In Syria, the picture is more nuanced, but it provides a window on al-Qaeda’s possible future evolution. Al-Nusra Front, the organization’s Syrian branch and bête noire of the Islamic State, has gone through a series of rebranding exercises in recent years, in an attempt to distance itself from al-Qaeda central — and thus make itself more palatable to foreign governments looking for insurgent groups to patronize. One faction, under the group’s founder, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, now appears to have made a genuine break with al-Qaeda in order to refocus locally. In the past few months, Julani’s group has reportedly sought to align itself with the more secular Free Syrian Army, in order to stem the tide of losses to pro-Assad forces. But another faction, still sizeable, remains loyal to al-Qaeda central.
For more than 20 years, al-Qaeda and its offspring have successfully peddled the view that the West is engaged in a “war against Islam” with the active connivance of client rulers across the Muslim world. This opinion is by no means confined to a handful of extremists. On the contrary, millions of Muslims have come to believe that the United States is deliberately suppressing their religion and stifling political change in order to keep their repressive secular governments in power.
All too often, America’s actions have fueled this false narrative. We invaded Iraq, thus appearing to fulfill the jihadi prophecy of an apocalyptic battle for Mesopotamia. We imprisoned hundreds without charge at Guantánamo Bay, at prison camps in Iraq, and at “black sites” around the world. We systematically tortured people. We restricted travel to the United States from Muslim countries. We allowed Islamophobia to infect American society, with no more than lukewarm disapproval from our political leaders — a step toward fulfillment of Anwar al-Awlaki’s prediction that “the West will eventually turn against its Muslim citizens.”
Yet still, the unforced errors continue. President Trump’s 2017 visit to Saudi Arabia presented a perfect opportunity to extend an olive branch to the Muslim world at a time when millions of Muslim children are growing up as refugees — disaffected, poorly educated, and acutely vulnerable to extremist propaganda. Instead, the president gave a speech thanking King Salman for his “massive investment in America, its industry, and its jobs” and trumpeting a new arms deal that will transfer a further $110 billion from Saudi Arabia to US defense companies — playing directly into the lie that the United States is stealing from Muslims.
Since 9/11, Western military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies have done a very effective job of eliminating terrorists and foiling their plots, and they continue to do so. Yet despite the fact that their leaders are constantly being killed or captured, groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have in recent years managed to muster forces numbering in the tens of thousands — a fact made painfully apparent by the steady stream of foreign fighters now returning home from Syria and Iraq. What has made this possible, more than anything else, is the strength of the ideology that binds these groups together. The lesson here is that no amount of special forces raids, arrests, or drone strikes will ever be enough to defeat the extremists’ most potent weapon — the message they use to recruit fresh members.
We can start tackling that message by exposing the basic hypocrisy of a movement that lays claim to true Islamic piety even as it routinely bombs mosques. While we are laying bare these lies, we must craft a true story to drown out the false one terrorists tell. It is not a question of trying to match jihadi claims tit for tat with bare denials, but of creating an entirely new narrative — ideally one with even greater appeal, because it is based not on lies and despair but on truth and hope.
Mere boilerplate messages about how “killing is un-Islamic” or “the West is not at war with Islam” are too vague and too easily dismissed. The new narrative will only take hold if it is tailored, not just from country to country, but down to the level of individual communities. The reasons people join groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State vary widely from place to place. Security officials in Singapore found users of extremist websites in that country were especially drawn to the idea of taking up arms to “protect” fellow Muslims. In some African nations, there is evidence that economic reasons factor highly, alongside ethnic and familial motives. Elsewhere, the touchstone might be sectarianism, ethnic chauvinism, or tribal rivalries. Terrorists have understood this for years, and have adjusted their messages accordingly. Our counterstrategies need to be similarly focused.
The identity of the messenger is equally critical. People are likely to dismiss messages they see as coming from the West or from a local government with a reputation for mendacity. Where terrorists recruit using religious ideology, for example, clerics or Islamic scholars may be the ones best placed to deliver a counternarrative. By contrast, when extremists target would-be recruits through local or tribal grievances, community elders should head up the moderate response.
Fighting an ideology is a long process — one in which progress may not always be immediately apparent. Putting the right policies in place will take courage, patience, and leadership. Unfortunately, American political life is sorely lacking in all three. Indeed, our politicians cannot even agree on what to call our principal enemy — witness the endless grandstanding over the use of terms like “radical” and “Islamic.” Congress is fearful even to debate a new authorization for the use of military force against al-Qaeda and its affiliates, more than 16 years after the current one came into effect. It is equally distressing to see the White House denigrating diplomacy and proposing to slash funding for foreign aid — two resources critical in the fight against extremism.
The 9/11 Commission concluded that the 9/11 attacks came about in part because of a catastrophic “failure of imagination” on the part of Western intelligence. After the fact, it was common to hear analysts testify that they simply couldn’t imagine someone flying a plane into a building. In a similar vein, a month before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, then-deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz told a Senate panel that it’s “hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam’s security forces and his army.” In reality, it took less than two months to conquer the country; whereas eight years, five thousand coalition deaths, and $1.7 trillion turned out to be nowhere near enough to “provide stability” — a commodity that Iraq still lacks.
Today, the threat is different, but it has by no means gone away. It would be a tragedy of historic proportions if we allowed ourselves to become complacent once again, the way we were in the run-up to 9/11. Sooner or later, al-Qaeda will morph again and turn back to global terrorism, with all the expanded resources now available to it. That is why we must dedicate ourselves to undermining the resource that underpins each of its branches: its store of ideas.