A Radical Idea

Monday, January 23, 2012
YouTube Countdown to Paradise
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Taylor Jones

Until a few years ago, America seemed relatively resistant to the kind of homegrown Islamist terrorism that has plagued Europe for the past decade. American Muslims are more deeply integrated into society, terrorism experts say. In Europe, immigrant populations tend to cluster—with Algerians settling in France, Turks in Germany, Moroccans in the Netherlands, and so on, making it easier for ethno-religious groups to remain isolated, spending time only with others like themselves.

Many Muslim immigrants in Europe arrived as unskilled guest workers, and changes in the labor market have made it hard for them to find jobs. Muslims are far more likely to be unemployed than “native” Europeans and to receive lower pay for the same work. Muslim immigrants in Europe are often poor. For example, 10 percent of native Belgians live below the poverty line while 59 percent of Belgium’s Turks and 56 percent of Belgium’s Moroccans are living in poverty.

In the United States, by contrast, Muslim immigrants not only are not poor but are the wealthiest group of Muslim immigrants in the world. They tend to be better educated and have higher-paying jobs than the average American, and they are more likely to vote. The vast majority of Muslim immigrants have thrived in the United States. That is something to celebrate.

But by 2009, it was clear that America was not immune to domestic radicalization. Al-Qaeda’s “psyops” effort, which involved spreading the argument that the war on terrorism was actually a war on Islam, was beginning to bear fruit among American Muslim youth as well as converts.

YouTube Countdown to Paradise

In the past couple of years, Al-Qaeda has deliberately attempted to tailor its message to attract American youth, even encouraging them to wage jihad on their own, at home. Most of the American Muslims who are joining this jihad were not brought up to believe the Salafi teachings that undergird the Al-Qaeda ideology. Rather, for a small segment of young people, jihad has become a cool way of expressing dissatisfaction with the powerful elite—whether that elite is real or imagined; whether power is held by totalitarian monarchs or by liberal parliamentarians. It is in the nature of teenagers to seek an identity. Al-Qaeda is exploiting adolescents’ confusion in an effort to shift their allegiances. Only a few will succumb, but as we have seen, even small numbers of determined terrorists are a threat to us all.

Like all terrorist movements, this one too shall pass. But the threat is likely to get worse before it gets better, both on our shores and further abroad. Though there is much to celebrate about citizens’ demands for greater freedoms in Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere in the Middle East, history suggests that the transition from authoritarian rule to democracy is a particularly dangerous period in terms of the risk of terrorism.

Consider an essay in the March 2011 issue of Inspire, Al-Qaeda’s online magazine aimed at extremist youth. In it, the radical American Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki—who has since been killed in Yemen by a U.S. drone—taunted Western governments. The mujahideen are elated about the revolutionary fervor now spreading throughout the Arab world, he wrote, and the fighters are ready to exploit the opening, especially in Yemen and Libya. But Awlaki, who specialized in recruiting for jihad against the United States, urged Western Muslims who wanted to join the jihad to stay home to fight the “tyrants” in the West. Seeking to avoid the fate of many homegrown terrorists arrested before implementing their attacks, Awlaki encouraged lone-wolf operations (the fewer the perpetrators, the smaller the chance of getting caught).

By 2009, it was clear that Al-Qaeda’s “psyops” effort was beginning to bear fruit among American Muslim youth.

Inspire—whose editor and publisher died in the same drone strike as Awlaki—has a very specific view of its audience. It sees itself as a venue for “open source jihad,” which it defines as a “reference manual for those who loathe the tyrants.” It provides instructions, in its less-than-perfect English, to allow “Muslims to train at home instead of risking a dangerous travel abroad.” This is radicalization by Internet—not by mosque. Inspire aims to shame Muslim youth into action. You feel safe in the United States, the magazine argues, but you are governed by those who want to destroy Islam.

Only a few months ago, Jose Pimental, a young New Yorker, was arrested as he was about to carry out bomb plots lifted from the pages of Inspire, according to police. Sure enough, Mayor Bloomberg said Pimental was “a so-called lone wolf, motivated by his own resentment of the presence of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as inspired by Al-Qaeda propaganda.”

FIGHTING IDEAS WITH IDEAS

The counterterrorism policies America employs abroad are mostly not applicable to homegrown radicals. We cannot aim drones at terrorists in Detroit. This is especially true for lone wolves, who work on their own mainly to evade detection by law enforcement agencies. Those based in the United States may elect to inspire violence in a general sense rather than incite specific attacks, making it harder to monitor relationships and also to arrest terrorist leaders. We are fighting an idea, rather than a physical group—the idea that a “good” Muslim will respond to the West’s purported war on Islam by joining the “jihad” against the “Crusaders,” wherever they are found, whether in Somalia, Libya, or Portland, Oregon.

The Internet has greatly enhanced the capacity of terrorist groups to reach Muslims in America. “Inspirational terrorist leaders” are often located abroad. They are increasingly adept at making jihad cool, with the help of slick websites and YouTube videos. Might it be possible to reduce the appeal of terrorist fads, perhaps by helping youth understand that these groups are not actually as cool as they might look, from the outside?

Last summer, Google Ideas (Google’s new “think/do tank”), the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Tribeca Film Festival organized the Summit Against Violent Extremism. The aim of the summit, which was held in Dublin, was to explore the possibility of stopping youths from being seduced by the lure of violent extremist movements—whether street gangs, Islamist groups, or neo-Nazis. The summit hoped to launch a “countermovement to violent extremist groups,” in the words of Google Ideas.

Participants included survivors of terrorist attacks all over the globe and some eighty “formers,” the summit’s shorthand for both retired or otherwise disengaged terrorists and gang members. Also in attendance were present and former administration and congressional officials from both sides of the aisle, and scholars who study terrorism. Journalists, who were required to stay in a separate hotel, vied for interviews with the former extremists. These extremists had belonged to a wide variety of groups, from Colombia’s FARC, to American neo-Nazi groups, to a host of groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda. All of the “formers” were now running organizations devoted to “outing” their former outfits as very scary indeed, not only for the victims of their violence, but also for the youths they were seducing into joining.

The transition from authoritarian rule to democracy is a particularly dangerous period in terms of the risk of terrorism.
Anwar al-Awlaki
Analysts say Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American, instigated a number of terrorist attacks through his strategically distributed sermons. His specialty was urging Western Muslims who wanted to join the jihad to stay home to fight the “tyrants” in the West, often in lone wolf-fashion.

Several themes emerged. Despite their varying ideological and socioeconomic backgrounds, the vast majority of formers—both former gang members and terrorists—talked about their adolescent confusion about who they were, and spoke of having found an answer inside a violent cult or gang rather than a soccer team or orchestra, as luckier adolescents do. Inside those violent groups, one acquires an instant identity and an instant family, the formers told us. The world becomes black and white. Many described unforgettable moments of having been “dissed” or humiliated before joining the gang, and the safety they felt, at least temporarily, inside a violent group. Over time, many discovered that this identity had been bought at a significant price. Many came to realize that the greatest threat to their lives often emerged from within their own gang.

“Inspirational terrorist leaders” often live abroad. They are increasingly adept at making jihad cool, with the help of slick websites and YouTube.

Radicalization, the formers told us, was a process. It was not something that occurred from one day to the next. One of the neo-Nazis said he had been initially attracted to the music favored by skinhead gangs, and only subsequently to the ideology. This is one of the reasons why the music videos put out by Al-Shabab, the Islamist terrorist organization in Somalia, are so concerning. Leaders of extremist groups have become quite savvy about how to seduce the youth they aim to recruit, using enticing graphics in their online magazines, hip-hop and R&B music videos, and secret codes and language. All of this appeals to youth seeking a new, more powerful identity and a sense of belonging that they imagine will heal their pain.

The pathway out of extremism was also a process, the formers told us. “There wasn’t an ‘aha’ moment,” a female member of a Salvadoran gang told us. “It’s akin to an addiction.” She admitted that there had been times when she wanted to go back to her earlier life, as when one of her gang brothers was killed.

Many of the formers talked about seeds of doubt about their membership in the various groups, which might have been planted years before they actually left. “You realized you don’t like the people you’re with,” a former member of the Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir told us. The Hizb-ut-Tahrir member also said he was greatly moved when the West intervened in Bosnia. This was evidence that appeared to contradict Al-Qaeda’s narrative that the West aimed to destroy Islam—and it was evidence that actually made a difference in his decision to quit the violent Islamist movement.

BREAKING THROUGH TO YOUNG MINDS

Could formers make what they learned clear to those still inside the groups, or to those who are at risk of recruitment? Part of the secret to running an extremist group is keeping the rank and file uninformed about other points of view, the formers told us. A former skinhead hypothesized that broadening the social network of recruits exposes them to the real world, and potentially to the deceptions of their leaders. Of course, this was partly what led to the conference in the first place. In a blog describing the purpose of Google’s new initiative, Jared Cohen, the former State Department wunderkind now running Google Ideas, explained: “Extremists have taken advantage of new Internet technologies to spread their message. We believe technology also can become part of the solution, helping to engineer a turn away from violence.” His goal for the event was “to initiate a global conversation on how best to prevent young people from becoming radicalized and how to de-radicalize others.”

“Stay tuned,” he said, “as we attempt to marry ideas and action.”

Skeptics of Google’s initiative include Joseph Nye, former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the author of a series of books on soft power. Nye told the Washington Post that Google’s foray into policy making “could be problematic—especially if it is perceived to be in conflict with the foreign policy of the United States.”

But the Google Ideas summit was not about policy making. It was about circulating the formers’ views, which provide a counternarrative to the propaganda put forth by terrorist organizations. Could Google make nonviolence cool? That remains to be seen. But this writer happens to think that Google, and the other corporations it might inspire to join the fight, has a better prospect in this arena than government does.