By David Ignatius
May, 14, 2015
As Arab leaders gather for discussions at Camp David this week, the Obama administration is quietly debating a revision of its strategy against ISIS to reflect a U.S. assessment that the terrorist group poses a global threat.
Given the swirling vortex of challenges and threats in the Middle East, U.S. officials hope the meetings will bring a common front against extremism in the region, in both its radical Shiite and Sunni versions. But one top U.S. official involved in the coalition against ISIS worries about limited resources: “You can fight ISIS, or you can fight in Yemen, but not both.”
With Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states concentrating on Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen, the fight against ISIS has been less visible over the past month. But support for the Sunni “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria keeps expanding. The U.S. now counts about a half-dozen affiliates of ISIS, and the group’s distinctive black-and-white flag has been waved, at least furtively, in as many as 70 countries – making the group a rival to Al-Qaeda in its scope and potential threat.
But how should the U.S.-led coalition combat ISIS – without further glorifying its cause in the minds of young recruits? I can offer some provocative ideas from recent conversations with leading counterterrorism strategists.
Combating ISIS is a problem of “psychology, not theology,” argues Arie W. Kruglanski, a psychologist whose work is cited by Muslim strategic-communications experts in the United Arab Emirates. They agree with French scholar Olivier Roy that anti-Jihadi messages from sheikhs and imams won’t work. While religion may “license” the violent behavior of ISIS recruits, it’s not their motivation. They’re driven by an extreme form of the romantic, reckless aggression that occurs among adolescents everywhere.
Young Jihadis are motivated by core “life questions” about meaning and belonging, by unresolved aggression toward authority figures, by attention-seeking and exhibitionism, more than by ideology, argues a UAE-based analyst who has been analyzing radicalization for more than a decade. He cautions that wise counterterrorism policies should block the “receptors” that lead to aggression, by promoting tolerance and a sense of closure to crises. Trying to talk Jihadis down from the ledge is a waste of energy; by then, it’s probably too late.
ISIS “represents one of the world’s most powerful brands,” the analyst wrote privately last November. “In stoking grievances and emotions with narratives linked to Muslim suffering and humiliation, it pits young heroes against corrupt, oppressive, unjust governments.”
Pressuring Muslims to step up and counter the Jihadi appeal (an idea that has been in vogue recently in the West) may backfire, the strategist warns. “Putting the onus on Muslim communities to fight may be a poisoned chalice.” It makes mainstream Muslims the issue, not the extremists.
The most potent weapon against the “viral” Jihadi narrative on Arab social media may be an alternative that celebrates freedom, argues Nadia Oweidat, a Jordanian-born analyst with the New America Foundation. In researching Arab social media, she notes an explosion of Facebook and YouTube sites that express this theme of personal freedom. These are the ideas that emerged in the “Arab Spring” of 2011 rather than today’s louder, darker, more intolerant, Jihadi images.
Oweidat showed me dozens of social media sites that carry these liberating messages. There’s a YouTube talk show called “The Black Ducks,” where Egyptian atheist Ismail Mohamed has gathered dozens of episodes expressing diverse beliefs. An online forum called “Civilized Dialogue” has more than 2 million participants. Ahlam Mosteghanemi, a free-thinking Algerian novelist, has more than 7 million “likes” on Facebook, far more than the Muslim Brotherhood, which has about 72,000.
Another sign that liberal ideas are alive in the Middle East (but drowned out by the Jihadis) comes in the latest Arab Youth Survey by the public relations firm ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller. It is based on interviews with 3,500 men and women, ages 18 to 24, in 16 Arab countries. Seventy-three percent said they were concerned about the rise of ISIS; 67 percent agreed that “our best days are ahead of us.” But skepticism about Western democracy is growing, too. Just 15 percent cited “lack of democracy” as the biggest obstacle.
The discussions at Camp David will focus on the military battlefronts against extremism in the Middle East. But I hope the leaders will think about the framework for tolerant and open societies, as championed by the UAE. That’s the real antidote to violence.