Call to action remains valid 10 years after 9/11

September 11, 2001 changed many things for most people.  Put simply, nearly every aspect of life is more complicated in the post-9/11 world.  We travel differently, access public events and government buildings differently, consider safety and security differently and face renewed challenges of cultural stereotypes.

In the days following the terrorist attacks, our changed world presented an environment that called for action; the past decade features some incredible efforts and achievements as a result.  These successes serve as a solid beginning to the efforts of US and its partners around the world.

Over the past 10 years, the U.S. and its strategic partners have aggressively combatted violent extremism and worked to eliminate opportunities for it to grow.  Many of the domestic and international successes are well known.  Less well known, however, are the valuable advances made by governments, industry, non-governmental organizations, philanthropic foundations and others toward improving conditions for people who may otherwise be manipulated by violent extremists.

Around the world, schools and hospitals have opened, vocational programs and cultural exchanges have been conducted, freedom of the press has emerged, women have gained societal status and opportunities, and forms of the democratic process have been adopted.  With these important successes, environments that allow violent ideologies to flourish have been marginalized. Just now, 10 years after that tragic day, are we starting to see tangible results from a decade of effort.  We are on the verge of destroying Al Qaeda and we are seeing the Arab Spring bring democracy to countries that have suffered decades of dictatorship.  However, there is much work remaining. Future efforts must build, not rest, on these successes.

Future successes will come by guiding our interactions and efforts with a simple model that has already delivered profound outcomes.  The approach begins by building deep understanding of a population through social science research.  Focus groups, surveys and other direct interaction with people provide a level of understanding of the social diversity and other factors of their society, and the challenges and opportunities they face individually and as a group.  With this level of understanding, a degree of empathy develops that allows solutions and strategies to be designed to meet the peoples’ specific needs and interests.  It is important to see the world through the lens of others;  only then can we understand their perspective and rationale for their actions.

Too often in the past, the U.S. has rushed past attempts to understand a population and instead favored quick solutions that, unfortunately, often don’t deliver the desired, enduring results.

Instead, meaningful success comes from engaging with populations through mutually beneficial transactions, or interaction.  In this sense, these transactions help to meet the objective of creating international stability while also improving people’s lives in the identified population.  By improving literacy rates, security, access to healthcare, rule of law, education, vocational skills and similar aspects of society, the population is strengthened against maligned influence and the foundation of trust and cooperation is built.  Likewise, the international community directly benefits from the increase in stability and resulting threat reduction.

At Strategic Social, we’ve proven the success of this approach in Iraq, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Libya, Mali and elsewhere.  Individual and societal capacity has grown as jobs have been created, new skills have been learned, schools and hospitals have opened, women have attained societal status, a free press has operated, governments have reformed and opportunities for violent extremists have diminished.  The path from chaos to sustainable stability relies on Understanding, Empathy, Engagement and Mutually Beneficial Transactions.

There are lots of ways to earn a living in this world.  The chance to help make the world a better place for our children and future generations is the best I can imagine.  It is also incumbent upon us to work to make the world a better place than we found it.  If you have the ability to make a difference, there is a moral imperative to action.  It is in times such as these that leaders take action and each of us has opportunities to fulfill that responsibility.

As we remember the feeling of ‘what do we do now?’ that came with the attacks of 9/11, we should be reminded that making a lasting change for the future won’t happen in just one decade — it takes continued effort and productive engagement.  Each of us was affected in some way by the attacks of 9/11; we owe it to future generations to stay focused on improving the chances that similar events will never occur.

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Lebanese Journalist Examines, Challenges Violent Extremists

If you asked Osama bin Laden to compile a list of Al-Qaeda’s greatest enemies, most of the names on that list would probably come as no surprise.  The United States would probably top that list, followed by selections such as Israel, U.S. President Barack Obama, Western Europe, the government of Saudi Arabia, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Christianity, Zionism, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and Iran – no real surprises there, as bin Laden and other radical Salafist-jihadists rail against the evils of these individuals, countries, institutions, and movements on a regular basis.  But you might also find an unfamiliar name on that list:  Rima Salha, a young female Lebanese journalist who is challenging Arab and Muslim television audiences to take a hard look at extremist groups like Al-Qaeda and the violence that they commit in what those groups say is the defense of Islam.

Rima Salha, the host of Al-Arabiya TV’s Death Industry program

Rima Salha, the host of Al-Arabiya TV’s Death Industry program

Salha is the host of “Sina’at al Mowt” (Death Industry), a weekly program appearing on Al-Arabiya TV, a pan-Arab satellite TV news and entertainment channel that is one of the most prominent TV channels in the Middle East.  Death Industry typically focuses on people who join violent extremist groups like Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the Somalia-based Shabaab al-Mujahideen Movement, and the consequences that joining such groups has on those individuals and the people close to them.  The program provides insights from experts and scholars in order to examine the phenomenon of violent extremism from political, religious, social, and economic perspectives.  But the program also places a major emphasis on personal perspectives by interviewing people who are former, or even current, members of violent extremist groups, or friends and family members of people who join such groups.  For example, she has interviewed family members of the late founder and leader of AQI, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and also Kamal Habib, who was one of the organizers of the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat but has since renounced violence.  The recent May 8, 2010 episode of Death Industry focused on former Islamic State of Iraq leader Omar al-Baghdadi[1] and featured interviews with his father, the mother of his second wife, and former friends from his childhood. To feature these kinds of guests, Death Industry travels to dangerous places – refugee camps, insurgent strongholds, Iraq, Yemen.  Al-Arabiya TV general manager Abdul Rahman al-Rashed said, “There are a lot of programs debating the issue of terrorism, a lot of debating. But this is the only program with field trips, with special footage, with a lot of revelations in it.”[2]

al-zawi

Dawood al-Zawi, the father of slain Islamic State of Iraq leader Omar al-Baghdadi, from the May 8, 2010 episode of Death Industry

Salha’s motivation for hosting this program is to discourage people from embracing violence as a means for achieving political and social change, as she indicates in a statement given to Fox News“As we know, there are lots of Muslims who are brainwashed so they believe in terrorism but there are also big sections of Muslims who sympathize with terrorists,” says Salha. “We are targeting those people and trying to explain to them that terrorism is not a good thing.” She also seeks to counter the assertion frequently made by Salafist-jihadist groups that violence acts are necessary to defend.  In much the same way that the United States has grown increasingly aware of the importance of its image in the non-Western world, Salha stresses that these Islamist assertions in fact tarnish the image of Islam held by many non-Muslims: “Terrorism is illegal violence, as it targets innocent people to achieve a political objective. Terrorists who are acting under the name of Islam are killing civilians without thinking.”  Extremists engaging in terrorism, she argues, defame the image of Islam and Arabs who reject and criminalize these inhuman actions. “There is what we call now ‘Islamophobia’ worldwide. But in reality, terrorism knows no religion, sect or nationality.”[3]

Al-Arabiya TV was founded in 2004 to be a direct competitor to Al-Jazeera TV.  At the time, Al-Jazeera was a target of significant criticism in some circles for not providing objective coverage of violent extremist groups in Iraq and for its clear hostility to the U.S. military’s presence in the country.  At that time, the station had a tendency to portray Iraqi insurgent groups with some degree of sympathy (because of their opposition to the U.S. military presence in the country) while tending to overlook some insurgent groups’ attacks against civilian targets.  Al-Arabiya TV now generally offers more balanced views of such topics and has instituted a number of practices to reinforce this balance in coverage, some of which have been adopted by other Arab media outlets.  For example, it is now much more common for Arab media outlets to refer to Iraqi insurgents by the term musulaheen, or armed men, instead of muqaawama, or resistance, which was a common practice in the early days of the war in Iraq.  The Death Industry program seems to fit in with Al-Arabiya TV’s approach of providing a more objective and balanced coverage of major issues in the Arab and Islamic worlds by providing a much more in-depth look at violent extremist groups and the people who join them than most other Arabic-language media outlets.

A program like Death Industry has the potential to be a great complement to U.S. efforts to combat violent extremism because it emphasizes messages similar to those that the U.S. frequently emphasizes in strategic communications efforts targeted at Arab and Islamic audiences, and because it can reach a huge viewership thanks to the extensive reach of Al-Arabiya TV.  The fact that the program comes from an Arab media source rather than a Western one, as well as the fact that the program often features actual former members of violent extremist groups speaking in their own words about their own experiences, lends considerable credibility to the program.  The program’s emphasis on the impact of family members makes the program’s messages particularly effective, given the importance of family in Arab and Islamic societies.

How do we know that the Death Industry program is having an impact?  Because unfortunately, Salha has received death threats from jihadists who have called her derogatory names such as “Christian Crusader” and “sister of the Jews,” and have declared her “fair game for the mujahideen” for her criticism of extremist groups for conducting violence against civilians.  Even Al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayyman al-Zawahiri has reportedly singled out Death Industry and Al-Arabiya TV for criticism in one of his video diatribes.  But Salha seems undeterred by such criticisms and threats:  “They accuse me of fighting jihad, they accuse me of destroying the image of Islam. This is not true. We are not distorting the image of Islam,” says Salha. “The program is just trying to show some facts about terrorism and these so-called jihadists. Of course I receive threats on a regular basis, but that does not prevent me from doing my mission.”[4]


[1] The Islamic State of Iraq is an AQI front organization; it basically serves as the public face of AQI in an attempt to give the organization more of an Iraqi character and to downplay the group’s links to foreign organizations and leaders (namely Osama bin Laden and his global Al-Qaeda network).  Al-Baghdadi was killed, along with AQI leader Abu Hamza al-Muhajir (aka Abu Ayyub al-Masri), in Iraq during a joint U.S.-Iraqi security operation on April 18, 2010.

[2] This excerpt is taken from the Fox News story on Death Industry titled “Popular Arab TV Program Exposes the Real Al-Qaeda” which is available at http://www.foxnews.com/world/2009/09/02/popular-arab-tv-program-exposes-real-al-qaeda (accessed on 14 May 2010).

[3] Excerpt from http://pibillwarner.wordpress.com/2009/09/02/rima-salha-host-of-death-industry-in-dubai-exposes-al-qaeda-and-receives-death-threats-christian-rima-salha-must-be-decapitated (accessed on 14 May 2010).

[4] Excerpt from “Popular Arab TV Program Exposes the Real Al-Qaeda”.

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