Licence to kill

The excitement of jihad attracts bored youths. Governments need to make al Qaeda look dull
April 25, 2009

Western governments like "counter-radicalisation" programmes aimed at tempting young people away from extreme Islam. In Britain, dovish types, dominant since 7/7, want to target those who support violent extremism, but in doing so they are willing to ignore—or sometimes even work with—other fairly extreme groups in order to keep Muslims onboard. Government hawks—as Panorama revealed in February—now want a much tougher line, challenging those who challenge democracy. A hawkish new government strategy, called "Contest 2," will emphasise the need for shared values. But this new approach, although largely positive, is unlikely to work—because it misunderstands why violent extremism is so attractive.

There's a consensus view that frustrated young Muslims, spurred by injustices abroad and discrimination at home, struggle to balance multiple identities, and find solace in a Manichean worldview offered by groups like al Qaeda. In the name of multiculturalism, we then let radical preachers whip these angry young men into a state of rage against the west. (See Anshuman Mondal's web exclusive on what young British Muslims really think about faith and politics.)

There is some truth in this explanation of extremism. But it is only part of the story. Violent extremism also appeals because it offers adventure, excitement and notoriety. The latest research on Islamic extremist networks, including that carried out by the think tank Demos, shows that members of terrorist cells tend to be young men with little religious knowledge other than a few cut-and-paste lines from the rockstars of jihadi literature, like radical Egyptian cleric Sayed Qutb. In comparison to such founding fathers of modern Islamic terrorism, this generation has suffered no serious repression.

Al Qaeda allows a young nobody to become a heroic warrior; an Islamic James Bond. Mourad Benchellali, a young Frenchman trained by al Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001, explained how he wanted to learn about guns, test his physique and "get close to war but without taking too many risks." One of the men involved in the recent plot to bomb British nightclubs, who trained at an al Qaeda camp in Pakistan, imagined "something with [shooting] ranges and assault courses, like I'd seen on television." Unfortunately, for him "it wasn't that at all." Senior al Qaeda cadres, like Abu Musab al-Suri, have complained that many treated the camps as an adventure playground or as a means of cleansing themselves after having "spent time with a whore in Bangkok."

Psychologists at McGill University in Montreal have used laboratory simulations to dig into terrorists motivations. In one study, participants were asked to role play being from a disadvantaged minority group recruited in a terrorism plot. Would they inform the police, ignore the recruiter, or take part? Those who wanted to take part scored higher on psychological measures of sensation-seeking. Recruiters know and use this angle like cheap package holiday salesmen. A sermon found in Parisian mosques just after 9/11 encouraged young men to take up arms by insisting that "[Jihad] is better than a holiday in Los Angeles. It's adventure."

Ultimately it is not the ideas of al Qaeda that need dismantling; it is the idea of al Qaeda. This is tough. As has been proved by counterproductive anti-drug warnings, anything government proscribes can become more exciting for young people. The key is to strip al Qaeda of its mystique, and show that the average day of an Islamic extremist is more like that of a petty criminal than a secret agent. (This happens to be true: seven out of ten European militants in al Qaeda training camps return home because of tough training and being treated like skivvies.)

Another route is to poke fun, an idea touched on in Michael Waller's underappreciated 2007 book Fighting the War of Ideas like a Real War. After all, the Ku Klux Klan lost members when a children's magazine mocked it. Instead of describing violent extremists as "operatives," let's drop the Bondisms and focus on the blunders that permeate terrorism plots. Surveillance of the "Toronto 18" cell in Canada revealed that the plotters could not even name the prime minister they were planning to attack. Sharp-eyed British satirist Chris Morris is said to be planning a feature film on Islamic extremism. He could well achieve more than the hawks and the doves combined.