Countering Violent Extremism and Terrorist Recruiting in the Digital Age
Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation
Assalamu alaykum. It is an honor to be with you here tonight and I want to thank Hedayah, the United Arab Emirates, and all of you for convening this incredibly important forum. This event– particularly with all of the creative young people here – is an example of why I remain optimistic despite all of the challenges we face around the world. We’ve gathered as representatives from all walks of life to stand up for the sanctity of life and to build innovative approaches for countering destructive ideologies.
As we have been discussing, one of these ideologies involves the manipulation of Islam to target and recruit young people, and to advance a violent agenda around the globe. The challenge we are facing online is that terrorists are drawing on ideas and grievances that resonate with various audiences to recruit and exploit disaffected youth – and to offer them a false sense of purpose, belonging, and obligation. So how do we craft a credible and effective response?
If terrorists are calling people to a path they call righteous and holy, we have to be clear that the terrorist path is blasphemous and prohibited. If they claim to be defending Islam and Muslims, we have to illustrate vividly how they are destroying Muslim communities. And if terrorists are trying to convince young people that they’ll be joining a winning team, we have to convince their targets that they will be joining a losing one. As the President recently emphasized in addressing Muslim youth, “You come from a great tradition that stands for education, not ignorance; innovation, not destruction; the dignity of life, not murder. Those who call you away from this path are betraying this tradition, not defending it.”
Part of the messaging challenge that we are facing is that extremists are producing and disseminating materials that are often much more emotionally appealing than government statements and religious leader edicts and direct-to-camera condemnations of terrorism. The extremists’ approach seeks to provide at-risk youth a sense of dignity, purpose, obligation, and belonging. Extremist sites use messages and images claiming that Western countries and “disbelievers” are “killing and oppressing your brothers and sisters.” Their content draws in viewers with graphic imagery, emotional hymns, and references to religious themes to persuade targets that they must protect Muslims around the world.
Using primarily the online space for recruiting foreign fighters, ISIL, or Daesh, has added an additional element to this message. In their call to re-establish the Caliphate, they claim that a group of fighters is, through divine support, taking on armies, acquiring land, and fulfilling the “Islamic” vision of creating an Islamic state. In conveying these messages, terrorist media content often features prominent terrorists who are not Islamic scholars, yet make religious claims and cite Quranic verses out of their proper context to make their recruiting pitch and establish a sense of religious obligation and reward. While Muslims have overwhelmingly rejected this message, there is presently little competing content that encapsulates the narrative and imagery of Muslim suffering, provides a sense of purpose by appealing to Muslim youth to channel their energy positively, and depicts how terrorists damage Muslim communities by killing Muslims and violating Islam.
Filling the Void: Creating Credible Online Messaging
So how do we respond? As we have discussed at this conference and as we have heard suggested during our engagement around the world – including with OIC countries, Muslim communities, youth, civil society, and religious leaders – Muslim-hosted and run messaging initiatives and entities should be established to take a leading role in utilizing the following approaches to counter terrorist messaging.
1) Amplifying the Islamic response to extremists to stem recruiting- Messaging initiatives and entities should create and disseminate content, including videos, that grapples with the same grievances as extremist materials and conclude with powerful messages of “the proper Islamic/Prophetic response” and descriptions of the theologically proscribed punishments for those who kill innocent people. Direct-to-camera videos of qualified Islamic scholars making religious arguments are important but insufficient; to be successful, these materials must also provide a credible hook and a sense of purpose and obligation. New media content must include materials in which Muslim leaders stress that ISIL is not “Islamic,” not a state, not the Caliphate, and that its efforts will fail. It must also convey that ISIL is actually flagrantly violating the principles established by the respected early Caliphs of Islam, and that joining Daesh is haraam (prohibited in Islam). As the Quran emphaszies, for example, whoever kills an innocent person, it is as if he has killed all of humanity. And whoever saves a person, it is as if he has saved all of humanity.
2) “De-glamorizing” Daesh- In addition to making clear that ISIL is not the Caliphate, content should highlight instances in which Daesh fighters have retreated and lost ground. Content should also deglamorize the foreign fighter lifestyle by showing the miserable living conditions that fighters are forced to endure. I am sure you are aware, for example, of the reports of recruited fighters being used as janitors and servants.
3) Highlighting former radicals and Muslim victims of terrorism- Messaging centers should also produce content that erodes the terrorists’ credibility by using images and credible Muslim voices to graphically illustrate how ISIL, al Qaeda and their affiliates are killing mostly Muslims, including women and children, rather than defending the Muslim communities. Family members of victims and terrorists, former foreign fighters, and former radicals could also provide testimonials describing how their lives have been destroyed by misguided participation in extremist causes. These materials can be titled and compiled in ways to ensure that they appear as top hits when searches are conducted.
One recent example of a Muslim victim of ISIL, there has been discussion and speculation about why ISIL did not show the beheading of Abdur-Rahman Kassig in its most recent video. One thing that we do know is that Muslims are taught to repeat certain religious phrases at the time of death – such as “La ilaha illallah” – there is no God but God. So is it possible that terrorists did not want the world to see them killing a man uttering his affirmation of Islam as his final words?
4) Maintaining a more constant and creative online presence- The messaging initiatives and centers would maintain a constant presence on extremist message boards in multiple languages to combat terrorist narratives and religious arguments and justifications.
5) Highlighting positive narratives- Content would also include materials combating the narrative that devout Muslim youth cannot succeed in the modern world. It would highlight similarly situated Muslims who are overcoming odds to succeed and Muslims who are expressing their grievances and channeling their energy in positive, impactful ways. Such materials would also highlight Muslims engaged in humanitarian work that directly benefits those suffering from poverty, disease, and conflict. Those who gain experience in creating and publishing such content will form an invaluable cadre of experts who can be used in other settings, including de-radicalization programming.
This content should be used not just to counter Daesh or al Qaeda, but also to affirmatively address common ideological elements that extremist groups will continue to advance. In many instances, counter-content will be most credible when it is not seen as counter-content, but as an affirmative and positive narrative of what Muslim youth can do to address the grievances that extremists articulate. Like extremist messaging, counter-content could draw in youth with emotional images and themes. It would foster a sense of purpose, belonging, and obligation, but will (a) provide positive alternatives for channeling efforts; (b) reject terrorism by using imagery and religious content that demonstrates how terrorists are hurting Muslims and Islam; and (c) include testimonials from former fighters, former radicals, victims of terrorism, and credible scholars and thought influencers.
Building International Cooperation: Working with Partner Countries and Organizations
There are a number of ways in which governments and NGOS might support the creation and dissemination of credible content and positive alternatives to extremist narratives:
1. Support for Messaging Centers and Initiatives- Governments, NGOs, and private companies can fund counter-messaging initiatives and centers and collaborate in sharing training, exchanges, and technical expertise.
2. Content Creation Grants- Every country can offer grants that sponsor the creation of CVE social media and other content. Governments could offer attractive grants to individuals and groups – particularly in this region – to create campaigns, companies and organizations to disseminate CVE content. Such an initiative could be also designed as an initiative to further spur regional social entrepreneurship.
3. Regional Conferences- Arab and OIC countries could convene events similar to this Hedayah Expo by bringing together media, social media leaders, foundations, interested private sector leaders, and religious leaders to establish mechanisms for creating content targeting youth audiences. These types of events could be replicated in Southeast Asia, North Africa, and elsewhere.
4. Online Competitions- Like this week’s hackathon, Governments and NGOs could also hold national, pan-Arab, and OIC-wide online contests to incentivize the creation of CVE, anti-Daesh, and positive content. Competition would spur the creation of ideas that are tailored to particular localities and that could then be distributed to target specific audiences.
5. Amplification of Messages within Muslim-Majority Countries- Multiple sectors of societies, including governments, NGOs, private industry, media, and influential figures should highlight inspiring stories, strong role models, and other positive narratives around the Muslim world. Similarly, they should also underscore the destructive impact of terrorism on Muslim communities by broadcasting the stories of former radicals and foreign fighters who condemn terrorists’ actions and approaches.
6. Amplifying and Mobilizing Religious Leaders - In addition to amplifying their statements, edicts, and sermons, religious leaders can be mobilized as parts of rapid-response teams of influential figures to travel together to regions where extremism is gaining a foothold. Individual statements are important, but delegations of the most influential international imams coming together with a common message would be much more visible and powerful.
7. Supporting Effective De-radicalization Programs- Some de-radicalization programs have been effective in working with former radicals. Identifying and expanding upon effective programs can also create a talent pool of voices that become expert at combating terrorist narratives, including in the online space. Such experts and former radicals can also be used in other intervention programs.
Supporting Comprehensive and Long-Term Efforts
Importantly, as we discuss our strategy for social media, we must also acknowledge that combating violent ideologies is one aspect of a comprehensive strategy that is necessary to defeat violent extremism. As Secretary Kerry recently emphasized, we must also address “the lack of economic opportunity, bad governance, corruption, the lack of economic opportunity for the average citizen, the gross violation of human dignities, [and] the failure to provide hope to a whole generation of young people in countries that are increasingly 60 and 65 percent under the age of 35.”
As Malala Yusafzai and others have noted, we have a crisis in both our religious and secular education for both boys and girls. And unless we can firmly establish in every child the principle that violence against the innocent is an unacceptable way to address grievances, we will continue to lose generations to terrorists. If we can’t provide our young people with a sense of purpose, terrorists will try to fill the void.
The role of education ministries is more long term and goes beyond messaging. In addition to broader improvements to education and enhanced access to education for boys and girls, textbooks and curricula should be reviewed for negative portrayals of religious minorities, including Shia, Christians, and Jews. Curricula should also reinforce that violence is an unacceptable response to political and other grievances.
We have to be honest in acknowledging and assessing these challenges. Often times, in discussions on terrorism, we hear policy grievances as the motivating factor for terrorists. But as you know, the vast majority of those killed by terrorists are Muslims themselves. We have to ask ourselves, do we really believe that someone who blows up a mosque after Friday prayers is addressing a foreign policy grievance against the United States or any other government? Of course not, and there can never be any grievance that justifies the killing of innocent people.
Finally, we must acknowledge that Muslim communities face internal divisions that are tearing them apart. When I was growing up, I remember people asking my father if he was Sunni or Shia, and he would teach us to simply respond, I’m a Muslim. At a time where Muslim communities face so many challenges – including in places such as Burma and the Central African Republic - can we afford to focus on our differences? The great thinker and Urdu poet Alaama Iqbal asked his community nearly a century ago, “Yoon to sayyid bhi ho, mirza bhi ho, afghaan bhi ho. Tum sabhii kuch ho. Bataao to musulmaan bhi ho?”
In addition to extremism and terrorism, we face other challenges in health and development, where Islam is invoked to reject progress, even to reject vaccines for children against deadly diseases. Islamic law is used as a tool for power and is often an instrument for implementing legal penalties that are inconsistent with Islam. Which often makes us ask- What happened to the first principle of Islam – mercy, or Rahmah? This is such as central concept grounded in powerful Quranic teachings: “Wa ma arsalnaka illa rahmatal-lil alamin” (We sent you only as a mercy to mankind) and “Kataba ‘ala nafsihir-rahmah” (God prescribed mercy on himself). The Quran uses the “kataba ‘ala” construction to prescribe fasting and other obligations. And for himself, he uses the same phrasing to prescribe mercy. The Prophet (SAW) taught, “The merciful people are the ones that the All Merciful will show mercy to. Be merciful to those on earth, and the one in heaven will be merciful to you.” Yet today, when leaders implement Islamic law, we don’t see an emphasis on caring for the poor, creating opportunity for all, and improving education and health care. Instead, we hear about penalties and punishments and making sure they are legislated and put on the books.
Some of these challenges seem insurmountable, but I don’t believe they are. Young people all over the world – including the Muslim world – men and women alike, are making clear that they cannot be denied their God-given dignity and the right to pursue their educational aspirations. And in the same way, I’m happy to participate in an event like this conference, in which we work together to come up with strategies to promote peace and mercy and reject attacks on our humanity.