GUEST POST: Jihadi Ideology Is Not As Important As We Think

NOTE: As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this blogs administrator. aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to Global Jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net. Pieces should be no longer than 2,000 words please.
See here for previous posts in this exchange:

By Joshua Foust
On January 21, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross wrote a detailed argument for why the study of “jihadi ideology” is important. He raised some really interesting points that inspired a great deal of thinking on my part, and I’m grateful he took the time to respond. I have to confess, however, that I am left more confused than ever about why we should focus so much on ideology, and not other things instead. It remains unclear to me how ideology affects behavior, or how its study can help us understand or predict the decisions and choices of would-be terrorists.
For example, Daveed is absolutely correct that I erred in describing ideology as a sole cause of behavior. I admit I was a bit confused when he later called ideology, “a robust explanation for both terrorist radicalization and also terrorist actions,” as that seemed to imply a sole-cause argument, but I did not intend to argue the point so I withdraw it.
However, I found myself lost in trying to figure out the other aspects of studying the concept of ideology as an analytic construct. For example, even if ideology is only a partial cause or inspiration for behavior, we should still be able to describe how ideology causes or inspires behavior. But I have never, in the many papers I’ve since read on Jihadi ideology, read of a mechanism by which ideology inspires or causes behavior—only a lot of stories, and plenty of people who did something that they claimed was inspired by ideology.  This begs the question: if we don’t know how ideology influences behavior, then how can I analyze it or declare it important for studying jihadism? And while Daveed’s post has a great deal of information, I don’t see in it, or in the study he wrote, a description of this causal mechanism.
I think, too, that any discussion of ideology—especially when dealing with a celebrity like Anwar al-Aulaqi, as my original post tried to do—must deal with the question of false positives and false negatives. If ideology is even a partial cause of behavior, then there should be a lot of people who espouse a certain ideology that engage in a certain behavior, along with relatively few people who espouse the ideology who DO NOT engage in the behavior, and also relatively few people who DO NOT espouse the ideology who DO engage in the behavior. Otherwise we’re seeing our cause without our effect and our effect without our cause as often as we’re seeing our cause with our effect, which would suggest we’re on the wrong track.  We do see a lot of false positives and false negatives in Islamist-ideology explanations of extremism. The vast, vast majority of people who espouse “salafist jihadist Islamist ideology” do not engage in terrorism. So how can we assign ideology as the reason why the tiny minority of people do things?
Which is another problem with this discussion of ideology and jihadism: begging the question. Given the fact that many people espouse radical ideologies but do not become violent extremists, it would seem that at most ideology is a necessary, but not sufficient to cause the behavior in question. If that’s the case, then what makes it sufficient? Does that thing lead to the behavior even if the ideology is absent? If it does, then there’s no reason to take ideology as an influence on behavior. It’s like saying “X causes Y only when Z is present” and “Z causes Y even if X is absent.” If both those statements are true, then you don’t need X—ideology—in either. You just need Z to predict Y.
I’m not really comfortable discussing Daveed’s personal experiences with radical Islam. His current research, however, does warrant discussion. For example, the percentages on radicalization that he provides at best fail to support his argument. At worst, they actually undermine it. About 40% of those studied became religious and then became political. About 10% became political and then became religious. And there is apparently no data on the other 50%. Since this wasn’t a random sample, we can’t assume that the 40% and 10% are representative of the larger population. That means it is entirely possible that it’s somewhere between a 60-40 and a 40-60 split, in which case the presence of religious influences would basically amount to a coin toss.  The figures he provides make it entirely plausible that the presence of religion is a random factor, and therefore not so causal.
Similarly, I don’t understand why he relied on behavior to explain ideology. Daveed’s study took people who already exhibit a behavior, and then measures the extent to which they exhibit other behaviors he assumes are evidence of a specific ideology. There is no control group.  This gets at the heart of the problem with false positives and false negatives: by not including people in the study who did not engage in the behavior, there is no way to assess actual behaviors. It is a significant sampling bias. Moreover, I simply don’t see how any of his examples are necessarily indicative of ideology. He argues, “Absent the prevalent ideology… there is simply no explanation for why a relatively large number of people would decide to grow their beards out in a similar way, see dogs as unclean, stop making physical contact with members of the opposite sex, et cetera.” But that doesn’t follow at all. If it were the case, then all behavior is ideological. Most people tend to behave similarly to the people they interact with – they eat similar foods, they wear similar clothes, they have similar hair styles, many people believe in the same things as their neighbors – is everything the any number of people hold in common to be automatically declared ideological? Common practices just aren’t a persuasive argument that ideology explains behavior.
I’m glad to see he didn’t rely on people’s stated beliefs—an unfortunate mistake many other researchers on ideology and jihadism commit. However, that still doesn’t avoid the false positives and negatives, begging the question, the lack of mechanisms, or the possibility that everything he found is the same as what we would expect from chance. I’m afraid I just can’t find a reason to believe it, especially when he leaps from saying ideology is important to saying who espouses the ideology is important. Even if we accepted ideology as an explanation, there’s no reason to assume ideology is tightly tied to specific people. If ideology matters, then why is it not just as reasonable to ask what the major influential components of it are, no matter who disseminates it? Why is it not just as reasonable to ask in what situations it matters, no matter what its components are and no matter who disseminates it? Or, why not be really nit-picky, and ask IF there are any disseminators, components, or situations that matter more than any others – allowing for the possibility that perhaps all options matter equally?
Viewed this way, the case for Aulaqi’s importance just doesn’t make sense. I have yet to see an explanation for why alternate hypotheses don’t apply. For example: which proponents of Islamist rhetoric were more available and accessible to western radicals than al-Aulaqi? Forensics on confiscated computers often turn up a whole host of jihadi ideologues—an ecosystem of personalities arguing for jihad. Aulaqi’s material is common, but it’s not the only thing out there. But even that is immaterial: if his speeches, by design in the English language, are just more available and accessible, then their use is more plausibly an effect or a co-occurrence, not a cause, of those people’s radicalization, just as his presence on computers similarly fails to explain lots of other people’s non-radicalization.
In a more general sense, the rejection of alternative explanations should be worrying to anyone seeking a systematic, rigorous explanation of how people radicalize and why they choose to engage in behaviors. This is the problem I have with calling Aulaqi the worst-anything, or most-anything. We just don’t know, especially because we just don’t know how the ideas he spreads affect people. All we have are correlates—not correlations—just things happening kind of at the same time for some people. While that is certainly important, and definitely deserving of detailed, rigorous research, I remain utterly confused at the certainty with which we can declare jihadi ideologues the global threat they’re portrayed to be.

GUEST POST: Why Jihadi Ideology Matters

NOTE: As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this blogs administrator. aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to Global Jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net. Pieces should be no longer than 2,000 words please.

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
On January 19, Joshua Foust posted a rather interesting article at Jihadology questioning Anwar al-Aulaqi’s importance as a jihadi ideologue, and in so doing, also called into question the assumed linkage between Islamist ideology and behavior. Though Foust’s post raises interesting and valid questions, and introduces bodies of research that are often ignored in debates over terrorist radicalization, I find his conclusion problematic for three reasons. First, Foust seems to be arguing against a strawman on the question of how ideology can have an impact on behavior. Second, the applicability of his general observations about the connection between ideas and behavior is questionable in the context of Islamist ideology. And third, erecting the very high evidentiary standard with which Foust concludes his article is not at all helpful when it comes to a problem set like terrorist radicalization, which it is necessary to address now.
Strawman Opponent?
It is somewhat unclear what Foust is objecting to within the current literature on radicalization—which, in fairness, is reflected in his post’s title, “Some Inchoate Thoughts on Ideology.” But to the extent his article refutes a definable set of ideas, it seems to argue against monocausal explanations of behavior. Specifically, Foust writes:

The assumption behind the ideology discussion appears to be that behavior is a gun, and ideology is a trigger. That is, you have a person, they accept ideology, and then the output is behavior (in this case, violence). But that just isn’t how people work, and using some basic logic and self-knowledge can reveal that. We are not mono-causal creatures, even in relatively simple matters like choosing where to eat lunch.

The last point is undoubtedly correct: we are not monocausal creatures. But which authors, specifically, share this set of assumptions? A careful reading of Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens’s Foreign Policy article that is the hook for Foust’s piece reveals no such monocausal assumption, though Meleagrou-Hitchens clearly does conclude—contrary to Foust—that ideology is important. Nor does Foust point to other authors who write about ideology as though it is the sole cause of terrorist violence.
This framing of the discussion seems designed to bolster the importance of Foust’s refutation. But the contribution an author can make by refuting a clearly exaggerated interpretation of a subject is minimal when that exaggerated interpretation does not represent the conventional wisdom in a field. And in the academic discussion of terrorist ideology, it seems that the dominant opinion among prominent scholars—including Marc Sageman, Jessica Stern, Robert Pape, Jerrold Post, and now apparently Brian Michael Jenkins—is that religious ideology is relatively unimportant. (There are of course plenty of scholars on the other side of this debate, including Mary Habeck, Assaf Moghadam, and myself.)
So let’s define the debate in a more reasonable way. The question is not whether terrorists are automatons who read something on the Internet and then act in service of that idea. They aren’t, full stop. Rather, the question is whether religious/ideological factors seem to provide a robust explanation for both terrorist radicalization and also terrorist actions.
One Man’s Experiences
Before turning to the role of al-Aulaqi specifically, I’d like to address the role that Islamist ideology has on behavior. Foust writes: “The heart of my problem with discussing Islamist ideology is that I don’t understand how it affects behavior.” This is because behavior is complex, encompassing such causal factors as “constraints, signaling from peers, intent, and capability.” On the question of how Islamist ideology can impact behavior, I believe the answer is so obvious as to be virtually indisputable. Note that Foust frames the issue as Islamist and not jihadi ideology. I don’t know whether this framing was purposeful, but I’m glad that he put the question this way, because an examination of Islamist behavior is illuminating.
As I recently discussed on a Bloggingheads appearance with Matt Duss, and as a number of readers will know, before my entry into the counterterrorism field I worked for an Islamist charity, the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, that has now been named a specially designed global terrorist entity by the U.S. Treasury Department. I had converted to Islam in college, and worked for Al Haramain in 1998-1999 between college and law school. I entered as a relative Islamic novice, with a very moderate conception of the faith; during my time at Al Haramain, my behavior changed substantially and I ultimately adopted an interpretation that I now consider extreme. Though I wrote a book about this period in my life, until now I have not really introduced my experiences into my own academic work on radicalization due to my awareness that people often universalize their own experiences improperly. However, their applicability should be clear in this response to Foust; and then I will introduce my empirical work on the subject.
At its heart, Islamism holds that human instincts and inclinations do not provide a reliable guide for determining morality. The reason Islamists believe that society should be governed by sharia is because man-made laws are contingent, and subject to shifting views of morality. Only God’s guidance, as best exemplified in the Qur’an and sunna, provides a reliable and unquestionable framework for determining how a society should be run. But if we can only trust God—and, related to that, Muhammad’s example—for the making of laws, isn’t it just as true that only the sunna can provide a guide to how we should live our own lives?
Thus, within Islamism, one’s behavior is clearly and unequivocally controlled by ideology. I encountered an intricately legalistic system within Al Haramain, wherein the restrictions were virtually all-encompassing. Growing a beard was required for men; likewise it was necessary to eat only with the right hand and roll one’s pants legs up above the ankles. Petting a dog, listening to music, and shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex all clearly transgressed the bounds of morality. Quite clearly ideology played a role in these behavioral outcomes. Absent the prevalent ideology (which could be described either as Islamism or Islamic conservatism), there is simply no explanation for why a relatively large number of people would decide to grow their beards out in a similar way, see dogs as unclean, stop making physical contact with members of the opposite sex, et cetera. While Foust writes that behavioral changes occur “in an unpredictable way,” in this case the behavioral changes all comported with the dominant ideology.
Moving beyond my own experiences, one of the remarkable aspects of Islamism—giving lie to Foust’s claim that behavioral changes in this area are unpredictable—is the consistency of behavioral changes across a broad array of cases. To be clear, not all Islamist interpretations of the faith are alike, and there are variegations among known Islamists, but in case after case the behavioral changes mirror those I experienced during my time at Al Haramain. One example is the Duka brothers—Shain, Eljvir, and Dritan—who were arrested with three others in May 2007 for plotting to attack the military base in Fort Dix, New Jersey. As the brothers turned to Islamism, they alienated family members with the announcement that “[t]he playing of music—a centuries-old tradition at Albanian weddings—had been banned” at Eljvir Duka’s wedding. Similarly, they spent an extended conversation captured via covert surveillance exploring the legalistic rules of how their beards should be kept:

Dritan Duka: That’s not really the way it [the beard] should be kept, it should be kept trimmed.
Unidentified male: It’s supposed to be neat, not, right trimmed but not over your lip.
Dritan Duka: Not shaved off completely.

Shain Duka then told a story about how a man in a Popeyes Chicken restaurant, after staring at them for a short time, asked why young men like them had such large beards. Shain recounted that “then we explained to him listen all the prophets wore beards and were Muslim so we wear the beards because all prophets wore beards.” Similarly, Daniel Joseph Maldonado’s behavioral changes included “wearing traditional Arab clothing, including the galabeyah, an ankle-length gown with long sleeves that covered the tattoos on his arms.” Tattoos are considered haram (prohibited by Islamic law) within the dominant conservative interpretations of Islam. Maldonado also tried to grow a beard; when he failed, “he blamed his Puerto Rican heritage and began chastising fellow Muslims who could grow a full beard and chose not to.”
Both Adam Gadahn and John Walker Lindh stopped listening to music. Gadahn had previously been seriously obsessed with death metal, but gave away virtually his entire music collection. Explaining this to the recipient, Gadahn said: “Well, I turned

GUEST POST: Some Inchoate Thoughts on Ideology

NOTE: As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this blogs administrator. aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to Global Jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net. Pieces should be no longer than 2,000 words please.

By Joshua Foust
Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens wrote a provocative article for Foreign Policy, in which he argues that Anwar al-Aulaqi, the American-Yemeni preacher working for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is “the most persuasive supporter of jihad for Muslims in the West.”
Under any circumstances, this would be a difficult argument to make: persuasion is notoriously difficult to quantify and measure. Even in discourse studies, measuring the influence or persuasion of individual figures is difficult: there is first-mover bias (in which one is important not because of any merit but merely because one said it first), and any number of other phenomenon that contribute to one’s influence in unpredictable ways. Politicians hire PR consultants, management consultants, and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per month on “messaging,” and still cannot consistently predict reaction and electoral outcome.
Marketing firms try this as well: planting the desire for a product, or persuading consumers to purchase something they might not need but might definitely want. Marketing, too, is notoriously unpredictable—for reasons few people acknowledge or explain one quirky, off-beat commercial like the Old Spice Guy is a raging success, while a similarly quirky advertising campaign like Burger King’s is an expensive failure.
This is because, at the end of the day, it’s rare that people are “persuaded” to do anything. As humans, we tend to seek confirmation of our beliefs and wants and to ignore contrasting information—and there is a rich field of studies in cognitive psychology to back this up. In other words, most advertising—and most political messaging—is really about reinforcing beliefs and wants one already has, and providing a means to express justification for them.
In that light, describing Aulaqi as “the most persuasive” doesn’t make any sense. There is no way to prove such an argument. And indeed, in Meleagrou-Hitchens’ article, his evidence never rises above the circumstantial: some people read something on the Internet, and then they acted. They liked a speech, and then they acted. They read some manifesto, then they acted. This is correlation, to be sure. But is is not evidence of persuasion.
Meleagrou-Hitchens’ argument rests on the belief that Anwar al-Aulaqi possesses a unique capability to radicalize Westerners. Appealing to the publication of Inspire, the English-language magazine produced by AQAP, which has suggested Muslims carry out lone-wolf terror operations, Meleagrou-Hitchens argues that this is the crux of Aulaqi’s influence on radicalizing Westerners. His evidence amounts to interrogated statements by a few people who were arrested trying to commit murder: they enjoyed reading Aulaqi, he argues, so therefore Aulaqi persuaded them to commit violence.
Such an argument is logically backward. Why did these people decide to read Aulaqi in the first place? Roshonara Choudhry, one of the people Meleagrou-Hitchens cites as an Aulaqi inspiration, was not a radical in 2008. Yet, in 2009, she began to download Aulaqi’s sermons, eventually claiming to act upon them. What everyone who claims Aulaqi thus inspired her act ignore, including Meleagrou-Hitchens, is why she began to download Aulaqi’s sermons in the first place. I suspect it goes back to the conceit behind advertising, political messaging, and so on: people are not easily persuaded, but they are easily reinforced. I can’t answer what changed, but something happened where an otherwise adjusted young woman starts reaching out to an Internet preacher demanding violence. There is no evidence to support the assertion, however, that it was ideology, and specifically Aulaqi’s talents of persuasion, which directly inspired her to stab an MP.
The heart of my problem with discussing Islamist ideology is that I don’t understand how it affects behavior. Behavior is a complex process. It is the result of a number of causal factors, including constraints, signaling from peers, intent, and capability. All of those must come together in order for a behavior to occur. Ideology can be a contributing factor, as it is a form of signaling and constraint — making some behaviors appear to be acceptable, and some not. But this happens in an unpredictable way, and the fact we all acknowledge here (namely, that some people choose to act and most do not) should tell us that it is not a simple process to describe or predict.
The assumption behind the ideology discussion appears to be that behavior is a gun, and ideology is a trigger. That is, you have a person, they accept ideology, and then the output is behavior (in this case, violence). But that just isn’t how people work, and using some basic logic and self-knowledge can reveal that. We are not mono-causal creatures, even in relatively simple matters like choosing where to eat lunch. In particularly emotional issues, like religion and death, I would argue we are especially bad at explaining our beliefs and behavior (and there is actually a substantial body of cognitive science literature that argues people are reliably unreliable in accurately explaining their decisions).
We react to our environment, we respond to peer pressures, to community norms and signals, to physical and social constraints on behavior, and so on. Ideology can, potentially, be one of those contributing factors — as a means of signaling and of establishing justification for certain behaviors. But to say that ideology causes behavior is difficult if not impossible to prove — not only can we never get inside someone’s head to say, conclusively, why they did something, but we know, from neuroscience, that people cannot explain their own behavior consistently. And still, you’re left with the lingering question of why this specific person reacted against ideology while the thousands of others who were exposed to it did not.
At best, ideology is a woefully incomplete explanation for why terrorists chose to commit terror. But to argue that it is so important requires a standard of evidence that is, in practical terms, impossible to achieve.
Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from

Articles of the Week – 6/26-7/2

Saturday June 26:
“The Muslim Past- Book Review of “Faith and Power” & “Muhammad and the Believers”” – Max Rodenbeck, The New York Times
Sunday June 27:
“Endless war, a recipe for four-star arrogance” – Andrew J. Bacevich, The Washington Post
Monday June 28:
“Prisons and Terrorism: Radicalisation and De-radicalisation in 15 Countries” – Peter R. Neumann, et. al,  The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence
“Counterinsurgency Under the Microscope” – Andrew Exum, Abu Muqawama Blog
“From Sayyid Qutb To Hamas: The Middle East Conflict and Islamization of Antisemitism – Bassam Tibi, Yale University Working Paper Series
Tuesday June 29:
“Abu Yahya al-Libi’s Long, Lonely Journey” – Jarret Brachman:
“How Tribal Are the Taleban? Afghanistan’s Largest Insurgent Movement between its Tribal Roots and Islamist Ideology” – Thomas Ruttig, The Afghanistan Analysts Network
“Estimates for Hezbollah’s Arsenal” – David Schapiro & Katherine Zimmerman, IranTracker
“Islamist Radicalism in Yemen” (Updated) – Deborah Jerome, Council on Foreign Relations
“Views of Pakistani Religious Leader Dr. Israr Ahmed (1932-2010) Regarding the Structure of an Islamic Caliphate” – The Middle East Media Research Institute
“An Al-Shabaab Narco-Terrorism Connection?” – Investigative Project on Terrorism
Wednesday June 30:
“The Haqqanis and al-Qaeda” – Anand Gopal, Mansur Khan Mahsud and Brian Fishman, The AfPak Channel
The reason why the new al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula magazine “Inspire” was corrupted & then taken down from the forums – Internet Haganah
“Pakistani Terror Group Lashkar-e Tayyiba Extends Tentacles in United States” – The Investigative Project on Terrorism
Thursday July 1:
“Al-Qaeda in Iraq: Eliminating Leaders Will Not Necessarily Cut Lifelines” – Omar Ashour, Arab Reform Bulletin
“Tariq Ramadan: Exposing the Irrelevance of His Defenders in America” – Dr. Robert D. Crane, The American Muslim
“Four Questions for Yemen Scholar Gregory Johnsen” – The Atlantic
“Counting al-Qaeda” – Brian Fishman, The AfPak Channel
“Top Twenty Plots to Know since 9/11” – The Center on Law and Security
Friday July 2:
“Ruminations on the AQAP magazine and its ridiculous coverage” – J.M. Berger, IntelWire
“Hiding In Plain Sight- Terrorists in Punjab Province” – Ahmad Majidyar, Foreign Policy

Articles of the Week – 6/19-6/25

Sunday June 20:
“Legitimate Demands [2] Barack’s Dilemma” – Adam Gadahan, As-Saḥāb Foundation for Islamic Media Publication:
“Forget the substance of Gadahn’s post, it’s the tech that matters” – J.M. Berger, IntelWire:
“Good Deal for Gaza” – Marc Lynch, The Middle East Channel:
Monday June 21:
“Kandahar Timeline 1979-2010” – Alex Strick van Linschoten, A Different Place Blog:
“The 2010 Failed State Index Rankings” – Foreign Policy Magazine, July/August 2010:
“State of Jihad: 2010 and Beyond” – Matthew M. Reed, International Affairs Review:
“Politics and prayer”- Review of “A Mosque in Munich” – Issandr El Amrani, The National:
Jihadi Websites Monitoring Group, Periodical Review June 2010 – No. 1, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism:
“Profiles of the 15 known Saudi Guantanamo recidivists” – Thomas Joscelyn, The Long War Journal
“A New Taleban Front?” – Thomas Ruttig, The Afghanistan Analysts Network
Tuesday June 22:
“Yemen: Avoiding Freefall” – Ginny Hill, The World Today, Volume 66, Number 7, July 2010:
“West Africa and the Maghreb Security Brief June 7, 2010 – June 22, 2010” – Critical Threats Project
“Punjab’s growing militant problem” – Interview with Hassan Abbas, The AfPak Channel
“West coast jihad” – Brian Fishman, The AfPak Channel
Wednesday June 23:
“Militant’s Path From Pakistan to Times Square” – Andrea Elliott, New York Times
“Veiled Truths- The Rise of Political Islam in the West” – Marc Lynch, Foreign Affairs
Thursday June 24:
“The Iraqi Elections of 2010—and 2005” – Kanan Makiya, The Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Middle East Brief 42, June 2010
“Puncturing Pakistan’s “madrasa myth”” – Gregg Carlstrom, The Majlis
Friday June 25:
“Saudi Preacher: The West Implements the Humane Values of the Shari’a Better than the Muslims” – Middle East Media Research Institute
“The Legal War on Terror for the week of 6/18-6/24” – Andrew Lebovich, Foreign Policy
“Al-Qaeda losing supporters in jihadi groups across Arab world” – Camille Tawil, Magharebia
“Islamist Preacher Zakir Naik, Barred from U.K. and Canada – An Ideological Profile” – Steven Stalinsky, Middle East Media Research Institute
‘Scratching the Surface of Radicalism in Germany” – Andrew Lebovich, The Washington Note:

Scratching the Surface of Radicalism in Germany

NOTE: This article was originally published at The Washington Note and is being cross-posted here with permission from the author, Andrew Lebovich.

On Monday Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, announced the launch of a new counter-terrorism initiative, a hotline for members of radical Islamists groups to call where they can get advice for leaving the group. The idea, based on long-running programs for Germans leaving neo-Nazi groups, has gotten relatively favorable coverage from wire services and news sites. German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière described it as a “valuable preventive effort” in helping counteract the threat of domestic radicalization.
For the last few years German officials have expressed increasing concerns about radicalization, first of German Muslims from immigrant backgrounds and more recently from German converts to Islam. Germany reportedly monitors 29 different Islamist organizations, and estimates that roughly 36,000 members of these organizations pose potential security risks. The 2007 Sauerland cell arrests raised the specter of terrorism against German and American targets, and more recently anecdotal evidence suggests a small but steady flow of young Muslims and converts (estimated to be about 40 per year) to conflict zones such as the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. The death of wanted militant Eric Breininger and the publication of his jihadist memoirs/travelogue soon after shone a spotlight on this phenomenon, and brought new attention to the persistent rumors of a “German colony” of jihadists in Pakistan.
Religious and potentially violent extremism is thus a clear problem in Germany, as in other European countries, but a jihadist recovery hotline hardly qualifies as de-radicalization. And while not a bad idea at all, this idea is neither preventive nor likely to be particularly effective.
On the one hand, many factors have to converge for someone to even use this hotline; an individual, having joined a radical organization, would have to have come to the decision not only to leave an organization with likely tight-knit members, but also overcome the very real fear of retribution as well as accept the possible arrest of friends and associates in the group as a result of their return from an extremist environment. This is a small group of people, though by all means governments should provide them the support they can.
Yet the real problem lies not in getting through the social and security pressures placed on militant group members, but letting the process radicalization get that far in the first place. In a 2009 report the Muslim Public Affairs Council attempted to lay out the complex and ill-understood manner in which an individual progresses from a so-called “normal” life, to possessing radical ideas, and perhaps to action. The report lays out a variety of factors (economic, political, social/cultural and personal) as well as steps that generally occur as someone grows more radical.
While radicalization is different for each person, the report helps demonstrate that a long process precedes the act of joining an activist or militant group, whether the seeds for this progression are sown in a mosque, amongst a circle of friends, or on the internet. Waiting for someone to join, lose taste for, and summon the courage to leave a militant organization is not preventive, it is reactive. And it means that for every person who goes through all of these steps, many more undergo radicalization unabated.
I do not doubt that German officials understand the threat posed by radicalization. And thankfully the threat from domestic terrorism, whether in Europe or the United States, remains low. But the fight against terrorism requires continuous effort to understand and treat the causes of radicalization, rather than dealing with symptoms as they appear.
Andrew Lebovich is a Research Associate for the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation. He writes the weekly column “The Legal War on Terror” for Foreign Policy and blogs at The Washington Note. You can follow him on twitter at