Countering Islamist Radicalization
Homegrown attacks are increasing in importance in the United States. Over two-thirds of Islamist terrorist plots or attacks after March 2014 were by American citizens. In July 2015, Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, a Kuwaiti-born US citizen, killed five members of the US military. Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife killed 14 in San Bernardino, December 2015; Omar Mateen, born in the US, killed 49 people in Orlando in June 2016. So it is clear that homegrown extremism is a problem in this country.
Why are people radicalizing in the US? Grievances common to US homegrown terrorists are similar to those in other countries. For example, discrimination can trigger resentment. Vulnerable individuals may react violently against the dominant culture which has marginalized them. Similarly, if Muslims identify with the country where their ancestors came from, they can react with horror at what their adopted country is doing, such as invading a Muslim-majority country. Poverty and lack of opportunity can make people feel trapped and desperate. However, the backgrounds of homegrown terrorists vary as much as the rest of the US population.
Other reasons besides grievance can inspire people to radicalize. Negative experiences that profoundly affect their lives can lead to a divergence from their previous path, and explore a more radical view that seems to reflect the reality they experience. These can be unrelated to Islam, such as a divorce or a death, but force them to confront what they have believed, and with the inclusion of other circumstances, such as online propaganda or a friendship with a radical Islamist, they become radicalized. Searching for a sense of identity and purpose, they find it in radical Islamism.
People would not radicalize if they did not have access to jihadist material. Propaganda videos, featuring execution or charity, figure prominently in the radicalization process; over 85 percent of terrorists had viewed them.
Friends and leaders can influence the radicalization process. The internet provides a way to communicate with those who are like-minded; it also transmits videos, images, narratives which resonate with the searching.
Grievance, ideology, and social milieu can work together to create a perfect storm of radicalization. However, the risk factors increase the likelihood but don’t guarantee someone becomes a terrorist.
In order for a counter-radicalization program to not become a grievance, there needs to be a clear separation between counter-radicalization and counterterrorism, so it’s not viewed as a tool for espionage. Using undercover informants in mosques and other practices has only created mistrust between Muslim communities and the government, which actually prevents cooperation that could lead to sharing information. A partnership should be cultivated between government and local communities for mutual benefit, not a relationship that fosters suspicion.
One way to do this would be a program such as in the Netherlands, where there are “information houses” that people can report at-risk individuals to, addressing conflicts at the local level before law enforcement becomes involved.
A counter-radicalization program should originate bottom-up, not top-down, and focus on the big picture, while the community focuses on the details. The program should arise from the concerns of the community, not federal government. The role of the federal government should empower states, local government, and community to pursue counter-radicalization strategies themselves. It should provide funding and support, not micromanage or invade the space of the states. It should use existing funds and bureaucracies for counter-radicalization, assisting non-profits and private sector.
One of the most important ways for the government to support the private sector is by bolstering mainstream Muslim networks, so they can be the first defense against radicalization. The government needs to support Islamic scholars to create a counter-narrative from Islamic traditions to discredit ISIS’s propaganda.
Similarly, counter-radicalization web sites should be created that educate about mainstream Islam and damage the radical position, emphasizing that it does not represent Islam. These should be made by local community leaders or internationally renowned Muslim scholars. The government should work with social media to shut down accounts with violent content, but not provide counter-messaging itself, because it does not have legitimacy and actually helps discredit the voices when they are seen as coming from the government.
Additionally, the United States should work to integrate Muslim immigrants, not isolate them, and create a welcoming environment for law-abiding immigrants. This would cut down radical propaganda that US is at war against Islam, discourage discrimination in society, and celebrate diversity—strive for the ideal of what America should be.
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