Sep 05, 2014

    What every wannabe jihadist should know

    ONE of the most troubling aspects of the slaying of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff is that a well-spoken man with a British accent appears to have been the killer.

    The fact that an educated Westerner slaughtered other educated Westerners and then put their murder tapes on the Web was enough to dominate the news cycle.

    A simple narrative motivates many foreigners to join jihadist groups: President Assad/Hizbollah/Iran is oppressing Sunni Muslims, your home country does not care, and only we - the Islamic State (IS) or another jihadist group - will defend these innocents from the wolves. Will you join the cause?

    The storyline is seductive: It strikes a chord in many people's sense of religious identity and injustice, it exploits a sense of adventure and it offers a tangible "call to action".

    This narrative is then amplified in multiple languages across social media and the mainstream press. It also has the blessing of well-known, conservative clerics.

    There is only one way to defeat this narrative: Craft a better counter-narrative.

    Yet, nation-states are often ill-suited to push this narrative onto wannabe jihadists - after all, the messenger is the message. It usually takes someone much more intimately related to the potential recruit to break the extremist narrative than a government bureaucrat or an official mouthpiece.

    What should a person - a family member, a teacher, a friend - say if he suspects someone is thinking of fighting in Syria? Simple "sticky" lines are the best. Here are a few suggestions.


    This cuts right to the idea that fighting in Syria will give these fellows the respect they crave. Acting like tough-guy holy warriors is what many want - as their Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts suggest.

    It's understandable why people want to be a part of this larger jihadist force, for it imbues their otherwise humdrum lives with meaning. As clinical psychologist Samantha Rodman said, " 'To belong' is a basic human need, and people will often take great risks to be part of an accepting, close-knit group."

    But is identifying with this group worth the effort?

    Let's be honest. There is no end to the parade of young men and women who end up fighting for questionable causes or worse - like the guys who beheaded a fighter in front of cameras, only to apologise when it turned out they had killed a fellow jihadist.


    This goes hand in hand with the first line, because it further undermines why wannabe jihadists want to go to Syria in the first place.

    Since the beginning of the year, IS has been fighting a war of all-against-all, including against its fellow jihadists and "moderate" rebel groups. Foreigners keep getting caught fighting a battle that does little to actually liberate Sunnis.

    IS has an especially terrible track record for killing its fellow Sunnis. The group has killed many of its fellow rebels, including the head of jihadist group Ahrar Al-Sham. What kind of jihadist group slaughters - via suicide bombing, no less - prominent, impeccably credentialled extremists?

    And it's not like the other groups are saints, either. Jabhat Al-Nusra blew up a German rapper-turned-fighter because he threw his lot in with IS. Considering these groups have a reputation for executing whole families and crucifying their rebel colleagues, they are doing anything but defending innocent, defenceless Sunnis.


    The locals already despise outsiders because foreigners are the most violent fighters around. The other groups already hate you because you work for IS. And IS commanders already view you as cannon fodder who can be used for suicide attacks - and will execute you if try to flee.

    It's a no-win situation for every foreigner, which inexorably leads back to the first point - only fools go to Syria.

    Of course, these "talking points" aren't by themselves enough to stem the wave of people going to fight.

    This particular war against jihadists - this war of ideas - will not be fought by drones or special-operations forces, but by parents, teachers, friends and community leaders.

    The battlefields will not only be on the Internet and in the media, but also around dinner tables, in coffee shops, within prison yards and around schoolyards.

    This war of ideas will be a long and drawn-out one. The least we must do is to start providing the side of civilisation some useful rhetorical weapons in the fight against the extremists.


    The writer is a former Central Intelligence Agency counter-terrorism analyst.