Pop quiz: How can the threat of radical jihadists be countered?
- President Obama: “Efforts to counter violent extremism will only succeed if citizens can address legitimate grievances through the democratic process and express themselves through strong civil societies. Those efforts must be matched by economic, educational and entrepreneurial development so people have hope for a life of dignity.”
- Secretary of State John Kerry: [We have a] “huge common interest in dealing with this issue of poverty, which in many cases is the root cause of terrorism or even the root cause of the disenfranchisement of millions of people on this planet.”
- Marie Harf, State Department Spokesperson: “We need in the medium to longer term to go after the root causes that lead people to join these groups, whether it’s a lack of opportunity for jobs….We can work with countries around the world to help improve their governance. We can help them build their economies so they can have job opportunities for these people.”
“Legitimate grievances,” “root causes,” and the need for “improved governance.” The two highest ranking people making American policy, and one who explains it to the public, demean Muslims around the world as surely as if they’d scrawled hate graffiti on a building. Just as there are millions of other poor people around the world who eschew violence, there are millions of Muslims without an education or prospects of economic advancement who would never consider picking up an AK-47 or chopping someone’s head off – even if jihadi recruiters were banging down their doors.
In addition, it turns out “Jihadi John,” the Westerner seen on IS video decapitating American, British and Syrian hostages, is one Mohammed Emwazi, the Kuwait-born-London-raised son of a prosperous family. He had a degree in computer programming from the University of Westminster. It also turns out that British school girls Kadiza Sultana (15), Amira Abase (15) and Shamima Begum (16) were not kidnapped as first feared. The girls carefully laid out a plan to set aside money to fly to Turkey and meet up with IS smugglers who took them to Syria. You can see them here – middle-class British girls whose parents say they were doing well in school.
This is not to pick on the British. America’s “Times Square Bomber,” Faisal Shahzad, had a degree from the University of Connecticut and was an insurance broker. Three of the “Lackawanna Six” had attended community college; all were naturalized U.S. citizens. Maj. Nidal Hassan, the Ft. Hood shooter, was a psychiatrist as well as an Army officer, born in the U.S. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a legal U.S. resident, his mother and brother and terror partner Dzhokar were naturalized citizens. But according to the President, jihadists needed a way to express their “legitimate grievances.”
Can we find a better predictive pattern?
Go back to the release of the New York Police Department’s report, Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat in 2007. In it, experts studied eleven cases of America’s “homegrown jihadists,” isolating specific factors that appear to move some people — primarily young men — to radical, violent activity even as most Americans, including American Muslims, remain unmoved by or even repulsed by the idea of violence committed in the name of religion. Among the NYPD findings:
- Salafist ideology combines Islam with a determination to solve problems through violence. Salafist institutions and literature are readily available in the West.
- Al Qaeda provides inspiration, but generally not operational assistance.
- Susceptible people seek an identity or a cause and often self-identify before finding compatriots. Radicalization has proceeded more slowly in the US than in Europe, where even second and third generation immigrants have trouble assimilating into the local culture – but more quickly since 9-11.
- The Internet is an enabler, providing an anonymous virtual meeting place. Sites other than mosques can provide the sense of community otherwise isolated people may be seeking.
- A “spiritual sanctioner” and an “operational leader” are necessary to move people from the ideological phase to an operational terrorist cell.
- Not everyone who begins the process of radicalization becomes a terrorist; there are several points at which people drop out.
It is worth noting that when the report was released, NYPD was called “racist” and worse. But time proves the proposition. There is no inevitable link between Muslim people and radicalism; poverty is not the driver; and lack of good governance is not the issue. Professional jihadists are required to move people from curiosity about, or potential interest in jihadist philosophy to becoming active terrorists, and people drop out of this process all along the way (repulsed, one assumes, at some point by the violence).
Far better than a plea for an understanding of “root causes” and sympathy for people’s inability to find a “legitimate” outlet for their grievances, would be a hard-headed consideration of the fact that professional jihadists who may be anywhere in the world are trolling for susceptible young people – primarily males, but increasingly females – to take up the cause of religious extremism and rush to the current battlefield in Iraq, Syria, Libya and elsewhere.
The fault lies there, not with the West’s lack of empathy.