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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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war