Jigsaw Jihadism

Jigsaw Jihadism

Mini Teaser: Ethnic terrorist groups like Hamas can be engaged but there is no negotiating with religious terrorists. A strategy for splitting up the Al-Qaeda network.

by Author(s): Justine A. Rosenthal

Ethnic terrorist groups like Hamas have a tendency to endure because they represent a distinct ethnic "other" with a clear and constrained political agenda. This kind of deep-seated ethnic terrorism only ends with viable political solutions. The state needs to plow through negotiations and keep on track no matter the level of terrorism, while avoiding extreme retaliatory policies. This is evidenced by the sometimes successful Sri Lankan peace process and the cessation of violence in Ireland. The Israeli and Spanish policies of "going it alone" worked in part because they moved ahead with peace programs in spite of spoilers, infighting and competition for power. Violent crackdowns and knee-jerk derailments always fail.

Ethnic terrorists are the oppressed minority's proxy. So, when the groups go too far, lost public support reins them in. Conversely, harsh government measures increase support for terrorism because the sense of oppression is reinforced. Palestinian belief in the need for violence was at its lowest right before the second intifada, but increased as Israel cracked down. The West Bank and Gaza Strip closures created a massive humanitarian crisis. Rather than lessening public support for terrorism, Israeli retaliation added to the animosity-the terrorists were not viewed as the cause of suffering, the government of Israel was. Support for terrorism only ebbed at the end of Israel's Operation Protective Shield in April of 2002. The cycle of violence depends on the behaviors of both parties.

Yes, Al-Qaeda shares "Islamic identity" with groups like Hamas-but not the same sort of political agenda. Groups with nationalistic goals tend to have sea legs; groups with more ephemeral agendas tend to peter out over time. The left-wing movements which wreaked such havoc in Europe during the 1970s and 1980s were destroyed by a disintegrating agenda. The less viable communism looked, the less public support for the "red terrorists." So, one of the main strengths of religious terrorism is also a point of great potential vulnerability. Its pan-territorial appeal makes it possible to tap into the extremist populations of many states, allowing for multiple bases, diverse cells and a large recruitment pool. But, national identity can trump religious affiliation. Primordial urges are strong. And if the nationalist agenda looks achievable, the impetus to fight for a larger religious one fades.

Most of the groups that now cooperate with Al-Qaeda began with a primarily nationalistic agenda. By differentiating between groups with goals of statehood or political enfranchisement that use religion as the communal identity versus groups with aspirations of a religious global struggle, we take the first steps to creating enmity among extremists.

Next Steps

This leaves us with two strategies. The first is to get state-centric terrorist groups back to the negotiating table in an effort to reinforce their nationalist impulses and lessen the attraction of forming a common front with Al-Qaeda. The second is to engage full-force in the battle over ideology central to destroying the appeal and spread of Al-Qaeda over the longer term.

Right now, there is a dearth of competing ideologies. Throughout the Islamic world, religious extremists have a monopoly in the marketplace of ideas. We need to hasten an eclipse of this ideological historical moment because when an ideology fails, the terrorism that sprang from it dies too.

There remains little agreement and great debate over the root causes of religious terrorism. How much education, religious doctrine, the current global political order, poverty and a variety of other variables play a role in creating religious terrorism is unclear. We are unlikely ever to get to the bottom of all of these questions.

But there are a few things we do know. Encouraging the rise of moderate interpretations of the religious tradition, as well as respecting the possibility of religion playing a significant role within the political system, are both critical strategies which can undermine the misuse of religion as a justification for violence and allow for shared norms across religious and political conditions. Opinion polls in the Muslim world suggest there is much more support for Islam playing a larger role in politics than for Osama bin Laden's nasty breed of terrorism. The massive number of casualties and deaths of not only Westerners but also Muslims risks alienating the larger Muslim population from Al-Qaeda and creates an opportunity for more moderate voices to fill the vacuum of ideas.

Moreover, the research of political scientist David Laitin and economist Alan Krueger suggests the preponderance of the evidence points to strong and compelling linkages between repressive political regimes and terrorism. Though we cannot negotiate a political settlement with existing religious terrorists, political reform may help stem recruitment of new cadres. If political repression is a major cause of religious terrorism, then changes in the political environment should have some effect on support for violence. Terrorism cannot be seen as the only viable and potentially rewarding alternative to a life of thwarted expectations. The more functioning, elected government providing economic opportunity and freedom is experienced as a legitimate possibility within a Muslim society, the less extremism will be seen as the method of only resort. This is why it is necessary to show both the failure of extremist religious states and the possibility of highly functioning nations with representative government. And, there are governments that house large Muslim populations that can serve as examples of both these phenomena.

Afghanistan and Sudan clearly failed to create Islamic states that provided economic, educational and political opportunity. These failures should be publicized. Equally importantly, some governments of Southeast Asia come closest to achieving the kind of governmental structures appealing to many Muslims. The United States clearly faces the problem of supporting repressive, dictatorial Middle Eastern regimes that provide fodder for the Islamic extremists and for the widespread belief throughout the Muslim world that the United States does not genuinely support political reform but rather uses it as convenient rhetoric. Although we must accept the difficulty of cutting off ties with allies in the Middle East that are viewed by many Muslims as running corrupt totalitarian governments, such as in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, genuine efforts to tie aid to political reform are a must.

Another important aspect of the strategy to defeat extremism is to lessen anti-Americanism. We are doing a poor job of publicizing our "good works." In a recent review of public diplomacy efforts led by former U.S. Ambassador Edward Djerejian, Egyptian dislike for the United States was considerable though they receive the second largest U.S. aid package. But everyday people were really grateful for the new opera house funded by the Japanese. The workaday necessities like sewers and water systems built with American money are surely no less important than cultural edification. Aid packages can help create positive views of the United States and eat away support for terrorism-the population just has to know it's happening.

U.S. assistance in the wake of the natural disasters in Indonesia and Pakistan-two serious extremist trouble spots with high levels of anti-Americanism-went a long way toward changing people's opinions about America and terrorism. Following the tsunami in Indonesia, confidence in Bin Laden plunged from 58 to 23 percent while unfavorable views of the United States decreased from 83 to 54 percent. Similarly in Pakistan, favorable views rose from 23 to 46 percent due to American aid following the 2005 earthquake. Meanwhile, confidence in Bin Laden during the same period dropped from 51 to 33 percent. Increasing social welfare packages with concomitant publicity can help reverse the negative view of the United States and dislodge the extremists' position; 78 percent of Pakistanis said American earthquake relief made them more favorable to the United States.

This is a battle for ideological dominance, and one part of the struggle against religious terrorism in the fight against membership in the larger Al-Qaeda schema. The global religious terrorists' multinational appeal and dogmatic ties are frightening enough. The idea that every group bound by some form of Muslim religious tenet is ipso facto a part of Al-Qaeda needlessly complicates our efforts. Hamas, the PFLP, Chechen rebels and the like remain state-centric terrorists, more concerned with strict territorial goals than with the larger Islamic struggle. They are a separate threat, and less of a problem for the world as a whole. But if they are categorized as a part of the larger battle against religious terrorism and swooped up in the net of aggressive U.S. policies, this would likely have the inverse of the intended effect-bringing these groups and their goals closer to those of Al-Qaeda rather than further away.

The political demands of religious terrorists are non-negotiable. Unlike ethnic terrorists, for whom peace will inevitably be tied to real political reform, religious terrorists' goals are too vast and too amorphous for negotiation. The desire to change the global power hierarchy creates an untenable situation. This is why a competing ideology must be addressed: an ideology that can appeal to the same audience, address the same inequities, but one which does not promote a distorted, violent global jihad.

It is our only way out.

Essay Types: Essay