Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Cause of Jihadist Terrorism and How to Combat It

A relatively recent publication, "Countering Violent Extremism - Scientific Methods and Strategies", issued by the Air Force Research Laboratory contains an interesting paper by Tawfik Hamid that looks at one of the key reasons why Muslim men join terrorist organizations.  As a bit of background for you, Dr. Hamid is an "Islamic thinker and reformer, and one time Islamic extremist from Egypt".  He was formally a member of the militant extremist group Jamaa Islameia of Egypt along with Osama bin Laden's right hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri.  He has a degree in Internal Medicine from Cairo University, is currently a member of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies  and has launched a YouTube channel to counter radicalism in Islamic Youth.  Here are some highlights from his paper "A Strategic Plan to Defeat Radical Islam".

To help you better understand this paper and to put the context of the author's findings into perspective, I'd like to look at a bit of background about Salafi jihadism.  Salafi (which means "ancient one") jihad is a religious ideology that is actually distinct from Islam; while it uses the same holy words and symbols that other Muslims use, it's overall philosophy is quite different.  Salafi jihadists distinguish between its adherents and those who are outsiders; for example, moderate Muslims are labeled apostates and Westerners are labeled infidels.  Salafists believe that Islam has strayed from its origins and has become decadent.  As a group, Salafists constitute less that 1 percent of the world's Muslims and the movement's origins can be traced back to the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 in Egypt.  A group called Takfir was-Hijra emerged from the foundations of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1971; its leader, Shukri Mustafa believed that Arab societies were corrupt and that true Islamists had to leave their homeland (i.e. go on a "hijra" (i.e. a migration)) to gather their forces before returning to rid their home country of its corrupt form of Islam.  This form of Salafi jihad is particularly violent and extreme with its members believing that it is acceptable to kill other Muslims who are deemed apostate.  What makes Takfir ideology particularly hard to battle is the fact that its followers may deviate from strict Muslim practices like drinking, wearing a beard, visiting strip clubs etcetera so that they can blend in and avoid detection while they are plotting terror attacks.  A key example of the Takfir ideology can be found in al Qaeda.

While Salafists are a currently a relatively small part of Islam, they have plans for a massive caliphate as shown on this map from a study by Rand:

Here is a diagram from the same study showing the substantial expansion in the number of Salafi jihadist groups since 1988:

Here is a diagram showing the explosion in the number of active Salafi jihadist fighters since 1988:

Dr. Hamid opens his paper by noting that there is no easy solution for defeating the version of Islam that uses violence to achieve its global objectives but, by better understanding Islam itself and the factors that contribute to violent Islam, the world will be better able to develop a strategy for controlling Islamic-based terrorism (i.e. know your enemy).  

The author suggests that there is a process by which the jihadi mentality is developed as shown on this graphic:

He notes that the process of creating a holy warrior mentality develops as a result of the spreading of Salafi jihadist ideals within a community.  One of the signs of spreading of militant Salafism is the wearing of the hijab by the women of the community, a key part of the imposition of Sharia law.  As Salafism takes root in the community, anti-Western propaganda is disseminated to incite hatred and increase support for their cause.  This results in the creation of "passive terrorists" who do not actually take part in terrorist attacks.  The younger members of the community become attracted to active terrorism for several reasons:

1.) they wish to serve Islam and become more religious.

2.) they believe that they can overcome poverty.

3.) they wish to get respect from their society.

4.) they feel support from a powerful community.

5.) they enter into marriages that are facilitated by their group.

6.) they can take revenge on their perceived enemies.

How can this trend toward increasingly militant behaviour be reversed or halted?  The author has several suggestions:

1.) Reforming the Islamic education system: Since the Qur'an forms an important part of the educational process of young Muslims, reforms to the education system are critical.  This could be done by placing a priority on the peaceful verses of the Qur'an to combat the use of the text's more violent verses that are used as a recruiting technique.  Passive education should begin early in life before jihadists have a chance to recruit young Muslims.

2.) Weakening the hijab phenomenon:  The author believes that over the last few decades, terrorism was preceded by an increase in the prevalence of the hijab.  In Sunni Muslim areas such as the Kurdish area of Iraq, women do not wear the hijab and these areas experienced fewer acts of terrorism when compared to the Al-Anbar Province where the hijab is much more common.

3.) Reducing sexual deprivation in males:  From his own experience, the author observed that young male Muslims are motivated to join the holy warrior movement because of sexual deprivation.   Here is his rationale:

a.) Suicide bombing is prevalent among young males when their testosterone level is highest.

b.) Suicide bombing is more common among Sunni Muslims than Shia Muslims.  He attributes this to the Shia theology which allows for temporary marriages (basically the use of prostitutes), a cultural factor that is not allowed in Sunni Islam.  If you are interested, here is a very interesting documentary entitled "In the Bazaar of Sexes" on the use of "sighe" (temporary marriage) in Iran:

As most Westerners are aware, there is a common teaching in Islam that Muslims who die as a martyr, will be rewarded with a large number of virgins upon reaching paradise.  This is often a motivating factor for young, male terrorists.  Addressing the factors that cause sexual deprivation can be used as a technique to interrupt the radicalization process.

4.) Improving the image of the United States in the Islamic world:  A long history of Middle East meddling has left much of the Muslim world with a bad image of the United States and other Western nations.  This will be extremely difficult since granting concessions could be seen as a weakness to be exploited.  A balanced approach of diplomatic rapprochement which combines respect without showing weakness to radical Islamists is key.

5.) Reduce dependence on energy (oil) from countries that support Salafist jihad:  As shown on this map, post-Qaddafi Libya, a substantial oil producing nation, is becoming a hotbed of Salafist jihadism:

Let's close with a quote from a paper by Assaf Moghadam at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point on the complex issue of Salafi jihadism:

"If the vast majority of non-Muslims find it difficult to strike the right chord between attacking Salafi-jihadists without being perceived as attacking Islam, the hurdles for the United States and its allies seem almost insurmountable. Therefore, a counter-terrorism approach that highlights the corruption of Salafi-jihadist ideology not on religious, but on secular grounds, is more likely to have the desired effect of weakening that ideology’s appeal. Rather than highlighting the doctrinal and theological inconsistencies among Salafi-jihadists, the United States and its allies should grasp every opportunity to highlight the disastrous consequences that Salafi-jihadist violence has wrought on the everyday lives not only of Westerners, but first and foremost on Muslims themselves. It is a simple, though not sufficiently emphasized fact that the primary victims of Salafi-jihadists are Muslims, who are killed and maimed in far greater numbers than non-Muslims. Salafi-jihadists openly justify the killing of civilians, including Muslims, under a logic of the ends justifying the means. It is equally a fact that leaders of Salafi-jihadist organizations hypocritically preach about the benefits of martyrdom, but rarely, if ever, conduct suicidal operations themselves, or send their loved ones on such missions. It is a fact that al-Qa`ida and associated groups offer no vision for Muslims other than perennial jihad—hardly an appealing prospect. 


  1. I tend to think about phenomena like extremism in term of memes - mental equivalent of virus (microbial)) epidemic, and I think the same methods used for combating epidemics (human or animal) should be used against jihadist...

  2. https://theintercept.com/2016/02/23/department-of-defense-white-paper-describes-wearing-hijab-as-passive-terrorism/

  3. no wonder extremist groups like these focus and deliberately attack education ,as a whole, from the young generation in areas in which they take over. the young are are a small percentage , but they are the future and they know that.