How to fight Osama "Has Been" Laden

Making al Qaeda boring and uncool.

The battle against al Qaeda is fought on the basis of ideology, religion and socio-economics. But this obscures an important part of the story. For many angry and disillusioned young men al Qaeda's appeal is that it seems cool, exciting, romantic and adventurous.

In this it shares much in common with other anti-establishment groups and social epidemics of predominantly angry young men. Accepting the ideology depends to great extent on whether a person's friends do and whether they are deemed cool and worthy of imitation. Recognising the 'coolness' factor presents a new angle of attack. Al Qaeda needs to be made boring and, even better, laughable.

Marketing agencies spend billions on making brands cool. But it shouldn't be quite so difficult to contaminate the al Qaeda image.

Adopting a liberal and open attitude to dissent is essential to demystifying the ideology and making it dull and commonplace. Far from preventing radicalisation, suppressing radical voices and texts can actually have a 'taboo effect', making them more exciting and alluring. Instead, radical texts must be translated, read and discussed more widely in local level debates so that people can recognise and dispute their arguments. The majority of terrorists had a simplistic and shallow understanding of Islam and thinkers like Ibn Taymiyya and Sayyid Qutb. They lacked the critical thinking skills to consider historical context, understand subtleties and had little tolerance for ambiguity. Critical thnking is key to countering al Qaeda's ideology and can only be developed through exposure to as many views and ideas as possible, including radical ones.

Words are powerful, and the language used to describe wannabe jihadists should not play into the 'cool' appeal. Describing them as 'holy warriors', 'operatives' or 'sleeper cells' only makes them sound sexy and daring. Media reports and government needs to highlight the shocking ignorance, incompetence and narcissism that characterises the overwhelming majority of jihadi wannabes. Language must also have traction within the community. To describe 'Islam is peace' is unnecessarily emasculating and inaccurate. Islam, like just war theory and the other Abrahamic religions, advocates violence in self-defense but only under very strict rules. 'Islam is just' would have more resonance.

Satire and humour is a powerful weapon: it can strip the al Qaeda brand of its cool appeal. Satire has been outstandingly effective at undermining the British Fascist Party and the Ku Klux Klan in the US. Chris Morris' new film Four Lions about hapless wannabe jihadis in Britain could have a devastating effect. And Morris' film is just a sample of what could be a full on comedic assault. YouTube is already full of laugh-inducing videos that satirise wannabe jihadists and expose their absurd views.

There's also potential for alternatives and opportunities for social activism that can compete with al Qaeda. Non-violent forms of radicalism and activism should be welcomed and encouraged. Young people need to be able to express their opinions and frustrations in a way that makes them feel they are accomplishing something. For example, the opportunity to participate in charity work abroad through a US-style Peace Corps programme, in areas of particular concern, could provide an exciting and rewarding alternative.

Preventing terrorism is as much about marketing as it is ideology. The fight against al Qaeda will only be won when Bin Laden is no longer considered a hero, but a 'has been'.

Jonathan Birdwell is a researcher at Demos and co-author of The Edge of Violence

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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.