The Terrorists Can Be Beaten, But Not the Way We’re Trying

Tobin Harshaw
The Terrorists Can Be Beaten, But Not the Way We’re Trying

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Americans can all sleep a little easier knowing that across our government there are people who spend every waking moment thinking about how to stop global terrorism.  But we’d sleep a lot easier if we knew they were thinking about it the right way.

In the nearly two decades since the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. and its allies have fought three wars and spent incalculable amounts of money and time — and all-to-calculable lives — to wipe out terror groups. How’s it going? Just ask a Sri Lankan. The big problem is that terrorists retain their most important weapon: a theology that can lure young men and women, and a recruiting machine to ensure it does.

It can be done. Or at least that’s what I was told the other day by Farah Pandith, author of the new book, “How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat.” Pandith served as first-ever special representative to Muslim communities under Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, and is now a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion:

Tobin Harshaw: A lot of time and money has been spent by advanced nations in trying to reach out to the populations that are vulnerable to being exploited or recruited by terrorist groups. What's worked and hasn't worked?

Farah Pandith: That’s a really important question. But in trying to do this, the money that's been spent is microscopic.

TH: Is that just the U. S. that's been stingy, or other nations in Europe and elsewhere?

FP: Unfortunately, it's around the world. The idea here is that post-9/11, everybody went in strong on the physical side, trying to decimate groups like al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State and the Taliban. But that kind of rigor and focus and strategy and planning hasn't at all manifested in how to stop people from getting recruited. Which is absurd. How can you win if you don’t stop recruitment?

Governments around the world have market-tested all kinds of different approaches that demonstrate that there's promise in the kinds of grass-roots approaches to making sure that young people do not find the ideology of these groups appealing. That's really the heart of it. Though there are promising tools available right now no government is investing resources to deploy them in any significant way.

TH: The conventional wisdom is that young people are drawn to these groups because of a lack of economic development or they can't get wives or things like that. Do you buy that?

FP: I don't buy it. I think it's extremely lazy analysis and thinking.

TH: I couldn’t agree more.

FP: Twenty years after 9/11, we have a lot of research and data. A lot of interviews with former extremists have been conducted and studied. Today we can put together a very effective analysis of what we’re seeing happening and be precise about the ideological pull toward extremism. Explanations that seem right are not the way to go about understanding the crisis we are facing.

And this is the big reveal: What I know, having traveled to nearly a hundred countries in various roles in government post-9/11, talking to a very specific demographic - Millennials and now Generation Z – is that what connects them is that they have been dealing with a crisis of identity. No matter where in the world I went! The emotional state of these youths is vital to understand. The data-point that connects this post-9/11 generation of Muslims is about identity and belonging - and that comes out in a lot of different ways in terms of how they think about who they are, what they want to do, who they belong to, how they want to “be a better Muslim.” That is where the bad guys are able to come in and talk to them about these emotional things around identity. And to say to them: You are craving belonging, you're craving a more “real” or “authentic” identity around being Muslim, and we are offering you the real deal.

Now, that’s bogus and it may seem ridiculous that youths will believe them. But for these young people who have seen the words “Islam” and “Muslim” on front pages online and offline every single day since 9/11, it’s compelling. They feel differently in the world today. They experience a reality that places far more attention on them, and they experience the impact of conversations about their religion being equated with terrorism, people looking at them differently and sometimes treating them differently. While all of us grow up asking questions about life, identity and who we want to be etc, for these young Muslims growing up post 9/11 it is fierce, never-ending attention on one aspect of themselves – their faith. It is very different from what the average young person goes through navigating growing up and issues of identity.

TH: Do you think that the massive social change of the Arab spring had something to do with these identity crises?

FP: I think that it’s the manifestation of many different kinds of things, not just one thing that has changed the status quo and what Muslim youths think about themselves and the world.  Whether it's the Arab spring, or the rise in technology and how it is used, or political environment, or rise in hate globally now happening. It’s not one thing or the other -- it is the combination of events that has reshaped our world.

TH: What was the big change post-Sept. 11?

FP: The whole world is now talking about what it means to be Muslim, what Islam is. That is dramatically different and you can’t get away from the conversation -- it is happening online and offline.

TH: Does that explain why terrorist groups are so good at recruiting?

FP: It’s very complicated question. We need to look at the demographic -- the precise young people who found the ideology of terrorists appealing. We must ask why they believed it. Why they found it compelling.

Also, we wrongly analyzed the situation by saying, “Hey, what's happening here in this part of the world? What's happening there in that part of the world?” Analyzing it according to the region as opposed to demographics. And we believed that selling America’s good points would stop the appeal of the extremists’ us-versus-them ideology.

Winning hearts and minds is not the job for stopping the radicalization process. Because that suggests we're winning over someone to say, “Hey, we're gonna love America.” This was a false assessment that we made right after 9/11 -- that if they loved America they wouldn't do this to us. We know that it’s important for governments to engage with communities all over the world, for the U.S. to talk about who we are as Americans. But the part of our government that does this work is the public diplomacy arm of the State Department, and we have cut way back on funding. That work is critical but it is not the same work as building programs that stop the appeal of the ideology.

The work of building the emotional muscle to stop the appeal of the ideology is called CVE, for countering violent extremism. And we have not invested nearly enough in this non-lethal strategy. The amount of money the U.S. spent on soft power in the ISIS war was 0.0138 percent of the federal budget.

TH: Has the U.S. military played a role working with soft power as opposed to hard power?

FP: The military has the primary responsibility to defend our nation and the budget to do so. They are financially equipped to work on soft power solutions -- the ideological war -- if they put it into partnering with nongovernmental organizations that can do it with legitimacy. Military effort alone is not the answer, and will fail because they are not credible to those who we are trying to reach.

TH: You've been to slightly more than half the countries in the world doing this. Can you give an example of a place or two where you had important or interesting or surprising findings?

FP: One was in Oman. Oman is not a trouble-spot; it’s very stable. I had a conversation with women in their 20s about the shift in the way they thought about their own identities as being Muslim and being female. They said they were being pressured to take away some of their traditional expressions of being a Muslim -- forced to become more conservative. And so you were seeing women who were covering differently, were wearing clothing differently. Women are the canary in the coal mine. They are the ones who see changes happening within communities.

TH: Facebook is also good at picking up such changes. The other day it said it was going to make a harder effort to keep terrorists off the platform. Do you think that's a good idea?  

FP: Young people go to social media platforms to get answers for a wide range of questions: what movie they're going to see; what should they eat; what are their peers doing. Now the bad guys manipulate social media platforms -- if you were a bad guy, why wouldn't you? You're trying to recruit young people.

Facebook is one of the biggest governments in the world. They have a responsibility to make sure that it is a safe space to operate in. It’s outrageous that the killer in Christchurch, New Zealand, was able to livestream for so long. But it’s not just about Facebook and Google and Twitter and all the other big tech companies -- it's about how we as a society are seeing this lived out loud in ways that are extremely dangerous to our lives and emotional lives. Those companies have worked -- in a very small way compared to what they are capable of -- with nongovernmental organizations to figure out new things they can do in the online space. But it’s a tiny money by their terms, and it is clearly not effective in the kind of broad scale we need in order to get ahold of this out of control situation.

TH: We live in a country where free speech is cherished. How does that factor into banning people on social media?

FP: It's ineffective for us to be so wrapped up in a conversation that produces a binary choice about free speech. It is not free speech or nothing. Americans know it’s a vital component of who we are and what we stand for. However, we also know that the algorithm conversation that the technology companies are having is not about free speech. They already manipulate algorithms. If they didn’t, the only thing you would see on the social platforms is pornography.

When Osama bin Laden was putting out sermons on YouTube that were hours long, we gave him free space to air his opinion for hours on end, because we thought it was free speech and he should have the right. That's not something we would ever think about today. We've already made the decision that we're not going to put out this kind of content. We have the capacity to make better choices today -- because we have learned from experience. We should apply that understanding to what we expect from tech companies as well as what we want as humans.

TH: Is it possible that banning this stuff and weeding it out could have negative effects - sending terrorists to the dark web or inciting unnecessary anxiety in Americans?

FP: We know for sure that when you take something down, it doesn't just stay down. People come up with different ways to reconnect with others, get content, get back into the game. They can go to the dark web or they come up with new identities to re-engage. Taking it down is not the silver bullet. It's important to have a more sophisticated conversation about how the bad guys are able to have conversations as they recruit one-on-one, which is how you recruit -- to find out what conversations pull people in a particular direction and why.

TH: Let's go to the big one. How do we win?

FP: We have an opportunity now to scale all of the things we have market tested. And it’s incumbent upon us to stop saying this is too hard and too challenging. It’s a convenient answer for people to say that there's nothing we can do. There are three parts of the solution. The first is what governments can do. The second is what companies can do. The third is what citizens can do. My book is called “How We Win” because there is a positive solution here.

Solutions are available and affordable by going all-in, with every sector of society devoting itself to fighting hate -- and scaling it 24/7. Sounds obvious, but it has not been done.

Government needs to get serious. Reorganize the effort and focus on the ideology in the way we do the physical war.  Provide real leadership at the top, give money to the programs we have already built and are effective, build a comprehensive global strategy.

The military knows where every drone is, where every submarine is, where every troop is around the world. We work very efficiently in that. We haven't done the same thing with soft power. We have not looked at it as an equal arm of the solution -- despite what our leaders tell us about how important fighting the ideology is. So we've got a lot to do on the government side to make sure that the things we've talked about in this conversation get done.

On the corporate side, companies must recognize that they have to stand for something. Technology companies have an outsized role to play, obviously. But other kinds of companies that have data, that have expertise, that can work with nongovernmental organizations at the front lines -- they can help them do what they need to do. We have put the burden for the kinds of programs we know can stop recruitment on nongovernmental organizations.  And it’s outrageous, because they do not have the kind of infrastructure to do this kind of work; they're fighting for grants for tiny bits of money, they are 20-year-olds and 30-year-olds who are working on an issue that is really emotionally draining and difficult. Yet, we offer them no support emotionally or with their own physical security. They are literally doing this hard work for governments -- for us all.

Thirdly, it’s vital to know what is happening at a community level in terms of ethos, of what a city or a town or a neighborhood stands for, what you are teaching about us-versus-them -- fighting hate.

There are all kinds of us-versus-them in our societies and they are rising. And, feed off of each other. So when there is a rise of antisemitism, when there is a rise of other kinds of hate, it makes a difference to the way people live day-to-day. Each person has a role to play in building the ethos of a place. Which is why things like how parents raise their children, how history is taught in schools, how students interact with each other, how mayors talk about what their town or city stands for, what people see around them -- public art, for example -- as they walk to get their coffee on the way to work all make a difference. And that may sound extremely simplistic, Pollyanna-like. But I know what one person can do. I have witnessed it. We know that recruitment happens one-to-one. If you think about that, you understand that on a one-to-one level, for somebody to be able to break apart that us-versus-them makes a real difference.

So the comprehensive answer is a collective change in the way we think about this threat. To believe we have means right now because solutions are available and affordable. In the 20 years since 9/11, we haven't really tried. We have been lazy on hate. We also have demonstrated that the physical side is the only dimension of the war we have been willing to invest in. With a comprehensive strategy of going all in on the ideological war, as we have the military war. We can win, and we can do it in a relatively short period of time.

To contact the author of this story: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tobin Harshaw is an editor and writer on national security and military affairs for Bloomberg Opinion. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper’s letters editor.

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