illustrate this point. Third, “Moderate Voices”, often backed by Western secular democracies, use religious justifications in an attempt to influence young recruits. But today’s ISIL recruits often have limited understanding of their religion. They instead find motivation to fight in Syria and Iraq because of social and psychological reasons rather than simply ideological justifications. Fourth, “Moderate Voices”, who may in fact be credible, are often challenging the religious opinions of ISIL members of no credibility. In the era of Do-It-Yourself-Jihad, everyone is a cleric and selectively chooses the religious proverb of choice to justify their actions and resulting violence. The religious authority of the “Moderate Voice” will not likely register with the foreign fighter recruit more motivated by the conduct of violence than the Koran.

Community engagement programs to counter ISIL’s ideology will…

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