As Arab leaders gather for discussions at Camp David this week, the Obama administration is quietly debating a revision of its strategy against the Islamic State to reflect a U.S. assessment that the terrorist group poses a global threat.
Given the swirling vortex of challenges and threats in the Middle East, U.S. officials hope the meetings will bring a common front against extremism in the region, in both its radical Shiite and Sunni versions. But one top U.S. official involved in the coalition against Islamic State worries about limited resources: “You can fight ISIS, or you can fight in Yemen, but not both.”
With Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states concentrating on Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen, the fight against the Islamic State has been less visible over the past month. But support for the Sunni “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria keeps expanding. The United States now counts about a half-dozen affiliates of the Islamic State, and the group’s distinctive black-and-white flag has been waved, at least furtively, in as many as 70 countries — making the group a rival to al-Qaeda in its scope and potential threat.
But how should the U.S.-led coalition combat the Islamic State — without further glorifying its cause in the minds of young recruits? I can offer some provocative ideas from recent conversations with leading counterterrorism strategists.
Combating the Islamic State is a problem of “psychology, not theology,” argues Arie W. Kruglanski, a psychologist whose work is cited by Muslim strategic-communications experts in the United Arab Emirates. They agree with French scholar Olivier Roy that anti-jihadist messages from sheiks and imams won’t work. While religion may “license” the violent behavior of Islamic State recruits, it’s not their motivation. They’re driven by an extreme form of the romantic, reckless aggression that occurs among adolescents everywhere.
Young jihadists are motivated by core “life questions” about meaning and belonging, by unresolved aggression toward authority figures, by attention-seeking and exhibitionism, more than by ideology, argues a UAE-based analyst who has been analyzing radicalization for more than a decade. He cautions that wise counterterrorism policies should block the “receptors” that lead to aggression, by promoting tolerance and a sense of closure to crises. Trying to talk jihadists down from the ledge is a waste of energy; by then, it’s probably too late.
The Islamic State “represents one of the world’s most powerful brands,” the analyst wrote privately last November. “In stoking grievances and emotions with narratives linked to Muslim suffering and humiliation, it pits young heroes against corrupt, oppressive, unjust governments.”
Pressuring Muslims to step up and counter the jihadist appeal (an idea that has been in vogue recently in the West) may backfire, the strategist warns. “Putting the onus on Muslim communities to fight may be a poisoned chalice.” It makes mainstream Muslims the issue, not the extremists.
The most potent weapon against the “viral” jihadist narrative on Arab social media may be an alternative that celebrates freedom, argues Nadia Oweidat, a Jordanian-born analyst with the New America Foundation. In researching Arab social media, she notes an explosion of Facebook and YouTube sites that express this theme of personal freedom. These are the ideas that emerged in the “Arab Spring” of 2011 rather than today’s louder, darker, more intolerant, jihadist images.
Oweidat showed me dozens of social media sites that carry these liberating messages. There’s a YouTube talk show called “The Black Ducks,” where Egyptian atheist Ismail Mohamed has gathered dozens of episodes expressing diverse beliefs. An online forum called “Civilized Dialogue” has more than 2 million participants. Ahlam Mosteghanemi, a free-thinking Algerian novelist, has more than 7 million “likes” on Facebook, far more than the Muslim Brotherhood, which has about 76,000.
Another sign that liberal ideas are alive in the Middle East (but drowned out by the jihadists) comes in the latest Arab Youth Survey by the public relations firm ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller. It’s based on interviews with 3,500 men and women, ages 18 to 24, in 16 Arab countries. Seventy-three percent said they were concerned about the rise of the Islamic State; 67 percent agreed that “our best days are ahead of us.” But skepticism about Western democracy is growing, too. Just 15 percent cited “lack of democracy” as the biggest obstacle.
The discussions at Camp David will focus on the military battlefronts against extremism in the Middle East. But I hope the leaders will think about the framework for tolerant and open societies, as championed by the UAE. That’s the real antidote to violence.