Daniel Byman is a professor in the security studies program at Georgetown University and research director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
Citing the “tragic attacks in Ottawa, Sydney, and Paris,” the White House on Wednesday is convening a summit on violent extremism. Its goal is admirable and ambitious: neutralizing terrorism’s root causes by stopping people from radicalizing in the first place. Yet the causes of violent extremism are poorly understood, and programs are often targeted at the wrong audiences. So to help the world leaders at the summit do more good than harm, let’s dispel some of the biggest myths.
1. We understand radicalization.
The just-released National Security Strategy warns repeatedly of the danger of extremism, citing weak governance, widespread grievances, repression and the lack of a flourishing civil society among other causes that allow “extremism to take root.” This list suggests that we know what motivates radicalization — but almost every social malady falls into these categories. The difficult reality is that there is no single path toward radicalization; it varies by country, by historical period and by person.
Experts have long searched for a useful psychological profile of terrorists, without much success. The problem, as terrorism scholar Bruce Hoffman observed many years ago, is “how disturbingly ‘normal’ most terrorists seem.”
Nor does the answer lie in the realm of faith. Many volunteers for terrorist groups have little knowledge of religion. Indeed, their lack of religious knowledge makes them easy prey for recruiters who don the mantle of religious authority. The two British Muslims who bought “Islam for Dummies” before heading to Syria are more the rule than the exception.
And describing an entire religious group as potentially dangerous isn’t especially helpful. Britain’s Prevent program, which included efforts to promote community cohesion and fight extremist ideology, made Muslims feel stigmatized and made it harder to gain their cooperation.
2. Moderate Muslims need to speak out.
Whenever an attack occurs, commentators chide moderate Muslims for not doing enough. Fox News contributor Monica Crowley argued that Muslims “should be condemning” the Charlie Hebdo attack but said that she hadn’t “heard any condemnation.” Bill Maher made a similar point when he claimed that “hundreds of millions” of Muslims “applaud an attack like this.”
Impressionable young people should know that their communities reject violence, and Muslims should indeed speak out — and they do. All the time. They condemn specific attacks such as the Charlie Hebdo killings, and they condemn terrorism in general. As the Islamic State emerged, more than 120 Muslim scholars from around the globe issued a point-by-point rebuttal of its religious arguments.
One problem for Sunni Islam is that it lacks a single church or spokesperson, so unlike Catholicism or the more hierarchical Shiite Islam, it can’t condemn (or endorse) anything in a categorical way. Blogger Daniel Haqiqatjou mockingly called for an iCondemn app that would allow Muslims to efficiently denounce acts of terror around the globe and reassure non-Muslims as to where they stand.
Of course, we shouldn’t hold ordinary people responsible for what violent people do in their name. Catholics should condemn the killing of an abortion doctor, but I don’t blame them for the murder if they don’t.
3. The best response is economic development and education.
It seems intuitive that poor people would be angry and that uneducated people would be more susceptible to terrorist brainwashing — a view that conservatives as well as liberals have embraced. President George W. Bush declared that it was important to fight poverty “because hope is an answer to terror.” The 9/11 Commission also called for supporting public education and economic openness.
Yet even a moment’s reflection shows the limits of this logic. Billions suffer poverty worldwide, and discrimination and ignorance are tragically widespread, yet few among these billions commit acts of terrorism. Religious schools in Pakistan do educate terrorists, but so do Pakistan’s public schools — and Western universities. Doctors and engineers are well represented in the ranks of international terrorists: Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaeda, is a trained surgeon.
Promoting education and economic development is good in its own right — but don’t expect it to combat terrorism.
Instead, we should think small, in part because in the West the problem involves small numbers of potential terrorists: thousands, not millions. The focus should be on high-risk communities, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Prisons, for example, are breeders of terrorists, and ensuring that radicals do not dominate religious instruction behind bars and that there are programs (and intelligence agents) in place to stop terrorist recruitment is vital.
Particularly important is targeting what terrorism expert William McCants calls “law-abiding supporters” — those who embrace jihadist ideas on social media or are otherwise clearly at risk of joining a terrorist group, but have not yet broken the law. Using community interventions and other means to move these people off the path of violence will prevent the stark choice of jail or Syria, and give family members of potential recruits a reason to seek out government help.
4. The fighting in Iraq and Syria will spawn terrorism in the West.
The flow of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria has understandably alarmed security officials around the world. FBI Director James Comey expressed the views of many when he warned in May 2014 that “there’s going to be a diaspora out of Syria at some point, and we are determined not to let lines be drawn from Syria today to a future 9/11.”
But officials raised similar fears about foreign fighters involved in earlier conflicts, especially after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and those conflicts did not produce a surge in terrorism in Europe or the United States. Many of the most dangerous foreign fighters die on the battlefield, blowing themselves up in suicide attacks or perishing in firefights. Others opt to continue fighting in the region. And those who return home are likely to be under the surveillance of state security services, inhibiting their ability to carry out attacks.
So far the Islamic State’s agenda is first and foremost local and regional — killing Alawites and Shiites, toppling the governments in Iraq and Syria, and so on — not plotting attacks against the West. There remains a real threat, especially from “lone wolf” attacks, as the cachet of the Islamic State inspires Muslims around the world. But such attacks are unlikely to be on the scale of 9/11 or carried out in a sustained way.
5. Europe has a massive Islamist terrorism problem.
The attacks at Charlie Hebdo were indeed shocking. Afterward, the head of Europol noted that “the scale of [violent extremism] has increased over the last 10 years.” Arrests for religiously inspired terrorism in Europe more than doubled from 2009 to 2013.
Still, Europe has seen very few successful attacks by Islamist terrorists since the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which killed 191 people, and the 2005 London bombings, which killed 52. In the intervening years, right-wing extremists have presented more of a threat. Europe’s most deadly attack in recent years was the one carried out by far-right Islamophobe Anders Breivik, who killed 77 Norwegians in 2011 when he bombed downtown Oslo and then slaughtered children at a nearby summer camp.
Though the potential threat may have grown because of the excitement the Islamic State has created among some young Muslims, so too has the response. Indeed, the arrests and disrupted plots — as opposed to successful ones — attest to the professionalism of the European intelligence services, as well as the need to fund them properly. So while there is reason to be concerned, there is no reason to panic and overreact.
Europe’s bigger problem is the divide between its Muslim and non-Muslim communities. This is less about counterterrorism and more about the need for better political and economic integration.