A month ago, a friend asked me to write a very short piece on de-radicalisation and the deadline was quite short — less than 10 hours. I started my research, helped by my familiarity with some French debates.
I downloaded working papers and studies, watched videos, read some articles, but the clock was ticking, and I had to stop my inquiry and start writing.
Now I want to return to the topic, not systematically, as I am deprived of the tools necessary for an exhaustive research. Anyhow, the topic would need many books.
Fifteen years ago, a middle ranking French official told me that the French security apparatus was trying to organise discussion sessions with jihadists. Experts were telling them, “Your religion is beautiful and magnificent; the Islamic civilisation was something great, and it can provide you with subtle answers to your problems, so why opt for the poorest interpretation, and anyhow violence is not the solution.”
I was surprised and intrigued. I wondered if the French State realised the difficulty of the task, but I was busy with my own research and did not think about it further.
By the end of the previous decade many French friends — scholars, officials — told me, “Sooner or later a lot of money will be poured into de-radicalisation programmes, and you should start preparing yourself if you want to make some money.” I thought about it and I felt I was not qualified for such an endeavour. My “comparative advantages” lied elsewhere. I might have been wrong, but I do not regret this decision.
France launched de-radicalisation programmes in 2015 but it acted in a hurry, under heavy pressure. Many say the programmes were not well planned, and they now say they are a failure. We shall return to this later.
It seems to me the handling of terrorism went through several phases. President George W Bush used military force and went to war. From the very beginning many underlined the real battle was about winning hearts and countering violent ideologies.
When it appeared the invasion of Iraq was really a folly and a disastrous mistake, the voices that contended military force was not the answer got louder. For instance, Philip Gordon wrote a paper published in the November 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs, trying to define “victory in the war against terror.” He built an analogy with the Cold War; he justified this by saying that the Cold War was a war against an insidious ideology and a war that lasted many decades. Both were strange wars, where victory could not be achieved through military means. Victory would be achieved when jihadist ideology would be discredited, when jihadist tactics would be widely considered a failure, and when militants would start to choose paths that are more promising.
President Obama tried the other way — restoring America’s moral stature, winning the war for ideas and, more controversially, betting on “moderate Islamism.” After 12 years of Bush and Obama, the result is clear: jihadism went global, mobilises hundreds of thousands of militants, causes havoc everywhere, but on the other hand, a great majority of Muslims actively rejects it.
However, most worryingly, an increasing number of European citizens, not all of them of Muslim descent, embrace this ideology. With the terrible rise in the numbers, the “de-radicalisation” paradigm gained a new vigour.
One de-radicalisation programme was and is a “success story”: the Saudi one. Nevertheless, it is quite specific. This programme converts jihadists to quietist Salafists. Its success is quite logical. Twelve years ago, the Egyptian journalist Munir Adib criticised those who were betting on Salafism to counter the Muslim Brotherhood. True, he wrote in Al-Dostor, most Salafists were peaceful. However, they shared with the jihadist the same bleak worldview, with a very negative diagnosis on contemporary societies and modernity.
He added: almost all theologians — Salafists or otherwise — say defensive jihad is legitimate. In addition, it is quite easy to prove many Muslim peoples are under attack, in Palestine or Iraq, for instance. So eventually, you will have at least a minority of quietist Salafists that will opt for violence. This subtle paper fascinated me. Jihadists and peaceful Salafists, who just try to construe a different sub-society, have a lot in common, so it is easy to switch from one position to the other and vice versa.
The snag is obvious: bolstering a quietist Salafist project is not an option for many European countries, especially those with strong identities, like France. Therefore, they must look for other ways of doing things.
Keep in mind de-radicalisation discourse is also a discourse on the self, on each country’s culture. Radicalism is a relative term, as it implies you have to define what is “moderation,” “centrism,” and “mainstream.” This partly explains the moving passions that inflame the debates.
Many criticise the implications of the notion: they say it implies that the problem is psychological, not political. It minimises the real problem: that Islamism is a political challenge that politically rejects the foundations of European civilisation and tries to undermine it. It implies that Islamism is okay, but fanaticism or radicalism are not. Others say something more or less similar: focusing on psychology is a convenient way to ignore society’s ills and problems. Instead of dealing with the causes of anomy, they try to cure its psychological effects. I tend to accept both critiques, but it should be clear that de-radicalisation supporters have many arguments.
One of them is interesting: the problem is not the “clash of ideas.” Extremist ideologies do exist and will not disappear soon, but centrist and reformist interpretations do not need to be invented — they are already here.
Inventing a new discourse, modern, postmodern, revivalist, moderately conservative, etc, will just add a new product in a replete market. The problem is not the lack of alternatives to extremist ideologies. The problem is many find the latter appealing, bringing solutions to their identity problems, curing their psychological suffering, etc.
Many supporters of de-radicalisation say, you do not need to propose other products; you have to change the buyer. Two vastly different groups contest this claim: Muslim Ulemas, and people who do not like the Islamism project.
On Friday, 5 January, during a serious talk show on a French TV channel, experts concurred: the de-radicalisation paradigm was a total failure. It should belong to history’s dustbin. It was impossible to prevent people from believing whatever they wanted to believe, it was more appropriate to focus on preventing them from moving and doing something bad.
“Disengagement” should be the new keyword.
I’m no expert, but I had bought some books on terrorism, so I decided to begin studying them. I avoid beginning with the thesis focusing on the clash of ideas and of discourses. Egyptians are working a lot on the “renewal/correction of religious discourse,” so I prefer to start with the other paradigms.
I began by reading Marc Sageman’s seminal “Understanding terror networks.” It was widely lauded and many consider it a must-read. It is more or less divided into three sections. The first deals with the “history” of Jihad, how it went from local to global.
The Sageman paradigm is quite simple. Traditional Salafism says Muslims should obey the Muslim ruler, even if he is unjust, as this is necessary for civil peace. Therefore, to circumvent this prescription, at some point or another one willing to justify rebellion would have to say the ruler is an apostate. This one was Sayyid Qutb. His understanding of Salafism gave birth to takfirism. It was revolutionary and inspired generations of militants.
Violent Salafism, at first, was local — mainly Egyptian. Then the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and militants from different countries went east, to help the Afghan resistance and sometimes to fight. Jihad acquired an transnational dimension. At the beginning, this Jihad was defensive and traditional: it was just aimed at repelling a non-Muslim invader.
Abdallah Azzam, a Palestinian religious scholar and founding member of Al-Qaeda, did not like the idea of rebellion against Muslim leaders. The many Egyptians who went to Afghanistan unsuccessfully tried to convince him to change his mind and interpretation. These foreign fighters converted his principal aide, Osama Bin Laden, to their views, and finally killed Azzam.
For them, Jihad, according to Qutb’s teachings, should be offensive and directed against rulers of the Muslim world who were not “real” believers, but rather apostates. This was the second moment.
The third one saw a change of target: instead of fighting the Muslim leaders, Jihad tried to strike at the “distant enemy,” the USA — the world’s only remaining superpower.
Sageman says global jihadism includes four components: the central command, where Egyptians are overrepresented, the southeast command, with many Indonesians, the Machriq command, where Egyptians and Saudis are the main players, and the Maghreb command, which includes Arabs and Europeans from Maghreb origins.
This presentation is useful. Of course, we can contest many points and detect some inaccuracies – it is clear Sageman is unfamiliar with the Egyptian theater, a crucial one. The relation between Qutb and Salafism, or between Qutb and Ibn Taymiyya, is much more complicated than his description suggests. But this does not concern our series.
Far more interesting is his discussion of the thesis saying the USA is the indirect father of al-Qaeda, as Washington was willing to endorse and support the presence of foreign fighters in Afghanistan, thus creating the monster. Some still say the USA and the West are willing to occasionally use the jihadists, and say Syria is a case in point. Sagement categorically denies this. He says that Jihad went through different phases: defensive Jihad repelling an invader has nothing to do with offensive Jihad targeting a superpower and attacking innocent civilians without any justification.
The USA never foresaw the mutation, from one to another, which occurred 15 years later. Therefore, the US government is not accountable for it. He also adds the US helped the Afghan resistance and no American official ever met with a foreign fighter. These went to Afghanistan using other channels, of which the Americans knew nothing. Those who oversaw the training and the distribution of American military aid were the Pakistanis, and this made perfect sense. The Pakistanis trained the Afghan Mujahidin who eventually trained the foreign fighters.
This might be true, but it is astonishing. I was very young, I was not working on these issues, and yet I knew many Islamists who went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union. All the Arab States knew it. I am quite sure someone told the Americans these were dangerous people. The argument “we could not foresee the mutation” is thus even weaker.
Reading any piece of the literature produced by Qutb, or by the militants, or studying what they did in Egypt, is not that difficult. Qutb produced a fierce defense of offensive Jihad, acknowledges Sageman, and he was not alone. Attacking innocent civilians was considered acceptable for these militants. Their hatred for American policies in the Middle East and for liberal societies was obvious. Probably some decided the stakes were too high in Afghanistan to waste time checking and pondering the pedigree and the worldviews of those who came. The future would take care of itself.
The funny thing is that Sageman complains about some Arab States who were reluctant to participate in the global war on terror, and which only changed their minds after being themselves hurt by terrorist incidents. Well, we can return that point to both the USA and Great Britain.
The second section of the book deals with the militants. Sageman is cautious and forewarns us two different things. First, there is no guarantee his sample is representative. Second, no serious analysis is complete if we do not have a sample of people sharing the same characteristics with terrorists, but who do not opt for violent terrorism.
Let me explain this: if, for instance, you say people become terrorists because they are poor, or because they suffer from identity troubles, you have to explain why so many poor people, or so many with identity problems, do not opt for terrorism, and a truly scientific explanation requires two samples.
Then Sageman reviews the explanations provided by the conventional wisdom, with a clear purpose: he wants to prove they are inappropriate. They may be inappropriate for all kinds of terrorists, but they are clearly wrong for the jihadists.
Sageman wants also to prove the jihadists can differ one from another. For instance the Maghreb section is widely different from the others.
The stereotype of the poor, uneducated jihadist is largely incorrect, and this does not surprise anybody who has looked closely at the matter. At least a half of international jihadists have a solid upper-middle class background, and around 15% are even richer. The poor are a significant minority, except in the Maghreb region (which includes Western Europe, for Sageman). Most of the converts, however, are from disadvantaged classes.
Sageman also says international jihadists are neither ignorant nor deprived from access to education. Their level of education is well above the international average, and well above the average in the Global South. Moreover, if we ignore the Maghreb region, the average education level of jihadists is even higher.
The author also makes some interesting points: most international jihadists are better educated than their parents, who did not became jihadists. In addition, many of them are well-travelled, so Sageman assumes they know the world and are definitely not narrow-minded ethnocentrists. He adds, therefore, that we cannot say they were brainwashed.
Let us pause for a moment. Sageman claims more than once his research destroys the stereotypes. He may be destroying the medias’ discourse. However, for anyone who has carefully studied the issue, all this is banal stuff — there is until now nothing new under the sun. Most of his findings can be found in Kepel’s early works.
Kepel, if my recollections are correct, said the jihadists had a problem with the kind of modernisation that occurred in their countries. He never said they did not know what it is.
Sageman underlines the centrality of Egyptians in international jihad. Anybody who knows Egyptian history knows a specific group played an important role in this country’s political life: the university students with rural middle-class backgrounds, who were newcomers to the city and its unique way of life. They were bachelors, separated from their family, with little access to women.
The real question is why these students opted for almost fifty years for nationalist and leftist ideologies, and then, starting from the second half of the seventies, preferred Salafist ideologies. Many obvious answers can be proposed, but this would lead us too far astray.
Suffice to say that a colleague, Selma Belaala, conducted a study on jihadism in Algeria and reached a conclusion of the same type, but with some significant differences. If my recollections are correct, she found that most jihadists were from families which were newcomers to the areas where they lived. This affected their social cohesion. I don’t say this to score petty points, but to underline the necessity of better academic cooperation in studying jihadism.
A very interesting finding by Sageman uncovers a huge difference between the Maghreb and Southern Europe, versus the Middle East and Asia. The jihadists from the first two zones are more often than not later converts to religious practice, while Asian and Middle Easterners were often devout as children.
The paradoxical consequence is that the Al-Azhar argument, that “we need more religious teaching to counter extremism,” will raise a red flag in western countries, and is opposed by many secularists in our country.
In addition, and more generally, this warns us against universal remedies. Countering extremism requires approaches that differ from one country to another. However, studying the others’ experiences is necessary.
Sageman also tells us that three quarters of his sample are married. This only partially contradicts the conventional wisdom. It proves you can be involved in terrorist activities while being married, but we should add most terrorists were recruited by the movements before the marriage. The organization provided them with values, goods, meaning — and wives.
Then, Sageman focuses on the psychological explanations. This is his own specialisation, and he warns us against the advice of other experts who know nothing about terrorism nor about psychiatry. He pointedly tells us many would like to explain the jihadists’ bestial crimes by depravity, mental disease or psychological disorder. Those who perpetrate such crimes and who willingly kill themselves to achieve these crimes are surely psychopaths or sociopaths. Unfortunately, this is not the case, says Sageman.
The main problem is his sample is too small (ten cases) to be significant, but his discussion is nevertheless interesting. In his sample, no one has significant mental illness. Two or three have mild troubles, but this is the average in any population. The jihadists are not different.
Are they psychopaths or sociopaths? This means they are recidivists and they had already abnormal behaviour during their childhood. Sageman was able to gather data on 61 jihadists. Fifty-seven were normal.
By itself, the sample is too small to be relevant. Nevertheless, Sageman has a powerful argument. Terrorism is a collective activity, and a risky one. Terrorist movements cannot afford the luxury of hiring abnormal people, with a proven record of strange behaviour, unforeseen initiatives, and inability to work within a team. When they discover that a recruit suffers from that kind of trouble, they sideline him.
This was the case with the “missing terrorist”, Zakarias Moussawi, of September 11 infamy. His participation could have compromised the success of the operation, so the leaders decided to expel him. The conclusion is staggering, but logical: those are the most unlikely to do evil alone are the most likely to do it collectively. Alas, this sounds plausible.
Are terrorists criminals who looked for a religious legitimation of their lust and hatred? Many European terrorists were petty criminal before their conversion to Salafist ideology. Nevertheless, this ideology brought solace and meant redemption. They were, in a way, “born again.” True, they still perpetrated crimes, but the goal was no longer the same. Instead they tried to fund jihad.
Despite the overwhelming lack of evidence, many psychiatrists try to salvage the “mental illness” paradigm. They opt for three different explanations: pathological narcissism, paranoia and authoritarian personality.
Sageman scrutinizes the three explanations. There are many forms of pathological narcissism, but the result is aggressiveness against a scapegoat, who is identified as the cause of the pain and failings. This behaviour can be a kind of unconscious revenge against parents, or a revenge for their parents or a mix of both. Sageman claims this does not apply to international jihadists. But are his arguments convincing?