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

Follow the New Statesman team on Facebook.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

0800 7318496