By ICRD Intern Graham Conlon
Last February, the New York Times interviewed a member of ICRD’s Interfaith Leadership Network, Imam Mohammed Magid. The article highlighted his efforts to provide a counter-narrative to youths in his community in Sterling, Virginia who might be vulnerable to extremist groups, and the challenges he faces. Though Magid was recently able to deter five youths from traveling to Syria through this work, he identifies one young man from the community who he was unable to reach before he joined ISIS. In the article, he acknowledges the imbalance in messaging that remains an obstacle: “They [ISIS] were on social media with him at all hours, they tweet him at night, first thing in the morning. If I talk to him for an hour, they undo him in two hours.” These impressionable young people steadily flow from the West to the battlefield. Beyond the imbalance in content, why is extremist messaging so compelling to individuals who live far from the conflict? And more importantly, what can peacemakers like Imam Magid do to change their minds on a grand scale?
Although motives behind individuals joining extremist groups vary, scholars believe that youth find their narratives attractive because they resonate with their grievances and worldview. The master narrative of al-Qaeda splits the world into a simple “us versus them” dichotomy and builds its political narrative around contextualized traditions of Islam. According to al-Qaeda, the West is waging war on Islam, other Muslim leaders are agents of the West, and Israel’s occupation of the holy land is a Nakba or catastrophe. To remedy these crises, Muslims need to engage in violent jihad in defense of Islam and self-sacrifice (martyrdom) for a righteous cause if necessary. The narrative concludes that the lost caliphate will be restored if Muslims answer the call. Scholars believe that this type of narrative resonates with youth who are at transitional stages in their lives, lack social identity, are frustrated with their unfulfilled aspirations, and seek an adventurous and meaningful next step. Young people who join extremist groups embody a new identity (mujahedeen), and are given meaning (defenders of Islam) and a place in a new society (the caliphate). Through developing a better understanding of how extremist narratives appeal to youth, we can develop more effective methods to develop and disseminate counter narratives.
To that end, the State Department created the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) in 2010 to disseminate effective counter narratives through platforms like Twitter, which will help prevent youth from joining militant organizations. An example of CSCC’s counter narrative strategy is the retelling of the story of Omar Shafik Hammami, also known as Abu Mansour al-Ameriki. Hammami, an American citizen who joined al-Shabaab in 2006, was murdered by his fellow group members in 2012. Despite the great strides made by CSCC, their efforts are overwhelmed by the over 90,000 Twitter and Facebook accounts, YouTube videos, and chat rooms currently in use by extremist groups. The contested space of engaging youth has provided civil society groups and community leaders with a unique opportunity.
Civil society organizations are well positioned to build upon the efforts of CSCC by hosting workshops or circulating educational materials to assist communities in countering extremist recruitment. ICRD, for example, has contributed to the growing body of counter narrative tools with its documentary, Back from the Brink: Countering Violent Extremism, which explores stories of conflict in Pakistan, Lebanon, and the United States. Such transnational tools can be further supplemented by local community leaders.
In addition to Imam Magid, another example of such a community leader is Dr. Abdul Haqq Baker, founder of UK-based Strategy to Reach, Empower, and Educate Teenagers (STREET). Brixton (south London) is home to an extremist preacher, Abdullah al-Faisal al-Jamaiki who instructs teens that Islam permits taking money from community members as long as they are kuffar (infidels). Dr. Baker and his colleagues counter this localized extremist narrative by engaging in dialogue with the youth concerning Islamic teachings. Community leaders like Dr. Baker and Imam Magid are uniquely positioned to pull youth from the edges of marginalization and address their specific grievances. The government should look to NGOs and these leaders as key partners for mobilizing all levels of society against the flow of young people to the battlefield. Efforts should be focused on amplifying voices like that of Imam Magid and Dr. Baker, who can offer credible, non-violent religious alternatives to disaffected youth. Matching the mass dissemination of extremist groups is no easy task, but it can be done.