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