Combating Violent Extremism in Pakistan with Soft Power

As the U.S. withdrawal of forces in Afghanistan nears, the question of how to combat violent extremism using non-violent methods has come to the fore. Given Pakistan’s cultural and geographic ties to Afghanistan, not to mention the network of Taliban fighters consistently crossing in and out of the two countries, de-radicalization in Pakistan has become ever more important. A recent study by Dr. Hedieh Mirahmadi, Medhreen Farooq and Waleed Ziad of the World Organization for Resource Development and Education (WORDE) argues that engaging with faith-based organizations is the most effective way to do this.

In Pakistan, madrassas, or Muslim seminary schools, are often funded by Saudi Arabia and Pakistani extremist groups acting under the umbrella of charity organizations, or more moderate groups supported by the government’s limited and less-than-successful attempts at restructuring public education. Religion plays an integral role in developing positive social networks, especially in low-income areas such as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Khyber, and Southern Punjab, as many citizens rely on madrassas as their most legitimate source of education, employment, and humanitarian aid. Unfortunately, this has also turned educational centers into prime recruiting ground for well-funded extremist groups that can offer educational/humanitarian aid and employment in exchange for adhesion to extremist ideals.

Though these madrassas have been successful, WORDE’s study has shown that with proper funding and support, moderate faith-based civil society organizations (CSO) can be very effective in combating militant jihadi networks as their perceived legitimacy is already higher than that of an international organization or even the government, itself.

Coordinating with senior community leaders, one could reach Pakistanis at grass-roots levels and promote peace the same way extremists promote violence: advocating for social cohesion, non-violent conflict resolution, and interethnic and interfaith dialogue justified by Islam through public awareness campaigns, issued Fatwas /public statements and public debates against extremism or rallies that increase exposure in the traditional and social media spaces.

The U.S. has a tradition of pulling funding and assistance from countries after it disengages from them militarily. Although the U.S. has no combat boots on the ground in Pakistan, a centerpiece of foreign policy between the two countries must include continuing civilian assistance to Pakistan, public diplomacy efforts and partnerships with moderate CSOs.

Share

Defining Terrorism

A number of recently exposed terror plots and successful attacks are revealing an overlooked dimension in national security.  A small but dedicated number of American religious zealots have been beating the drums of holy war in our midst.  As this reality slowly begins to sink in, uncomfortable questions about the country’s security strategy begin to arise.  How we respond to the various aspects of our increasingly homegrown problem stands to have a lasting impact on American society.

First, let’s confront the problem of perception.  Who’s a “terrorist”?  The definition often depends on who you ask.  Is a terrorist necessarily affiliated with an organization such as Al-Qaeda?  Does an unorganized loner with the motivations and goals of a foreign terrorist qualify?  What are the relevant distinctions and similarities between attacks by foreigners and attacks by U.S. citizens?  Moving forward, will society view them as separate issues altogether, or different types of the same problem?

Consider the Virginia-born Army Major accused of the November 2009 Fort Hood shooting, Nidal Malik Hassan.  He allegedly murdered 13 people and wounded dozens of others.  A few months before that incident, Tennessee-born Abdul Hakim Mujahid Mohammad opened fire outside of an Army recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas, killing one soldier and injuring another.  Unlike Major Hassan, Mujahid Mohammad has claimed affiliation with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and had lived in Yemen before being imprisoned and deported for overstaying his visa.

Both men were very public in their disdain for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:  Lots of nonviolent people are.  Both perceived the U.S. Military operations as unjustified attacks on Muslims and Islam.  Again, this idea isn’t unheard of and is far more likely to incite debate rather than violence.  So, what pushed them over the edge?   Hassan’s lawyers have pointed to psychological issues, unrelated to any jihadist intentions.  Though he claims no terrorist group affiliations, he frequented sermons in Virginia by radical American-born Imam Anwar Al-Awlaki (who also preached to three of the 9/11 hijackers) and they communicated via email shortly before the shooting.  He allegedly yelled “Allahu Akbar” before he began firing.  If we take Mujahid Mohammad at his word, he was motivated by his faith and ideology as espoused by AQAP.  “He told the detective he wasn’t guilty of murder, that the shooting was an act of jihad.”  Both are facing murder charges.

Further than simple religious zealotry and having strong opinions about American foreign policy, both men allegedly escalated their ideology to violence.  Still, many of us feel uneasy about categorizing them as Islamic terrorists.  The uneasiness may come from the implication of American Muslims and the perceived backlash that this could incite against them.  Those fears aren’t without some warrant.  But explaining the attacks away as isolated psych cases or random acts of violence becomes difficult as a theme begins to materialize.  The recently attempted attacks in Oregon and Maryland have eerie similarities to the first two.  In Portland, Mohamed Mohamud (born in Somalia, raised the US) is charged with attempting to detonate a bomb near the city’s Christmas tree-lighting ceremony.  In Baltimore, Muhammad Hussein is charged with trying to blow up a military recruiting office.  Both were unambiguous about their jihadist intentions leading up to and during their would-be attacks.   If they believe what they say they believe—the evidence suggests that they do—then we should take these warnings seriously and not obscure the threat.

Al-Qaeda and other groups are openly seeking American and western converts to their cause.  To a small but unavoidable extent their strategy seems to be working.  The people most susceptible to this appear to be young, devout Muslim males.  Because anti-Muslim sentiment already stands to make them feel isolated from their neighbors, simple kindness and engagement from non-Muslims can go a long way to breaking barriers. Within the American Islamic community, reaching out to at-risk youth is especially important as they have the opportunity to shape their understanding of Islamic texts.

As with Christian and Jewish fundamentalists, Islamic zealots will have lots of violent and disturbing passages to bolster their cause.  It’s not enough to simply call them “bad Muslims” or “un-Islamic” while pointing to a majority of peaceful Muslims.  To stop the problem of radicalization, we have to address a big part of what makes it so convincing in the first place:  Devout religious faith.  If children (or new converts) are taught to endorse a book as inherently good and entirely true, then the violent and problematic verses may not seem very violent or problematic.  These should be discussed and explained in the most candid way without omission or euphemism.  Where needed, teaching should be infused with a healthy dosage of doubt.  Otherwise, terrorists groups, extremist websites and radical Imams are left to fill in the gap.

Homegrown terrorists need not be members of an organization so much as they consider themselves members of a movement.  To combat this movement, we cannot be evasive about its implications, composition or motivations.  “What I am trying to do in this interview is to make people aware of the fact that the threat is real, the threat is different, the threat is constant.” In disseminating that message, Attorney General Eric Holder may have his work cut out for him.

Share

“The Birds of Paradise”, al-Qaeda’s Approach to Use of Minors in Combat

“You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.” -Thomas Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times

Dickens’ quote is exemplary of the 19th century attitude about children’s education, where students were regarded as vessels receiving information without the right to debate the source or validity of that information. Today’s radical Selafists supporting violent Jihad subscribe to a radical adaptation of Mr. Gradgrind’s statement – that winning the war is a reality as long as recruits are told who they are fighting for and who they are fighting against. This attitude, promoted in Salafist discussions, is in line with Ibn Taymiya’s 1400-year old reasoning and Ahmed bin Abd al-Wahhab’s 18th Century puritan thoughts on Islam. These do not harmonize with the pace of life and the 21st century reality.

The Birds of Paradise,” a group launched in 2008, is al-Qaeda’s project to use minors in combat for observation, data collection and to launch attacks. This group has been credited directly with the recruitment and brainwashing of children under the age of 15 to carry out violent activity. In its twelfth issue, the e-magazine of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the “Echo of the Epics,” published an article justifying the use of children in combat. The article “The Rule of the Boys and Young Men’s Participation in Combat” states that the four (4) schools of thought in Islam[i] agree that a boy of 15 is no longer a child, but a man, and thus compelled to participate in combat.

Jihad in Islam is not applicable unless the participant is fully aware of this duty. If most of those recruited to participate actively in violent actions under the guise of Jihad are not aware of the true meaning of this “sacred duty,” how could a 15-year old truly understand it? A child of 15 lacks decision-making experience about what he wants to pursue, making his act of detonating himself in the midst of a crowd, – committing suicide and killing others – one of the greatest sins in Islam.

The al-Arabiya Satellite Channel covered a story about a ten-year old boy in Amiriyat al-Falluja, west of Baghdad, on April 7th, 2010. The child was outfitted with an explosive belt and then asked to detonate himself as close as he could to a checkpoint barrier when it was packed with people. In scenarios like this one, violent militants seek to cultivate a dark hatred towards the enemy in the recruit, often by presenting them with facts without rational justification. In doing so, militants are overlooking the fact that teaching violence and revenge will backfire and harm the same society they are supposed to protect. The boy in Amiriyat al-Falluja was arrested before managing to detonate his belt.  This story is an example of the children who have been associated with al-Qaeda. Many of these children have gone to work planting IEDs or serving as informants for the terrorist organization after losing one or both of their parents.[ii]

The “Echo of the Epicsarticle goes on to explain that, in the case of “Fardh Kifaya,” “Collective Duty”, 15-year old boys do need parental approval to take part in combat.  This parental consent is discarded, however, in the case of “Fardh A’yn”, “An Individual’s Duty” (see Female Jihadists Part I).

The growing number of orphans in Iraq, mainly in areas still lacking a strong security presence, provides a rich source of potential recruits for militant groups that believe in violence as the only means to promote their unjustified views. The lack of government care for these orphans, the rise in unemployment rates and the increase in prices of goods are only some of the obstacles presented to immediate family members struggling to provide shelter and care for the orphans. Additionally, young widows, most in their late teens or early 20s, in areas heavily influenced by tribal codes, are forced into marriages to preserve[iii] the rising number of young husbandless mothers, and add to the fighters the unaccounted for orphans[iv]. The Emir in command of a particular area not only controls the fate of the young widows who are oftentimes married to foreign fighters, he is also the one who decides the fate of the orphan boys. In doing so, an al-Qaeda Family is formed.

Militant radicals insist on depriving the majority of the Muslim population from education, lest they lose their control and power. If the majority of Muslims realize there are numerous options where they can prove Islam is not a religion that promotes violence, the Dark Ages imposed on Islam would be over. Through their good deeds in building their own nation and protecting it from culprits, Muslims, men and women, seniors and children are able to counter the attempts of these radicals who have marred the image of Islam worldwide. How can the Muslim nation grow if its children and women are used as human bombs? How can it survive if its people are not allowed the education that goes hand in hand with the actual teachings of Islam, where they can live, worship and help each other and their Umma as God ordered them to?


[i] The four major schools of jurisprudence in Sunni Islam are, Al-Hanafi, al-Maliki, al-Shafi’e and al-Hanbali.

[ii] “Al-Qaeda Launches ‘Hareem al-Qaeda’, and ‘The Birds of Paradise,’ to Execute Suicide Operations, Al-Arabiya Satellite Channel, 04/08/2010.

[iii] “preserve” is to keep the widows safe and away from harm’s way, not to be victims of harassment for being young widows. That society looks with suspicion at young widows or young divorced females for no longer being virgins and thus could be easily involved with sexual activities outside marriage.

[iv] “unaccounted orphans,” are the orphans with husband-less mothers, that is why the Emir tends to marry these young widows to other fighters so the children would be part of the bigger al-Qaeda family.

Share

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”.

Share

Do Working Men Rebel?

The National Bureau of Economic Research recently published a paper by Eli Berman, Jacob Shapiro, and Joseph Felter called “Do Working Men Rebel?” The paper challenges one of the few universal tenets held by Counter Insurgency planners and decision makers: the belief that unemployment drives insurgent violence. To put the traditional view succinctly: give young men a job, and they will throw down their rifle and stop conducting attacks. The authors make a compelling argument, using data from the Iraqi district level and the Philippines equivalent- province level, that in fact the opposite is true. Prosperity brings violence, rather than reducing it.

The purpose of this post is not to explore the statistical models, data sources, or other specific academic concerns, as the two case studies and the types of data used are generally well thought out. There are some questions about the implementation, or operationalization, of the data, from a planner’s perspective.

The following vignette will highlight the operating picture the authors consider statistically in the study: The Iraqi district /Philippine province observed for the study is the source of a major government effort against insurgents. Increased patrols and checkpoints (kinetic operations), increased aid to businesses and community (civil military operations), along with a myriad of other efforts, are being used to reduce insurgent effectiveness. As this occurs, violence increases with no significant relationship to unemployment. At first this glance the policy implication is that efforts to employ young males, the most likely insurgents, are a waste of resources, as they do not reduce violence.  However, further exploration might lead to a different conclusion.  The following issues should be more carefully  considered before concluding that increased employment does not reduce insurgent violence.

1. The data show that the area analyzed is the subject of intense effort by the government security forces. That means that such an effort almost certainly draws insurgents into the area to fight. The study’s authors do not have the ability to build a compelling profile of the insurgents. For Iraq, one immediate question comes to mind: what about foreign fighters? They are potentially one of the most likely elements to “march to the sound of the guns” along with other more professional insurgents. The Syrian elements in Anbar province Iraq prior to the tribal awakening would be a great example of external forces that would skew study data.  Since the study occurred in two very small geographical areas, a better question to ask might be “how did the Iraqi province the district resides in perform overall in terms of reduced violence and higher employment?”

2. The government’s forces cannot be everywhere at once. “Clear, Hold, Build” means that you have to establish a beachhead to work from, as the Marines and the Afghan Army are currently doing in Marja. Marja will draw violence for months as the Taliban tries to disrupt the “Building” that is to follow in the wake of the current “Clearing” and “Holding.” Additionally, Marja may remain a problem, but is the seed planted there really unable to affect Helmand as a whole? Perhaps higher employment reduces the number of insurgents emanating from Marja, ultimately reducing the total number of insurgents in the overall battle space? This does not refute the study data, but calls into question whether the geographical areas studied were large enough to enable operational and strategic level decisions to be made about eliminating programs that provide employment to young males.

A follow-on to this effort that examined a larger geographical area and better examined the question of who is behind attacks would be incredibly insightful and add value to the authors’ study.  While any data can be picked apart, the authors should be commended for challenging the status quo and providing a perspective that may prove to be incredibly invaluable for planners and decision makers.

Share