No one is born a terrorist: they are all created. Each and every single violent young suicide bomber who blows himself up in an act of martyrdom, and every single young man who goes off to wage holy war as a jihadist, was forged by the evil fires of despair. Somewhere along the way, every single one of these terrorists – all of whom are equally heading towards their own deaths alongside their innocent victims – was brainwashed into believing that these evil acts of violence they commit offer the elusive chance of reaching Paradise. They each were offered an apple so enticing they could not resist, and they reached out, took ahold of it, and ate. In doing so, their hungry bellies began to be filled with the sick and twisted lies that fuel the fires of terrorism; that gives the courage to push the buttons which explode the suicide bombers’ belts; that sends the young jihadists off to their own deaths in very un-holy, holy wars. Yet none were born monsters such as this. No, not one. These monstrous instruments of death were all brought to life by something, by someone along the way.
On September 11, 2001, 19 militants aligned with the radical Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda hijacked four airplanes and carried out suicide attacks against targets in the United States. Two of the planes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, a third plane hit the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C., and the fourth plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. In total, nearly 3,000 people died during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Seven days later, on September 18, 2001, President George W. Bush signed the “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists” bill, which was passed by Congress a few days prior. This authorized the President to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determined planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or individuals. On September 20, 2001, during a televised address to a joint session of Congress, then-President Bush said, “Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”
Within a few weeks, in early October 2001, U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan, and the so-called “war on terror” was underway, and has gone on with apparent Congressional and Presidential approval for nearly twenty years.
On February 29, 2020, nineteen years, five months, and nine days after the war began, under the direction of then-President Donald J. Trump, the United States signed a peace agreement with the Taliban. One year, six months, and one day after that, on August 30, 2021, under the direction of President Joe Biden, the last U.S. airplane carrying military personnel departed from Afghanistan, officially ending America’s longest war.
Unfortunately, the cold hard truth is that since first sending combat troops into Afghanistan in October 2001 the number of young men and women being recruited into and joining terrorist networks has risen dramatically. For twenty years we have continually tasked our military with fighting an enemy – a religious enemy – they should never have been assigned to fight. The continued military response to the “war on terror” has been asinine and has proven to be horrendously disastrous. Now that this war – for many of our traditional military combat forces – seems to officially be ending, we must look towards what is next in the battle against violent Islamic jihadists seeking to attack Americans at home and abroad, and destroy our way of life.
Without a doubt, free societies the world over are at war with violent Islamic jihadists. And they can be defeated. The primary warriors for this, however, are not uniformed military men and women with tanks and fighter jets and warships. Bullets and bombs, missiles and machine guns will not suffice in this war, for in this war, it is the most persuasive ideas and ideologies that prevail: Ideas and ideologies that must come from within Islam itself, as the rapidly spreading cancerous cells of jihadism must be exterminated from the inside out.
In the Arab World, religion is everywhere: it has literally permeated all aspects of society. As hard as one may try, it is nearly impossible not to be influenced by Islam, or more precisely, the specific version of Islam being preached and spoon-fed to the masses. This version of Islam, the currently-embraced narrative, seamlessly moves from the handful of top Islamic “influencers” to the local neighborhood Mosque leaders who then instruct the masses who themselves have been programmed since birth to blindly accept the Imam’s words as Gospel Truth.
Counter-narratives can be an effective weapon for combating radical Islamic terrorism. For counter-narrative strategies to be useful, however, they must not be merely academic in nature. Nothing dreamed up in a Washington D.C.-based think-tank overflowing with Ph.D.’s will come close to reaching the eyes, ears, hearts, and minds of the masses who actually need to be reached. The objective must be deploying counter-narratives into the actual, physical places they are needed; inside the hardline Salafi mosques in the backstreet alleys of the Arab World; inside the religious schools, theological training centers, and Islamic-themed conferences of Central and South Asia; and into the homes of radical Islamists worldwide. Ultimately, we must create and deploy counter-narratives that influence – that persuade – the Muslim world’s most esteemed religious clerics and scholars who themselves instruct and guide the masses.
This message of non-violent Islam must be widely embraced by the masses to make any sort of real-world difference. The key for doing so lies in deploying small teams into strategic locations across the Middle East and North Africa region that will through direct human contact and interaction quietly influence the Islamic worlds’ most esteemed religious clerics and scholars, persuading them to promote and preach a non-violent version of Islam that is in line with our interests. In many cases, this can be made possible through financial incentives. In other cases, this can be made possible by the threat of exposing immoral and hypocritical behavior the targeted Islamic “leader” wishes to remain hidden. The indisputable best way, however, is for them to personally become convinced that non-violent Islam is indeed the will of God and that they are God’s chosen vessel to preach this message to the masses.
This absolutely must be part of our counterterrorism strategy going forward. I know this because I understand, in part, how Islamic jihadists are influenced with regards to how they practically live out their Islamic faith from having spent more than a decade living side-by-side with them.
Although lethal action is and will continue to be necessary in this battle against Islamic jihadists, it is the message, the narrative, that ultimately matters most. While bullets and bombs, missiles, and machine guns are indeed a part of the cure, the cancerous cells of jihadism cannot be fully destroyed without scripting and controlling the narrative first.
More from the author:
It was September of 2001. I was a twenty-two-year-old idealistic American working for a humanitarian organization in Beirut, Lebanon, which for those who knew me well, came as no surprise. I had long been fascinated with other cultures and far-flung corners of the globe, most likely from having read and watched National Geographic Explorer religiously since I was five years old.
I was also in love.
Her name was Amélie, and she was my first love. We had met the year before in Khartoum, Sudan. I was there running a creative-writing program for kids in one of the sprawling refugee camps, and she was there working as a midwife for a French NGO. Within weeks of our meeting we were interested in each other, within months we were in love, and by the end of the year, we were engaged. We settled on marrying that next spring in her small hometown in Southern France and had moved together to Beirut to continue our humanitarian work in the interim.
And then 9/11 happened.
I had never really considered myself an overly patriotic person before 9/11. I briefly considered going into the military after high school, but mostly that was from having watched “Top Gun” a few hundred too many times as a teenager. Furthermore, I was not much of a fan of American politics: I had never felt inclined to join any political party, attend political rallies, or campaign for a particular candidate. This idea, though, that I wasn’t a very patriotic American, was clouded by a lack of self-awareness and a skewed understanding of what patriotism truly was.
Long before the dust began to settle around the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, I had begun to understand how deep my patriotism ran. The destruction, and the death the jihadists had brought to American soil in their very un-holy, holy war, had brought to life my love for, and readiness to serve, America in an entirely new way. How deeply I believed in America’s values and what we stood for as a nation became a miracle-balm, quickly healing the wounds from the head-on collision Amélie and I would soon experience.
The beginning of the end started, of all places, inside a Pizza Hut in a wealthy suburb of Beirut. A week or so after 9/11, Amélie and I, and a Swiss colleague of ours were having dinner together at Pizza Hut when images of the twin towers being struck and falling down began playing on the TV hanging on the restaurant’s wall. I had just heard that morning from my Uncle, who worked and had been working in Manhattan a few blocks away from the World Trade Center for thirty years, about yet another one of his friends who had died in the attack, and so when Amélie said, “You know if America wasn’t such an arrogant country this would not have happened.”, I was disgusted beyond belief. At that very moment in time I had the stark realization that while Amélie and I had similar values and worldviews we were light years apart in our most deeply held and cherished of these. By the time that fateful dinner at an American restaurant in Beirut, the so-called “Paris of the Middle East” had ended, I knew my engagement with Amélie was soon-to-be nothing more than a memory from the past.
By October we had parted ways: her back to her hometown in France, and me, off to what would turn into many, many years of fighting an unconventional type of war against Islamic jihadists that would take me all across the Middle East and North Africa where I went on to live for years at a time in Hamas-controlled Palestinian refugee camps, Muslim Brotherhood-dominated slums, and other Salafi-inspired communities, living out what I believed to be a calling, and my role in America’s war on terror: Quietly and covertly countering the jihadist-narrative, influencing Islam from within.