Academic journal article Policy Review

Diverting the Radicalization Track

Academic journal article Policy Review

Diverting the Radicalization Track

Article excerpt

THE STRUGGLE AGAINST violent extremism is the most significant national-security challenge of the 21st century. It is the challenge that makes all the threats we face--e.g., nuclear proliferation, chemical and biological weapons--that much more dangerous. The ungoverned spaces, urban slums, and impoverished regions of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, along with the poorly integrated immigrant communities in Western Europe, are the epicenters of vulnerability around the world that al Qaeda and other terrorist groups actively exploit.

There has been a great deal of debate about how we address these vulnerable populations and effectively challenge the threat posed by violent extremists; it is an argument fueled by the larger question of how we "win hearts and minds." This continuing discussion notwithstanding, most can agree that the end goal is to create a world in which the use of terrorist tactics to achieve political or other objectives is no longer acceptable or personally lucrative; in which extremists' efforts to radicalize and recruit new members are no longer successful; and in which the perpetrators of violent, extremist acts are isolated and marginalized by society at large. We have achieved this in America, as our domestic terrorist groups--Ku Klux Klan; Army of God; United Front; Aryan Nation; the Covenant, the Sword, and the Army of the Lord; the Weather Underground; and lone-ranger terrorists like the Unabomber--have little to no following and are rejected by American society.

We have a long way to go to achieve this situation on a global level. Scattered and clandestine terrorist networks, groups, and leaders continue to inspire followers. These networks maintain strong bases of support and constituencies that legitimate their mission. In Iraq and Afghanistan, counterterrorism efforts have undoubtedly weakened al Qaeda and related groups, but pockets of instability still pose challenges by serving as frontiers for foreign fighters and nascent terrorist organizations looking to gain notoriety. Both countries are places where the ambitious yet impoverished go to fight in the name of Allah and to brand and market themselves for future extremist opportunities. Despite the work that remains to be done, though, we continue to see positive results in our kinetic operations to break up terrorist networks.

Where we face more difficult challenges is in breaking the stream of new recruits that replenish violent and radical movements and severing the links between extremists and their target audience. This is the key to winning the long struggle against violent extremism. Our initial approach after September 11 was limited to a traditional public-diplomacy paradigm and failed to expand to broader elements of American power. This miscalculation was largely a legacy of how public diplomacy was used during the Cold War, when much of America's effort to win "hearts and minds" was directed at the elites within society. We were successful then, in part because of the nature of that time's more-centralized media, but also because of the nature of the debate. In the Cold War, the "foot soldiers" on both sides of the equation were intellectuals, and the main battlegrounds (with some exceptions) were journals and coffee houses. Today the "foot soldiers" are more likely to be young, disaffected males (and, increasingly, some females); they are not the elite of society. This means America's target audience for public diplomacy needs to be disaffected youths and those who influence them.

This shift in whom we seek to influence presents a challenge that traditional public diplomacy alone cannot surmount. Some of these young people are in places like Hezbollah strongholds, al Qaeda havens, and ungoverned spaces--i.e., places we cannot reach through traditional public-diplomacy, democracy programs, or development assistance. Others are in urban slums, poorly integrated immigrant communities, or rural frontiers where we have some access but where local conditions render our efforts relatively ineffective. …

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