WASHINGTON, December 5, 2015 – The recent attack in San Bernardino starkly demonstrates how a military campaign alone cannot defeat ISIS, al-Qaeda or other radical terrorist groups. Instead, any successful campaign must include covert action.
The perpetrators of the San Bernardino massacre apparently were neither recruited nor directed by ISIS. Instead, they appear to have jumped on the jihadi bandwagon willingly, out of sympathy with the radical form of Islam spewed by ISIS.
To defeat ISIS, and terrorism, the world needs to cut this type of recruitment and make these groups a pariah.
Recruits to terrorist groups surge after large-scale attacks. They are attracted by the massive publicity, the glamour and the illusion of fame. Radicalized recruits see terrorist groups as “clean” in a world of contamination; as Islamic Davids fighting the Goliath West in the name of religious purity.
Terrorist groups encourage this delusion, backing it up with promises of both heavenly and earthly rewards. The terrorist group Al-Shabaab, for example, promises high salaries, comfortable homes, wives and “local prestige” to new recruits. This mirage is particularly attractive to the disaffected and disenfranchised, seeking fame and fortune.
Military campaigns against terrorist groups only fuel the radical message that “the great Satan” (the United States) and its followers are working to eradicate Islam. The current US-led effort in Iraq and Syria is critical to defeating the group, but it also stimulates the narrative of “us” versus “them” and brings in new adherents anxious to protect “Islam” from “infidels.”
To truly defeat radical terrorism, the global community needs to launch a well-designed, well-executed covert action campaign, changing the storyline of radical Islam. A concerted campaign aimed at describing terrorists not as heroes or as holy warriors, but as insane cowards manipulated by power hungry, weak-minded leaders would help diminish their appeal.
At the same time, world powers need to back and expand the reach of moderate Islamic leaders opposed to terrorism.
This approach would complement a military strategy. The military effort would work to defeat existing terrorists while covert action would discourage recruitment and take away the mystique the terrorists attempt to perpetuate.
Part of a covert action campaign is shedding a negative light on the target, terrorists. For example, describing terrorists as “insane cowards,” not “holy warriors,” shifts the appearance of the perpetrators. If media began describing terrorists as “mentally deranged” rather than “jihadists,” it would portray the killers accurately and in an unflattering way. Emphasizing mental instability of attackers paints a very different picture than the ones terrorists push, and is less likely to draw supporters than if they are portrayed as criminal masterminds.
Who wants to mimic someone branded “completely mentally unstable?”
Another portion would show the true way of life of a terrorist. Showing the realities of life as a terrorist demystifies the internal workings of the group. Interviews with former recruits who have left terrorist groups suggest that life in terrorist camps is gritty and ugly, not glamorous. Recruits are beaten by other members and often have little food, while leaders enjoy comfortable lifestyles. Emphasizing this reality would likely discourage recruits, especially from the West, who think joining radical groups is exciting.
Many recruits say they are drawn to join terrorist groups because of a religious calling. They somehow see joining a terrorist group as a way to display their Muslim identity. Therefore, highlighting the hypocrisy of terrorist leaders and their counter-Islamic actions would undercut the message terrorist leaders are attempting to perpetuate. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, for example, claims to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, increasing his capital among followers. Publicizing actions such as drinking, abandoning relatives, fornicating, homosexuality, failing to pray, or other actions considered sins by Islam would help erode their standing as pillars of Islam.
Islamic militants often brag that they are raising the currency of their family. They believe their families will be rewarded for their sacrifices, and they will increase the prestige of the family name. In reality, the families of suicide bombers are often ignored by leaders and isolated by the communities where they live. Members of the family are sometimes jailed and interrogated for terrorist ties.
Showing destitute family members, left without resources by terrorist groups after militants are killed in action, would educate would-be recruits on the realities and could dissuade at least some from joining the group.
At the same time, covert action would help boost moderate leaders in the region who provide a compelling alternative to terrorist leaders. The leadership vacuum in the Middle East has helped terrorist leaders – often nothing more than low-level thugs – rise to head powerful groups in the region. Identifying and supporting charismatic leaders and giving them tools such as access to social media and television creates options.
When the only strong leaders in an area are terrorists, they will continue to attract supporters. A new leader with a new message – and the ability to spread that message – would challenge the terrorist message.
While this approach may seem simplistic, covert action is a critical part of ebbing the recruitment flow and providing accurate public information.
Terrorist groups, especially ISIS, are excelling at their own propaganda campaign. They have amped up public relations, using slick propaganda and social media to bring in new supporters. They also exploit actions by the West, such as the accidental bombing of a hospital, and fit it into their twisted world view. This has proven wildly successful, encouraging them to adopt even more polished video and print media to reach recruits.
If the world seriously wants to defeat ISIS, it must look beyond traditional military actions. Terrorists are not traditional adversaries, and it will take a 21st century approach to uproot them. A critical part of that effort comes from the intelligence community, and must include covert action.