In the days after the deadly attack on the Paris publication Charlie Hebdo, France declared “war” on terrorism, 10,000 French paramilitary police took to the streets and U.S. conservatives chided President Obama for not leading this new war against jihadists.
Sorry, but this war-on-terror mobilization is the wrong response to the Charlie Hebdo tragedy. It would repeat mistakes the United States made in its reaction to Sept. 11, 2001.
Watching the jihadist fire raging on the Internet and in lone-wolf attacks in Paris and other cities, frightened citizens (and opportunistic politicians) want a top-down command response. It’s tempting to imagine a 21st-century version of a “mighty Wurlitzer,” as the CIA dubbed its covert anti-communist messaging in the late 1940s and ’50s. Such propaganda strategies are understandable, but they’re also wrong.
What’s a convincing counterterrorism message? Listen to Malek Merabet, a Frenchman of Algerian descent who eulogized his brother Ahmed, a policeman slain in the Paris attacks. He said after the funeral: “My brother was Muslim, and he was killed by people who pretend to be Muslims. They are terrorists, that’s it.”
After the Paris tragedy, terrorism analysts found links to al-Qaeda in Yemen and the Islamic State. But rather than seeing this as a directed conspiracy, it may be more useful to analyze the street-gang and prison connections of Said and Cherif Kouachi, the Charlie Hebdo gunmen, and Amedy Coulibaly, the man who attacked the kosher deli. French press accounts suggest the trio are closer to what former CIA officer Marc Sageman calls “leaderless jihad” than the 9/11 model of core al-Qaeda.
“The role of religion in all of this is dangerously exaggerated,” says a former State Department official who now organizes private-sector efforts to counter extremism. “When we get stuck in a religious debate we are never going to win, we miss the point, which is that extremists are offering young people a sense of belonging, an outlet for adventure, and some kind of enhanced status. To combat this, we have to appeal to them as young people more than we have to appeal to them as Muslims.”
What has the United States learned from a decade of debilitating battles against al-Qaeda? Over the past week, I’ve put that question to counterterrorism experts in the White House and across government, and I’ve gotten some pointed answers.
First, the United States isn’t a credible voice in telling Muslims what real Islam is all about. The pushback against violent extremists has to come from religious centers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Muslim world. A good example of what’s needed was Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s recent call for a “religious revolution” against violent extremism. U.S. technology can help drive such messages through social media, but America cannot be the originator.
Second, U.S. officials have learned that the best domestic programs for combating violent extremists are bottom-up efforts where local law enforcement works with Muslim and other community organizations. When three teenage girls from Denver were radicalized online and wanted to fight in Syria last year, the local Muslim community saw the warning signs and they were stopped. At a later community meeting, an official from the National Counterterrorism Center showed pictures of a knife, a gun and a cellphone — and warned that the phone was potentially the most dangerous.
Cooperation between police and local Muslim leaders will be the centerpiece of a White House meeting Feb. 18 on countering violent extremism. The session will examine success stories in Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis. Officials are realizing that there is a continuum between youth-gang criminal activity and terrorist mobilization. According to Australian analyst Sam Mullins, “Terrorists must acquire criminal skill sets in order to be able to perform their role successfully.”
A third lesson learned is that effective messaging against terrorism must use social media to create what one U.S. official calls a “network of networks.” An example is the “Against Violent Extremism” network sponsored by Google Ideas in 2011. It now includes 300 former jihadists, gang members and radical nationalists who provide online counseling to potential extremists.
One innovative British project is “Abdullah-X,” created by a former jihadist. When a youth in Britain searches the Internet for information about traveling to Syria for jihad, he can get a targeted ad with an animated cartoon figure countering extremism. Says one cartoon installment: “You have to kill others to make your world purer. This is what you think Islam is? Are you for real?”